The New Yorker recently published an article by David Denby entitled “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” in which he bemoaned the decline in reading as adolescents get older, their lack of attention span, and their apparent failure to read “serious” literature.
There are a lot of issues here, but if we could address adults like Denby who worry about the decline in teen reading, our message would be: Things aren’t that bad. For one, the Young Adult book market is consistently one of the strongest segments of the publishing market. Sure, many teens and tweens begin to turn away from reading as they enter adolescence, but a large number of them remain readers. Indeed, teens who enjoy reading can be as passionate about reading and books as some teens are about music and celebrities.
This enthusiasm for reading is what drove a group of Northside Independent School District librarians to start the city’s first and only festival dedicated exclusively to the books teens love to read. The planning began seven years ago, and in 2012, the first “LibraryPalooza: That Author Thing” festival was held at Brandeis High School. The Saturday festival, sponsored by the Friends of Northside ISD Libraries and H-E-B, attracted over 600 attendees who were eager to connect with other teen readers and to meet popular authors who write for teens.
On Saturday, Feb. 25, LibraryPalooza celebrated its fifth anniversary with more than 1,000 teens and tweens at Brandeis High School who met best-selling authors Kiera Cass, Brandon Sanderson, Michael Grant, Leigh Bardugo, April Henry, and George O’Connor. To the uninitiated these names might not seem familiar, but to teen readers they are equivalent in star status to any of the Spurs players.
Students started the day with an opening panel of all six authors on stage in the school auditorium. As the authors entered, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause as if Hollywood celebrities were taking the stage. For these avid readers, these authors are celebrities.
After the opening session, attendees selected three breakout sessions throughout the day where they were able to hear more in-depth from individual authors and directly ask them questions about their books and writing process. When not in breakout sessions, students could visit publisher and library booths, food trucks, a photo booth, and the Barnes & Noble book sales area. At the end of the day, attendees had the opportunity to meet the authors face-to-face as they took photos and had their books autographed.
“I think LibraryPalooza is a wonderful experience because the fans of these books really have a chance to interact with the authors and talk with them, and ask questions and have intimate moments,” said one student. “I have been coming here for two years now, and every year I have a lot of fun experiences and memories.”
A few predominant themes emerged from the participants’ feedback in our online survey: 1) Because reading is a solitary activity, readers loved the unique opportunity to spend the day in the presence of other book lovers; 2) whether they were avid or reluctant readers, hearing directly from the authors inspired them to read more; and 3) one of the strongest messages students took from the authors is to never give up on their dreams, no matter what obstacles they may face.
“(The authors) have told me that you have to work hard in order to get where you want to be and sometimes hardships of those experiences are the most rewarding when you succeed,” wrote on attendee. “It also taught me that dreams do come true.”
In five short years LibraryPalooza has quickly become a favorite event not only with attendees but also with authors and publishers. After Saturday’s event, author Michael Grant tweeted: “Dear every writer of kidlit: If you are asked to do the San Antonio @NISD_LibPalooza say yes. Tight, well-run, worth it. Great event.”
Publishers such as Macmillan, Harper Teen, Penguin, and Random House have become enthusiastic partners, now eagerly working with us to bring their top-selling authors to LibraryPalooza each year. Authors and publishers also appreciate the unique opportunity to connect authors and readers in a meaningful way. As Grant put it, “Here’s what was so great about @NISD_LibPalooza: It put me together with readers. If you do one thing for a writer: put writer with reader.”
As the seventh largest city in the United States, it is imperative that San Antonio continues to bring these opportunities to our students. While the San Antonio Book Festival will bring thousands of readers and authors downtown this April, the city is often passed over for author book tour stops in favor of cities like Houston or Austin. We would love to see San Antonio become a critical destination for these tours. Our teen readers deserve and are eager for opportunities to hear and learn from their writing role models. This past weekend when the audience was asked how many of them were currently writing a book or wanted to become an author, over 50% raised their hand. Writing lessons taught in school or in online forums help a budding writer build their craft, but to hear personally from a favorite author is an experience that is literally life-changing for some of these young writers. LibraryPalooza has become that type of experience for many teens in San Antonio.
Although anecdotes and statistics of declining teen reading abound, they really don’t tell the full story. A visit to teen author festivals like LibraryPalooza showcases a completely different reality. Teen readers are out there, they just need the right gathering place for some to realize the dedication, passion, and enthusiasm they have for reading is shared by thousands of other teens.
Lucy Podmore, the librarian at Garcia Middle School and Author Coordinator of the Northside ISD LibraryPalooza planning committee, contributed to this article.
Top image: Students waited in line for their chance to meet the authors face-to-face for photos and autographs. Photo by Connie Lippenholz.