“By silent show of hands, they christened him Peter Nimble, after a misremembered nursery rhyme. With his name —”
Six-year-old Emery Uhlig didn’t see the pole as she was walking — she was too focused on the horror of Peter having his eyes pecked out by crows in the book “Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes.” This wasn’t the first time she was dizzy after running into a pole or the last time a Toyota almost clipped her while her face was buried in a book. Her mom and dad had even enforced a “no-reading-in-the-parking lot” policy.
For now-senior Uhlig, this policy is still difficult to follow. She believes reading allows people to experience things they wouldn’t normally be able to — traveling to fictional planets, meeting characters with stones for eyes or colonizing Mars. This mindset and passion for reading is what led her to create “LitUp,” a book festival for teens.
The festival takes place at the Independence branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library and is an all-day event with workshops taught by professionals authors, poets and screenwriters. After meeting monthly for close to a year, the first “LitUp” festival took place on May 12, 2018, attracting around 800 attendees. A second festival followed the next year on May 4, 2019, and a third one is scheduled for this spring on May 2.
As a kid, Uhlig found it easier to connect to characters in books than the people around her. From her spot on the bean bag under the staircase, she could admire Reynie’s decision making in “The Mysterious Benedict Society” and watch Hermoine deal with her feelings for Ron in “Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince.”
Uhlig’s love for literature stems from her parent’s careers — her mom is a best-selling author and her dad is a former editor of the New York Times. According to her mom, Candance Millard, she and her husband wanted to instill a love for reading within their children, having them recognize it should be a privilege and a pleasure, not a punishment.
Her family has “reading dinners” where they skim text over tacos, and they spend the majority of their yearly three-week vacation to Spain reading. Depending on Uhlig’s Half Price Books gift card haul, she packs five to ten books, hoping they don’t make her bag exceed the 50 pound suitcase weight limit.
“I found it hard, in middle school and things, to meet other people who love books as much as I do,” Uhlig said. “[I wanted to] facilitate some of that meeting up for people who are struggling to find people like them.”
She wanted to provide the same experiences for fellow book lovers and, after noticing the lack of teenage-oriented book festivals, she decided to reach out to the Mid-Continent Public Library.
“Probably the most exciting thing about the festival is that it was conceived and thought of originally by a teenager,” Library Director and CEO Steve Potter said. “To this day, in terms of how it’s run, it’s still actually run and planned and managed mostly by teens.”
After the initial meeting between 14-year-old Uhlig and Potter to discuss her proposition, Potter quickly told his team they had to execute her vision. Potter felt the Uhlig “sealed the deal” when she told him it would take a year to plan — he expected a teenager to be thinking it could happen the next weekend and appreciated Uhlig’s recognition of the commitment it would take.
In addition to workshops and book signings, there are keynote speakers like authors Gayle Forman and Jacqueline Woodson. According to Uhlig, the main goal of the festival is for teenagers to get feedback from authors about the writing process as well as inspiration. The majority of attendees are people who plan on pursuing literary-related careers.
While everyone else sits in classes, Uhlig floats around — sitting in on emptier workshops, hanging out with authors in the green room and making sure things are running smoothly.
Uhlig contacted local and national authors through email, beginning with how much she loves their work and stressing the importance of the festival. Almost all of the authors contacted agreed to the festival, which Uhlig thinks was partly because of her youth.
“The sooner you get feedback on your work, the sooner you can implement it and work on your skills…,” Uhlig said. “It’s important for teenagers to feel like they are listened to by adults.”
According to Adib Khorram, an author who taught a workshop about ways authors can break “English rules” to create characters, one of the most important aspects of the event is showing teenagers there are books representing them and their experiences. In high school, Khorram was only exposed to older literature like “A Separate Peace” and “Of Mice and Men,” and never saw himself, an Iranian American, represented. He feels “LitUp” helps connect young audiences to books they can personally relate to, no matter who they are.
“I think this is an important outlet because you definitely give a diversity of options to different types of kids…,” author Aisha Sharif said. “There’s something for you bookworms out there, who if you love books, you’re not odd.”
Uhlig’s vision of “LitUp” expanding is coming true — Knoxville is hosting their own this October. The website offers “LitKits,” which include festival planning packets and “LitUp” swag. Sunglasses, notepads and coffee mugs are all included. Anyone interested in hosting their own festival can request a kit.
With her childhood steeped in the world of literature, she knows an incorporation of writing will find a place in her future — she especially likes short stories and draws inspiration from other authors in the sci-fi genre. Toni Morrison has a writing style that includes heavy descriptors and metaphors, a style Uhlig hopes to emulate. When she hits writer’s block or a swath of boredom, she looks to the small library in the backseat of her car for ideas.
“I definitely think it’s really important for teenagers to read,” Uhlig said. “Especially because teenagers don’t have a huge view of the world yet. By reading you can develop your opinions and ideas a little more before you get out into the real world.”