Bigger is Better: The Austin Teen Book Festival

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When it comes to Texas, bigger is always better – and the Austin Teen Book Festival more than lives up to the old legend.

The result of a collaborative effort between the Austin Public Library and indie bookstore BookPeople, the festival is a manifestation of a mission statement with one special goal: to foster a community effort to celebrate and promote reading and writing by connecting teens to authors.

“We view the Austin Teen Book Festival as an exciting opportunity for teens to engage with the novels they love, beyond just the text on the page,” explained Tim Staley, director of the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation.

The Teen Book Festival was founded in 2009 as a partnership between BookPeople and a coalition of school librarians led by Heather Schubert of Hill County Middle School. As the largest indie bookstore in Texas, BookPeople has a vested interest in teenage literacy, and the staff was more than eager to give back to the community.

“We saw an incredible opportunity to connect teen readers with authors in a festive, dynamic context, and foster community excitement about books, something that lies at the very core of our mission as a bookstore And of course, at a basic level, it simply seemed like it would be a lot of fun to be a part of,” said Meghan Goel, programs director for BookPeople.

Just five years later, the festival is expecting 5,000 visitors and boasts a line-up of over 35 authors, with New York Times bestselling fantasy author Maggie Stiefvater as the keynote speaker. It takes effort for Goel and festival director Jen Bigheart to draw it all together, but the results are more than worth it.

“Putting together the festival line-up is one of the best things I do every year. I think that all of us in the bookselling industry are readers, first and foremost. So for me, as a reader and fan of young adult literature, what could be better than dreaming up wish lists of authors and figuring out interesting ways for them to interact with each other and spark dialogue,” said Goel with a smile.

“We want teens to come away from the festival with a few things. A few favorite author, a long list of books they want to read, a few signed books…and the feeling that they connected with a community of readers,” added Bigheart.

The attendees aren’t the only ones to leave with a smile on their faces. The Austin Teen Book Festival has built up a solid reputation with the authors who visit every year.

“The Austin Teen Book Festival runs like a well-oiled machine. It was exciting to be on a panel with talented authors and speak to huge groups of people, and make them laugh. I will jump at the chance to go back if I’m asked again,” said Dan Krokos, author of False Memory.

Leigh Bardugo at the 2012 Austin Teen Book Festival

Leigh Bardugo at the 2012 Austin Teen Book Festival. Courtesy of the Austin Teen Book Festival.

“The Festival is one of the few events I’ve been to that is specifically aimed at teen readers, the core and heart of our readership.  And that is felt in the planning, in the organization, and even in the atmosphere. It’s about readers first and foremost, and the love of books vibrates off the walls,” said E.M. Kokie (Personal Effects).

Ally Carter, author of the Heist Society and Gallagher Girls series, was just as enthusiastic.

“I’ve attended many events like these, and this one is hard to beat. It is just so well-run and exciting. Tremendous readers, tremendous booksellers, and always a tremendous assortment of writers,” said Carter.

Of course, even authors have their moments when they have to give in and be a fangirl.

“My most exciting moment was probably sitting next to Libba Bray on our panel. I didn’t hear anything anyone said for the first ten minutes because I had a loop playing in my head: ‘You are sitting next to Libba Bray. Be cool, be cool, be cool.’ I was not cool,” laughed Leigh Bardugo, author of Shadow and Bone.

Bardugo doesn’t just love the festival for the chance to fangirl.

“The Austin Teen Book Festival was my first festival and it set the standard by which all other fests and cons are judged. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you have the chance to go, do it,” said Bardugo.

Besides authors, attendees can look forward to numerous exhibitors who attend and give teenagers a look at cultural enrichment opportunities in their area. Though The Austin Public Library Friends Foundation and BookPeople remain the festival’s primary sponsors, they also encourage local businesses to get involved and attend. Some of this year’s exhibitors include Girl Start, the Long Center for the Performing Arts and the Girl Scouts of Central Texas.

In addition, the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation has recently developed the Badgerdog Initiative, a program for professional writers to share their knowledge and skills with the community through creative writing workshops for all levels of expertise and ages.

“For the first time this year, young writers will be featured at the festival. Youth from the Badgerdog program’s creative writing summer camp will be invited to share their work at a reading event during the festival,” said Galey proudly.

The Badgerdog Initiative is not the only new development festival attendees will meet this year.

“As the festival grows, we want to keep growing our programming as well. Thus, we’re building in the opportunity for great featured events, such as this year’s lunch with Sarah Dessen and Rob Thomas, and our closing note with Holly Black,” said Goel.

In addition, both the Fierce Read tour authors of Macmillan and Dark Day tour authors from HarperCollins were invited to attend the festival. As a result, Goel is planning to build on the branding around these popular tours to host a game show-like event.

“I can’t wait to see how it all plays out. I think this is definitely going to be our best program yet,” said Goel with a smile.

Bigheart encourages attendees to relax and have fun.

“Make some memories! Come early, wear comfy shoes, charge your phone and take tons of pictures! We want to hear from our attendees, so don’t forget to tweet our way,” added Bigheart.

“Take a few moments in between running from signing line to signing line to soak up the laughter and joy in the room. It is a special moment. Writers often work in solitude, and then the book goes out into the world and we hope it finds its readers. If you enjoy a book, pass the word, or the book, along to someone else you think might like it. And if you really love a book, tell the author. It makes all the difference on the days when the writing is difficult,” said Kokie.

The planning committee works on the Austin Teen Book Festival for ten tireless months. Considering that it is all spent for one day, it might sound like a waste – but to Jen Bigheart, it always is worth it.

“When the day arrives and the faces light up, I just can’t help but get emotional. I end up thinking that we did something fantastic,” said Bigheart.

The Austin Teen Book Festival will run this year on September 28. Admission remains free. For more information, and a live blog of the event, check the Austin Teen Book Festival website. If interested, attendees can also apply to become volunteers here.

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About Author

Hebah Uddin

Hebah is a 21-year-old Muslim girl who reads a lot of books, writes a lot more, and wears a lot of (figurative) hats. As a result of being raised on a steady diet of foreign films and BBC period dramas, she now likes to think of herself as Charlotte Bronte + one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai women. She’ll rap your fingers with her katana if you don’t mind your manners - or your grammar.

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