Skip to main content


October 23, 2017

YA at the Morristown Festival of Books ---- Guest Post by Teen Board Member Rachel R.


Held in historic Morristown, New Jersey, the Morristown Festival of Books draws readers --- and authors --- of all different areas, interests and genres. Now four years old, the Festival has grown to include major authors and is one of Morristown’s biggest events all year. After finding out that’s very own Rebecca Munro was moderating a YA panel, I knew I had to go. Actually (and, probably, shamefully) this was my first teen book event, so it was even more exciting. After a mind-numbing morning taking the PSAT (anyone else feel my pain?), I headed over to Morristown. The YA panel was in the Morristown & Morris Township Library, but events were spread out over multiple churches in the town center and the Mayo Performing Arts Center, with a book-buying and author-signing tent in the center of it all.

The panel I attended was titled “With Great Power…Talking YA, Fantasy & Graphic Novels” featured authors Rhoda Belleza (EMPRESS OF A THOUSAND SKIES), Emmy Laybourne (BERSERKER) and Scott Westerfeld, who is the author of theUglies series, but was there to discuss his new graphic novel, SPILL ZONE.

Ms. Munro started off with a brief summary of each book, and some very appealing pitches (Emmy Laybourne’s BERSERKER is Vikings in the Midwest, while SPILL ZONE is “Stranger Things” with motorcycles). After that, the panel moved on to talking about strong female characters. Laybourne discussed how she emphasized the real emotions of her main character Hanne to bring her to life, while Belleza said that Rhee’s defining characteristics are loneliness, doubt and mistakes --- characteristics that help the reader connect with her. Westerfeld talked about how his novel suggests the Rust Belt in many ways, and how his main character Addison gains maturity from caring for her sister and carries a strong sense of nostalgia for the community she has lost, personality traits that make her stronger.

From there, the panel touched on many different topics, with Westerfeld mentioning how urban spelunking and the sense of gaining possession of former glory inspired SPILL ZONE, while Laybourne talked about how her love of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and how in her novel BERSERKER, she had to get rid of all her assumptions from the present day and think about what life really would have been like in the Midwest in the past. Belleza made a really interesting comment about the inspiration for the setting of her novel, discussing how her whole life has been under some sort of conflict with another country, and this inspired her to take a closer look at war, and the difference in our perceptions as opposed to the reality of the conflict.

As the only author with a graphic novel on the panel, Westerfeld talked a lot about the experience of writing a graphic novel. One of the central aspects of his book is Addison’s photography, and the graphic novel format allowed him more control to show these snapshots to the audience. He also talked about the complexities in the artwork itself, pointing out how the different color schemes inside and outside the Zone convey the separation between the two areas in tone and content --- a point that provoked audible interest from the audience!

From there, the panel answered the question “why write YA?” and all the authors gave fantastic answers. Laybourne talked about how YA books write about the world in a raw way, as the narrator learns about the world themselves throughout the story, an element that she has enjoyed both reading and writing, while Westerfeld talked about how teens are receptive to old concepts in new language, as they are constantly creating new expressions and slang for their experiences, so he feels that they are the most willing audience for his books.

Because no panel would be complete without book recommendations, the authors all offered their suggestions:

Finally, the panel closed with some advice for teen writers. Belleza encouraged young writers to write no matter what and despite doubts, while affirming the need for a thick skin. Laybourne gave similar advice, saying that writers cannot create and judge at the same time, and the best way to write is to write anything, not thinking about whether it’s “good” or “bad,” so to speak. She also offered one of her own habits as a suggestion --- writing playlists! Sometimes it helps to hear music related to the tone of the scene you’re writing, she noted. Westerfeld finished out the discussion by telling young writers to make writing a regular habit, and when stuck, not to do something else, but rather to sit and wait --- the brain hates being bored, and sometimes this will get your brain working, he argued.

Overall, I couldn’t have been happier with my first experience at a book event! The panel was entertaining throughout (Scott Westerfeld has a great sense of humor, and Ms. Munro did an excellent job finding common ground between three very different books), and it was so energizing to be in a room with other readers --- “my people,” I thought when I was walking in. When the authors walked in, I didn’t realize what a neat feeling it is to be in the same room with an author, putting a face and a person to the name on the front cover of a book. I’ll admit, I was totally in awe: authors in real life! If you haven’t ever been to any bookish events, take my advice and go --- and if you're in New Jersey, add the Morristown Festival of Books to your calendar NOW. As for me, I’ll definitely be looking out for more events in the future!