It’s the kind of party you sort of hope and dream your teenager will go to on a Friday night: It’s at a library, and it ends at 10 p.m.
It promises to be anything but dull, however.
April 21 marks the kickoff of ChiTeen Lit Fest, a two-day festival of performances, storytelling, reading, writing and workshops — all free, all open to the public, all conceived and organized by Chicago teens.
“If we want teens to come to it, teens should design it,” said Jennifer Steele, Chicago Public Library’s YOUmedia partnerships coordinator. (YOUmedia is a library and studio space located in a dozen CPL branches designed for teens to read, create and hang out. The equipment and resources are free with a CPL card.)
“Rather than design a festival and try, as adults, to explain to teens how to build a community and what writers they should be learning from,” Steele said, “we decided to draw on what we already see happening in the teen community and let them create a festival for themselves and their friends.”
From 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, teens can mingle with peers and professional writers, grab some food, listen to music and watch dance performances in the winter garden at Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St. On Saturday, a series of workshops, panel discussions and readings will begin at 10 a.m. and run through 6:30 p.m. at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash Ave.
“I see this as an opportunity to extend Columbia College’s mission beyond the walls of the institution,” said Eric May, novelist and associate professor at Columbia. “We want students to author the culture of their times, and this is an opportunity to extend that citywide.”
May will lead writing workshops and offer guidance on how to make a living as a writer. Poet Nate Marshall, journalist Tara Mahadevan, essayist Megan Stielstra and graphic novel authors The Sun Bros. will also be on hand.
“The emphasis is really on storytelling,” Steele said. “You might tell your story through jokes. You might tell it through screenplays. You might tell it through poetry. You might not tell stories, but you enjoy stories through reading. This is about the exposure to tell your story and the exposure to hear other people tell theirs.”
Which can be life-changing, May said.
“I know from my experience growing up on the South Side how empowering it is when you can find the articulation for your own experience,” he said. “It gives you a sense of control over your own life.”
May said he spent a great deal of his childhood at the Chicago Public Library’s Walker Branch at 111th Street, and he recently got a kick out of stopping by and seeing his own novel, “Bedrock Faith,” on one of the shelves.
“My hope is an event like ChiTeen Lit Fest can contribute to teens having that moment later in their writing careers,” he said.
His other hope is that they embark on those writing careers in the first place.
“Writing is a lifetime vocation,” he said. “Whether or not you have to work at some other sort of job or not — and there are plenty of examples of writers doing that; T.S. Eliot worked as a loan officer at a bank, Toni Morrison until her third novel came out was a book editor — writing is something you take with you your entire life. Writing is a great adjunctive skill for any number of jobs.”
And it works beautifully as glue for the social fabric of a teen life.
“When I grew up, I was the only writer I knew,” Steele said. “I would just sit in my room and write. We want to draw teens out of their rooms and meet other teens who also sit in their rooms and write. And we want to connect them to professional writers and artists.
“It’s really important,” she said, “to be able to see yourself in the future doing the thing you love.”