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Exploring the YA genre at Boston Teen Author Festival

The seventh annual Boston Teen Author Festival last Saturday brought both veteran and up-and-coming young adult authors together for panel reflections, signings and personal connections.

Held in the Cambridge Public Library and neighboring Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the festival featured 32 authors throughout four panel session times. Each 45-minute panel slot included four authors and was centered around a specific theme, ranging from power struggles to food imagery.

The “Xs, Ys, and Family Ties” session explored inspirations behind fictional siblings and the significance of sibling bonds. Panelists Holly Black, Gloria Chao, S. Jae-Jones and Ashley Woodfolk compared characters from their books to themselves and their real life siblings in a humorous twist.

Chao shared that after one of her two brothers read her novel, “American Panda,” he immediately texted her to say that the brother in the book was “not me.” She added a cute anecdote about her family’s overuse of a VapoRub alternative, “Tiger Balm,” saying that the difference between herself and her family is best explained by which brand they use.

On a more somber note, the authors recognized that the physical absence or death of a sibling cannot fully sever a strong bond. Woodfolk, author of “The Beauty that Remains” alluded to the lost sibling in her own novel, reminding the audience that sibling relationships can continue even after a death.

The “Sorry Not Sorry” panel, which featured Julie C. Dao, Claire Legrand, Lygia Day Peñaflor and Kiersten White, considered why ambitious female characters and antiheroes are always viewed as “unlikeable.”

The whip-smart and sarcastic panelists refused to label their characters this way, arguing that internalized misogyny makes girls hate each other and view each other as competition only. Although White and Dao’s characters are especially known for brutal ambition, they pointed out differences in attitudes towards the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of television dramas and attitudes towards strong women.

Day Peñaflor experienced a lightbulb moment on stage, questioning why readers dislike her books when the dislikeable characters always get what they deserve. She figured people would enjoy bad things happening to bad people, though she did not agree that her characters’ morality was properly assessed, either.

The women proceeded to share how family members psychoanalyzed their abilities to write dark characters, with Legrand describing her writing as an exorcism of sorts. When asked if they would prefer a villain-to-hero, hero-to-villain or morally gray story, all but hero-to-villain Legrand picked morally grey.

“Where You Lead (I Will Follow),” a mentorship-inspired panel, brought aboard Arvin Ahmadi, Adrienne Kisner, Britta Lundin and Riley Redgate to discuss who inspired themselves and their characters.

Kisner, author of “Dear Rachel Maddow,” described how her character’s reliance on Maddow in the book came from a lack of family role models. She highlighted the unique dynamic of knowing someone on television without them knowing you back, which she learned from years of obsessively watching Maddow’s show. She then unofficially advertised Maddow’s talk show to stay in her good copyright graces.

Meanwhile, Britta Lundin of “Ship It” recalled her nontraditional path to the YA genre and the drama teacher who she first came out to as queer. Lundin, a screenwriter for “Riverdale” highlighted the struggle of actually putting more than one teenager in her novel.

Redgate and Ahmadi pondered over the role models that gave their characters direction, whether good or bad. Ahmadi’s “Down and Across” protagonist, Scott Ferdowsi, found mentors in unexpected places, but they did not always know how to help him. Meanwhile, Redgate’s “Final Draft” compared the merits of two different mentors, one kind and flexible and one strict and rigid.

Few panelists had real-life mentors, but they all recognized the importance of them. Lundin responded to an aspiring librarian in the audience, suggesting she simply believe in people when they might not believe in themselves.

After the panels concluded, the authors sat to sign books for eager young readers. A pile of advanced reader copies lay on a table for people to take for free, but many were too busy meeting their favorite authors to notice.

I got a chance to chat with a few authors between panels. Heidi Heilig and S. Jae-Jones each shared advice about their versions of the writing process, while Arvin Ahmadi explained the inspiration behind setting his novel in Washington, D.C., my hometown. I was excited to hear that his brother substitute-teaches at my high school and he loves D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood as much as I do.

Boston Teen Author Fest has been growing every year, and it is easy to see why. The great selection of literature sold by small business Porter Square Books comes from a diverse group of authors. The sessions were fascinating and the festival offered a great chance to have personal conversations. You can bring your own copies of books for signing, though supporting Porter’s is suggested, and find new books to try. The event may be free, but the festival experience is priceless to YA fans.

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