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Jul 27 2016

Celebrating ChiTeen Lit Fest: Chicago’s first literary festival for teens by teens



Written by Julie Koslowsky and Nate Phillips representing the ChiTeen Lit Fest Adult Planning Committee

Logos and photos courtesy of the ChiTeen Lit Fest Teen Branding Team, Teen Ambassadors, and Teen Advisory Committee

ChiTeen Lit Fest was the best kind of tornado. It whipped up writers, authors, artists, playwrights, comedians, and lit enthusiasts for a two-day affair engaging nearly 400 youth in workshops, panels, dancing, eating, and memory making. It’s been a couple months since those wonderful winds died down, but we’re still amazed at the work of the youth and adults who made ChiTeen Lit Fest a reality.

More than a year and a half of planning, logistics, and networking turned the dream of a Chicago literary festival for teens by teens into the reality of an inspirational weekend in April. The work of building the festival brought together a strong, dedicated team, with partners from multiple organizations across the city. Jen Steele led the Adult Planning Committee, and her vision for what the festival could become–especially her vision for a teen-led festival–never wavered. In our first year as a planning committee, we learned a lot about working together to organize such a large event, and we’re excited about improving our processes as we plan next year’s ChiTeen Lit Fest.


The key to ChiTeen Lit Fest’s success was putting the planning in the hands of the teens. Every conversation we had with our adult allies centered around the work that the teens were doing and how we could best support (or, sometimes, get out of the way of) their work. Teens planned and implemented every aspect of the event including designing the branding strategy, building the website, creating a catering menu, researching and inviting guests and workshop leaders, producing media and other marketing materials, stuffing swag bags, and making centerpiece decorations for the opening night kickoff.  We certainly supported the teens. We gave them templates, we reminded them of deadlines, we fed them at meetings, but the fest simply would not have happened without them. This ChiTeen Lit Fest, the first of many to come, was their labor of love.


Our ChiTeen Lit Fest weekend kicked off with a Friday night teen party in the Winter Garden of the Harold Washington Library Center. This space atop the library is typically reserved for weddings and corporate events, but it was the perfect spot for a teen party celebrating the literary arts. When the teens took over the Winter Garden and our partners and volunteers who came for the evening saw the results of their hard work and planning, it was clear to all of us that this was something special. Teens who attended the kickoff party entered on a red carpet, talked with our headlining guests, ate delicious food, engaged in hands-on activities, and, of course, danced the night away. Throughout the night, our volunteers and partners remarked on how beautiful it was to see the teens enjoying themselves and how seamlessly the event was going. Of course, the party proceeded seamlessly because of the teens’ and adult allies’ planning and preparations. Seeing that hard work pay off was a joy and more than once we reminded ourselves to revel in the enthusiasm and energy of the night, realizing how quickly this first fest would be over.

The next morning, as our staff and volunteers began to arrive at Columbia College, the excitement and anticipation was palpable. The Teen Branding Team, Teen Advisory Council, and Teen Ambassadors were bustling about with last minute tweaks and getting everything in place for our invited guests and teen participants to arrive. The day flew by, and although it’s impossible to capture everything that happened, we hope some highlights will paint a picture of a fabulous day.


The Saturday schedule included 11 workshops, 10 panel presentations, and 4 all-day activities. Workshops gave teen writers a chance to work in small groups with professional writers. Workshop topics included comedy writing, comics, journalism, poetry, theater, and more. There were even workshops with festival headliners. The workshops were such a hit that many of them quickly reached capacity and teen attendees had to begrudgingly head to their second-choice workshops. Teens were pumped to work closely with adult literary mentors, and it’s clear that next year we will need to expand workshopping opportunities for attendees.

In addition to workshops, panel presentations brought together small groups of writers, designers, comedians, and producers to share insights about their work. Panel topics included intersections of gaming and storytelling, comedy, publishing, gender and sexuality, social justice, and banned books. One highlight from the panel presentations was the ChiTeen Showcase, an opportunity for teens to read and perform their work for fest attendees. All-day activities included LED card making and a walking tour of the Wabash Arts Corridor.


You can check out highlights and photos from the fest and follow us as we plan for next year at our Facebook page, on Twitter or Instagram (@chiteenlitfest), or on Vimeo.

We’d love your feedback or thoughts about the 2017 ChiTeen Lit Fest. We’re already planning and preparing, and we intend to have more opportunities for engagement throughout the year and leading up to the annual fest. Our hope is to spread the word about the fest and get as many teens there as we can. But we also want to engage teens who may not have the opportunity to attend the fest. While we will always strive to make ChiTeen Lit Fest as accessible as possible, we know that there are many factors that affect a teen’s opportunities to engage even in activities/events that they are truly passionate about.

Let us know if you want to be a part of the second annual ChiTeen Lit Fest. Coming Soon!

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