Promoting Teen Reading with Web 2.0 Tools - Part II: Author Madness

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Yes, I'm still thinking about the terrific YALSA Preconference I attended a month ago.  (I take time to percolate on things - whatever.)  This half day event (which should have been an entire day) started off by having some wonderful academics speak about recent research in the area of teens and reading, but I've already blogged about that part.  After hearing about the research, it was great to have the next chunk of the preconference be about online reading and the art of interacting with readers.  Did I mention who the experts were?  Just amazing AUTHORS who happen to excel at this art of connection.  Cha-ching.

Violet on the RunwayDone in panel form (the world of YA literature seems to be small enough that all authors seem to get along really well or at least have some kind of special handshake that makes them instantly like each other), our experts consisted of Melissa Walker, Malinda Lo, and Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.  Melissa Walker, author of the Violet series, came from a unique background of fashion magazine editorship and said that she felt so many magazine really did not address the aspect of teen reading to the extent she would have liked.  Rather than sit around kvetching, she not only became an author herself, but became a blog editor for Readergirlz, an incredibly popular blog covering YA literature and known for good author interviews and online chats.  Readergirlz chooses books with strong female characters and has the unique angle of its featured authors writing 10 questions for readers to consider when thinking about their books (bring, bring - dialing librarians...instant book discussion fodder here).  Readers are encouraged to create playlists that they feel fit the book's tone (also a great book discussion club idea) and just engage in general with the authors who they get to chat live.  On her personal blog, Melissa said she took the reader engagement seriously by asking her readers for ideas.  In a recent book, her editor suggested that she take the known bands referenced in the novel and substitute fake band names to keep the book from getting dated.  Melissa turned around and asked her readership for band name suggestions and the material she got back was so terrific she used several.  In the area of continued empowerment, Melissa is also a founder of the Before You Were Hot blog, in which people submit shockingly embarrassing photos of their young selves.  She said that no follow up "hot photos" are required of submitters because the blog authors allow people to define their own hotness. 

AshMalinda Lo was the next author in the panel and anyone who has not yet read her book, Ash, a retelling of the Cinderella story, needs to get off their duff and hop to it.  Malinda started out as an entertainment reporter and realized the importance of authors having coherent websites and contact information since she experienced several with neither quality.  She spoke about how she actually spent so much time working on her website that it became overwhelming and she realized (with the help of her editor) that she needed to back off and focus on her writing.  She simplified and streamlined her website after this revelation and said that, while her blog entries are less frequent, they are far more relevant and meaningful.  She maintains a strong professional boundary between herself and her audience and because of the GLBTQ content of Ash, she said that she often gets some very heartfelt and revelatory emails from young men and women in the midst of dealing with issues surrounding their sexuality.  Working in a school, I am used to listening to kids reveal inner thoughts and feelings (and knowing when to call in advisors and school counselors so we could work as a team to make sure these students were healthy and supported) but Malinda's concerns seemed to inspire a lot of head nodding from the public librarians who are obviously in a tough position when it comes to privacy and helping teens yet maintaining an awareness of boundaries.

Beautiful CreaturesLast up was the team of Margaret Stohl (who asked us to call her Margie, that's a hard "g" thank you) and Kami Garcia.  They are the team that made buzz history with the response to their novel, Beautiful Creatures, a book that was written on a dare from Margaret's teenage daughter.  Margie and Kami were joking about how they should write a book together (Kami was a longtime friend and an English teacher) and Margie's daughter taunted them with the idea that they would never finish the project if they tried to write a novel.  Twelve weeks later, she was eating her words!  Kami and Margie said that for them it was like writing a "bedtime story" to a very specific audience.  The daughter and her friends became a focus group for the author duo and they discovered that these young women (and occasionally a young man) wanted a more powerful female protagonist than what they were reading, specifically one that didn't have to be rescued, and they enjoyed a strong sense of place, particularly a highly regional one with magical overtones.  Enter Beautiful Creatures, which has been termed a Southern Gothic paranormal romance, and not just by me in my blog entry about it.

Kami and Margie, while using focus groups (Margie came from a video gaming industry background and said that soliciting feedback in this way seemed very natural for her), never lost sight of the fact that they felt their readership was a global one, a wise consideration since the book has been translated into a few dozen languages and been a best seller across the globe.  They have a Facebook page for the Caster Chronicles series (and their individual Facebook pages are open ones to the public and therefore maintained by them in a professional manner), Kami is on Twitter and in fact says she is happy to respond to questions via that format.  They each have their own blogs and promote some pretty great fan pages (check out Caster Girls & Boys), have contests, support their publisher websites and have a YouTube Channel.  I'm exhausted just listening to them.  Even the other authors began cracking jokes about how they needed to step up!

At this point, the moderators opened up the panel to questions from the audience and you could hear the cogs turning in librarian minds about how we can apply all this information to help our teens recreationally read in the most energizing and fun way possible.  One librarian was rather tongue in cheek, asking the authors if they felt that their personal website for their blog or book was better than the official publisher one, but the authors didn't take the bait (one or two waived to their editor who was in the audience with a cheeky smile) and they said that it was always a good addition.  Margie Stohl mentioned that the "cult of personality" is big among teens so the more personal the connection to the author, the more likely teens are to read and be engaged.  There was quite a happy and enthusiastic discussion about Skype among the authors, who said that they wished they could get out to libraries more to connect with teens and that Skype was a method they were comfortable using.  They mentioned the great "skype an author" website set up for this purpose of connecting authors and readers, and they all said they would never charge a library for skyping them (*heart you, authors!!!*).  Interestingly enough, they also said that in their experience, students are MORE engaged and revelatory in Skype sessions since the medium kept them from being tongue-tied around authors.

The session concluded with the authors telling us about their upcoming books.  Of course, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl have their sequel to Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, coming out in October. (Side note: as with all YALSA things the giveaways are awesome and we received a tote bag with a few ARCs, including Beautiful Darkness!) Kami and Margie said that the sequel is darker than the first book and that they believe that fans will be very satisfied.  Melissa Walker said she is working on her next book, Small Town Sinners, due out in 2011 about Hell Houses.  Does everyone know what those are?  In case you don't, Hell Houses are kind of like the haunted houses you can visit around Halloween, but instead of Frankenstein and chainsaw-wielding maniacs, evangelical Christians act out the horror and consequences of major sins in the hope that onlookers will become born again Christians or be confirmed of their already existing beliefs if they already are one.  Melissa said she was interested in a female protagonist who, through her participation in a Hell House and through the lives of her friends, begins to question her beliefs and wonder if life isn't more complex than she was brought up to believe.  Malinda Lo said that she is working on a companion novel to Ash called The HuntressThe Huntress is set in the same world as Ash but is more of an origins story several hundred years prior to the Ash's world.  Since Ash's world deals with some rather major conflicts around religion, I know I'm riveted in my seat if I get to find out more about how those tensions began.  It's due out in April 2011.  I can't wait for all of them!