NYC Teen Author Festival: Change of Scenery, Change of Self

When I was thinking about what to blog about this week, my husband said, "Write about 'Game of Thrones'!" We spent the weekend marathoning seasons one and two in anticipation of season three starting on March 31, and suffice it to say, we're both pretty excited. That said...this post is not about "Game of Thrones." But I keep meaning to read more of the books, so maybe there's a Friday Reads coming up... This week is the NYC Teen Author Festival—a week of readings, panels, and signings from hundreds of authors who write for teens. It's one of my favorite events of the year, and I always try to go to at least a few of the panels. (See the full roster of events HERE!)

Last night, I went to the first panel of the festival: "I'll Take You There: A Change of Scenery, A Change of Self." The panel featured five authors whose recent novels sent the main characters outside of their comfort zones—to Paris (Gayle Forman's Just One Day), on a road trip to California (Kristen-Paige Madonia's Fingerprints of You), on a family vacation to the Outer Banks (Bennett Madison's September Girls), on a family sailboat trip (Melissa Walker's Unbreak My Heart), and to Hollywood and small-town Maine (Jennifer E. Smith's This is What Happy Looks Like). The goal of the panel was to look at how a journey into the unknown (or a known place that becomes new and unknown, once you're there) can foster change within a character and help him or her grow.

I haven't read any of the books that were discussed last night (two aren't even out yet), but I was really interested in this event because, well, the novel I've just finished revising deals with these very themes. In my book, three teens get lost in the Smoky Mountains while on a youth group hiking trip. For my main character, the experience of being apart from almost everyone she knows and fighting to survive helps her find strength she'd lost in "real life." So, I was eager to hear about how other authors dealt with this journey narrative.

I was interested in the relationship between the physical journey and the emotional arc. Some authors had an end point they needed their character to reach, and filled in the vague middle over revision after revision. Maybe they knew where the characters were going, or who they would be at the end of the book, but had to figure out how to physically and emotionally get them there. Other authors (at least one) had a very set itinerary, and built the novel around that itinerary, finding the emotional beats along the way. In several cases, touchstones from home became more powerful the further away from home the characters got; other characters seemed to be liberated by the distance. In each case, it seemed like the authors worked to write characters who, at the beginning of the book, had ROOM TO GROW—even if that made them a little unlikeable or frustrating. Again, I'll have to read these books (they're now on my oh-so-long to-read list...) to see more specific similarities and themes, but overall it was refreshing to hear published authors talk about the issues I've been grappling with in my own work for the past 8-10 months.

The authors stressed that you don't have to send your characters to Paris or Hogwarts or the moon to take them out of their comfort zone—sometimes seeing somewhere you've been before in a new way or moving to a new town or new school can be enough. That's part of why I think this journey narrative is incredibly widespread in teen fiction. The characters are already struggling to shape themselves into the people they want to be (or rebelling against what they're expected to be). They may be different people in different settings, trying out different personas. They may welcome the opportunity to be seen as not who they "normally" are: a good student becomes a risk-taker for a night, or someone everyone believes to be a screw-up has a chance to save the day. Going to a different physical place just enhances the possibility of becoming someone new, learning new things, meeting new people.

All in all—an inspiring, though-provoking evening! I'm hoping to get to at least one other NYC Teen Author Festival event this week. Maybe I'll see you there. :)

And hopefully it won't keep doing this:

Snow. On March 18. Things that make me question why I live in NYC...

Thanks for stopping by and reading!