Meeting heroes: Teens come face-to-face with influential authors at the Tucson Festival of Books

The authors are impressive. Among them, they’ve won multiple Newbery Medals, sold millions and millions of books, garnered dozens of awards and countless reviews, and earned their place on bookshelves worldwide.

To name just a handful: Matt de la Peña, Cornelia Funke, Isabel Quintero, R.L. Stine, Meg Medina.

For teens in Pima County, these (and many more!) authors are jumping off the page and into real life at the annual Tucson Festival of Books.

Since the Festival launched in 2009, Pima County Public Library has partnered with local middle and high schools to offer groups of students the opportunity to interview favorite authors.

Guided by a teacher or librarian, the groups receive a book to read and work together in preparing interview questions. They discuss plot and character—these are major bestsellers we’re talking about—but they also delve into subjects surrounding the authors’ lives and careers.

The opportunity to meet an author, especially one who fills a larger-than-life role in their imagination, is something these teens won’t forget.

Rosalie Nuñez was a senior at Tucson High School when she interviewed Guadalupe Garcia McCall, award-winning author of Shame the Stars and others.

“This interview,” says Rosalie “really stood out to me. I felt a personal connection with her. For me, her books are very relatable growing up a young Mexican American woman in the southwest. This project brings books and authors to life. I hope the Library keeps this project alive for a long time.”

Of her highly-praised Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, Isabel Quintero says, “My hopes [for the book] were of course that readers would connect with Gabi…. That readers would see themselves in the book.” 

For teens doing the interviews, these authors have become much more than names on the covers of the well-worn books that comfort and challenge them.

Beyond their bestsellers, awards, and interviews, these authors care deeply about inspiring younger generations of readers and understand the role public libraries play in the process.

In his 2016 Newberry Medal acceptance speech, Matt de la Peña credited librarians and their profound support for his career. “They work tirelessly to put good books into the hands of young people.

Taryn Burlison is a Library Media Specialist at Flowing Wells Junior High School. Since 2015, she’s helped recruit and train students to participate. As she says, “The project gives the students an opportunity to contribute to the literary community. The more we partner, the stronger our community. Our students see for themselves that libraries are a path to opportunity.”

The interviews have been incredibly beneficial to students as they build real-world skills. Taryn says, “The teamwork is incredible. They analyze and negotiate. Their discussions have a sense of relevancy.”

Jack Scott is another teacher who’s recruited students. He teaches Mexican American Literature and Advanced Placement Literature at Tucson High School. For him, the cultural connection is key.

“In 2016, my group consisted of students from my Mexican American Lit class. We read Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick your Ass and Burn Baby Burn. Beyond the fact that it was just plain cool to interview Mrs. Medina, they were able to discuss the importance of having literature written about Latinos.”

“For too long in education,” he continues, “my students have had few choices in reading novels which mirrored their culture and community. The Library has brought to my students the ability to read contemporary fiction full of bright characters and rich imagery reflecting their culture. Now they’re getting to meet and discuss culture with the authors they can identify with.”

In 2017, the Teen Audio Interviews project grew to include Arizona Public Media (AZPM) as a partner. The interviews were recorded at the studio on the University of Arizona campus.

TJ Herleth was a member of the Nanini Library’s Teen Advisory Board when she took an interest in the project. “Having a large studio with waiting rooms and hard-wood floors was luxurious. Plus, we got a tour of the studio. It’s massive!”

Flowing Wells Junior High School student Abigail Ortiz Velez agrees. “The AZPM equipment made our interview super exciting. We even had our own professional photographer.”

Jack says, “The whole process has given students confidence in themselves and their post-secondary futures. They have sharpened their communication skills in the interview process, and gained tech skills in editing.”

Reflecting on his teenage years, Jack says, “In high school I read Stephen King obsessively. I honestly cannot imagine what it would have been like to interview him. Fainting may have been involved. This is really a once in a lifetime opportunity for these students.”

At the Library, we’re excited to continue the project. Thankfully, no one has fainted yet, but we’ll be extra vigilant in years to come.

You can listen to the author interviews on our Soundcloud account.