YALLFest 2013: Not just for kids

27 Nov

Charleston’s young adult literature festival, “YALLFest” brought authors from all over the country to downtown Charleston in early November for the third year in a row, and I was a proud (slightly overgrown) attendee, alongside girls sporting One Direction backpacks and “Boy with the Bread” (Team Peeta) t-shirts.

YA rock star Veronica Roth (author of the wildly popular “Divergent” trilogy) was the keynote speaker and other big names in YA fiction (like David Levithan, author of one of my favorites, “Boy Meets Boy”) were speaking, but I had tunnel vision for one author this year: Libba Bray.

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David Levithan, photo courtesy of yallfest.org.

She was onstage at the American Theater on King Street with a handful of other authors, all of them having enjoyed New York Times best-selling success at some point (or multiple points) in their careers. The panel, entitled “All the Fantasy,” was just that: a moderated hour discussing the role of fantasy in YA literature, the various subgenres of YA fantasy, and the success that YA fiction has enjoyed in the last decade or two.

Most of the authors set their books in secondary worlds, imaginary lands that exist solely in the authors’ mind, and the authors pointed out how much more efficient they have to be at “world-building” in YA books. Veronica Rossi, author of “Under the Never Sky,” says one of the hallmarks of YA is that it’s “pacier.”

“You’re not going to have to read 50 pages of world building before the story starts. It’s really accessible and moves quicker,” Rossi says.

YA fantasy isn’t as cumbersome; the authors may have complex mythologies and backstories for their fantasy lands and characters, but they reference them more quickly, with tighter language and less pedantic detailing.

Moderator Leigh Bardugo, author of “The Grisha Trilogy,” pointed out an upside of creating made-up worlds—you don’t have to deal with the convenience of modern technology solving plot conflicts.

“Realistic fiction is the hardest because there are cell phones,” she says, “If a character is in lots of trouble then they can just call someone.”

(Props to J.K. Rowling for keeping Harry Potter set in the early 90s—defeating Voldemort wouldn’t have taken so long if they could have just tracked him using find my iPhone).

But besides spending time on the more technical details of writing YA fantasy, the authors talked about the “why” behind it.

“I go to fantasy because I know the hero will come through. In real life, there are disappointments,” says Melissa de la Cruz, author of  “Witches of West End.”

For other authors, fantasy is less escapist and more of an opportunity to tackle very real issues.

“It’s a side door into social commentary about our contemporary world,” says Libba Bray.

In Bray’s “Beauty Queens,” she takes a satirical look at the ridiculous charade and consumer driven beauty myth that teen girls are forced to play out; her more recent “Diviners” explores the fear and terror of post 9/11 New York through a horror fantasy set in Jazz Age New York, and her debut Gemma Doyle trilogy, set in Victorian England, examined “what it is to be a girl in a society that isn’t very friendly to girls.”

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Libba Bray and I after the panel.

Before the panel wrapped up, Bray interjected her plug for why YA fiction, be it fantasy or not, is necessary.

“There’s so much pressure. You’re expected to be perfect, functioning adults with no mistakes. The idea of adolescence is becoming a fantasy.”

I think I’m a little bit past the adolescent phase but I appreciate the sentiment: Let kids be kids. Let them read, let them use their imaginations and let them escape into a fantasyland for a few hours a week. And hell, if their older siblings or parents want to read those books and go there with them, that’s cool too.

Blue Bicycle books on display. Photo courtesy of yallfest.org

Blue Bicycle books on display. Photo courtesy of yallfest.org

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