The 2017 Northern Arizona Book Festival saw two weekends of locally and regionally acclaimed authors and poets such as Joy Harjo, Erin Stalcup and Bill Wetzel, but the festivities are not yet over. This Saturday, Nov. 4, the festival continues into its third weekend with activities for young readers.
A Series of Fortunate Events
The book festival has long held a place for young people at its events, but in 2007 it booked a man named Daniel Handler, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket. He was slated for a presentation at the Orpheum Theater as his children’s book series “A Series of Unfortunate Events” was still riding high from the success of the 2004 movie of the same name staring Jim Carrey.
“[The show was a] full house. He brought an accordion and was singing songs and the kids just went crazy,” recalled local author Seth Muller. “After the event, he did a book signing at Starlight. The line went out the door, around the alley and behind the Orpheum. And he signed books for more than two hours. So I immediately thought, we need to do a young readers fest that’s a satellite of the book festival.”
The recession put halt to those plans, but in 2015 the effort started back up. Finally, almost a decade after the Lemony Snicket event, the Northern Arizona Book Festival is casting off the Young Readers Fest into its own boat, with writers Muller and Lawrence Lenhart at the helm.
The Harry Potter Effect
But before “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” something else happened. A little boy with a lightning scar began his story in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” The franchise by J.K. Rowling expanded into seven books, five video games and eight movies, not mention countless toys and trinkets, and is worth more than $65 billion.
For some, this changed the monetary possibilities of trafficking literature to children and young adults. For others, this changed a generation of readers.
“‘Harry Potter’ has been around 20 years, but it’s created a generation of readers who read it and then loved it but then aged out of it and looked for other stuff,” Muller said. “And then we had ‘The Hunger Games’ and we had ‘Twilight’ and we had ‘Divergent.’ Now it’s like its own industry.”
For Muller and Lenhart, the success of “Harry Potter” and the rise of children’s and young adult novels meant a new audience for the book festival.
“One of the goals for the festival is to bring that audience of children and parents and teachers, librarians and educators out while also attracting people who might go to a book festival for, otherwise, adult literature,” said Lenhart. “These stories are not that different.”
The Hero’s Journey
There is something familiar about the narratives in young adult literature, Muller said. He and Lenhart talk about the ways in which “big L literature” novels differ from young adult literature, experimenting with deconstructed narratives in which the reader pieces together the story, as in “S.” or “House of Leaves.” Adult novels are often driven by flawed, sometimes broken, characters.
“Young adult novels tend to be more plot driven and lean toward honoring classic story frameworks, such as the hero's journey seen in ‘The Hunger Games’ or the doomed romance of ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ ” Muller said. “They are more often than not populated with strong main characters who have forgivable flaws.”
He argued that books like “Great Expectations,” “Jane Eyre” and “Catcher in the Rye,” if released today, would likely fall into the category of young adult literature.
While some might feel that a book targeted toward a young demographic might stray away from death and love and social and political issues, Lenhart thinks some of the best young adult novels deal with those very topics.
“What I love about our authors this year is how uninhibited they are,” he said. “They’re not talking down to their readers. They’re creating great stories with real issues.”
Amy Fellner Dominy, one of the headlining authors of this year’s Young Readers Fest, has written about love and divorce in “Die for You.”
She views young adult literature as essential to growing up.
“When I look back, the most important books in my own life were the ones I read when I was growing up,” the author said. “Books that helped me see the bigger world and where I fit in — where I wanted to fit in.”
And perhaps, more than anything, the festival organizers hope to educate and build a sense of community for young readers. By choosing local and regional authors, they aim to shine a light on another group that can thrive in Flagstaff’s literary community.
“One of the magical things about books is that when we open our mind to stories, we open our heart, too,” Dominy said. “An event like the Young Readers Fest is wonderful because it creates excitement around books and reading. It gives kids a stronger connection to stories and also shows them that they have stories of their own to tell — a voice of their own.”