Lessons from the Texas Teen Book Festival
Last weekend, while surrounded by the kind of people who enjoy Young Adult Fiction, I realized something about books.
By Riley Heruska, Austin College
I won’t lie to you: During high school, I was that girl.
You know, the one with her nose stuck in a book during lunch and a backpack made heavy by dozens of novels. Picture Rory Gilmore, but without the cute Chilton uniform or perfectly straight hair. Reading was my solace and my favorite way to spend my valuable free time. I reveled in discovering new places, imaginative characters and captivating stories hidden between pages.
By the time I was about fourteen, I was averaging around eighty books a year, and I was constantly hungry for more. Young adult literature was my favorite. Laugh all you want, but I spent hours upon hours surrounded by teen fiction.
Now, as an overly engaged college student with an insanely hectic workload and schedule, I still strive to devour the occasional young adult novel. Sure, I’m no angsty teen, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my love for young adult fiction. I spend what little free time I have hungrily finishing Cassandra Clare’s newest novels or rereading the Harry Potter series for the millionth time. I bawled my eyes out when I finished “The Fault in Our Stars” and giggled hysterically at Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries Series. No one can tell me I’m getting too old to enjoy the kinds of novels and authors I’ve loved for so long.
Over this past weekend, I discovered that I am by no means alone in my love for young adult fiction as a college student when I heard about the Texas Teen Book Festival. One of my fellow reading addicts from high school accompanied me as we travelled to St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, to attend a festival dedicated to the literature I love.
Dozens of authors attended the book festival, including bestsellers Laini Taylor, Leigh Bardugo, Renee Ahdieh and many more. Hundreds of readers from across the state packed themselves into signing lines and auditorium seating to hear from authors and publishers. I quickly learned that Austin’s heat and crowds are no match for a pack of avid readers. Despite the fact that most of these authors gear their novels toward teenagers, a large percentage of the attendees were college students or in their mid-twenties. I was thrilled to find company amongst the bustling crowd of so-called nerds.
I spent my Saturday browsing books and publishing tables, talking to friends, and getting books signed by authors I had only dreamed I’d meet someday. Laini Taylor and other authors spoke on following your dreams and becoming the person you wanted to be. The numerous speakers and panelists made for a jam-packed schedule. After the exhausting but inspiring event, I collapsed in a nearby coffee shop to gather my thoughts.
As an English major who has always had an intense interest in the publishing industry, I’ve been told by so many people that the novel is dying and the written word is no longer as valuable as it once was. They point out that many independent and chain bookstores have started to disappear as other forms of entertainment arise.
Typically, I just scoff at such sentiments and stick my nose back into whatever I’m currently reading, but a small worry wriggles in the back of my mind. Sure, novels like “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins become major motion pictures, but are some of these cynics right?
Is the world of literature changing as social media, television, films, and other forms of technology grow in popularity? After all, even I’ve (guilty) forgone hardback books occasionally in favor of an easily transported Kindle version. Is it possible that someday in the near future, printed books will become obsolete?
These thoughts pushed their way to the front of my mind as I observed clusters of young adults leaving the book festival. Then, I felt some of the panic inside me ease as I saw more and more attendees loaded down with signed books and fan merchandise. I simply shook my head as I realized what so many adults do not: This generation has not been “turned to mush” by technology or corrupted by easy access to knowledge. Literature is just as powerful and influential as it was in Shakespeare or Dicken’s times, if not more.
I spent an entire day surrounded by millennials who were hungry for novels, new ideas, new characters, new stories. I watched as teens and college students gave up hours of their precious free time to discuss popular series or debut authors. Fans adorned with fake tattoos and colored hair paid homage to their favorite fictional heroines. The admiration for authors and literature permeated every aspect of the festival. It simply just isn’t true that today’s teens have no appreciation for literature.
Fiction is not dying, and neither is the printed book. In fact, some quick research reveals that printed book sales actually increased over 2015. Book bloggers, reviewers and fans have kept a love of fiction alive over the past few decades despite ever changing forms of technology and entertainment. Not only is it statistically wrong to believe that the book is dying, but downplaying the role of literature (including young adult fiction) in society fails to recognize the monumental role that novels still play in popular culture.
Book festivals like the one in Austin occur across the nation. Hundreds of bestselling authors embark on signing or meet-and-greet tours, many of which have stops at festivals or conferences with large numbers of attendees. These gatherings are visible proof that the novel is not dying. If anything, it is growing and evolving to fit the needs of today’s fast-paced, modern society.