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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Gil

YALLWEST: The Nation's Largest Young Adult Book Festival Descends Upon Santa Monica

Updated: May 23

By Joanna Gil

All Photography Credit by Joanna Gil.

This year marked my first attendance at YALLWEST, the nation’s largest young adult book festival hosted in Santa Monica. Since its inception in 2015, YALLWEST has progressively gained popularity, drawing in more attendees, authors, and a diverse spectrum of sub-genres due to the genre's rising prominence. I was excited to cover the festival, since young adult is a beloved genre of mine. 

In the 2024 lineup, I noticed a wide range of voices, featured spotlights on diverse authors, and an impressive range of panels. Post-festival Instagram photos were filled with readers beaming with their favorite author and oftentimes featured a heartfelt caption expressing how much the book meant to them and how meeting the author was the best part of the festival. 

Beyond the festival, I had the privilege of speaking with two authors who embody the essence of YALLWEST. In my conversation with debut author Ann Zhao and best-seller Aiden Thomas, they shared why they love to write within the young adult genre and the impact they hope to make through their storytelling.

“I think I decided to write a young adult book simply because I'd spent so much of my life reading them,” reflected Ann Zhao on why she chose to write her debut novel Dear Wendy, a comedy with themes of platonic friendship, within this age category. “I started writing this book when I was 19 and I had been reading YA books since I was 11. The majority of the time in my life that I have known how to read, I’ve been reading YA books.” Her reflection resonates with many young adults, and adults like myself, who have grown up immersed in YA literature. Because young adults spend a majority of their life reading within the genre, it’s important that the genre showcases a wide range of voices and stories. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. 

“I wanted to tell stories that I wanted to read when I was younger,” expressed author Aiden Thomas when asking him why he chose YA. “Especially in the Latinx community. We didn’t have a lot of Latinx books that came out when I was younger. Let alone something that was queer. Let alone something that was trans!”

As a best selling author, Thomas never thought he would be able to write stories featuring trans, queer, and Latinx characters. From Lost in the Never Woods, a Peter Pan Retelling, to his fantasy novels Cemetery Boys and The Sunbearer Trials, Thomas embodies the richness in YA literature. Thomas's success challenges the traditional narrative of who gets to tell stories in the publishing industry and highlights the growing demand for diverse representation in young adult literature. The genre provides a space for safe exploration and self discovery for youth, while fostering empathy and understanding of different experiences through diverse stories.

Thomas continued to explain that, “Teenagers are the ones that are going through it the most, right?! They're the ones who need that sort of community and connections through stories. That’s why I love YA so much.” 

At YALLWEST, I could feel the buzzing and exciting atmosphere from the attendees, with enthusiastic meet-and-greets with authors and heartfelt expressions of gratitude for crafting stories that resonate with readers' heritage, family, community, and beyond, all throughout the festival. The one-day event attracted about 20,000 people in total and nearly 70 authors.

“I also think that this age of being a teenager is when you discover a lot about yourself,” continued Zhao. “And it’s more than figuring out what your sexuality is, because Sophie and Jo [Dear Wendy characters] don’t go through this big coming out process that other YA books go through. I love coming out stories, but Dear Wendy is about figuring out your place in the world, how to form relationships with other people, and I think YA is the best age category to explore that kind of stuff.” 

Zhao’s debut novel, Dear Wendy, features two asexual characters and highlights the beauty of purely platonic friendships. The book represents aromantic (a person who experiences little or no romantic attraction to anyone) folk with more accuracy, removing mystery for readers who wouldn’t otherwise know what it means to be asexual. 

“I remember having a conversation with my agent about an idea I had for my next novel,” Thomas started. “And she [agent] said, ‘You know you can write about your culture, right?’” Aiden gave me a flabbergasted expression. “I told her, ‘I don’t know if that’s correct.’ Because we don’t see them [queer, latinx, trans] in media, TV shows, movies, let alone books. So I thought a publisher would never want a story that featured a kid that was like me.” 

Throughout my conversations with Zhao and Thomas, I was reminded of the importance of diversity and representation in young adult literature. Listening to the two authors, whose characters reflect who they are and stories they wished they had at a younger age, illustrated the celebration of young adult literature at YALLWEST. Founded by a group of young adult authors, the intention behind YALLWEST was to gather young adult readers and celebrate their love for YA.

When pitching Cemetery Boys, Thomas reflected that, “I was asking permission. I was asking a white person in a position of power within publishing to be able to write a story like mine. I thought there was no way that she would want it. Two hours later [after the proposal was sent] she said, ‘Yeah, I want Cemetery Boys.’ Literally changed my life.” 

Not only his life, but various readers. A quick online search will show crowds of readers expressing how they were impacted by Thomas’ storytelling (me included). In a time where books are being banned and diverse voices are being shut down, festivals like YALLWEST remind me how stories make a significant and important impact on the youth.

“We have tons of buddy comedy movies,” Zhao answered after asking her why she chose to write an enemies-to-friends story. “It’s not completely unheard of, but it’s a genre we need to continue to explore in YA. For a lot of teenagers, the most important relationships in their lives, besides family, are their friends. I think they’re interesting and we should make stories about them!” 

I saw young adults running around the festival with friends, checking cover after cover of books and anxiously waiting in line to meet their favorite authors.Throughout our conversations, Zhao and Thomas reiterated the importance of diversity and representation in YA literature, emphasizing the need for stories that resonate with readers' experiences. 

Their insights highlighted the significance of festivals like YALLWEST in providing a platform for diverse voices to be heard and celebrated. Zhao and Thomas epitomize this passion, creating stories they wanted in their own teenage years, now hoping for their books to reach the hands of teens who seek representation and understanding within their pages. Finally, I asked them if they planned on continuing to write within the genre. 

“I hope so! I haven’t told every story that I have in me, yet. But whenever I have an idea for a story, I end up thinking that it should be about teenagers. It just makes sense to me!” Zhao excitedly answered. 

“There’s definitely going to be more YA in the future,” Thomas answered with a smile. “I think I’ve sold three more books. They haven’t come out yet. I also haven’t written them yet!” He laughed. “But yes, three books that will be YA.”

I had a blast running around the festival, watching authors gush over meeting readers and readers excitedly meet their favorite authors. After speaking with staff, I anticipate next year’s festival will be larger and attract more attendees. With authors like Zhao and Thomas leading the way, I have no doubt that YA literature will continue to inspire and empower readers of all ages. I can’t wait to see new voices enter the genre and diverse stories make headlines at panels. Until next year, YALLWEST!

You can follow Joanna on Instagram at @booksbyjoanna

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