March 6, 2017
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
It all started with a road trip.
Four librarians from Rutherford County Schools – Liz Hicks, Erin Alvarado, Barbara Collie and Marcie Leeman – planned a girl’s weekend in Charleston, South Carolina, where they attended a young adult book festival.
One trip in October 2013 led to another a year later, in 2014, and in March 2016 they hosted their own SE-YA Book Festival in Murfreesboro.
This year’s festival will take place March 10-11.
SE-YA Book Fest features 40 bestselling young adult authors. In just two-years-time it has grown from 40 middle and high schools from the Midstate area to 79 of them participating on March 10, which is dedicated to participating schools.
March 11 is free and open to the general public of all ages from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more details, log onto www.seyabookfest.com.
Last year, Friday’s schedule drew 1,100 students compared to the more than 2,000 students who are expected to attend this year. In addition, this year every middle and high school in Rutherford County is participating and each of those schools will host one to three authors on Thursday morning for a pre-event school visit.
Coordinated by each of the school librarians, authors will speak to a general assembly before breaking into small sessions with book clubs and writing classes at each of the schools.
“To me, this book festival is a dream come true,” Hicks said. “This is our Super Bowl. It’s the culminating event of everything we do.”
Hicks was behind the idea of the first road trip.
After a previous trip to a conference fell through, Hicks began looking into another potential book festival when she discovered YALL Fest.
First she convinced Collie, who works with Hicks in the library at Stewarts Creek High School, to make the eight-hour drive with her. Alvarado, a librarian at Central Magnet, wanted to go along and Leeman also joined.
Leeman is a librarian at Rockvale Middle. She recently stepped away from the SE-YA board to focus on her young family but was a key organizer for this year’s school visits.
Leeman was replaced on the board by Sonya Cox, who is an academic coach with Murfreesboro City Schools.
While the four librarians – Hicks, Alvarado, Collie and Leeman – had all been to a conference for the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, none of them had been to a young adult book festival prior to 2013.
Alvarado and Collie said they had no idea what to expect.
They discovered a culture they didn’t even know existed.
On the way home, all four casually talked about how neat it would be to have one closer to Tennessee. Perhaps even in Murfreesboro.
“We had a great time and we noticed how many people were there,” said Alvarado, who remembers parents had brought their children from as far away as Los Angeles and New York. “We were so struck by these people traveling to meet these authors like they’re movie stars and rock stars.
“We thought it was the neatest thing—the buzz, the excitement.”
Friends in and out of the school libraries, the idea of a young adult book festival dominated all their conversations.
“Basically it was, ‘if we want one here,’” Collie recalled, “‘why not? Who better to do it than us?’”
Hicks befriended two Nashville-based young adult authors, Courtney Stevens and Sharon Cameron.
Stevens and Cameron had coincidentally been thinking the same thing.
The six women quickly became more than friends. They were partners.
Stevens and Cameron used their stature as bestselling authors to convince other young adult writers – Ruta Sepetys and David Arnold among them – to commit to attending the first year of SE-YA Book Fest, and the four librarians set about doing the leg work of producing the two-day event.
They made a second road trip in October 2014 back to Charleston.
“We went with a new vision,” Collie said. “We looked at YALL Fest through a different lens.”
The trip home in 2014 was vastly different than it was a year earlier.
In a matter of eight hours, they came up with a name, logo, mission statement, an outline for what their festival would look like, local organizations to partner with and an action plan that included how to apply for a 501c3.
“We did all of that in that eight-hour car ride home,” Collie said.
“On our ride home, we put our entire plan together,” Hicks added. “We’re librarians. We used our resources.”
Collie then said, “We were like this could really fill a need in our community.”
As all four of them – and others within the school district – have noted, there are literacy programs at the elementary level but not at the middle school level, and according to Alvarado, that’s the age “when that love for reading just goes away.”
Pre-teens begin to develop other interests.
And Alvarado said it’s actually possible that some students may not step foot in the library in middle school and are not even thinking about it in high school. Alvarado said it’s “not anecdotal” to RCS, but rather an “alarming national trend.”
They hoped SE-YA would make an impact.
Arnold, who is returning again this year, said SE-YA was so well organized it seemed like anything but a first-year festival.
This past fall the Tennessee Association of School Librarians presented them with the organization’s President’s Award for their effort in putting together the SE-YA Book Fest.
“Every student is interested in stories somehow,” said Alvarado, who in addition to books listed games, videos, television and movies as other examples of storytelling, while Collie added the young adult genre has been popularized by movie adaptations “because it has such a universal appeal.”
PHOTO CREDIT / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
SE-YA Book Fest organizers (from L to R) Erin Alvarado, Liz Hicks, Barbara Collie and Marcie Leeman talk about this year's festival at a volunteer workshop held this past weekend at Blackman Middle School.