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Prairie Village Teen Organizes Literary Festival To Reach Young Readers

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Emery Uhlig, of Prairie Village, started LitUp Festival to cater specifically to teenage and young adult readers.

"Not enough teenagers are reading."

Fifteen-year-old Emery Uhlig says this was her motivation to organize a youth literary festival. As the driving force behind the LitUp Festival, the Prairie Village resident wanted to create space for teenagers to celebrate their love of books.

"In a world where we can have things instantly," she says, "people are moving away from books and toward digital media."

Author Clare Vanderpool agrees.

"It's challenging to get away from the screens and all that," she says. "Once anyone is introduced to reading, into that world where you're imagining characters and not just seeing them on a screen, I think it just is so vibrant and enjoyable that hopefully you've encountered the right book and want to go to the next one." 

Vanderpool's debut novel, "Moon Over Manifest," won the 2011 Newbery Medal, and draws on stories from her Kansas youth. She'll join a lineup of almost 20 writers and illustrators at LitUp this weekend.

The festival, which is being co-sponsored by the Mid-Continent Public Library, aims to increase understanding of young adult literature.

"Young adult and children's fiction doesn't necessarily shy away from the difficult topics, because teens and young people are definitely faced with difficult things," says writer Maya Van Wagenen, 19, who is also featured in the festival lineup. "Dealing with those things is important."

Van Wagenen, Uhlig and Vanderpool spoke with guest host Brian Ellison on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date.

Van Wagenen's memoir "Popular" was published in 2014 and became a New York Times bestseller. The book recounts how, during her eighth-grade year, she followed a 1950s popularity guide written by former teenage model Betty Cornell.

Vanderpool points out that young adult literature isn't just for teenagers, either.

"I consider my books for anyone, for any reader," she says, recounting her own passion for books such as "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis. "You could read them at one level as a fifth-grader or sixth-grader, and then I could read them again in my 20s and enjoy them in a different way."

Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Emery Uhlig spoke about LitUp Festival with host Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date.

For Uhlig, planning a large-scale literary event has been a major undertaking — but her age might have been working in her favor.

"I think it's easier, when you're 15, to get people," she says.

That includes lining up sponsors and getting a meeting with Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

More than 900 people have already registered for the one-day festival. While Uhlig says she hopes to register another 100 attendees before Saturday, she's more focused on creating a positive environment for participants.

"For me, success would be people just having a good time and really enjoying it and getting something out of it."

Van Wagenen says she's particularly excited to participate in a festival organized by a fellow teenager.

"Oftentimes, when you're in high school and middle school, people say, 'When you grow up, you'll do cool things.' I love that it's promoting this idea that you don't have to wait to grow up."

The LitUp Literary Festival begins at 8 a.m. Saturday, May 12, at the Mid-Continent Public Library's North Independence Branch, 317 W. 24 Hwy., Independence, Missouri 64050. For more information, visit

Claire Verbeck is an intern for KCUR's Up To Date. Find her on Twitter @TheVeebs.