LitUp: A book festival for teens created by a teen

Emery Uhlig’s LitUp festival was born from her love of books. Emery, 15, envisioned and organized the literary event, the area’s first geared toward teens.
Emery Uhlig’s LitUp festival was born from her love of books. Emery, 15, envisioned and organized the literary event, the area’s first geared toward teens. Special to The Star

Emery Uhlig began learning Chinese at age 3 and is taking flying lessons before getting her driver’s license. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that she also has created and organized a first-of-its-kind literary festival as a sophomore in high school.

Obviously, she isn’t one to put limits on herself.

The Chinese and flying lessons — along with her training for the violin and in the aerial arts — are on Emery’s back burners for now. The 15-year-old is focusing most of her energy on LitUp, the area’s first literary event geared for teens. It will run all day May 12 at the Mid-Continent Public Library-North Independence Branch.

The project has been more than a year in the making for Emery.

“I work on it every night,” she said. “I’ll do something, make phone calls or contact sponsors or something else.”

She has been amazed by the response.

Not only had more than 800 attendees registered nearly two weeks before the event, but most of the authors she approached immediately came on board.

“That’s the advantage of being 15,” said Emery, who attends Shawnee Mission East High School. “People are less likely to turn you down.”

Marie Arana Photo
Emery Uhlig traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Marie Arana, senior adviser to the U.S. Librarian of Congress. Submitted photo

Her positive responses included an enthusiastic one from Marie Arana, senior adviser to the U.S. Librarian of Congress. Her memoir, “American Chica,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001.

“Emery is truly extraordinary,” Arana said. “She told me about this LitUp festival, and I was immediately impressed that she’d take on something this big.”

Emery traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet Arana, who introduced her to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

“Emery pulled out her laptop and gave a detailed PowerPoint presentation of the festival,” said Arana, who also is director of the National Book Festival. “She was just so amazingly articulate about the whole thing.

“Clearly, I didn’t need to give her any advice. She already had her PowerPoint presentation. I offered to help her get authors for the festival, but she never called to ask. She got all the authors on her own.”

The 16 authors and illustrators who will be on hand will include Nnedi Okorafor, an award-winning novelist of African-based science fiction, and Maya Van Wagenen, who was herself 15 when she published a young adult novel that became a New York Times best-seller. She’s now 19.

Nnedi Okorafor Photo
Nnedi Okorafo writes African-based science fiction. Submitted photo
Maya Van Wagenen Photo
Maya Van Wagenen was 15 when she published “Popular,” a young adult novel that became a New York Times best-seller. Submitted photo

Rather than having invited guests deliver speeches, Emery decided that she and other teens would interview most of them. She will handle the interviews of Madeline Miller and Rainbow Rowell, both of whom are among Emery’s favorite authors.

Miller, who spent 10 years writing her best-selling first novel, “The Song of Achilles,” can’t attend LitUp because she’ll be in London on a book tour. So she will participate by Skype.

Emery is a voracious reader who comes by her love for books naturally. Her mother is Candice Millard, author of three best-selling nonfiction books. She says her preferred genre is science fiction, especially Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut.

“I read a lot of classics,” she said. “I read ‘The Iliad’ last summer. It’s so good. I loved it, although it was more gory than I expected.”

Homer’s epic poem is heavy reading, in more ways than one. And that causes a problem for Emery, who doesn’t go in for ebooks.

“I like reading the real book,” she said. “I think it gives you a sense of connection, and I like the way it feels. I love books so much I carry them with me after I’ve read them because I just don’t want to leave the characters. My book bag can get pretty heavy.”

Emery realizes not all teens are into books as much as she is. That was the genesis of LitUp, a title she came up with herself.

She thought an event geared toward teens might spark a literary interest in some and would provide others with access to authors and experts they’ve never had a chance to meet.

Her first step was to clear the idea with her parents, who wholeheartedly approved but warned her it would be challenging.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you get the library involved?’ ” Emery said. “The library has been amazing in all this. They had a lot of contacts that helped.”

Madeline Miller Photo
Madeline Miller will participate via Skype from London. Submitted photo
Rainbow Rowell CREDIT Augusten Burroughs
Rainbow Rowell’s novels such as “Eleanor & Park” have won critical praise and awards. Augusten Burroughs

She had some contacts of her own.

Among the presenters will be her aunt and uncle, screenwriter Nichole Millard and illustrator D.E. Uhlig, as well as a social studies teacher at her high school, David Muhammad, a rapper who performs under the name Brotha Newz.

Most of the other guests will come from far and wide.

In addition to lining up authors and illustrators, Emery led the effort to recruit sponsors and volunteers. She enlisted the assistance of her father, Mark Uhlig, who runs a software company, to help create a website for the event.

The entire event will be free, including — she enthusiastically pointed out — food.

Dylan Little, the Mid-Continent Library’s community programming manager, said dozens of employees from across the library system’s 30-plus branches will be involved in the May 12 event.

“It’s a massive collaboration that the whole library has been a part of,” he said.

At its core has been a 15-year-old high school sophomore.

“I’m just struck by Emery’s uncanny and collaborative vision for the right event at the right time,” Little said. “When I was 15, I was dreaming of working at Wendy’s. She’s a 15-year-old who had a plan and a vision.”

Emery already is thinking about the second LitFest next year, and she has been fielding calls from folks in other cities seeking advice on staging teen literary festivals of their own.

“We’ve created a kit on how to put on a teen festival, and it’s on our website,” Emery said. “I hope this spreads to other cities and becomes an annual thing in Kansas City.”

Meanwhile, she has the vision of her personal future in focus as well. The oldest of three siblings, she is eager to get her driver’s license, so her mother doesn’t have to be the full-time family chauffeur.

She plans to “major in genetics or something like that” in college, with a minor in Chinese. But she also would like to remain connected to the literary world as an author.

“I actually want to become a doctor,” she said. “But it would be cool if I could do both.”

LitUp Festival: Books and Art for the Next Generation

Saturday, May 12

Mid-Continent Public Library-North Independence Branch, 317 W. U.S. 24, Independence


Registration: 8:30-9 a.m.

Keynotes: Ishmael Beah, 9 a.m.; Rainbow Rowell, 1:30 p.m.; Nnedi Okorafor, 6:45 p.m.

Interviews with presenters: 10 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m.

Workshops: 3:45 p.m.

Poetry slam: 5 p.m.