If I were hypothetically scrolling Twitter a few months ago, it’s possible I could have stumbled across the author reveal for the March 10 Southeastern Young Adult Book Fest, which is a free event held on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. That’s about 40 minutes outside Nashville, if you are as unfamiliar with Tennessee geography as I was. It’s also possible that my interest was piqued by their list of 40+ authors, and I may have casually mentioned it in front of the Mother Unit, who is my most consistent partner in crime for book signings*. If I name-dropped Margaret Peterson Haddix as an attendee, well then, strategy points to me for knowing who Mom would want to see. After that, it didn’t take much wheedling to secure a Chief Transportation Executive, aka rental car driver (hi, Dad), and HELLO TENNESSEE.

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Yes, I am from Kansas. Only Kansans are allowed to make Oz jokes.

Since I am fortunate enough to have a job that gives me a healthy dose of vacation time, we took the two days prior to Saturday’s conference to do some touristy stuff, except not the touristy stuff all the guidebooks tell you about (i.e. we don’t listen to country music). The Husband Unit declined to come because he’s got a big camping/airsoft trip coming up, and just as I have less than zero interest in that, so it was with him for this. If you want to skip to the book fest part, scroll down to the “ON TO THE BOOKS” header.

Nashville Public Library

If you’re looking for some literary tourism, the main branch of the Nashville Public Library is EXTREMELY EXCELLENT. Highlights include a giant book stack sculpture outside, plus a children’s room that will make you weep from its sheer amazingness.

The Green Hills branch of the NPL has the adorable sculpture below. We stopped here for a pic because it was in close proximity to…

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Parnassus Books

Their store is beautiful with lots of decorations and things tucked into little nooks, plus they have a large selection of signed books, but I was most enamored by this giant Sandra Boynton pig in the window.

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Mammoth Cave

We drove to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and had a fascinating tour themed around the history of the cave. Our tour went in the historic cave entrance, which is how indigenous people originally discovered it.

Our tour group was wonderfully small, but that’s not the norm. Let’s just say that whoever was in charge of two buses of middle schoolers failed to read the giant paragraph of bold red text on the official website that make it abundantly clear that visitors should follow the website’s written directions and not under any circumstances trust their phone or GPS. Presto magico, that’s how you turn a 100 person tour into a 20 person one.

Assorted Historical Stuffs

There are several Lincoln-related sites in Kentucky close to Mammoth Cave, including the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (left), which features the country’s first Lincoln Memorial with a log cabin inside. His Boyhood Home at Knob Creek is also in the area, but we didn’t visit that. Every store and gas station is prepared to sell you giant penny replicas.

Fort Negley (right) is just outside of downtown Nashville, with a great view of the city from the short walking trail around the fort itself. They offer short videos on the building of the fort and the 1862 surrender of Nashville in the visitor’s center, though I must report that the chairs in the video viewing room are not suitable for a brief nap if one were to attempt such a thing. Fort Negley also carries the dubious distinction of being right next to…

The Adventure Science Center

Disclaimer: this would be a great place for kids. Otherwise, The Mother Unit would gladly scrub her memory of it. Please ask her about it, but make sure I’m around so I can laugh heartily at her heavy sigh. For my part, I enjoyed this simulator, in which I informed the attendant that the maximum intensity setting of the roller coaster option that would take me upside down ten times sounded quite delightful.

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And if you think I’m bad for resting my eyes through the Fort Negley film, know that The Mother Unit snoozed through Mark Hamill’s narration of the planetarium show. Those chairs get 11/10 for snoozability.

ON TO THE BOOKS – SE-YA

Saturday, March 10 was the public day of SE-YA, following two days of school activities. It’s free, no tickets or advance registration required, and it was MTSU’s spring break, leaving plenty of parking and elbow room for the fest. Their scheduling was nice, with four panels and four signing sessions alternating throughout the day. Each author signed twice, once in the morning and one in the afternoon, which was GREAT. I was able to spot who had long lines in the first round and either send The Mother Unit as a stand-in or make a mental note to get in that line first during the second round. The Dad Unit was off at a Civil War battlefield for the day, apparently walking 5-6 miles and reading every single word on every single informational sign.

We went to 3 of the 4 panels, because woman cannot live on purse snacks alone and there wasn’t an official lunch break.

Panel 1: Literary Architects – Alwyn Hamilton, Melissa Landers, Mindy McGinnis, Christina Soontornvat

This one packed in three authors I have read, 11/10 value for the session. Highlights included a discussion of how the tagline “in space” makes every book proposal better, though Melissa Landers’ idea of Jurassic Park in space was apparently not taken seriously. I don’t know, sounds an awful lot like the Rathtar escape scene in The Force Awakens, and people forked out their hard-earned cash by the actual billions to see that.

Mindy McGinnis said her divorce impacts how she includes (and then mercilessly destroys) love interests in her books. Having just finished Not a Drop to Drink the day prior, this clarified sooooo much. She and Melissa have apparently played good cop/bad cop on this topic a number of times, since Melissa’s Starflight is fun and sweet and heartwarming, though she is also divorced.

Alwyn Hamilton’s main character in the Rebel in the Sands trilogy, a female sharpshooter, was written in response to people scoffing about a girl’s ability to realistically heft bulky weapons like swords or battle-ax. Also, she didn’t have one of her books to display on the table so OF COURSE I OFFERED UP MY COPY FOR HER TO BORROW.

Melissa Landers vowed to never again include aliens in any of her books after finishing her Alienated series. There’s so much to create from scratch and keep track of, you’d think she’d have a spreadsheet or something. Nope – she’s flipping through previous books to remember the alien word for “bread” or whatever.

Panel 2: Awkward Family Photos – Jenn Bishop, Kendare Blake, S.E. Green, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Sara Zarr

I was a little hesitant of this panel based on the title, but we wanted to hear Margaret Peterson Haddix (yellow shirt), and truthfully, if you get a bunch of great authors together the official topic doesn’t matter and it will be fantastic regardless.

Winners for the “awkward family photos” among book characters include the triplets from Kendare Blake’s (right, red shirt) Three Dark Crowns – they might all go into the photo session, but they probably won’t all walk out again – and the characters from Haddix’s upcoming The Summer of Broken Things, which features a trip to Spain by a dad, his daughter, and the girl the dad thinks is his daughter’s best friend, blithely unaware that they’ve grown apart over the years.

The panel also talked about the supposed “get rid of the parents” rule for YA books, which has evolved from a Disney-style “parents are totally absent” setup to a more realistic “parents are incompetent” or possibly simply on the fringe of their teen’s life. That initially sounds rather rude, and I’m not a mom so I can’t speak from personal experience, but we all know that floundering happens even to the best of parents, and YA parents are rarely the best of parents.

LUNCH OH MY LANTA THEY HAVE A PANDA EXPRESS

The Mother Unit asked if I was seriously eating at a place we have at home while on vacation (as if there was much choice between the fast food venues in the MTSU student union). I AM LIVING MY BEST LIFE AND WILL PURCHASE THIS PREMIUM SHRIMP ENTREE TO BOOT, MOTHER.

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Panel 4: Who Run the World – Kendare Blake, Stephanie Faris, Miranda Kenneally, Brendan Reichs

Brendan Reichs was another author I really wanted to hear from, and boy, did he deliver! If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, he is totally hilarious, including doing laps around the chilly room to warm up, and applauding with vigor for every author introduced, including himself. His Tom Brady joke made The Mother Unit bust a gut laughing with unstoppable force, the likes of which I haven’t seen since her first viewings of The Book of Mormon and Galaxy Quest.

He also declared himself “the coolest guy at the con” because he “wrote six books with his mommy.” Those are the Virals books, and his mom, Kathy Reichs, also wrote the books that inspired the TV show Bones. He gets Virals fans telling him obscure jokes or references, and admitted that he’s pretty hazy on the nitty-gritty details of his own books since the final one came out several years ago.

His newest books, the Project Nemesis series, are aaaaabsolutely phenomenal, and I was so pumped to have an ARC of Genesis for him to sign (which I won in an online giveaway from another author attendee, Mindy McGinnis). He talked about challenging traditional gender hero roles by making Noah extremely vulnerable – the guy can barely hold it together, while tough-as-nails Min struggles to empathize with his need to be accepted, especially when it means he buckles under peer pressure. As the only man on a panel about female main characters, he also spoke how his approach isn’t asking “what would a girl do?” but “what would this person do?” based on the personality he’s crafted.

Book Signings
I’ve put all my author signing photos below, but if you’re interested in seeing mini-reviews (a paragraph or two) on all the books I read in anticipation of SE-YA, pop on over here! It includes all the books pictured, as well as a few others. Below this set of pics are some highlights of the signings, with the applicable authors pictured here, clockwise from top left.

  • Exchanging t-shirt compliments with Kendare Blake, and commiserating how difficult the Top Gun high-five is. The key is to watch the elbow of your high-five partner, the Husband Unit and I have (maybe) practiced it. If you like my shirt, you can get it here, but shhhh remember the first rule of Book Club.
  • Margaret Peterson Haddix saying the inspiration for Leaving Fishers came from when she was assigned as a reporter to do a story on a local religious group gaining cult-like notoriety, and interviewed people for, against, and who had left the group. We’d recently heard a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church speak, and had a great conversation with Haddix about it.
  • Gushing over the brilliance of the Firefly Jaynestown episode with Melissa Landers, who used the show as inspiration for Starflight. She also had cool swag, including nail wraps of the Starflight cover and quote posters.
  • Telling Jeff Zentner how Lydia from The Serpent King is the closest I’ve ever come to seeing myself in a book and how much I identified with her perspective (details in the mini reviews). He remarked that it’s always nice to hear he’s written a real person.
  • Mary Weber remembered my Ender’s Game t-shirt from ALA last year, where I got The Evaporation of Sofi Snow signed (I bought the sequel at the fest). All the authors were very friendly, but she was so interested in talking with everyone in her line that I didn’t feel the pressure of the people waiting behind me like I often do at signings.

And here are the rest of them! Clockwise from top left: Gwenda Bond, Tracy Barret, Brendan Reichs, Mindy McGinnis, Alwyn Hamilton, C.J. Redwine

The Green Dragon Pub and Brewery
MAJOR props to the gal who overheard us asking for dinner suggestions in Murfreesboro and offered this. Just when you think the GPS has led you astray, you see the Green Dragon tucked in the lower corner of a larger building. Was it delicous? Yes. Was there Tolkien and dragon-themed decor absolutely everywhere, plus a giant stuffed spider on a ceiling beam? Yes. Was there a lower section of the bar labeled “Hobbits Only?” YES. It’s a small space, and on the slower side service-wise, but if you’re not in a rush and they’re not packed I’d say it’s fully worth it.

Also, I’m contractually obligated to share the following sequence of photos because The Dad Unit is a true gem.

Let’s take a picture
OH NO MOM’S PURSE STRAP WAS IN THAT PHOTO
Disaster averted
(Where do I collect my Pulitzer?)

Let’s wrap this up!

Overall, I had a fantastic vacation, and SE-YA is definitely a fest I’d recommend. It brings together a LOT of excellent authors (40+) with easily manageable attendance levels and signing lines during the public day, which were my biggest concerns. The panels were entertaining, the venue was comfortable, and with no ticket costs it’s a great bang for your buck and well worth a bit of travel, especially if you don’t live near a bookstore with lots of single-author signings. Follow their pages (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Website) to hear when they announce the 2019 authors! I imagine that won’t be until the fall/winter, but just go ahead and follow them now so you don’t forget. You won’t regret it!

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*I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the Dad Unit for driving me 3 hours each way to Omaha in a single day to see Leigh Bardugo last fall. Best Dad is Best.

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