Before attending the Brooklyn Book Festival this summer, I had never attended a true book festival. The closest thing I could compare this to would be BEA/BookCon—the publishing industry event that I and several other Geekettes have been attending together for the past two years. Of course, there are differences between BookCon and BKBF. Most obviously (and sadly), while the books at BookCon are free, most of the books on display at BKBF must be purchased if you want to get them signed and take them home with you—although I did manage to score a free ARC of a book called Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler. Perhaps a more important difference, though, was in the content of the panels and choice of panelists.
Since its inception in 2014, BookCon has faced serious criticism for its lack of diversity—which sparked the creation of the We Need Diverse Books movement. This year, BookCon addressed the issue by hosting several WNDB-themed panels, one of which I wrote about earlier this summer.
The Brooklyn Book Festival, on the other hand, seemed to have no such problems. While BKBF didn’t have any express diversity panels like BookCon did, I would argue that all of the panels I attended could be considered diverse panels—which is as it should be. Of the three panels I attended, all of them engaged in discussions of diversity and representation. They also featured authors of various ethnicities and/or sexual identities and orientations. One panel even included one of the founding members of the WNDB movement. Of those I didn’t attend, BKBF also boasted panels with promising titles like “The New Latin American Literature: A Voice from Within” and “Revolution and Repression: Sexuality, Gender, & Politics.” Even the panels on unrelated topics appeared to involve an assortment of perspectives.
I stumbled on my first panel by mistake—and was glad I did! “Growing Pains” featured authors Edwidge Danticat, Mariko Tamaki, and Isabel Quintero discussing writing about characters who are in the process of growing up in their Young Adult novels. Each author spoke about how her own upbringing influenced her writing, and the point was made that if we publish diverse authors, diversity in their stories would come naturally, since each author writes what she knows.
My second–and by far favorite–panel was “What Could Go Wrong?” which featured Libba Bray, Melissa Grey, and the co-writing duo Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton. Moderated by Mackenzie Lee, the panel was ostensibly about how each of these authors puts their characters through different trials and tribulations, though the discussion ranged into a variety of topics. All of the authors on this panel had such great chemistry with each other, and jokes and banter abounded.
The conversation turned serious, however, when Lee asked the authors why they chose to write primarily about female protagonists, noting the predominance of women both on the panel and in the room. Grey spoke briefly about how she mostly read about men while growing up and wanted to give young girls today a different experience. Libba Bray launched into a discussion about how both YA and women’s stories are marginalized areas. Clayton piggybacked on that point, adding that in her experience as a librarian, she has found that boys are conditioned not to read stories about women—something she hopes to change. Charaipotra added that she wanted to explore the unpopular arena of “unlikeable” female characters—referring to the notion that female characters are held to different standards than male characters, with added pressure to be pleasant and “likeable.” Grey later came back to this topic, mentioning how one (immediately rejected) editor told her that her main character was too sarcastic and asked her to make the character nicer. All in all, the panel seemed to be full of a fun bunch of feminists, who have both great ideas and great stories. When it ended, I immediately bought two of the books discussed. Only the impending emptiness of my wallet prevented me from buying the rest.
The last panel I attended was called “A Question of Identity” and involved David Levithan moderating a discussion between Alex Gino, Ilene W. Gregorio, and Adam Silvera about the variety of sexual identities and orientations presented in their novels. Gregorio, a cis-gender woman writing about an intersex character in her new novel None of the Above, discussed how to write responsibly about a marginalized group that you’re not a member of. She also spoke a little about We Need Diverse Books, the organization she helped found; one of their tenets stresses that “there needs to be diversity within diversity.” No single story can encapsulate everyone’s experience, so we need multiple stories being written about marginalized groups.
Gino got into an interesting discussion about how sometimes the world changes when you take a long time to write a book—in Gino’s case, the world had a new awareness of the concept of transgender by the time they finished writing George. Gino had to go back and rewrite parts, since today, even a fourth grader can become familiar with concepts and terminology related to transgender issues, while this would have been nearly impossible when Gino began writing in 2004.
Silvera was adorably awkward during his candid discussion of how growing up gay in a hyper-masculine community affected his own coming out, as well as inspired the events of his novel More Happy Than Not. Silvera touched on the ways in which the publishing industry is still sometimes reluctant to embrace diversity: one publisher asked Silvera to change his character, since being both gay and Puerto Rican was “overkill.” Ultimately, the panel ended on an optimistic note about the future of publishing, with a reminder to the audience from Gregorio that, “if these are the books you want to see on the shelves, you guys need to buy them!”
That said, I hope you go check out some of the books and authors mentioned! I know I came home with a big, fat to-read list after this book festival and a bunch of new authors I will continue to follow in the future.