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May 14, 2015

Authors, They’re Just Like Us! --- Behind the Scenes at Authors Unlimited 2015


While attending Author's Unlimited in Long Island on April 24th, 2015 --- an event where eight YA authors and just short of 200 local teens spent the morning and afternoon together, hanging out in panels, having group discussions and getting their books signed --- I found myself thinking about the US Weekly segment "Stars - They're Just Like Us!" more than once. You know the one --- it’s where they take all of the leftover paparazzi photos and give them captions like “They walk their dogs!” “They tie their shoes!” “They drink water!” They sit! They stand! They blink! They breathe!”

Why was I daydreaming about tabloids? Because, as much as I mock that feature on a regular basis, I feel like Authors Unlimited did the same thing for the authors in attendance, but in the best possible way. It humanized the authors, and showed teens that despite the fact that writers are insanely talented and can create books that touch them on multiple levels, help them feel understood or make them think in a new way, they’re also big goofballs (just like the teens themselves!) who debate the merits of flying versus teleporting (Jason Reynolds vs. Adam Silvera) and wonder aloud what would happen if Hitler had been accepted to art school (Selene Castrovilla).

This humanization extended far beyond memorable panel comments, however, as much of the day was arranged around actual author-teen interaction. After Jason Reynolds and George O'Connor's breakout session, a gaggle of The Olympians fans stayed to talk to George and show off their own artwork. And when Adam’s and Elizabeth Kiem’s first breakout session finished, two groups of girls stayed to chat with them (and fawn over Adam’s HARRY POTTER-themed riddikulus tattoo). They got along so well that the teens stayed to hear the authors speak for a second time.  

Furthermore, two teen volunteers were matched with each author --- they showed their "charge" where to go throughout the day and ate lunch with him or her. One of Matt Blackstone’s teen volunteers said that the meal was definitely her favorite part of the day --- they talked about “the same things I talk about with my friends --- fan fiction and superheroes.”

While it's clearly essential  to connect to an author's books, Authors Unlimited demonstrated that connecting to authors as humans is what can really make lifelong readers and lifelong book people. At Authors Unlimited, teens didn't need Us Weekly to show that Adam, Jason, Gae, Selene, Matt, Henry, Elizabeth and George are "just like us" --- the authors were able to prove it themselves. 

See a "photographic essay" of the day, below, for some behind-the-scenes tidbits (and some further evidence of these YA authors' utter humanity --- including Jason Reynolds' lack of direction).











Waking up at the crack of dawn to get on the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) wasn't easy, but when a man sat across from me and asked if our train was going to Babylon, I knew that the trip was going to be much better. That man turned out to be Jason Reynolds, and he spent the ride telling me how he got involved in writing --- it turns out that he actually started out as a poet! He also shared that Walter Dean Myers inspired him to try his own hand at novels --- Walter demonstrated that you can write amazing books in your own, authemtic voice; you don't have to try to be anybody else.

Who knew that you could be inspired that early in the morning? Also, I am happy to admit that I had to very much lead the way when transferring to the next train to Babylon, and Jason credited me with getting him to the Authors Unlimited event. So 1) Long Island teens, I am quite happy to take that credit and 2) it's kind of nice to know that amazing authors aren't good at everythihg. 

One of the librarians helping to run the event was kind enough to pick us  up in her car once we arrived in Long Island (along with Adam Silvera, Elizabeth Kiem and George O'Connor),which also led to a few riveting conversations. As much as I appreciated the debate on whether or not to incorporate pop culture references into books (a lot of editors are against it because they think it dates books), my favorite topic was our invention of "bromosas" --- mimosas marketed specifically at frat boys. Necessary? No. A little sexist? Probably. But amazing? Most definitely.



You can't ask authors to come give presentations and not feed them! Well you can, but it wouldn't be very nice, would it? I've got to say that the people who ran Authors Unlimited went above and beyond, providing not just coffee and eggs but also personalized gifts for each writer (see some examples, to the left and below!).

Elizabeth Kiem was particulalry pleased with her miniature opera goggles, as her own (stolen!) opera goggles are one of her prized possessions. The story? When she saw Swan Lake in Moscow, she was able to borrow a pair at the coat check --- you give them your coat, they give you the glasses and then you switch at the end of the night. Well, the production was so amazing that she knew she just had to keep a souvenir. She made up a story, saying that her friend had done coat check on her behalf and she had never gotten a pair of glasses. They wouldn't give her her coat, so she nearly froze on the way home, and then went back to the operahouse the next day to retrieve it. In the end? Slightly numb arms = totally worth the stunning piece of memorabilia.










If there's anything I learned from taking the train with Jason Reynolds, it's that authors can't necessarily be trusted to get from place to place on their own ;)  It looks like the librarians who planned Authors Unlimited were well aware of this and planned ahead --- as mentoined above, two teens were matched with each author and were assigned to help them get from place to place throughout the day and accompany them for lunch. Teens apply to get this positon, and can write which author they prefer to work with. On the left, you can see Henry Clark meeting his volunteers (I overheard them telling him that he was their first choice!).












There's making an entrance and then there's making an entrance...italics make all the difference. And at Authors Unlimited, the authors definitely made an entrance. We all piled into a limo (!), drove around the block, and then were greeted by a couple hundred screaming teens and a local drum corps. Now you might wonder...what do authors do in a limo? Well, they do exactly what you would do...take a million selfies! Here's one that I got in on with Jason and Adam.


1) As you can tell by this picture of the authors waiting in line pre-panel, they can be a little goofy before they put their "professional faces" on in front of an audience!

2) BUT once they get in front of that audience, even though they might remain goofy, they definitely have some excellent insights to pass along. Some highlights:

- When talking about their favorite books growing up, Elizabeth Wein said that she loved THE WESTING GAME and wrote a letter to author Ellen Raskin in middle school. She did get a letter back...but not until the 10th grade!

- When Jason Reynolds said that he grew up reading Queen Latifah lyrics rather than books, librarian Lisa Kropp reminded the audience that "reading lyrics (and fan fiction and magazines) counts as reading." And it's so true! While we're all for reading books, reading is reading is reading.


- Selene Castrovilla is a huge fan of Shakespeare --- she was wearing a Macbeth shirt to the event, and she coined a genius new phrase..."What Would Lady MacBeth Do?"

- Jason thinks that "there are other fish in the sea" is the worst thing you can tell a teen (and he knows...his mom said it all the time when he was having girl problems growing up). Why is it so bad? Because it devalues feelings and emotions. If you're upset about a broken heart, whether you're 12 or 72, your feelings are still valid and shouldn't be brushed to the side.

- I already mentioned Jason and Adam Silvera's epic flying vs. teleporting debate (if you were wondering, Jason wouldn't have wings --- he'd just have his "back straight, arms out and hair blowing in the wind"), but the other authors also had some great superpower ideas. Gae Polisner is a long distance swimmer, so her natural choice would be to become a mermaid. George O'Connor would want to travel through time, but with a caveat: he would be indestructable or invisible so he couldn't be killed (that sounds a bit like cheating, to us...). 

- Adam wanted to be an author because "J.K. Rowling made it look really cool." (See his Harry Potter-themed tattoo on the left).

- If you happen to have a signed copy of one of Matt Blackstone's books and think his signature looks great, it's because he spent years perfecting it --- he thought he was going to be a professional baseball player and would practice writing his name for autographs!  

- Before George read a section of ARES to the audience, he explained it was going to be a bit strange since listeners were only getting half of the's a graphic novel, and we weren't going to get to see the pictures! Gae Polisner offered to act it out behind him...unfortunately, he didn't take her up on it.


After the panel, Authors Unlimited attendees got to attend breakout sessions with different author pairs --- Jason and George, Gae and Selene, Henry and Matt, and Adam and Elizabeth. Here are some more fun takeaways from this section of the day:

- Jason's latest book, THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT, takes place at a funeral. He discussed how he went to far more funerals than most as a child, and it taught him a lot about grief. He said that just like when you injure a knee, a doctor can set it so you can walk and run, but it will never be fully healed. Grief is the same way --- people continue to live day to day, but they are never 100% better --- they're still coping. I thought it was a beautiful analogy.

- George O'Connor showed some art from ARES, including an image where a soldier has sweat dripping from his nose. His editor wanted him to change it because "it looks like a booger" but George refused --- he need to show that the soldier "is human. He's scared. He has emotions." He showed another panel which included Ares --- it's just one of two panels in the entire graphic novel in which Ares is smiling. Details like these showed just how much thought George put into every single detail in every single panel of his books --- and you can tell when you read the whole thing!

- Gae and Selene both talked a lot about writing advice in their panel. Selene explained the importance of wriitng every day, even if it's just enough to fit into a one inch by one inch picture frame. She says you can buy one, if it helps! Gae said that she always had a creative writing side --- even when she went to law school. Her professor wrote a big "X" through a paper and said "this isn't creative writing, it's a technical paper!" Later on, though, she realized she wanted to write again, and thought "if I keep making excuses, it will never be a good time." This is so true --- if you want to write, now is as good a time as any!

- Matt and Henry also gave plenty of advice to their audience members. Matt advised that you have to find your own system. He tried "the bulletin board thing" --- where you set up a bulletin board and stick notecards on it so you can outline the plot --- and it didn't work at all. So, play around to find what works, but also don't feel pressure to do something because you feel like you're supposed to! Henry was full of great quotes. He suggested making character bios so you really know them in and out ("know if your character likes lasanga!"). He also said "steal like an aritst"; in other words, allow yourself to be inspired by anything and everything!

- I've got to admit, I think that I liked sitting in on Adam's and Elizabeth's session the best because it was so interactive. The two authors fostered a conversation about altering memories (a theme in Adam’s MORE HAPPY THAN NOT and Elizabeth’s forthcoming novel), and it felt more like a class with awesome substitute teachers than an “OMG authors!” situation. Rather than listening to Adam's and Elizabeth's advice with rapt attention, the teens were explaining how Gae Polisner’s THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO might be a good candidate for memory alteration (her four-year-old brother died) and audibly moaning when someone brought up Fred Weasley’s untimely death. I loved the back and forth in the room, and how teens weren't just talking to the authors, but making connections with one another, as well.



The day's not over yet --- after the panel and the breakout sessions, Authors Unlimited attendees were treated to even more author interaction --- they could buy the books and get them signed! (I also saw a fair amount asking authors to sign their Authors Unlimited tote bags...I'm guessing they're going to get a lot of jealous looks, at school). On the top left you can see George looking at one of the attendee's own artwork, and on the bottom left, teens stand in line to meet Gae Polisner. 

I got to talk to a lot of teens as we milled around the tent, and got tons of great feedback about the day. One teen, Molly, said that she loved talking to the authors and thinks that next year the event should last all day long...she would stay for hours! Sixteen-year-old Lexi loved hearing how the authors got their start, because she wants to be a writer herself.  Kaitlyn was liking the signing itself most of all, since you got one on one time with each author. She hadn't heard of all of the books before the event but ended up buying three of them by the day's end.



And that was that! Thanks to the librarians of Suffolk County for organizing the event (you can see some below, on the left). If Adam's face (on the right) as he waits to buy a rain ticket is any indication, we were all said to leave!










Matt Blackstone is the author of A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE and SORRY YOU'RE LOST
Selene Castrovilla is the author of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, MELT and REVOLUTIONARY FRIENDS
George O'Connor is the author of The Olympians series
Gae Polisner is the author of THE PULL OF GRAVITY and THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO
Jason Reynolds is the author of THE BOY IN THE BLACK SUIT and WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST
Adam Silvera is the author of MORE HAPPY THAN NOT (pub date: June 16)