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What is Utah's ongoing obsession with YA lit?

First Published      Last Updated May 22 2017 02:53 pm

Books » Utah Book Festival changes format to spotlight the state’s rich crop of writers.

For the past five years, Jennifer Jenkins and her writing group have helped birth the work of young Utah writers through their innovative nonprofit and its annual Teen Author Boot Camp.

Now Jenkins, 33, Spanish Fork, is promoting her first book, "Nameless," the first in a young-adult fantasy series about Zo, a 17-year-old orphaned girl trying to prevent a civil war among four clans with her own suicide mission. Zo infiltrates the enemy stronghold, posing as a slave girl, where she is assigned to use the healing skills she learned from her slaughtered mother to befriend a young Ram soldier-in-training and his mentor.

Jenkins says she wasn't trying to write a political book, exactly, but she was interested in writing a story exploring racial prejudice. She was inspired by her childhood experience of feeling different after moving often — six states and 18 homes before she turned 18 — as the child of an Air Force pilot. "I wanted to write a story that contradicted those prejudices I had seen in my childhood," she says, adding that she gave the four clans in her book every reason to hate each other.

In addition, her central character was inspired by her younger sister's tough battle with depression. "It was almost as if Zo walked into my life when my sister came to live with me," Jenkins says. "For me, I needed to put a character into a very extreme situation and see her survive and see her fight."

The book draws upon Jenkins' obsession, as a history and secondary-education major at Utah Valley University, with warfare strategy. "I took a page from the brutal training methods of the Spartans, the ingenuity of the Navajo, the simple diplomacy of the Vikings, and the intimidation element of the Maori," she writes in a blog post explaining the diversity of the bloody cultural clashes in her book.

While the first book features a lot of staging scenes, there are few on-the-page battles, the opposite of the narrative strategy of a movie series like "The Lord of the Rings." "It's a war book written by a woman," Jenkins says with a laugh, while adding that it also features a complicated love story. "What's a good story without a good romance?"

Before its release, "Nameless" has been optioned for TV and film adaptations. At last month's Comic Con, Jenkins moderated a panel featuring James Dashner about Hollywood adaptations of young-adult novels. She's excited to promote her novel at next spring's Teen Author Boot Camp workshop, which has exploded in popularity, from 140 teens in attendance in 2010 to 800 last year.

The publication of Jenkins' debut novel and the success of the teen writing workshop she co-founded underscore the ongoing popularity in Utah of reading and writing young-adult literature.

That's evidenced in the changes made to the format of the Utah Humanities Council's annual book festival, which features as a headlining event a Young Adult and Children's Authors Day on Saturday, Oct. 10. This year's festival — which includes 120 events over a month in 17 Utah cities — doesn't include a day of readings at the downtown Salt Lake Library.

Parking complications, as well as competition from other fall events such as Comic Con, University of Utah football games and even the LDS Church's General Conference, have made the one-day event no longer a big audience draw, says Michael McLean, literature program coordinator for the Utah Humanities Council.

Yet overall attendance remains high across the monthlong events, and young-adult authors have continued to be among the biggest draws. "Sales of YA books are still through the charts," says McLean, adding that many of the panels and events seem to draw as many YA writers as readers.

Jenkins will be one of two dozen featured Utah young-adult authors meeting readers and promoting their books at West Jordan's Viridian Center on Saturday, Oct. 10. Keynote events for the day include a panel on gender issues in marketing and writing young-adult literature, moderated by Tribune columnist and author Ann Cannon, featuring Shannon Hale, Matthew Kirby and Valynne Maetani.

Featured national writers include Stuart Gibbs, author of the middle-grade "Spy School" series, and A.S. King, author of "Glory O'Brien's History of the Future" and "Reality Boy," whose latest book is "I Crawl Through It."

Another cutting-edge festival event includes the first-ever Fandom Fest on Oct. 28 at the Viridian, featuring teens talking about pop culture across TV, anime, sci-fi and literary genres, following the library's recent successful Toshocon event this summer.

What sets these events apart is that teens are planning them, says Carrie Rogers-Whitehead, a senior librarian based at the Kearns branch of the Salt Lake County Library.

Everyone has their own fandoms, says Rogers-Whitehead, who describes the event as a Comic Con planned by teens. When you tap into teen fans to help plan the events, "you get some great responses, and you get their creativity," the librarian says.





Celebrating Utah’s love of young-adult lit

The Utah Book Festival features a day promoting young-adult and children’s authors, including family activities.

When » Saturday, Oct. 10

Where » Viridian Event Center, 8030 S. 1825 West, West Jordan

Girls books, boys books, and just good books » 10:30 a.m. Panel moderated by Ann Cannon, featuring Shannon Hale, Matthew Kirby and Valynne Maetani.

Stuart Gibbs » noon. He’s the writer who invented Teddy Fitzroy, of the middle-grade novels “Belly Up” and “Poached,” and the author of the “Spy School” and “The Last Musketeer” series.

A.S. King » 1:30 p.m. She’s the author of adult and young-adult novels, including “I Crawl Through It,” 2014’s “Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future” and 2013’s “Reality Boy.”

Jennifer Jenkins

The local author will read from and sign her debut young adult novel, “Nameless.”

When » Thursday, Oct. 8, 7 p.m.

Where » At The King’s English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City.

Brian Selznick

The author and illustrator, a Caldecott Medalist, presents his latest book, “The Marvels.”

When » Oct. 23, 7 p.m.

Where » Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South

Fandom Fest

Teen-led workshops and panels about popular culture.

When » 4-9 p.m. Oct. 28

Where » Viridian Event Center

More » For a complete list of Utah Book Festival events, visit utahhumanities.org/index.php/Center-for-the-Book/book-festival.html.