I have not been to any conventions or conferences outside the Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror/Gaming arenas.  On Tuesday, March 30, I went to Kennesaw State University’s Annual Conference on Literature for Children and Young Adults.  It was an eye-opening day for me and money well-spent.  I didn’t get to meet any publishers or agents since this was a conference primarily for educators and education students, but I did get to meet some published authors.  Some of the authors I had heard of, but never read.  One was a writer whose first novel I had both read and loved.

Before I go into some of my impressions on this conference, I want to give serious props to Jay Asher.  I have previously met a handful of authors and my experiences have been a mixed bag.  Jim Butcher, author of the excellent Dresden Files series, is a wonderful person to meet.  I met him at Dragon*Con, so I didn’t really get to talk with him at length, but her was very engaging for the minute I had to speak with him.  He also took a pic with me.  Nice guy.

Jim Butcher and me - 2006    Jay Asher and me - 2010

I met another author at Dragon*Con two years later.  I won’t tell you her name since I don’t want to shame her personally.  She had just published her first book and there were not too many people in her line, maybe 5 tops at the time.  Her signing had just started and more well-known author had already established her line beforehand.  I was at the front of her line, having already read and loved her book.  I went to her table where she made a split second of eye contact and proceeded to engage in a full-blown conversation with one of her friends, who happened to be in line behind me, while she signed my book.  She handed it back to me and never, to my knowledge, attempted to make eye contact again.  Now, I don’t want an author to listen to my life’s story, but I kind of want a portion of their attention since I paid money for their book. waited in line (albeit a short one).  What I expect, and I don’t think this is too much, is some appreciation for the small part I played in their success as an author.

Jay Asher, who wrote the excellent Thirteen Reasons Why, was by far the most approachable author I have ever met.  In fact, all of the authors at this particular conference were of the highest caliber when it came to dealing with their fans.  I also met Lisa McMann, author of Wake, Fade, & Gone, and Helen Hemphill, author of Long Gone Daddy, Runaround, and The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones.  All three were among my favorite author meetings of all time.  They took time with us and, in addition to their excellent keynote addresses, hosted smaller breakout sessions.

Jay Asher  Lisa McMann

Helen Hemphill

My only problem with the conference as a whole was that it was only one day.  I would have loved a weekend conference.  There was an Early Grades conference the next day, but my focus is YA.  What this conference taught me is that there is a wide variety of YA novels out there that simply did not exist in my day.  I am in my late 30’s.  When I was a child, there were children’s books and there were adult books.  There was not real gap between Judy Blume and adult novels.  Any books that dealt with serious topics like death, rape, suicide, molestation, etc. were written for adults and practically hidden from high schoolers. 

Last year, I was introduced to Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher and was absolutely blown away.  It covered many of the same tropes that I knew from the teen novels of old: body image, bullying, first love, coming of age, friendship, and family dynamics.  What I didn’t expect to be covered in any YA novel were: suicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, religion, child abuse, physical abuse, mental illness, and attempted murder.  Maybe one or two of those topics at most, but Crutcher seemed to have felt a challenge to see how many serious topics he could logically fit into one novel.  The thing was, the book was good.  Not only did he plug all these things in, but he did so with such skill that they worked.  I was amazed.

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

I was goobing out with a friend about that book when she asked me, “Yeah, that book is good, but have you read Thirteen Reasons Why?”  I confessed that I had never heard of it, so she gave me the spiel.  It is the story of Hannah Baker, a girl who commits suicide and records her thirteen reasons for doing so on a series of cassette tapes.  She sends the tapes out to the people who she feels helped her along her path so that they could listen and understand how their actions or inactions brought her to her decision.  I was skeptical that the book would glorify suicide, but Clay Jensen, the boy who receives the tapes in their journey from person to person, gives the book a solid grounding.  At any moment that you start to see things too closely from Hannah’s perspective, Clay interjects his own perspective.  Asher created one of the most disturbing and powerful tales I have every encountered.

I have written a few suspense, horror, and thriller stories in my time.  Until I met Jay and the other authors at the conference, it had never occurred to me that the stories I tell could easily be directed toward a YA audience.  Lisa McMann’s books are about a girl who falls into other people’s dreams against her will.  Helen Hemphill’s books are one-shot stories, though she said that she had been thinking about having a character from Long Gone Daddy run into a character from Runaround in a future novel.  I now own McMann’s Wake and Hemphill’s Long Gone Daddy and I plan on reading them as soon as life allows.  Hopefully that will occur sometime in the next week.

Thirteen Reasons Why  Wake Long Gone Daddy

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"You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything. . . affects everything."

~ Hannah Baker (from Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

 

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