How to Build a Book Festival for Teens

This Saturday, on March 10, I’m headed back to school. I’ll be at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington alongside 600 students, 40 authors, and scores of librarians for the fifth annual NoVa TEEN Book Festival. In anticipation of this all-day celebration of young adult literature, I spoke with Danielle Ellison, an author and one of the cofounders of the this book festival for teen, and Angele McQuade, an author and volunteer, about how this YA lovefest got started and where it’s headed.

Melody Schreiber: How did NoVa TEEN come to be?

Danielle Ellison: I had gotten hired at One More Page Books in Arlington to bring in more YA events, and they pretty much gave ME free rein to explore possibilities. I had a meeting shortly after with Nico, a teen librarian at Arlington Central, and we discussed different ideas and opportunities. At the end of that meeting, I asked her, “What would you do if you could do anything?” And she said she’d want to do something that put DC and VA on the map as a hot spot for author stops. We both felt at the time that it wasn’t really a major tour spot for authors and she said the teens were hungry for author interactions. In response, I said, “Well, I have a crazy idea…what if we start a book festival?”  It’s amazing how, from the beginning, organizations and people wanted to jump in on what we were doing. Now here we are at year five. It’s hard to believe sometimes.

MS: Have you encountered any surprises along the way?

Danielle Ellison: Tons. It kind of goes with the gig, I think. There are surprises—good, bad, unexpected—that we encounter each year, from freak snow storms to authors cancelling to issues with the sound system even though it worked the night before. This whole journey has been full of twists and turns and surprises. From day one, the response we’ve had with others in the community being excited has been this joyful kind of surprise. I think it’s not what happens, it’s how we handle mishaps—and at this point, year five, we are pretty accustomed to turning with the tides.

MS: Tell me a little about your backgrounds.

Danielle Ellison: I am a YA author, and I’ve been in the young adult world for most of my adult life. As a reader, as a blogger, as a writer, a bookseller and, for a couple years, even as an editor at an indie publisher. I’m going to library school in the fall to become a teen librarian. I’ve been breathing YA books for most of my adult life, and I love it. I feel very blessed to get to do what I love in a variety of capacities.

Angele McQuade: I’m a financial author and magazine columnist who now also writes middle grade and young adult novels. I’d just moved to Arlington when NoVa TEEN launched in 2014, and am proud to have been a volunteer that first year, and every year since. I’ve been to book festivals in other states (my first was the now-famous Rochester Teen Book Festival, back in 2007), so as soon as I heard founders Danielle Ellison, Lelia Nebeker and the other geniuses behind NoVa TEEN talk about their plans, I knew our local teens were in for something special.

As a volunteer, I help host the author green room, where our VIP guests can grab a snack and a few moments of quiet during their breaks. We aim to make our authors’ NoVa TEEN experience as comfortable (and fun!) as possible during the long hours they spend sharing their brilliant books and thoughts with the hundreds of enthusiastic teen readers attending NoVa TEEN.

MS: Why is a Book Festival For Teens so important?

Danielle Ellison: Because teens are the future. It’s up to us to provide them with opportunities, with a way to know they have a voice, with somewhere safe to go, with ways to express themselves and feel connected. NoVa TEEN, while we welcome anyone to come, exists because of teens. The people involved in the planning are passionate about books, sure, but we are all passionate about teens and the impact that a book can have on a teen’s life.

For me, when I started this, I thought of myself as a teen. I didn’t have books the same way they do, or social-media access to authors. I didn’t have a lot of people telling me I could or that I wasn’t alone—and I never met an author until I was an adult. I think of how different it would’ve been if I’d had the opportunity to meet authors who wrote books that I loved, and how that would’ve changed me and shaped me. We’ve always said NoVa TEEN exists for one person—if one person comes and leaves changed (even in a small way) then we’ve done our jobs.

Our mission is pretty simple: NoVa TEEN Book Festival connects readers, books and authors, creating a sense of community and inspiring creativity. And that’s what we will always strive to do!

Angele McQuade: NoVa TEEN and other teen book festivals aren’t just fun (although they’re definitely that!)—they give teens a safe and welcoming space to meet favorite authors and fellow readers, and also to discover so many new-to-them authors and books. The NoVa TEEN team does an amazing job at assembling a diverse group of authors and books every year, which is so important for teens who might not often see their own identities reflected in the books they read and authors they study at school.

MS: Are there other events like this throughout the U.S.? Would you like there to be?

Angele McQuade: I so wish there’d been book festivals like NoVa TEEN back when I was in high school, but at least there are lots of exciting options for teens around the U.S. now, and more launching every year.

Danielle Ellison: There are other book festivals; they exist all over. I do think we are unique in terms of the experience you have when you come, and it’s actually a dream of mine to be able to duplicate what makes NoVa TEEN special and take it to other cities. I think it’s a really special event, and I know there hasn’t been a single year when it’s over that I’m not ready for it again.

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