Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

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Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?

 

 

 

 

say hi to Miss Sarah

the teen librarian you wish you had (or were)

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I met Sarah Jones (Teen Librarian) via twitter, and I’m happy to say that via the gloriousness of the internet we’ve become real life friends. I’ve been continually amazed by  her efforts whenever she talks about her job on twitter or facebook, and I finally decided that I needed her to tell her story, in her own words, for all my blog readers to see. So, without further ado, here’s a tale of how one teen librarian, through gumption and awesomeness, took her library’s teen programming from pathetic to positively awe inspiring. 

A few months ago I gave a presentation at my state’s annual conference about teen programming.   I submitted the proposal because I recognized that I hadn’t heard anything new about teen or youth services at a conference in a long time, and decided that might mean that I’m an expert.  The presentation went great; it was standing room only, people took notes, and people had so many questions that we ran over our allotted time by quite a bit (and they were GOOD questions, not the kind of questions that come from that ONE person at every conference.  You know who I mean.).

I’ve been a full time teen librarian for a few years now, but the position was new when I started it.  I took over for someone who made a genuine effort but was a youth librarian not only at heart but 4 out of 5 of her work days.  A lot of libraries have that murky position—a staff member who does storytime three days a week but still stays late on Friday to throw a video game night for the local teens.  There were a lot of such librarians at my presentation, great people who WANT to be doing a good job, but who aren’t passionate about teen services, and aren’t sure where to start.  The great news for those librarians is that those of us who come to work each day barely able to believe we got so lucky as to score full time teenbrarian positions are often very, very willing to talk about of successes in excruciating detail, and will encourage you to steal our ideas.

I started my position in the Spring of 2010, which meant I took over an SRP (Summer Reading Program) that someone else had already planned.  I don’t remember many details of how things worked that summer, but my stats show that about 220 teens participated across three buildings.  The next year I burned the thing down and planned my own program from start to finish.  The very simple breakdown:

-read anything you want for ten hours, get a prize

-read anything you want for another ten hours, get another prize and get entered into the grand prize drawing and an invitation to the wrap-up party

-for every hour you read beyond that, you get an entry into a prize drawing for one of 5 or so super awesome other prizes

That’s it!  Super simple!  No dictating what they read or how they read it, or even what quantity they read.  If a special needs teen participates and only reads one book in 20 hours, that’s fine by me and he or she has no reason to be embarrassed, because I don’t even know.  If all they read is online fanfic, they don’t have to worry about figuring out how many pages it would be equivalent to.  It’s all just time.

To keep prizes cheap but also fun and motivational, I go the grab-bag route.  Every grab bag gets a full sized candy bar.  Some grab bags get an additional little something.  Smencils are a hit, and I also throw in things like rubber ducks, weird things I find in the $1 bins at Target, books I have left over from book clubs, really anything works.  A smaller number of bags get a small gift card, usually to Target or Game Stop.  Depending on budget, I might do 15-20 $5 gift cards.  I like to give a few $10 Coldstone gift cards, and then I always throw in one $20 card to a random bag.  They all get stapled shut, and the rule is that they can’t fondle them before they pick.  It’s important that you say fondle so they laugh.  I clearly mark and set aside a set of bags that only contain things that have no nuts and do not have a nut allergen warning, and another set that have no candy at all in case of a diabetic or severely food allergic teen.  Before they pick I ask “any food issues?” and so far it’s worked just fine.

The grand prize is easy.  When you were a teen, what did you want more than anything?  MONEY.  Last year, I gave away 5 $50 Visa gift cards.  Even at 30 I would totally join a summer reading club for a chance at winning fifty bucks!  And I’d likely spend it on the same things the teens do, realistically.

The Above-and-Beyond (that’s what we call the entries that come after they’ve finished the 20 hours) prizes are where I get to have a little fun.  Usually one or two are bigger gift cards for Game Stop or Barnes and Noble or something like that.  And then the other three are based on some theme.  Past themes have been Twilight, The Hunger Games, Manga/Anime, and Art Supplies.  For my Winter Reading program this year I’m making a Nerdfighter basket and a Doctor Who basket, among others.  It’s all about what your teens are into and what you can afford.

I’ve done this program two years in a row now.  That first, sad year when I took over someone else’s program I had 220.  The first year of my own program I had 435.  Last summer I had 647.  It turns out that spending less on incentive prizes in order to give them a chance at winning a BIG AWESOME PRIZE totally works.

There is, of course, more to my success than a prize basket including Hunger Games kneesocks.  Another important thing is that if teens are IN the library, they are more likely to turn in their forms.  So PROGRAM PROGRAM PROGRAM.   The ins and outs of my programs and failures and successes therin would take a whole separate post, but QUANTITY is seriously important.  At our Main library I’ve got something going on each week—often 2 or 3 or 4 things a week.  At each of our two branches I’ve got at least one thing a month throughout the year, and during the summer I try for 2.  I’d love to do more, but I’m the only person who does teen stuff for three buildings, and I have to sit at the reference desk sometimes or the youth department will mutiny.

There is ONE summer program that has to be addressed here though, and that’s the Summer Reading Wrap-Up Party.  While the grand prizes are a huge incentive,  getting the invitation to this party is the big awesome thing that EVERYONE gets.

And the party must be awesome.  This could mean different things for different libraries, but it definitely has to be something you don’t usually do as a program, and if it can be something you don’t usually allow at all, even better.  For me this means the dreaded after-hours program, where the teens get the run of the library after closing.  It also means LASER TAG.  My first summer as the planner of the SRP, I got the crazy idea that there should be laser tag at this event.  I quickly realized the terribleness of the idea of letting them play in the library proper, and I found a place nearby where I  could rent  a giant inflatable laser tag course. Since only about ten kids could play at a time, I had other things set up that were a little less exciting—video games, karaoke,  and lots and lots of pizza.  I made sure when handing out the invites to stress how insanely awesome the party was going to be, and also that I was going to be VERY VERY STRICT about not allowing anyone who didn’t complete the SRP to attend, so if they wanted to bring friends to this party, the friends had better finish the program too.  Guess how many teens came to that party?

…..

115.  Luckily I had roped a LOT of friends into helping supervise, and I’d required registration so I was ready for them.  By then end they were getting a little nutso, but overall it was a great time with no big problems.  As they were leaving, I heard many kids say “I CAN’T WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR!” so I knew I was going to have to bring it in 2012.

And bring it I did.  A little thing happened called The Hunger Games, perhaps you’ve heard of it?  One morning I had one of those great “in the shower” ideas that I should make it a Hunger Games themed party—I could still have laser tag, because that TOTALLY makes sense!  It would be the arena, where they’d kill each other!  On the invite I encouraged the teens to cosplay and held a costume contest.  I had many stations with HG games I found online so that they would keep busy while waiting their turn in the arena.  I made a scavenger hunt and a trivia game and gave out copies of the then just-released DVD as prizes, and one girl was so excited she’d won it that she squealed.  I kept them so friggin’ busy that they didn’t have a chance to misbehave, and I got a TON of adult volunteers to help me run all of it.  For me it was key to have my friends help, and not my coworkers, because I knew I needed people with a high teen tolerance level.  As soon as they saw the Hunger Games font on the invitation the teens started to get REALLY excited about the party.  Total attendance?  216.  TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN TEENAGERS AT ONE PROGRAM.

Don’t be discouraged by humble beginnings.  Don’t start out thinking that this wouldn’t work at your library.  I never thought that the attendance at a wrap-up party two summers after that first one would have been the same as the total participation in 2010.  I’m not special, I’m not anybody you’ve heard of, and I’m not a mover or a shaker.  But I’m on the front lines, talking to teens, throwing programs and hoping they come over and over and over again until they do.   Start now, keep it up all year, and they’ll come to your SRP.   If you asked me what I’ve done to build the relationships with my teens that I have, I’d say, “Eighteen programs this month” and then probably eat a Kit Kat.

Read more about Sarah’s programs and teenbrarian philosophy at teenbrarian.blogspot.com

On the Front Lines

I’m attending a small but mighty conference at the state capital called On the Front Lines this week, and I had the pleasure of presenting Tech for Tots to a lovely group yesterday afternoon. I’ve put together a Pinterest board of all the articles I used while putting the slide show together, so head over there if you want to read further.

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Essentially my talk covered screen time for kids, and the difference between new tablet/touch screen technology and good old fashioned television. My basic philosophy is this: tv is passive, and will do nothing for children, especially those under two. Tablets, and their accompanying apps, are more interactive, and especially when parents spend time teaching their children to use the apps.

Many thanks to Little Big Blog for creating the awesome, mocking Your Baby Can … series (and the blog url is wrong on the slide, sad face!), and to Walton Goggins and Benedict Cumberbatch for being incredibly attractive.