Howdy Nashville (YALSA teen lit symposium: How We Read Now)

"Apparently we all want to thrill young adults," says the girl next to me. We're crammed into the massive hotel ballroom at YALSA's teen lit symposium, sitting yoga-style on the psychedelic carpet. I thinking about a quote from the movie, Juno...about boys who dig the freaky girls:

"Girls with horn-rimmed glasses and vegan footwear and Goth makeup. Girls who play the cello and wear Converse All-Stars and want to be children's librarians when they grow up."

Librarians are my favorite people.

Up front, a panel of YA authors glow under the bronze chandeliers and talk about the kind of stories that teens really want: books with relevance and a sense of danger. And it's getting harder to tell the difference between "grown up" books and young adult fiction.

Patrick Jones, sporting a Flint Michigan tee and rock star hair, says, "Kids don't want pretty pictures. They want mirrors." They're interested in stories about someone who looks like them or is experiencing the same situations. They don't want books written by "asshole adults" telling them how to live.

Mitali Perkins told the audience, "The old words are changing." In her action-packed presentation (complete with a sari-tying demonstration), she includes a clip from A Girl Like Me, a short documentary about racial stereotypes. Perkins encourages writers to avoid the traps of "lazy storytelling," in which non-white characters are one-dimensional or exoticized.

"All fiction is a crossing of borders," she says. "Let the stories come."

Later, I listen to a panel called "Beyond the Rainbow Canon." Daisy Porter and Angie Miraflor, a pair of librarians from San Jose, California, discuss the top gay-friendly titles of all time, stories about secrets, survival and identity. Instead of coming out stories, they want to see more "gaytopia" books that celebrate differences, stories about families of choice, not origin.

"Remember that libraries should be a safe place," Daisy says.

All across the auditorium, heads nod in unison.

In "Teens Reading Out of the Mainstream," the collection manager of the Cleveland Public Library, Rollie Welch, talks about the latest trend in teen books: street (or urban) lit. These hardcore stories are linked to the inner city. They take the shape of tragic morality tales with an emphasis on loyalty and betrayal.

"What do you read when no teen books speak to you?" he asks. You sneak into the adult section, grab a paperback mystery or a romance. Something splashy...with guns or big boobs on the cover. Why? Because teens want fast pacing, cliffhanging chapters, characters with a bit of nastiness in them (or "dirt" in their background, as he puts it).

Rollie often works with incarcerated teens, who tell him: "I'd rather read this stuff than some fantasy book that don't mean nothin' to nobody." He urges us to evaluate street lit in the context of its genre. If you try to keep these stories away from kids, you're assuming what's inside the books is worse than their lives.

During the closing speech, Rebecca Moesta mentions that young adult literature can change hearts and minds. It is the literature of "personal evolution." It has the power to stick with you, long after you have closed the book.

After the Saturday session, I bump into Coe Booth in the lobby. She signs my copy of Kendra and rolls her eyes when I whisper, "My students are going to be so jealous."

"Ohhhhhhh stop it," she says, grinning.

She's searching for "vegetarian barbeque" downtown. I'm on my way to Cafe CoCo, where I catch up with my good friend, Kelli, (one half of the musical duo, STYCHES, when she's not lending her badass fiddle skills and "singing saw" to another Nashville band, LYLAS ).

On the dimly-lit stage, I spot a miniature piano (perfect for Schroeder), a dancing robotic skeleton, and Kelli's fiddle ("Which I've played since I was, like, fourteen," she says). While Kelli sets up, I tell her about my walk through Centennial Park and the life-sized replica of the Parthenon (not to mention, the couples making out behind the pillars).

Kelli's friend, Stone Jack Jones, spots me shivering by the window and drapes his coat around my shoulders.

"It's an invisible coat," he says (after I mention that conferences make me shy around people. Now I'll be safe, he promises).

I close my eyes and let the ghostly music tunnel through me. After talking about words all weekend, it's nice to sit back and let the melodies do the talking. Kelli says that her musical partner, Kyle, writes songs about the imaginary people in his head. I understand exactly what she means.

Sunday--my last day in Music City, I meet up with my niece and nephew. Christy is a true Southern belle who (like all the Chappell girls) loves to draw. Ray is a rock star in the making (and to prove it, he strums a bass guitar rendition of GNR's Sweet Child O' Mine in his living room). We drive through a kaleidoscope of autumn leaves and stop for fried chicken and biscuits at the Loveless Cafe on Highway 100---an old motel converted into the Ham & Jam Country Market and bakery.

On the drive home, Christy finds my perfect yellow maple leaf in the backseat. She rolls down the window and--poof--the leaf flies out.

"That was my perfect leaf," I say.

Christy laughs and laughs.

"You owe me a leaf," I say, shaking my fist at her.

They call Nashville "Music City." But what's a song without a story? Just like the bulletin board in the hotel lobby:

"Sarah--where did you leave the crackers? Bring them to the spot."

"Lindsay--thanks for bringing my Bat Girl gloves back to me. I NEED them!"

"I have your whiskey. PS: I will relinquish it for 12 Spanish dubloons."

And my personal fave:

"We put the ILL in Nashville!"

Leave it to the librarians...