On April 1, 2017, teens and YA booklovers flocked to sunny Houston, Texas, to attend the eighth annual TeenBookCon. Established to celebrate and promote reading by connecting teens with authors, TeenBookCon caters to its teen readers first and foremost, giving them first priority in both seating and Q&A sessions --- and did we mention it's free? This year, TeenBookCon featured authors Laini Taylor, Jeff Giles, Angie Thomas and many more, and Teenreads.com reviewer Anushka Giri was on the scene to report back for us. As a 20something (who considers herself a teen at heart!) Anushka was dazzled by the convention's set-up, headliners and attendees. Read below for a breakdown of her experience at TeenBookCon including which authors she loved the most, the panel that she will remember forever and the books she'll be reading next.
I’ll admit it --- when I first walked into the Houston TeenBookCon, I was shaking in my boots just a little. First, because I was a bundle of nerves at the prospect of seeing the brilliant panelists with my very own eyes, and secondly, because I was painfully aware of the fact that I was the only non-chaperone twenty-something in a sea of energetic teens. I timidly checked in and started slowly wandering the halls of Alief Taylor High School, scoping out the territory. I began with the booths lining the main hallway --- normal stands set up by publishers like Penguin and Macmillan, but others, too. There was a table for button making, from which I happily departed the proud owner of a Batgirl button. Another table had heaps upon stacks upon piles of coloring pages and a dozen teens hunched over their papers, furiously scribbling.
The last booth I visited belonged to Writers in the Schools and featured a white metal tree with mostly bare branches. Little slips of paper with writing had been hung on them, “leaves” of sorts. I inspected a few of them --- some had lyrics to songs, some had quotes spontaneously invented by the writer, some had lines from their favorite books, and some were just nonsense!
“What IS this?” I asked the dapper young man standing behind the table.
“It’s a POETREE. Get it? Poetry?” he said, and as I giggled, any remaining tension fled my body. I couldn’t think of anything to write at the moment, so instead I watched as more and more teens approached the tree to add their bits of wisdom and silliness to it. The tree seemed to bloom as its branches grew more and more lush. In my head, this became a sort of symbol for the TeenBookCon, representing the collective conscience of the teens present there.
When I checked the time, I realized I’d been swept up in the festivities and forgotten I was here for a purpose. I couldn’t miss the keynote address! I paid a super speedy visit to the book sale at the back of the school, hosted by the Blue Willow Bookshop, and managed to nab three new books (THE THOUSANDTH FLOOR, GIRL IN PIECES and PIPER PERISH) before dashing to the auditorium. I made it just in time --- STRANGE THE DREAMER author Laini Taylor had just stepped on stage, immediately identifiable by her bright pink hair. What followed was a series of funny anecdotes --- not the stuffy address I expected from a keynote speaker. I was sorry for underestimating the TeenBookCon, and I laughed my way through Laini’s hilarious presentation.
At 10:30, we promptly broke away for our first panel of the day. There was a mad stampede out the door, and I was momentarily stunned by the swirl of teens dashing off into the distance, yelling --- never mind their friends, they’d find their own way --- they just HAD TO SEE THIS ONE AUTHOR --- "oh god, why did I buy so many books", and "where the heck was the 'Black Box?"!
There was only one word to describe this moment: Thrilling. This is what I’d come for. The lack of decorum and pretention, the sheer, unadulterated excitement that we tend to stifle as we age. For a minute, I was a teen again. Thankfully, teenage me was a huge gamer and was thus aptly prepared for quickly figuring out the map of where the panels were being held. I threw myself into the crowd and was soon seated in my first panel of the day. As I tried to quiet my huffing and puffing and cursed myself for being old and not going to the gym more often, the authors slowly trickled in.
As a side note here, I just want to mention something I learned about panels throughout the rest of the day --- what makes one GREAT is not the noterity of authors on it, but instead the chemistry they have together as they jive and banter their way through the questions asked of them. This first panel remains my favorite to this day: Kathleen Glasgow (GIRL IN PIECES), Nina LaCour (WE ARE OKAY), Andrew McCarthy (JUST FLY AWAY author as well as "Pretty in Pink" actor), and Len Vlahos (LIFE IN A FISHBOWL) seemed like they’d known each other their entire lives, teasing each other incessantly and fangirling over each other’s books. What made this panel truly stand out, however, was the particularly poignant questions posed by the attendees. By some odd act of fate, I had ended up in a room of future novelists who had very interesting questions about the writing process.
One teen wanted to know how the authors deal with that one thing we all dread --- writer’s block. It was fascinating to see how varied the responses were. Kathleen just turns off all social media. Len believes that if you consistently write, every single day, you encounter it less. Andrew said he follows the Hemingway method: Stopping in the middle of a sentence, so that you just pick up where you left off the following day. My grand takeaway from all this was best summarized by Len when he says, “There’s this myth that there’s only one way to go about writing.”
From everything the panelists said, one thing is abundantly clear: there’s NOT just one way.
This was awfully comforting to not only the young writers present, but myself as well --- it’s hammered into us from a young age that planning, planning, planning is the only way to go about writing. But the panelists were quick to reassure us that an act as intimate as writing can never be done in an incorrect way. There are "planners," and then there are "pantsers" (those like myself that fly by the seat of our pants), and both ways are equally fine.
I breezed through the rest of my panels, full of fun tidbits about the authors’ backgrounds and lives and writing processes, unaware of the passage of time. Each panel had its own collective personality --- one panel dealt a lot with the complexities of drafts and character deaths (THE THOUSANDTH FLOOR author Katharine McGee originally intended to kill off a different character, did you know that?!), another was full of movie buffs and Harry Potter fans (THE HATE U GIVE’s Angie Thomas just wanted to “shake the heck out of” the famously angst-ridden ORDER OF THE PHOENIX Harry), the last was an incredibly fun girl talk session that I don’t even know how to begin to describe, and my final panel had a lot of Tumblr geeks in the audience who had questions ranging from “Who’s your favorite OTP?” (TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE author Jenny Han will forever be a BuffyxAngel fan) to “What social media do you think your protagonist would have, and what would their username be?”
After a long and exciting day of panels, there were only two things left to do: the closing session and book signings. I’ll admit I was dreading what was probably going to be a speech thanking us all for coming and encouraging us to never stop reading and follow our writing dreams, blah blah blah. To my immense delight, however, TeenBookCon came through for me again! What actually followed was an incredibly competitive round of Family Feud featuring our beloved authors. The game was tactfully ended in a tie, door prize drawings were done, and that was the end of it --- no painfully drawn-out closing remarks, thank Dumbledore. I found myself once again dashing through the halls, this time to join the lines for my favorite authors.
At this point, I was super tuckered out, and only managed to brave the lines for three extraordinary women. All three were super sweet and took the time to chat for a minute. LABYRINTH LOST’s Zoraida Cordova bonded with me over our wild curls, Kathleen Glasgow told me to give CATCHER IN THE RYE another shot (she had mentioned in a panel earlier that day that it was the first book she’d ever read that normalized mental illness), and Nina LaCour promised me she’d find out if her publishers could turn WE ARE OKAY’s ridiculously gorgeous cover into some sort of poster for my room.
I ambled out into the parking lot in a haze, barely registering the brutal Houston heat. The whole day felt like a dream, one that I never wanted to end, as cliché as that sounds. I kept replaying conversations from the panels in my head, and my fingers were positively itching to crack open the books I’d purchased that day. I was sure that if I started reading them immediately, I’d get to keep the authors’ voices in my head, to draw out the TeenBookCon experience for just a little while more.
I’m still working my way through the stack of books precariously perched by my bed. I know I’ll run out sooner rather than later, but the one thing that is immensely comforting is the simple fact that the TeenBookCon will be back next spring with a fresh batch of writers for me to fall in love with. And hopefully this time, I’ll know what to add to the PoeTree.