This past weekend was YALLWEST, a YA book and author festival that’s the West Coast version of YALLFEST, which takes place in South Carolina. YALLWEST was held at Santa Monica High School, which is ENORMOUS. Seriously, it’s the size of a small college campus, with separate buildings for Humanities, Science, etc. It even has Harry Potter-esque houses. Also, the abbreviation for the school is Samohi, which looks like a made-up word in a phonology paper.
I was only able to go on Saturday. There were hordes of people and long lines for everything: book purchases, ARC giveaways, food trucks, panels… It made it a bit overwhelming. I mostly skirted the lines and just attended the panels that looked most interesting. The panels were pretty big, so I saw a lot of authors, which was fun. Here are some impressions from each panel I went to:
Heroes & Villains (The Chicken & The Egg)
Sabaa Tahir (moderator), Victoria Aveyard, Leigh Bardugo [I’ve read her Shadow and Bone], Gwenda Bond, Ransom Riggs [I’ve read his Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and have been meaning to finish the trilogy for ages], Kiersten White [I’ve read Mind Games], and Neal Shusterman
- Leigh Bardugo suggested that heroes and villains (who they are, what they want) can flow from worldbuilding.
- An audience member asked the panelists if they journaled. Neal Shusterman said, “I journal like I diet.” (I’ve kept a daily journal since December of my senior year of high school. It’s become kind of a compulsion. Also, the filled journals accumulate.)
- Leigh Bardugo said something which I’ll paraphrase from memory as, “No matter what you do/what your passion is, there’ll always be days when it feels like a job that you’re not good at.” This was sort of reassuring for both writing and linguistics.
Write What You Know–Or What You Want?
Stephanie Kuehn (moderator) [I’ve read all her books and think she’s great], John Corey Whaley [I loved Where Things Come Back], Brandy Colbert [I just saw her at AWP!], Alex Gino, Sarah Burnes, Jo Volpe, Erin Stein, and Richard Abate
- So I went to this panel after lunch, and I got there early since I’d skipped the noon panel slot. I was first in line (insofar as there was a line), and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, knitting my cable scarf, when who should appear in the hallway but Sarah McCarry, a.k.a. The Rejectionist, author of the Metamorphoses Trilogy! This wasn’t her panel; she was just attending. I tried not to stare in awe as she joined the end of the line.
- Speaking of recognizing people, I’m also pretty sure I saw a girl in the audience who was sitting next to me at a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books last year. I guess my memory for faces is better than I thought.
- The topic of this panel was a little unclear (even to the panelists), but the conversation turned to diversity and #ownvoices pretty fast.
- In the lightning round, Stephanie Kuehn asked everyone to name “the most interesting emotion.” I thought this was a fascinating question, so I recorded everyone’s responses: JCW: sadness; BC: anger; RA: fear; ES: rage; AG: forgiveness; JV: jealousy; SB: depression; SK: spite.
- Joanna Volpe, describing what’s compelling about middle grade fiction, said something along the lines of, “MG protagonists are like I can change the world! and YA protagonists are like No, I can’t, I guess I just have to find my place in it.”
- Another lightning round question was “the last book that made you cry,” which opened the door to the panelists telling other panelists which of their books had made them cry, discussing whether they cried over books at all, and sharing stories of crying over books on public transportation.
Love in the Time of Made-Up Worlds
Gretchen McNeil (moderator), Kami Garcia, Arwen Elys Dayton [I remember seeing her at C2E2 a year ago], Josie Angelini, Jessica Khoury, Jodi Meadows, Amy Tintera, and Scott Speer
- I didn’t take any notes at this panel, but I remember a few things: Arwen Elys Dayton’s parents named her after the Lord of the Rings character. Jessica Khoury has a Syrian grandfather.
- Someone, I can’t remember who now, said she actually felt like writing secondary world fantasy was easier than writing fiction set in the real world because she could control everything and didn’t have to worry about getting facts right. I feel exactly the same way. Of course, you end up having to do a lot of research to write fantasy too, but somehow it seems less daunting than trying to write a story set in the real world in any place or time you haven’t lived in yourself.
- Speaking of fantasy research, an audience member asked the panelists what the most important thing to research was, and one of them (Jessica Khoury, I think) said, “Horses.”
- I finished knitting my scarf during this panel!
Safe Spaces in YA
David Levithan (moderator), Alex Gino, Sarah McCarry [This was her panel, at least her Saturday one. I’ve read All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings but haven’t gotten to About A Girl.], Daphne Gottlieb, Nina LaCour, Jeffrey Self, and Greg Cope White
- I’m not sure what the title was supposed to suggest, but this was basically the queer lit panel.
- Nina LaCour told a story about visiting the Gay-Straight Alliance at a high school in the Anoka-Hennepin school district (she just said “a town in Minnesota,” but I knew exactly where she was talking about) around the time of a rash of suicides that made national news. Several of the students who died had been bullied for their perceived sexual orientation. Nina LaCour talked about how the students she spoke to were hungry to hear about what life could be like in a better (= more accepting) place, i.e. San Francisco. I guess you know you’re a true Minnesotan when you bristle (ever so demurely, of course) at any whisper of an implication that your state is a backwater. I don’t doubt LaCour’s story, and I get that Anoka is not Minneapolis, but still…
- An audience member asked what I thought was a very good question about LGBT people trying to gain acceptance through conformity/by making an effort to portray themselves as “normal.” Examples include making the case for gay marriage by showing that gay couples are just like straight couples and criticizing these loathsome bathroom bills by showing pictures of, say, a prototypically masculine-looking trans man in a women’s restroom to show how absurd it would be to force him to use it. The audience member’s point was that queer folks shouldn’t have to mold themselves into society’s idea of what normal is in order to be accepted. For instance, people should have the right to use whichever bathroom they feel most comfortable in even if their gender presentation is more ambiguous or they aren’t fully passing. In an ideal world, such an argument should be enough to convince people that bathroom bills are harmful and unnecessary (though I fear it isn’t). Anyway, to all of this Sarah McCarry said authors should “write about weirdos and freaks” like they’re just as “interesting, complex, and valid” as anyone else.
History Is So Not Boring
Kiersten White (moderator), M. T. Anderson [I’ve read The Game of Sunken Places and the first Octavian Nothing book, and I really want to read Symphony for the City of the Dead! Anderson even looks kind of like Shostakovich!], Erin Bowman, G. Neri, Sherri L. Smith [also at AWP!], Jessica Spotswood, and Brodi Ashton
- This was a historical fiction panel, with a lot of the conversation focused on research (but the fun parts, like travel and what sorts of things you’ve Googled that have probably gotten you on an FBI watchlist!).
- All the panelists said how valuable oral histories are, and Sherri L. Smith said the Library of Congress has tape recordings of interviews with ordinary people present at historically momentous events.
After my last panel, I nipped down to the Mysterious Galaxy book tent and bought Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It’s set in the same universe as her Grisha trilogy, which I never finished, but I’ve heard a lot of great things about this latest novel, so I’m excited to read it.
You just doubled my reading list! Also I will definitely try to attend YALLFEST from now on.
Glad to help! And it’d be fun to go together in future years!