Aimed at teenagers from 14 to 18 who don't read, FLY Festival is very much one of a kind. FLY wants to get more teenagers involved in reading, which admittedly can be a hard feat, as Antoinette Moses told me. "That’s not an easy thing to do. How do you get non-readers to come to a festival all about reading? They won’t go out of their way to buy tickets. With young children, their parents will buy tickets for them and organise for them to go, and adults have the passion and initiative to buy tickets themselves. But our audience won’t do that." Inevitably, that is one of FLY festival's greatest challenges: attracting an audience who traditionally would want to run in the other direction. Instead, they choose other methods to entice interest in the festival and in reading itself. Moses explains that one of the ways they attract their target audience is through schools. "The teenagers go with their teachers and suddenly they realise, ‘my goodness, this reading business is actually fun’. That’s why we’re unique."
Once the audience is present, FLY Festival has very clear aims in mind, along with the resources to do so. They are a university too and so put on workshops and get students actively involved, hosting 40 workshops this year. Not only do they hope to inspire young people to read by presenting them with talks, readings and the best authors in YA, but also by providing hands on experience in the form of poetry slams. "We think that FLY can change lives," says Moses, "since it can enable students who don’t read books to actually start reading. That changes lives. That changes lives completely. People reading for pleasure is something Natalie and I come back to again and again; it is the most important factor in a young person’s life, more important than their socio-economic status and the world they grow up in. Encouraging reading for pleasure can change literacy levels more than anything else."
Creating FLY Festival also requires a serious amount of work, with preparations beginning a year in advance and the FLY dates booked for the next five years. "Next year is the 10th-14th July," says Moses. She depicts a gorgeous image of what creating a festival is like, comparing it to a dream event which you explore with a series of questions. "What kind of festival would I like to go to? Who would I like to hear? What if we could run a competition where students write their own stories? What if we ran such and such a workshop? It all starts with a lot of ‘what if?’ questions, just like storytelling. Storytellers always use ‘what if?’, and running a festival is the same. So, it starts with a dream, and then we have to raise the money to make it happen. Then when it all comes together, you have the money, you have the ideas, you have the authors, you have the space, and then you put the show on and we market it."
Of course, organising a festival aimed at teenagers means you also have a lot of involvement in the current issues faced in YA literature. Particularly I was interested in how it has evolved or is evolving, and Moses brought up the very relevant point of how literature treats gender. "I think it’s very important that we don’t try and segregate gender too much, but marketing sometimes makes that hard when you have books covered in pink butterflies that come with free friendship bands – you’re not going to get a tough 15-year-old boy thinking ‘oh, that’s what I really want to walk around with’ when you have other books that’s black and gritty and covered in grime." It's effectively an issue which is too complex to summarise in an interview, but which is becoming more and more common. "I think that what’s important in a time where people are now more aware of the problematic interpretations of gender binaries, where we now realise that many boys want to show their sensitive sides and girls want to prove themselves as tough, there shouldn’t be this differentiation. Not every girl is a little princess. I think publishers are beginning to realise that," adds Moses, and she names Holly Bourne as an author who is able to successfully target some of these problems in her novels.
"She appeals to a large number of female readers and is very much about feminism, but she’s also aware that when it comes to mental health issues, suicide is responsible for more deaths in young men than anybody else. It’ll be interesting to see if she ever explores that in her work."
FLY is undeniably the exact kind of festival we need today; one with passionate people like Antoinette Moses behind it, and one which directly incites a love for reading in young people. In the future, FLY hopes to maintain it's current format, and continue providing literary opportunities that many young adults would never think of reaching out to them themselves. Moses concludes, "Being the producer of this festival and being able to meet all of my favourite authors is such a joy and a privilege. I just feel very lucky to be doing it. It’s so exciting to just see this buzz at the festival and to see how students react to these voices. It really is a privilege being able to do this. It’s something very special." If there is one festival you support or visit, FLY should be it.
Thank you to Antoinette Moses for answering my questions, and to Nathaniel and Bobbie for organising the whole interview. You can find out more about FLY festival on their website, here.