It’s rare when you get to see a bestselling author don a large pirate hat and yell, “Y’all means all. Pee where you want to but not on each other!” onstage, but Margaret Stohl (“Black Widow: Forever Red”) did just that, speaking out against North Carolina’s anti-LGBT law. Or see Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dave Barry (co-author of “Peter and the Starcatcher”) share his worst writing ideas. Or catch a group of authors lead a “Hamilton” singalong.
These activities all took place recently at Yallwest, a two-day literary festival for teens now in its second year. More than 20,000 people converged at Santa Monica High School to celebrate young adult and middle grade books, with more than 100 authors participating in book signings, panels, giveaways, singalongs and shenanigans.
Yallwest was organized by Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz (“The Isle of the Lost: A Descendants Prequel”) who wanted to bring the festival to their hometown after helping plan and organize YallFest, a popular teen book festival in Charleston, S.C.
“The kids that we met were so unbelievably grateful that we wanted to replicate that feeling here,” de la Cruz said.
One highlight was the conversation between this year’s Newbery Medal winner Matt de la Peña (“Last Stop at Market Street”) in conversation with award-winning author Jason Reynolds (“All American Boys.”) As the two writers volleyed back and forth on their own publishing paths, they tackled the myth of the “reluctant reader.”
“Tupac and Shakespeare were doing the same thing,” said Reynolds who found his saving grace through hip-hop. Peña talked on the stark realities of visiting prisons where the majority of the kids were brown. “They feel as if they are not worthy of having an author come see them,” Peña said.
Other conversations dug deep, too. The “My Name is [Writer] and I Am A Basketcase” panel featured authors Veronica Roth (The Divergent series), Adam Silvera (“More Happy Than Not”), John Corey Whaley (“Highly Illogical Behavior”), and Melissa de la Cruz touched upon mental illness. “Writing is my therapy,” said Silvera as he spoke candidly about his recent struggles with suicidal thoughts.
Some of the festival programming was planned by teen ambassadors, resulting in cupcake hours with authors and a quidditch scrimmage match. “They meet twice a month and they are very critical,” said Cruz. “If a panel is boring, they will let us know.”
YALLWEST worked closely with the Los Angeles School Unified school districts to ensure that kids were able to attend the mostly-free conference. “We provide transportation, offer them lunch, and they are able to select one book they want,” said Cruz. Awards were given to teachers who work in underserved communities in Los Angeles in a ceremony hosted by a tuxedo-wearing Ransom Riggs (“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) and Brendan Reichs (“Trace Evidence.”)
Long lines were a mainstay at the festival, less so on Sunday. Yet, as the festival was winding down, mothers with their children came prepared to find a place to list, with chairs to sit in and umbrellas to block the sun. Next year, they may look for an even bigger venue.