By David Duhr
AUSTIN: In this blog post from 2006, Andrew Karre, then an editor at teen fiction imprint Flux, called Austin, Texas “the new Paris for YA authors,” and referred to young adult author Cynthia Leitich Smith as “the Gertrude Stein of Austin.” Five years later, Austin’s YA community is still on the uptick, and although Smith’s is still arguably the most recognizable name locally, she has been joined by dozens of prominent authors of books for young readers. It’s an inordinate number of YA writers for a city in central Texas best known internationally as the home of raucous good times, especially at South By Southwest, the interactive and music festival that has become a fixture on many people’s creative calendars.
Recently, I spoke with a number of these Austin heavy hitters in an effort to determine how and why this Central Texas city has become the home base for so many YA and children’s book writers.
According to Don Tate, author and illustrator of more than 40 books for young readers, Austin is far from a well-kept secret. “Central Texas is the place to be for children’s book creators,” Tate says. “And word has gotten out.”
Recent arrival Margo Rabb agrees. “Austin has definitely developed a reputation outside of town as a great home for YA writers,” she says. Rabb’s novel Cures for Heartbreak was named one of the best YA books of 2007 by Kirkus and Booklist. “Austin is a friendly, open-minded, down-to-earth place, so I think a lot of the atmosphere comes from a quality that’s intrinsic to the city itself. Who knows why it’s like that? I think it has something to do with all the sunshine.”
According to Smith, Austin as a haven for YA writers is a 21st-century development. “Prior to the late 1990s,” she says, “those Austinites who wrote for young readers could be counted on one hand.” But now, she says, the group numbers in the hundreds.
Those hundreds have plenty of opportunities to gather, as with the influx of new writers has come an increase in YA and children’s book organizations and events. Annual conference like those run by the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Austin-based Writers’ League of Texas bring in hundreds of writers. The Texas Book Festival yearly offers many panels on writing for young readers, and 2011 marks the 3rd annual Austin Teen Books Festival, a dedicated full-day event which brings in dozens of YA authors and hundreds of teen readers.
Many local writers also credit Austin’s independent bookstore BookPeople as providing invaluable support. “BookPeople’s staff is truly dedicated to supporting local authors,” says Rabb. “They also host the monthly SCBWI meetings and special events with out-of-town authors.”
So with YA having become such a fixture in Austin now, how does a newly-arrived writer break into the scene? Easy. Just show up. “We’re a tight-knit, post-Potter community with strong leadership and a mentoring tradition,” says Smith. “Whereas in many cities published authors separate themselves from newbies, the vast majority of [Austin’s] rising stars and big names are dedicated to paying forward what they’ve learned. The main criteria for breaking in to the scene is showing up and pitching in.”
Rabb agrees. “A writer friend of mine from New York visited and was flabbergasted by people’s kindness,” she reflects. “He asked me, ‘They can’t really be this nice, can they?’”
Tate even had an organization change its name just to accommodate his inclusion. The Texas Sweethearts is a group of local children’s authors and illustrators started by Jessica Lee Anderson, P.J. Hoover and Jo Wittemore. After the group had gained some momentum in town, Tate was invited to join; problem was, he wasn’t comfortable with being labeled a Texas Sweetheart. “It sounded like some kind of sorority,” he says. But the Sweethearts discussed, and Tate was soon welcomed into the new group: The Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels. The group often hosts events around town intended to reach out to young readers.
The Delacorte Dames & Dudes is a similar Austin group. Comprised of six local YA authors published by Delacorte, a Random House imprint, the Dames and Dudes come together monthly, according to Rabb, to “drink wine, eat pizza, and try to make sense of the often-confusing world of publishing.”
But despite all the new arrivals and YA hoopla, Cynthia Leitich Smith is still considered by most to be the leader in Austin’s YA and children’s book community. A New York Times bestselling writer, Smith is author of the Tantalize series, a genre-bending gothic fantasy set in Austin and aimed at upper YA readers. Her blog, Cynsations, is widely considered one of the premier YA blogs; it has 6,000 subscribers and averages 80,000 page views per month. An impressive portfolio, for sure — but it no longer puts Smith head-and-tail above everyone else in town. “Austin youth literature authors routinely publish at the most competitive of levels,” Smith says; but rather than becoming competitive with each other, the city’s writers band together. “The majority of YA authors are in regular contact with each other,” Smith goes on, “sharing resources and consistently supporting one another’s careers and creative journeys.”
By reputation, writers are a solitary lot; in Austin, though, this crew gives off family vibes. (Sometimes literally — Smith’s husband, Greg, is also a YA writer; his first two books were published by Little, Brown, and his next, Chronal Engine, is forthcoming from Clarion Books. “Publishers look to authors to promote, publicize, network, and advertise their works,” Tate says. “But authors can make a whole lot more noise together.”
Austin, Texas is a pretty loud place these days.
David Duhr is Fiction Editor for The Texas Observer, Managing Editor at Fringe Magazine, and co-founder of WriteByNight.
DISCUSS: Is Publishing Too New York-centric?