Spring in Los Angeles means the LA Times Festival of Books and the YA festival YALLWEST, both of which I have attended several years in a row. This year, the Festival of Books was the same weekend as the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, which my department was hosting and which I presented at, but I still managed to get to the festival on Sunday. The highlight of my afternoon was when Gayle Forman smiled at me. I was sitting on the grass pretty far back from the YA stage, writing in my journal as the Culture & Belonging panel was wrapping up, when two women approached from behind me. I glanced up, and one of them, wearing a straw hat, glanced down and smiled at me. And I thought, That’s Gayle Forman!
A few weeks later, Isabelle and I returned to Santa Monica High School for YALLWEST. Publisher’s Weekly has a photo essay on this year’s festival, and we’re in the first picture! I’ll bet you can’t find us.
Upon arriving, we visited the Mysterious Galaxy stand, where all the authors’ books were being sold. I’d brought my copy of Spinning so I could get it signed by Tillie Walden, but at the stand I discovered two other comic books by her, I love this part and The End of Summer. After going back and forth a bit, I bought both of them. After one panel, we came back to the booth area for Tillie Walden’s signing. It was lovely to meet her, and she drew illustrations in all my books! You should check out her gorgeous, poignant work.
Next we went to a panel that Tamora Pierce was on. I read tons of Tamora Pierce when I was younger, and I met her and asked her a question once at the Edina Barnes & Noble when I was in eighth grade or so. It was funny walking around the festival and spotting famous YA authors around every corner.
We headed to the choir room for a panel entitled Singularities. The funny thing about YALLWEST is the panel titles are all a bit obscure, and the panelists don’t always know themselves how to interpret them. This was one of those panels. It was moderated by John Corey Whaley. One of the authors, Hilary Reyl, had a novel, Kids Like Us, about a Californian boy on the autism spectrum who winds up in rural France because his mother makes films. He apparently speaks French and goes to French school (like me!) and adores and quotes Proust (not like me!). Another panelist was Ally Condie. She described her middle grade novel Summerlost, and I didn’t recognize it even though I’ve read it and it’s on my Hapa Book List! It didn’t click until she started talking about how she’s from this small town in Utah that has…a Shakespeare festival! Yes, she’s from Cedar City, where we roadtripped last summer. Emily X.R. Pan was also on this panel; she’d been on the YA panel at the LA Times Festival of Books too. More on her anon.
The next panel was the one I’d been most excited for: Friendships! It was in the student art gallery. One of the authors joked early on that “we write novels because we’re not succinct and concise.” Well, that was relatable. I learned that Libba Bray’s best friend is Gayle Forman. Arvin Ahmadi said he sometimes finds himself wondering of his closest friends, What if we had never met?! I found that relatable too. There was plenty of discussion of how friendships can be as close and intense as romantic relationships and how these particular authors for the most part didn’t much like writing toxic friendships. They’d rather write wonderful ones!
Our penultimate panel was the Fantasy/History panel. Emily X.R. Pan was on this one as well, and she finally spoke about something I’d been wondering about. Her debut novel is The Astonishing Color of After, which has been on my radar for a while and which I’m interested in reading. The protagonist, Leigh, is multiracial: her father is white, and her mother is from Taiwan. In the story, after her mother’s death, Leigh goes to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. Emily X.R. Pan is not mixed race, and so I’d wondered why she made Leigh mixed race. On the Fantasy/History panel, she addressed this, saying that while she wasn’t mixed herself, she’d grown up in mostly white communities and felt out of place among Asian(-American?) peers. She’d wanted to write a character who experienced this sense of displacement, so she made Leigh multiracial. While I appreciate the potential similarities of these experiences, I didn’t see why Pan had to make Leigh mixed race to accomplish her goal. She said that she herself had felt out of place (perhaps conflicted about her sense of belonging) as a monoracial Taiwanese-American growing up in largely white communities, so if she wanted to convey that experience, why not write about a character like her? I’m not saying authors should only write characters like themselves. I’m just saying that Pan didn’t need to make Leigh multiracial to do what she wanted, and I also think the multiracial experience is distinct.