On Saturday, October 27, two buses full of tired and exhilarated GDS High School students arrived back on campus at 5:15 p.m. One contained the cross-country team, but the other contained nine students, an English teacher (Nicole Gainyard), and me, the librarian… all carrying books. While the cross-country team had spent their day running, those of us from the little white bus had spent the day immersed in a very different avocation: reading. Specifically, reading Young Adult (YA) literature.
This is the premise of Books for the Beast, the YA Literature conference from which the aforementioned 11 Hoppers were returning: Get readers to read the same books, mix teen readers with adult librarians and teachers in small groups to talk about the books, throw in some amazing authors to give speeches, and magic will occur. Reading is a valid pursuit. YA literature is a unique and worthwhile genre. Writers who write well for teens deserve to be celebrated, and teenagers who read deserve their day to be unabashed fans.
Both of this year’s Books for the Beast keynote speakers, authors Elizabeth Acevedo and Alex London, spoke on this theme. Alex London affirmed that seeing oneself represented in literature can be life-saving. Acevedo, whose The Poet X won four major literary awards in 2018, shared about her experience as a marginalized Afro-Dominican New Yorker poet, and told her audience: “You deserve to be heard. Every one of you.”
You see, once upon a time, books were only published with adult readers in mind. Then, children’s books became a thing. In 1969, Baltimore librarian Margaret Edwards encouraged the field of teen (a.k.a. YA) literature with her groundbreaking book The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts. In 1993, another Baltimore librarian, Deborah Taylor, created the Books for the Beast conference in Edward’s honor, and the librarians at the Enoch Pratt Free Library have made sure it continues biennially ever since.
For me, in my 20th year as a librarian, bringing these nine GDS students to Beast was an incredibly edifying experience. Not only did our students each read a prodigious number of specific books ahead of the conference so they could fully participate, but they also fully and enthusiastically embraced the challenge. Our students continued animated discussions over lunch and in the author signing lines, connecting not only with each other but also with other teen readers from the DC/Baltimore region. They asked insightful questions of the authors.
But what really made me proud was this: GDS “values the integrity and worth of each individual,” and while there are many vehicles to celebrate our athletes, academics, and artists, it’s a lot harder to celebrate our readers. Thanks to Books for the Beast, and GDS’s support of our attendance, this busload of YA literature fans got their day. I’m already excited about Beast 2021.