TEENQUAKE: team geek vs. the fearsome phrasers in the YA lit olympics

Saturday, October 6th 2012

I was struck, initially, upon entering the venue, that it was huge and gorgeous. Those are the only two words I have, being accustomed to readings in dive bars and coffee shops and hole-in-the-wall galleries. Z Space’s auditorium is a vast, theatrical space which acts very much in the favour of the performers. The stage almost acts as an optical illusion of seemingly endless black curtains, and the Litquake logo projected onto the huge screen in the background was very impressive. These might seem like trivial things to note: however, keep in mind that there were young readers and writers participating in this event. It was possibly their first ever reading or literary accolade, so the grandness of the space must have had a really exciting impact on the participating young writers.

The importance in facilitating creative writing in young people is something I feel almost vocational about and have worked toward for the last year in different stations and roles. The Office of Letters and Light’s Young Writer’s Program curated the afternoon session at Zspace. Best known for their yearly novel writing dare, Nanowrimo, which challenges participants to write a 50,000 word NOVEL in the month of November every year. Their lighthearted but passionate approach to young people being creative and writing stories is something I have been long aware of, and have long admired. Their involvement in Teenquake sold me this event; I was hugely excited to see what their role would be.

The structure of the afternoon was straightforward: six YA ‘authletes’ and the two winning young writers of the Litquake Young Writer’s Challenge, competed across two teams, in the 2012 Lit Olympics. Each team was moderated by a YA blogger, and the afternoon was hosted by Chris Angotti, the director of the Young Writers Program.

The young writers who had entered the Litquake Young Writer’s Challenge were first off awarded medals of honour and prizes, before the bloodthirsty competition took off. The crowd was made up of families: it was really refreshing to look into a crowd at a literary event and see it freckled with young listeners.

The bloggers were first introduced to bring their teams out onstage: Nancy Sanchez, blogger at Tales of a Ravenous Reader, was the captain of Team Geek (who automatically had my heart won, given my lifelong alignment with all things culturally dubbed nerdy) and Sophie Riggsby, reviewer for Mundie Moms and Page Turners Blog (who cites her weakness in her bio as HotBoyswithSwords, which hugely endeared her to me, due to our obviously similar tastes) led the Fearsome Phrasers.

The round one prompt, or dare, introduced by Chris, was ‘A Character With A Secret Identity.’ Ingrid Paulson of The Fearsome Phrasers read a flash piece focused in a high school, about a teen gossip blogger, The Tattler, who had been harvesting gossip about teachers and students alike, and the conflict that their presence caused. The piece had a delightful sting in the tail, as these secret identity mysteries are wont to do: her tone was light and natural. She was followed by Corrine Jackson from Team Geek, who read a suspenseful snippet that immediately brought listeners into Sacred Heart High, where the religious teaching staff had banned all books they deemed blasphemous. The quest at hand was to retrieve these books, and open a secret library to disperse these books amongst the student body. I loved the conceit; there was a touch of the Farenheit 451 about the premise. When the audience raised their cards, after an interlude by the bloggers, Team Geek rose triumphant.

Round two’s dare, prefaced by Chris as a far more serious turn, was ‘A Dog Who Can Do One Human Thing’. Daisy Whitney from the Fearsome Phrasers read a humorous piece describing an exhausted and stressed out teen girl who’s faithful companion pawed her a massage when she was battered and bruised from sports, and Malinda Lo from Team Geek read something like a fable, about a family who’s farm was under threat by a cruel landlord who would evict them if they could not bring him an animal with one human trait. The protagonist travelled far and wide with her dog, from town to town, seeking out circus attractions, from chickens to horses, who could allegedly do things people could, which all inevitably turned out to be false. The loyalty her pet displayed was the saving grace: for the dog loved her as any human could love. This was a really wonderful story that felt a little like it had come from Aesop’s Fables. When the audience’s time came to vote, again, Team Geek took the lead once more. Things were becoming tense, with only two rounds left to go. I had noticed the genre divide in the two teams: Team Geek’s work seemed to focus steadily on adventure and mystery, whereas The Fearless Phrasers work was more realist, more directly honed in on YA issues. This genre divide is apparent even in a bookstore when glancing the YA section: the real versus the unreal.

On the third and final authelete round, the prompt was ‘The Last Straw.’ Tamara Ireland Stone’s piece for The Fearsome Phrasers was hilarious: a venomous narrative addressed to a person who had betrayed the narrator in a way that was only revealed in the last sentences: the girl in question had literally taken the last straw at the 7/11, rendering her freshly purchased Big Gulp useless. Tamara even brought a Big Gulp cup for illustration, which had the audience teeming with laughter. CJ Omololu wrote a piece quite different in tone, illustrating the importance of a single straw during a lifesaving emergency operation, which I thought was a really interesting and dark approach to the prompt. Tamara came out on top from the audience votes, and brought The Fearsome Phrasers the break they needed!

The last round of the event was focused on the teen writers who had won gold in the preceding submission based competition. Katelyn represented the Fearsome Phrasers, and Rachel represented Team Geek. Their task was to write a letter to their future selves, about the lives they would lead someday. I found this hugely evocative: both girls were powerfully driven and optimistic about overcoming the trials they faced as young people, and succeeding in the world as bright-eyed young women travelling the world, living their dreams and being wholly happy with themselves. Katelyn addressed hers to ‘a woman luckier than I,’ and Rachel noted that she would never, ever stop looking forward. This was, for me, as an advocate of writing and creativity in teenagers as a method of computing the world around them and becoming empowered through their difficulties, extremely evocative. The bloggers, Sophie and Nancy, were so supportive of these bright young girls—it was warming to see. I hated that we had to draw votes at the end, but the audience moved in favour of The Fearsome Phrasers, and the event was linked at a tie.

The tie-breaker was a quick-fire round for these bloggers, finishing the sentence: The bloggers ran from an angry mob, demanding…? Nancy dipped in with more books as an answer, and Sophie brightly demanded more kissing scenes – both of which I am hugely in favour of, but the audience elected Team Geek to reign supreme.

• click for forthcoming teenquake events

This event was fun, light, and inspiring: the presence of the Young Writer’s Program was vital, and it was really joyous to see so many young people in the audience, attending what was possibly their first literary event. I was thrilled that Litquake had devised such a fun, challenging and exciting afternoon for YA readers and writers alike. YA as a genre gets a bad rap from a lot of the more ‘literary’ circles, but the most important thing to remember about it is that it inspires young people to read, and create, and grow up into literate and literary people who will continue to fill the world with narrative and adventure. Including younger folks in the literary community builds a foundation for their future participation and involvement in the literary world: Litquake here opened the doors for them, and put on a show directed to them, for them, and honouring them.


Sarah Maria Griffin has performed and been published widely in Ireland. Last year, she represented contemporary Irish performance poetry in New York with Culture Ireland and The Glór Sessions. Her first collection, Follies, was published by Lapwing in 2011.