Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

A Young Reader’s Dream Come True

The Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival gives students first access to authors

After their second trip to YALLFest, a young-adult book festival in Charleston, South Carolina, four librarians from Rutherford County had a dream. “It was really rockin’,” Erin Alvarado said. “On the way home, we thought, ‘What if we could do that here?’ They did, and the Southeastern Young Adult Book Festival they founded is back for its second year March 10-11 in Murfreesboro on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.

Young readers at the 2016 SE-YA book festival

The way Alvarado describes it, throwing a book festival sounds a little like sprinkling fairy dust on young readers. “It’s like the authors are rock stars,” she says. “The personal connection the kids have with the authors—there’s so much power in that.”

SE-YA’s 2016 debut drew visitors from thirteen states and featured thirty-five middle-grade and YA authors, including true literary rock star Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray), David Arnold (Mosquitoland) and Courtney Stevens (Faking Normal). An adult who accompanied a group from an alternative school told Alvarado that her students were visibly transformed by the experience. “On the bus coming down, they were not happy to be going to some weird festival about books,” Alvarado said. “But their chaperone told us they were so excited on the bus on the way back. Writing is not this unicorn thing when they meet the people who write.”

This year’s edition of SE-YA, with forty-one authors (including Arnold and Stevens), offers a kids-only day for schoolchildren, as well as a family-friendly day when adults are welcome, too. The events on Friday, March 10, are open only to the 2,000 students from close to eighty schools who have already reserved their free tickets. The events on March 11 are also free, but they are open to the public, and another 1,000 to 1,500 are expected to attend that day. Most of the authors, who donate their time and travel expenses, will visit classrooms in Rutherford County schools on March 9, as well.

YA novelist Courtney Stevens greets readers at the 2016 SE-YA festival

There’s a reason for giving student readers a festival day to themselves: adults who follow YA fiction tend to stake out much of the territory at book festivals. “We saw at YALLFest that there are as many adults as young people,” Alvarado said, “and some young people didn’t get seats and didn’t get books signed because there were so many grown people. At SE-YA on Saturday last year, there were more adults than young people.”

And meeting those young readers is as important for writers as meeting writers can be for kids. Kristin O’Donnell Tubb, the author of The 13th Sign and Selling Hope among other titles, was on last year’s SE-YA lineup and returns this year. A book festival is a place where authors “see where their stories land,” she said. “A book only feels complete after a reader has read it and walks away a slightly different person.”

At this year’s festival, Tubb, who lives in Williamson County, hopes to give away an early-reader copy of her latest middle-grade novel, A Dog Like Daisy, which comes out in June. It’s told from the point of view of a service dog in training to help a soldier with PTSD. “I love that SE-YA focuses on young-adult readers,” Tubb said. “I think overall in our education system and our parenting, we really understand [the importance of] reading aloud, cuddling with kids while reading and talking about stories. When they get older there’s a drifting away from reading for fun, for the pure escape and joy. Festivals like SE-YA encourage that.”

Tracy Barrett, Nashville-based author of The Song of Orpheus and The Stepsister’s Tale, is also returning to SE-YA for the second time. She calls book festivals her “favorite form of interaction” with readers.

A full house at the 2016 SE-YA festival

Brooks Benjamin, author of My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights, went to last year’s festival a month before his first novel came out, but he’s been to several festivals as a published novelist since then, and he’ll be back for SE-YA 2017. “Festivals where they bring in students—that is so important for authors,” Benjamin said. “When you bring the reader and author together, you find out what things they loved and didn’t love.”

Benjamin is a fifth-grade reading and writing teacher in in Harriman, Tennessee, a small town outside Knoxville, so his work puts him in close contact with potential storylines for fiction. He started writing Tights, about a kid who prefers his dance crew to his football team, in 2013, and got help from Marieke Nijkamp (author of This Is Where It Ends), who chose his project through the Twitter contest Pitch Wars. But he also got lots of help in the writing process from interviews with two dancers in his homeroom class, as well as their dance teachers.

“I love that middle-grade voice, love it, can’t get enough of it,” Benjamin said in a phone interview. “Which is one of the things I love about being a teacher—watching how ten- and eleven-year-olds interact with each other, their body language, things they like, things they say.” Talking to kids at festivals also helps: “I’ve met people and I’ve thought, ‘You’re way too interesting not to be in my next book.’ “

Organizing a festival this far-reaching and complex generates “an extra twenty to twenty-five hours of work a week” throughout the year, Alvarado said. These librarians’ devotion might have been what Barbara Kingsolver meant when she said: “I’m of a fearsome mind to throw my arms around every living librarian who crosses my path, on behalf of the souls they never knew they saved.”