It ain’t easy being a teen. There’s peer pressure, heart-break and loads of tough choices, as young adult author and Chicagoan Veronica Roth knows. Her New York Times No. 1 best-selling “Divergent” series is set in a dystopia where one choice means everything, where 16-year-olds must declare which “faction” they’ll belong to: Abnegation (selfless), Candor (honest), Amity (peaceful), Erudite (intelligent) or Dauntless (brave). But the single all-important choice Nov. 9 in Charleston, S.C., was how early to wake up to get in line to see Roth, who was headlining YALLFest, the third annual Charleston Young Adult Book Festival.
Among the throngs of teens, tweens, young and not-so-young adults (including plenty of good-sport parent chauffeurs) crowding the blue-stone walkways along historic King Street, there was only one faction — “The Devoted” — and, well, perhaps two subfactions — those at the front of the line and those at the back — as book-clutching fans waited for hours in a line that snaked around a full city
block to get the best seats. “We woke up at 5:40 to get here by 7 a.m.,” said 14-year old Sarah Stevens, wearing purple nail polish and a “Too Many Books, Too Little Time” T-shirt. Sarah and her pals Charlotte Anne Beers, Kylie Walker and Cara Lawson, all eighth-graders from Columbia, S.C., and all but one wearing braces, snagged seats near the front. They had made posters, one proclaiming “I Want to Multiply by Four” (Four is the male heartthrob’s name in “Divergent”).
“Yeah, we’re, like, a little obsessed,” chimed in Charlotte Anne, who was bouncing on the edge of her seat as get pumped tunes blasted from the auditorium speakers. Charlotte Ann, Sarah, Kylie and Cara tallied up a total of 132 Y.A. books the four of them had brought. “I read a lot of them just because the authors were coming to YALLFest,” said Kylie. Their game plan: get them all signed
today. “We’ll go back to the car every two hours to switch them out,” Cara strategized. “Hey y’all, listen … the music’s quieting … it’s almost time!”
The music stopped; house lights dimmed. Teens gasped. And after a brief intro and rather awkward “book shimmy” (i.e. collective audience stand-up-n-jiggle) led by representatives of EpicReads.com, Roth and Rae Carson, author of the best-selling “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” series, entered to shrieks and applause. Their talk, billed as a keynote but really more of a rambling dialogue, centered on power dynamics and gender stereotypes in Y.A. fiction. Roth’s headliner and the evening’s finale, “Y.A. Smackdown,” were the only festival events that required a ticket —and both sold out the 918-seat CharlestonMusic Hall, with 200 tickets for Roth selling in the first hour after they were released. The rest of the festival program, including 12 panel discussions, six “coffee talks” and 46 author signings, was free, drawing an estimated 3,000 attendees in all.
Fans of zombie tales, vampire romances, fantasy worlds, dystopian universes and first-love sagas packed sidewalks and clogged traffic. Fabrice Rizzo, a baker at the nearby Macaroon Boutique, whose buttery aromas lured hungry readers in (you work up an appetite lugging around all those books), was surprised, but pleasantly so. “Oh, all these young book people. They like reading and eating! C’est tres bien for business,” he winked.
Macaroons and croissants weren’t the day’s only hot sellers. Book sales were nonstop under the tent set up in the gravel parking lot beside the tiny Blue Bicycle Books, which was the host, presenting sponsor (along with Amazon) and ground zero for YALLFest.
In Charleston, where glorious antebellum mansions abound, good manners prevail and “Y’alls” are plentiful, independent bookstores are scarce. In fact, Blue Bicycle is it. Jonathan Sanchez, the store’s owner and YALLFest director, is a writer himself, pie aficionado and champion of neophyte authors through his Write of Summer camps and school outreach programs. Sanchez conceived of YALLFest with Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia, co-authors of the wildly successful “Beautiful Creatures” series, which was set here in the Lowcountry.
The three recognized an untapped potential in the rapidly growing Y.A. marketplace. “YALLFest has doubled in size every year, and there’s no way we could have predicted that,” said the irrepressible Stohl, chief YALLFest cheerleader who was onamission to high-five as many attendees as possible.
“People come once because of the big names, but they keep coming back because of all the big feelings,” said Stohl, noting that many authors pay their own way to
participate. “There’s a powerful spirit to this festival—the only author-run festival in the country. We’re there for the kids, the readers.
“It’s all about the love. And maybe the pie.” As six sessions of concurrent panel discussions and programs went on, including an interactive middle-grade “Storyball” that gave kids an opportunity to co-write a story with the likes of Pseudonymous Bosch and Matthew Cody, Sanchez spent a chunk of his day in the parking lot with a bullhorn, herding fans into the appropriate lines for whichever of the 46 authors was signing next.
When Ransom Riggs, author of “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,”missed his turn due to sudden illness, the plucky YALLFest organizers quickly printed up
“RANSOMRIGGSPUKEDANDALL IGOTWAS THIS STUPID STICKER” bookplates, which Riggs signed from bed.
Roth held court in a separate venue, where her signing was on a whole other magnitude. Fans were divided into seven groups of 75 each, if they were among the first 500 to score a coveted blue wristband. Roth signed 1,100 books for Blue Bicycle Books, about half of which had been preordered—a small fraction of the millions sold worldwide, but significant for this scrappy little bookstore.
For three solid hours, Roth greeted fans and signed books (“Bless her heart,” as they say here in the South). She was warm and gracious, taking occasional mini-breaks to grasp her long arms behind her back, stretching her shoulders and neck.
“You’re a rock star,” gushed Kendall James, 46, of Mount Pleasant, S.C., as Roth autographed James’ copy of “Allegiant,” the final book in the trilogy. For the James family, YALLFest is an annual affair, with three generations attending
this year: Kendall’s husband, Doug; children Colin, 13, and Ella, 16; and mother Gloria McDonald, 79.
“She loved all three of the Divergent books, but she didn’t like ‘The Hunger Games,’ ”Kendall James said of her mother. Kendall James’ sister, Kirsten McDonald, 52, of Asheville, N.C., also came.
If Grandmom Gloria was perhaps the senior YALLFes-tie, 4-month-old Story Miller, daughter of Sarah Miller from Charleston, was surely the youngest. Sarah, who had
stayed up late to finish “Allegiant” the night before, nestled and bounced Story on her lap in the back of the auditorium, showing off her infant’s hand-painted onesie featuring a rainbowand “Fangirl” spelled out beside it, in honor of Sarah’s favorite Y.A. writer, RainbowRowell, author of “Fangirl.”
Today’s Y.A. audience obviously extends beyond the “teen” years.More than half—55 percent—of Y.A. books sold last year were bought by adults aged 18 or older, with
most falling in the 30- to 44-year-old cohort, according to BowkerMarket Research. That’s no surprise to 34-year-old Ursula Uriarte from Miami, who flew to Charleston with a suitcase full of 27 books.
She and five pals from a Y.A. online community met at YALLFest for the first time.
The women, who range in age from 15 to 35, traveled from Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Alabama and Missouri to hang with their favorite authors.
Established authors, too, are crossing over and joining the Y.A. ranks. CJ Lyons, a NewYork Times best-selling author of 20 or so adult thrillers, was thrilled to be at her first YALLFest, having recently published her first Y.A. title, “Broken.”
“I’m having so much fun writing for kids that it’s hard for me to find time to work on my adult books,” Lyons said.
“I’m a voracious Y.A. reader—it’s actually hard for me to be here (as an author) because I’m such a fangirl! I can’t wait to meet Ellen Hopkins.”
Now, about that pie. YALLFest wrapped up a jam-packed day with a jammin’, irreverent “Y.A. Smackdown,” featuring the unleashed antics of writer-slash-vocalist extraordinaire, Libba Bray (“The Diviners”) and the all-Y.A. band, Tiger Beat. Envision The B-52s with best-selling book credits.
Wacky improv games followed (where, as one author said,“We embarrass ourselves for your pleasure in our attempt to get you to buy our books”). Then it was time for
festival farewells. And with them, ta-da: two surprise pies in-the-face for the Smackdown emcees, authors Gayle Forman and Adam Gidwitz.
That’s the essence and beauty of YALLFest—taking books and readers seriously without authors taking themselves too seriously. Good thing some kids just never grow up.