Some recent summer snapshots:
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.
This past Saturday was YALLWEST, a massive YA book festival held at Santa Monica High School. I went last year and had a great time seeing tons of authors I admire on panels. This year, Isabelle and I went together. I had two authors I wanted to get books signed by and a whole itinerary of panels planned out.
The first thing I did upon arriving at the festival was to buy Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz and The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. I had already read (and loved) both books, and both authors have more recent books, but those were the ones I wanted signed. From the Mysterious Galaxy bookselling tent, we went straight to the signing line for Benjamin Alire Sáenz. And after I got my book signed, we started the panel marathon.
Kingdoms & Quests: Epic Fantasy Roadtrips
S. Jae-Jones (moderator) [I’ve read her posts and podcast notes on PubCrawl–I think she’s into baby seals too!], Roshani Chokshi, Jessica Cluess, Heidi Heilig [a hapa author whom I saw at AWP and whose The Girl from Everywhere I’ve read], Linda Sue Park, and Erin Summerill
- Jessica Cluess introduced herself as a Gryffindor while acknowledging that “it’s more posh to be Slytherin these days” (judging by the audience’s relative enthusiasm for the four houses, we Ravenclaws were the most numerous).
- Erin Summerill said that after she creates a map of her world, she chooses the bleakest place on the map for the story’s setting.
- It sounds like Linda Sue Park has a new book in the works about a hapa dragon (my term)!
- Jessica Cluess told an anecdote that left me quite dismayed: Her fantasy novels have a Victorian setting, and so she once wrote in a manuscript that the characters danced a mazurka. She said her editor, who normally asks questions in the margins or makes gentle suggestions, simply crossed out “mazurka.” Later in a phone call, Jessica Cluess asked her editor offhand why she’d done that, and her editor said, “No one cares about the mazurka!” My jaw may have dropped, and Isabelle patted me consolingly on the shoulder. See, I learned the mazurka at bals folks in Grenoble and am rather fond of the dance. Plus the characters in my current project actually do dance the mazurka (under a different name). Now it’s my mission to make sure the mazurka makes it to the final draft!
Yallcraft: So You’re Thinking of Writing a Series?
Traci Chee (moderator) [I read her novel The Reader, which is also on the hapa book list!], Kasie West, Evelyn Skye, and Lindsay Cummings
- I didn’t take a lot of notes at this one, but I remember the authors discussing whether they knew in advance which characters would die in the series or whether they impulsively decided to kill characters along the way.
Writ Large: Myths, Folk Tales, and Modern Retellings
Zoraida Cordova (moderator), Megan Whalen Turner, Wendy Spinale, Cecil Castelluci, Natalie C. Parker, Tracey Baptiste, and F.C. Yee
- I may have been following Megan Whalen Turner throughout YALLFEST… This panel and the previous one were both in Santa Monica High School’s Gallery, and behind the panelists’ chairs were these two big boards covered with fan art for various books. Isabelle and I had already taken a look during the break between panels. One of the pieces was a portrait of the Queen of Eddis from Megan Whalen Turner’s books. As the authors began to arrive, I thought I recognized MWT, but I knew for sure when she went to examine the fan art and exclaimed, “This is from my book!”
- Megan Whalen Turner talked about how wonderful it is that we still read about friendships in stories written hundreds and even thousands of years ago. She mentioned the Epic of Gilgamesh, and at the time I thought she said “romance” (and I wondered what romance she was referring to), but Isabelle later told me she’d said “bromance.” Anyway, the enduring power of literary friendships is beautiful.
After this panel, it was Megan Whalen Turner’s hour in the signing area, so Isabelle and I went to get in line. The woman behind us engaged us in conversation for a bit; she was an MWT fan on another level. She seemed to know that there would be a sixth book in the series, another one after Thick As Thieves, which hasn’t quite come out yet! When it was my turn to have my book signed, I managed to tell Megan Whalen Turner how I’d come to read her books and that The Queen of Attolia had blown me away.
Writing the Resistance: World Building IRL
Daniel José Older (moderator) [I seem to go to a lot of his panels–witness AWP!] , Marie Marquardt, Victoria Aveyard, Angie Thomas [she burst onto the scene with The Hate U Give, which I hope to read very soon], Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Sona Charaipotra
- Daniel José Older had apparently managed to get through his morning keynote with Cassandra Clare without swearing once, so he opened this panel with, “If you don’t like swearing, just leave now.”
- A lot of this panel was what you’d expect from the title. A lot of it was also Benjamin Alire Sáenz being jaw-droppingly eloquent about his ideals and what it is we do when we write. Also, when an audience member asked the panelists if they’d ever been criticized by their own communities for the way they’d written about them, he said, after acknowledging that he had received such criticism, “I’m not afraid to be criticized. I’m not afraid of anything.”
- The guy sitting next to me asked the panelists if they’d ever considered writing utopian fiction, as opposed to dystopian fiction, and their general reaction was: What would be the point? Where’s the conflict? But I kept thinking of Neal Shusterman’s Scythe (which, for the record, I have not read). Perhaps that’s an example of a utopia that has its dark side (after all, doesn’t The Giver start out utopian?). I also wondered about something else, though. Isn’t one of the great things about speculative fiction supposed to be that it can show us possible futures that are better than our present? There’s still conflict, of course, but set against an optimistic backdrop.
Fantasyish: The Role of Fantasy in the New Surreality of 2017
Alex London (moderator), Cassandra Clare, Danielle Paige, Daniel José Older, Megan Whalen Turner, and Zoraida Cordova
- By now you may be able to tell which authors I was stalking.
- Alex London opened the panel with a longish quote from Ursula K. LeGuin and then said, “Now be smarter than Ursula LeGuin.” Megan Whalen Turner joked that they could be done now.
- MWT remarked that “we don’t often talk about the roots of conflict [i.e. war] in our fantasy for children.” And she also said that none of the people in her world are happy to take on responsibilities, but, for instance, Sophos, in A Conspiracy of Kings, reaches a point where he realizes he can’t make the decision he wants to, and he steps up. I pondered this because I’ve been interested in writing characters who choose duty over other things. Such as love.
- Daniel José Older wondered aloud how fantasy writers can tell the truth while still giving people a happy place to go to.
- MWT talked about reading the Chronicles of Narnia when she was six and never having grown out of the desire to check the back of the wardrobe (I like to think I haven’t either).
Ask Me Anything: The LGBTQIA+ Edition
Sam Maggs (moderator), Jeramey Kraatz, John Corey Whaley [I loved his Where Things Come Back–I think I said so last year too], Adam Silvera [I read his More Happy Than Not, and during this panel I think I learned that we’re the same age], Natalie C. Parker, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and CB Lee
- I’ll just sum this one up in one quote. Sam Maggs: “I’m from Canada, where everyone is 30% gay.” To which someone responded, “That’s why they’re so nice.”
After the last panel, Isabelle and I decided to visit Small World Books in Venice because in addition to being YALLWEST Saturday was Independent Bookstore Day. We walked along the beach to get there, skirting sand castles and watching adorable sandpipers chase the retreating waves. We even stumbled upon a bizarre, pulsing, pink, translucent creature that was sort of shaped like a shell but decidedly gelatinous. Later research suggested it might have been a burrowing sea cucumber. At Small World Books, the bookseller behind the counter indulged us by showing us the timid new bookstore cat. The shop is really lovely and has a nice selection; there was a display of Hugo and Nebula nominees, and I picked up Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. We lingered until closing.
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.