Last Saturday I joined two car loads of librarians and English teachers for a drive down to Santa Monica for Yallwest 2019.
Yallwest, an epic festival celebrating young adult and middle grade books, is a joyful event. It’s more than a book festival because it is all about young teen and tween fans in attendance. Yes, there were some teachers and librarians, but the best part of the fthe whole thing is seeing all of the enthusiastic young readers.
Yallwest’s home page describes it best:
More than 20,000 people converged at Santa Monica High School to celebrate young adult and middle grade books, with more than 100 authors participating in book signings, panels, giveaways, singalongs and shenanigans.
In the parlance of my own teenage years: It was rad.
Obviously, with more than 100 authors in attendance, I couldn’t see everyone, but I loved loved loved the panels I did see. I took notes but much of the time I was simply mesmerized. I did manage to write enough to make a short list of “snapshots” from the day.
4 Snapshots from Yallwest 2019
- Angie Thomas Raps from On the Come Up: Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, and Angie Thomas, best known for The Hate U Give, started the day as the keynote speakers. Instead of speaking from a podium, they sat in outdoor lounge chairs and just talked. Like the friends they are in real life. They asked each other questions loosely related to the ideas of respect, integrity, self care, and, excellence, ending the conversation by pointing out that together the words spell R.I.S.E. Before they left the stage, Angie Thomas stood up and performed a rap from her latest novel On the Come Up, as her character, Bree. Unbelievably cool.
- Love Advice for Teens (and Grownups Too): On one fun panel, titled “If Nobody Dates IRL, Why Are Romcoms on the Rise?” writers talked about why they are drawn to writing romance and even divulged details from their own teenage love lives. Full disclosure: I had to look up IRL (It means”in real life” for you other old people). I think it was the writer David Yoon, husband of Nicola Yoon and author of the upcoming novel Frankly In Love, who said romances are surging in popularity because people need joy to combat the darkness of current political and global realities. Another author—Mary H.K. Choi, best known for Emergency Contact, talked about love and sex, adding, “mutually consented enthusiastic intimacy is awesome!” My favorite comment came from Adam Silvera, author of They Both Die at the End, who gave this love advice: “Don’t be shallow…don’t worry about your Instagram.”
- Celebrating Strong Female Characters: Another great panel, “Strong[h]er,” discussed the need for female characters in YA literature. Even though I was madly taking notes during their dialogue, I could not keep up with all of the greatness. Margaret Stohl, the moderator and co-author author of the Beautiful Creatures series, said this about creating female heroes: “Physical strength is not the most important thing. It is one note.” Angie Thomas lamented that growing up she only knew of one movie with a young black female hero: Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. She highly recommends the film, by the way. Thomas also said she would love to see a black girl in Twliight, joking, “What would her daddy say to that?” One audience member asked the panel what young women should do when they are characterized as “bitches” for being strong, for speaking up for themselves. Erika L. Sanchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, told us to take the word bitch back, adding, “We are not here to cater to men’s needs.” Yes!
- What’s Your Favorite Magic System? I love fantasy and all things supernatural, so the “Mechanics of Magic and Power” panel was definitely made for fans like me. The moderator, author Susan Denard—author of the Witchlands series—asked the panel, “What’s your favorite magic system?” This may become my new favorite question to ask at parties. Two panelists recommended Avatar: The Last Airbender and one mentioned My Hero Academia, noting that within the show, a voice over occasionally explains how whatever happened in that episode did not actually break from that show’s particular magic system rules. I came away from this panel with two new favorite expressions: 1) “Just because magic,” which refers to literary magic systems that don’t make a lot of rational sense, and 2) “The Q problem of Star Trek,” which describes how the all-powerful Q character is problematic because if he really can do whatever he wants, how can humans ever prevail against him?
One of the best things about Yallwest is crazy diversity you see in the crowds. Basically, you see book nerds of every shape, color, and creed. There is a general air of enthusiasm and acceptance. A “just be yourself” kind of vibe you don’t find very often. I am way older than the target audience, so I found myself wondering what my teenaged self would have thought about it, if such an event had existed at the time. YA fiction was barely in its infancy when I was that age, but of course I was a big time reader. Reading was my salvation. Yallwest would have probably been the highlight of my year. I bet the young readers in attendance this year felt the exact same way.