NoVa Teen Book Festival takes place in a high school—an odd but fitting location for an event centered on young adult fiction. This was my first year attending, and I enjoyed the community feel and intimate set up as I cozied up to long-time favorite authors like Libba Bray and new infatuations like Heidi Heilig.
Set in Arlington, Virginia, at the end of March, the event was sponsored and organized by a host of local libraries and independent bookstores from the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. known as NoVa.
The day was divided up into a series of “main panels” in the school auditorium, while simultaneous mini panels or game panels took place in smaller classrooms. The emcees introducing the main panels hilariously worked their way through a series of obscure literary cosplays such as Gansey and Adam of The Raven Boys and Kavinsky and John Ambrose McClaren from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
To start off, I was drawn to the mini panels to see some of my favorite authors up close and personal. In a session on magical world-building, I discovered that Diviners author Libba Bray has a cutting wit and comedic timing, never deigning to give a boring answer when a silly one will do. At another session on writing the first book of a series, Heidi Heilig opened up about her personal experience with Bipolar Disorder and how that is reflected in her protagonist in For a Muse of Fire (which I promptly purchased after hearing her talk it up for several panels).
After a delicious banh mi for lunch from a Vietnamese food truck on offer in the parking lot, I decided to check out some game panels. I watched authors compete in The Dating Game and book store employees and local teens battle it out in book-themed Taboo.
Next, I was ready for the heavier topics addressed in the afternoon main panels. At a sessioned titled simply “Revolution,” authors Tracy Banghart, Cinda Williams Chima, Dhonielle Clayton, Heidi Heilig, and Alex London discussed how the 2016 U.S. presidential election impacted the stories they were writing at the time, as well as what difficult questions and emotions fuel their writing. Dhonielle Clayton talked about how her idea for The Belles started with anger towards how our culture views and determines beauty. She also mentioned that the whiny, entitled, ego-crazed villain of her story put people in mind of a certain world leader, despite being a teenage princess, not a sleazy septuagenarian.
In the panel “Girls Run the World,” Jennifer Armentrout, E.K. Johnston, L.L. McKinney, and Kristen Simmons explored the developing definition of a strong female character. L.L. McKinney talked about creating a protagonist in A Blade So Black who is physically strong but also emotionally vulnerable, who will risk her life for her friends, but still fears the wrath of her no-nonsense mother. E.K. Johnston highlighted the power of female friendship in her Star Wars novel, Queen’s Shadow, and how she liked to depict her characters doing stereotypically feminine things such as wearing pretty dresses, alongside depictions of them wielding physical and political power.
Last, there was a keynote address by Libba Bray, in which she imparted wisdom in the form of “twelve things I think I’ve learned.” These ranged from silly anecdotes illustrating the precept “never give yourself a home perm” to an impassioned argument that the increased emphasis on standardized testing is stressing kids out and leading to anxiety and depression. She implored those who were struggling to stick around, as sometimes the worst thing that happens to you is also the best thing. In her case, she discovered her love of writing while in a very low place in college, which set her on the path of a best-selling author. Her last injunction got downright philosophic, as she told us to “sing our song into the universe” and to “be more love.” Young adult fiction, as I’ve said before, is the genre of hope and there is nothing more inspiring than being in a building with tons of YA authors all day.
After the keynote, most of the authors stayed to sign books in the cafeteria. I commend the organizers for their colored wristband system, which was wonderfully efficient. Each attendee got a different color wristband based on the time they arrived at the event, and the wristbands were called color by color to go to the signing room. This meant I was able to wait in the comfort of the auditorium until my color was called and when I got to the authors, I only had to wait behind one or two people in line at most. This was such a fun event and I can’t wait to review all my new books!
What do you like in a book festival? What is your favorite book festival by you? Tell me in the comments!