It’s 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, two weeks after the end of school, when four teenage girls on their summer vacation meet me at school to get on a minibus and head to DC. Let me repeat—four teenagers came to school during the summer at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Why?? ALA Annual of course!
Before I get into how awesome the day was with my teens, I would like to thank YALSA for providing my teens with the opportunity to come to ALA. My teens were a part of the session that YALSA hosted to receive input on the nominees for the 2020 Best Fiction for Young Adults. Along with the opportunity to give their opinions on a major awards list, all the teens who were a part of the session also received a badge to visit the exhibit hall and sat down for a pizza lunch with an amazing group of eight young adult authors.
Back to 8 a.m.—I climbed into the driver’s seat and my four girls settled on the brown bus benches that we all remember from field trips. Before I could even start the engine, the conversation about books started. It didn’t stop for the entire 45 minute drive to DC, and I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a librarian’s dream—four teens energetically and passionately talking about the books they love (or don’t). Four teens talking about the importance of representation in books—race, sexuality, gender, ability, etc… Four teens talking about which characters developed and which didn’t; about endings they loved or hated; about the pacing of plot.
My heart grew two sizes.
When we arrived at the convention center and walked to the registration area, one of the first things my students noticed was the rainbow pin on the lanyard of the YALSA representative who met us. (Shout out to Sylvie Shaffer, who also gave us a great overview of exhibit hall etiquette.) Then, they noticed that my conference badge had my pronouns listed. One of them said, “That’s great. It normalizes it.” As we walked away from the registration area, they noticed the ribbons available that stated what pronouns the wearer preferred. I heard two of them talking to each other about not having to worry about giving reviews that celebrated LGBTQ+ representation.
Student One: “It’s definitely liberal* here.”
Student Two: “Well, it IS a conference for librarians.”
*In this context, liberal means accepting of LGBTQ+ people.
My heart grew five sizes.
And then…the exhibit hall. The beautiful, book-filled exhibit hall. I should have warned the teens about how many books they would end up with, but I kind of wanted it to be a surprise. At first, they were very hesitant to ask about books or talk to the publishing representatives. We walked through a whole aisle without picking up a single book. (Don’t worry, we went back.) Then, we got to BOOM! Studios, and they were giving out free copies of EVERY BOOK THEY HAD. WHAT?!? The flood gates opened, and we were off. Thank goodness for tote bags!
I was very proud that the teens began to ask about books, politely waited their turn for attention, and carefully considered the books they wanted to take home. Some high interest areas were fantasy, LGBTQ+ characters, mystery, and female empowerment. They also really loved getting the free pins for their lanyards. We had two hours to spend in the hall, and we used every minute of it before heading off to our pizza lunch with tired arms, heavy bags, and big smiles.
My teens and I lugged our bags into the room where we were having lunch and I saw a variety of numbered tables, with a few adults sitting at one. I asked them if they knew where we should sit. One of them replied that she wasn’t sure, but that the person organizing the lunch had stepped out and would be back soon. Those adults were the authors. The woman who answered me was Renée Ahdieh. RENÉE ADHIEH. I love her books and I asked her if she knew about the lunch setup. Gah.
At the front of the room, there was a long table neatly piled with books. Everyone was invited to take a copy of each, so that we could get the authors to sign them. Because yeah—we were about to eat lunch with eight authors who would also sign their books for us. It. Was. Awesome. We stayed at our table and the authors rotated through, visiting for a while with each table. They were all kind, funny, engaging, and energetic. Thank you to the authors who spent time with us: Renée Ahdieh, Jennifer L. Armentrout, Saeed Jones, Katie McGary, Matt Mendez, David Yoon, Lauren Mansy, and Annie Sullivan. Thank you for sharing your personal stories, writing journeys, and passion for books. After meeting you, my students (and I) are excited about all of your books.
Finally, it was time for the BFYA session. The awards committee moderated the process, going through the list of nominees and calling up any teens who wanted to speak. My main thought as I listened to the reviews was that these teens are going to make the world a better place. The words representation, empowerment, and diversity came up over and over. The reviews were eloquent, passionate, funny, and astute. They were also honest about their critiques but in the nicest way possible.
One of my students was worried about speaking in front of a large group of people, and we had discussed having another student read her reviews for her. She didn’t give a review for the first book she read, and I thought she might be too anxious to get up. Then, the time to give reviews for Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars came, and she got up to give her review. (Bardugo is her favorite author.) She did so brilliantly. She also got up to give a glowing review for We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia and was even more confident.
My heart grew ten sizes.
Whitney Etchison currently lives in Maryland and is in her tenth year as a school librarian. The best part of her job is readers advisory, although teaching research skills is pretty cool too. She loves horror novels but can’t watch scary movies.