"Clap When You Land" author Elizabeth Acevedo strives to help teen readers discover "their voice, their boundaries and how to ask for assistance when it’s necessary."
"Dear Justyce" author Nic Stone stresses how crucial it is for young people to see "positive reflections" of themselves in books.
Fittingly, these two literary powerhouses anchor the 12th annual Texas Teen Book Festival on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, punctuating a lineup that both reflects teens’ reality and offers escapes into different worlds. This year it’s a virtual festival.
Stone’s debut novel "Dear Martin" followed Justyce, a studious, well-mannered young Black boy who nevertheless battles racism. Her newest shows us how much harder it is for Quan, a Black teen whose life drives down a different path.
"I met these two boys — the text conversation is printed in the opening author’s note of the book. These are two young men that I met when they were sophomores reading ‘Dear Martin,’" Stone said in a phone interview, referencing her 2017 book that topped the New York Times bestseller list. "They told me that their lives were not like Justyce’s in ‘Dear Martin.’ Eventually, they sent me a set of messages to ask if I would be willing to write a book about a boy who is not like Justyce. … These boys trusted me to tell their story."
"Dear Justyce" echoes "Dear Martin’s" epistolary scaffolding, with young Quan writing from his youth detention cell to former schoolmate Justyce, now studying at Yale. Quan is smart like Justyce, but life has dealt him challenge after challenge, including an absent father and poverty. The two novels offer differing yet equally important facets of Black teens’ experience, she said.
"I hope ‘Dear Martin’ opened people's eyes to systemic racism and implicit bias and things that negatively impact a kid who was doing everything right. … Now, with ‘Dear Justyce,’ my hope is that now that you know that, how might this affect kids who aren’t doing everything right? … What I hope comes out of that space is a willingness to pause the judgment." (Afternoon keynote, 1 p.m. Nov. 1)
Like Acevedo’s National Book Award-winning debut, "The Poet X," "Clap When You Land" is a novel in verse. It follows two sisters — one in New York, one in the Dominican Republic — who don’t realize they share a father. The two discover the subterfuge when the plane he’s flying in crashes, a plot point inspired by the 2001 crash of Flight 587.
"There was a lot my 13-year-old self learned that year about communal grief," Acevedo said in a phone interview. She kicks off the festival with her opening keynote. (10 a.m. Oct. 31)
"In September we had the World Trade Center, and in November there was Flight 587," she said. "Most of the people on board were Dominican. I had this very clear sense of how the nation was grieving, and then how that was happening in my very small but mighty community on my block. Almost everyone knew someone who died."
"Clap When You Land" alternates perspectives between Yahaira, who lives in New York, and Camino, in the Dominican Republic, as they grapple with family secrets and new discoveries. But Acevedo originally wrote it from just one sister’s perspective. A discussion with a fellow author at a retreat led to the change, Acevedo explained. She unspooled the story to her roommate and said she knew something was missing.
"She just had this long beat as she listened and said, ‘We need the other sibling. What’s missing is the other sibling.’" Acevedo took her advice and used a free-write session before dinner to draft what is now the book’s first chapter.
That roommate was Ibi Zoboi, who will also be at the festival with her bestselling verse novel "Punching the Air," written with Exonerated Five member Yusef Salaam, who spent more than six years behind bars. Zoboi, a National Book Award finalist for "American Street," paired with Salaam to write the story of Amal, a 16-year-old poet who is wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. (5:30 p.m. Nov. 1)
Festival organizers have woven plenty more of fall’s buzziest books for teens into the lineup. There’s Tracy Deonn’s Arthurian-inflected fantasy novel centered on a dynamic Black heroine, "Legendborn" (Once Upon a Time Remix panel, 2:30 p.m. Nov. 1). There’s Tiffany Jackson’s "Grown," which uses the story of an aspiring young singer to show how society treats Black girls when they speak up about abuse (the Brighter the Spotlight panel, 11:30 a.m. Oct. 31). And don’t miss National Book Award nominees Aiden Thomas ("Cemetery Boys," Are You Afraid of the Dark panel, 4 p.m. Oct. 31) and Kacen Callender ("Felix Ever After," I’ll Define Myself, Thanks panel, 11:30 a.m. Nov. 1).