Archive for the ‘Teens talk about reading’ Category


  • Have five teens fill out a log showing what they read in a 24 hour period.
  • Talk with them about their reading habits, and ask them to look over 5 books from YALSA’s Best Books List, and 5 of YALSA’s Quick Picks for reluctant readers.
  • Interview teen librarian about her collection and her observations on teens’ reading habits
  • Write blog post summarizing your findings–and your thoughts.


When I read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, I fretted over the “F” word. When I read Good Girls, I wondered if the sexual content might be too explicit. When I read Lord Loss, I feared young readers might take a page out of Grubbs’ book and chop up dead rats to throw on THEIR sisters.

I wish I had talked to teens sooner. I would have realized that such concerns are misplaced. After interviewing 7 teens aged 13-18, here are my top five findings:

  • Boundaries: teens steer clear of books and content they find offensive or disturbing. If any of the teens I talked with felt uncomfortable with the use of swearing in Nick and Norah? I think they would stop reading the book.
  • Personal power/peer influence: teens gravitate towards books that “speak” to them about some personal experience or interest, or suggest an understanding of teen life or culture.
  • Social competence: teens are opinionated but not necessarily judgmental. The teens who spoke to me have strong personal preferences, based on factors that make perfect sense to them–but they also seem comfortable with the fact that other teens have other, equally compelling likes and dislikes.
  • “I’d rather surf the web”: Teens refer with deference to book reading as “real reading”–but when it comes to reading as a creative or recreational past-time–the teens I spoke with gravitate to the Web, where they read to get information, read to keep up with friends’ postings on social websites like MySpace, and read to play games.
  • Good teen librarians do more observing than judging. They base collection decisions not just on book reviews and critical recommendations from organizations like YALSA, but on what teens themselves find most appealing. A smart teen librarian looks at circulation figures, and asks for suggestions from her target audience. Desirable qualities in a YA librarian? “Helpful, not hovering.” “Nice, not rude or mean.” “Comes up with projects, not worksheets.”

Closer Look

Meet Jonathan Allen, age 18, recent graduate of North Quincy High School.

  • Avid video gamer
  • Reluctant reader
  • Loves snowboarding, baseball, and the beautiful Rachel Dill

Jonathan also happens to be my son, so I can say without reservation–that I raised him to be a reader. We are talking THOUSANDS of picture books. Followed by HUNDREDS of read-alouds like Call of the Wild, Hatchet, Old Yeller, Black Beauty, The thief, The Whipping Boy, and The Giver. Nazi-style limits on TV. Summer reading lists nailed into headboards. We are talking a mother who could not set foot outside the house without first making sure she had a paperback stuffed into a pocket. “If you have a good book,” I’d tell my wide-eyed son–“you will never be alone, and you will never be bored.”

Well. Fast forward 10 years. My son’s reading log?

  • Text message.
  • Text message.
  • Web
  • Text message
  • More text messages
  • In fact–HUNDREDS of text messages
  • An insurance policy
  • Back of the box of Cheerios
  • Department of Public Works Rules and Regulations
  • Tanning pamphlet

“I’m just not that into books,” says Jonathan. “Except Harry Potter.”

A year ago this would have been totally depressing. No books? How else do people become well educated, thoughtful, informed, and reflective members of society? No WONDER Johnny got kicked out of housing at UMass Amherst! If he’d been more of a reader that never would have happened.

But four courses on YA librarianship later, and my view of what constitutes “reading” and “learning” have changed. I know for example, that Johnny can do well in school and that he completes and comprehends his college reading assignments. I know he writes with wit and perception. I also know that all those hours surfing websites about baseball have made my son nothing short of a statistician.

When he talks about THAT kind of reading–how he uses the Internet to find out everything he can about each of the players in the American and National baseball leagues so he can create baseball teams online and in his videogame that mimic and even predict real-life games–his face lights up.

When he browses the stack of books on the table, it’s clear he is looking for things that pique the same level of interest as what he reads on the Web. He finds it in Body Type, a gorgeous coffee table book filled with pictures of tattoos, and the stories behind the ink.

“Totally cool,” he says. “I would definitely read this book.”

You can click here to listen to the 9 minute interview I did with Jonathan. Check back later for the interview with four 13 year old girls, and a third interview with brothers Tim and Kevin, aged 15 and 14.

All 7 of these teens go to Quincy’s public middle and schools. All of them are white, middle class, and have involved and present parents who are also homeowners. The four girls are all friends, and they do everything from sleepovers to cheerleading to Lily’s paper route together. Despite their advanced age and the fact they are all nearly as tall or taller than their mothers, these girls may also be found spread out on my living room floor playing with Barbies. But don’t tell them I told you.

Tim (reading log) and Kevin (reading log) are boys of few words. Kevin loves sports and in particular BIG sports figures like the Red Sox’s “Papi”. Tim is in advanced placement courses and interested in theatre and music.

In terms of reading patterns–all seven teens did most of their reading on the web. Magazines, bulletin boards, food labels, mail, “directions” (to where? to what?) were a distant second; books came in third. While this breakdown may reflect the reading choices these teens made when left strictly to their own devices, they noted that their reading habits changed during the school year or when they were completing summer reading assignments. These logs were made during the first month of vacation–when the sun is out, the skies are blue, and even mom and dad haven’t turned their attention to the titles tacked up on the refrigerator.

The Books and the Verdicts

Yalsa’s Best Books

Vaughan, Brian K. Runaways: Volume 1 HC. Illus. by Adrian Alphona.

  • Jonathan, 18: “No. I’m not into graphic novels. Some people are. I don’t really like ’em. It looks like it’s about younger kids. Maybe hip hop or something. I’m not into that.”
  • Jessie (reading log), and Anna (reading log), 13: No. I don’t like comics unless they are funny. Like Garfield.
  • Lily: It looks like it’s about kids running away from home, so I’d probably pick it up to find out what happened to them.
  • Theresa (reading log): I like comics so I might look at it.
  • Tim, 15: It’s a graphic novel. I don’t really read them.
  • Kevin, 14: I don’t like this kind of book.

Westerfeld, Scott. Peeps

  • Johnny, 18: The cover is weird. Can’t tell what it’s about. Wouldn’t read it.
  • Girls: No. The cover is creepy.
  • Jessie: It looks scary. I might read it.
  • Tim and Kevin: No, not really.

Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia

  • Johnny: This looks like your basic story kind of book. I might look at it but probably not.
  • Anna: It looks like it’s about history and I prefer stories that are modern so I don’t think I’d read this.
  • Lily, Jessie, Theresa: No, this just doesn’t look very interesting.
  • Tim: I’m interested in history so I might look to see what this is about.
  • Kevin: No.

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese

  • Johnny: I like the cover. How the picture wraps around the spine of the book. Nice color yellow. Wouldn’t read it.
  • Lily, Jessie, Anna: No. I wouldn’t be interested in that. It’s more of the comics, and it just doesn’t look like the kind of story that would interest me.
  • Theresa: I saw a monkey in there and I like monkeys so I might read at least some of it.
  • Tim and Kevin: No.

Zusak, Markus. The Book Thief

  • Johnny: The cover is interesting. It’s like I once saw a CD called Steal this CD and I went ahead and got it because it sort of was saying DON’T buy it. It’s long though so no, I wouldn’t read it.
  • Girls: Too long. Boring cover.
  • Kevin: too long. Not interested.
  • Tim: One of my friends is reading this book and says it’s good so I would probably try it. How long the book is doesn’t matter. It’s just whether it’s any good.

Booth, Coe. Tyrell

  • Johnny: You already said something about this book, so I might read it. Cover’s interesting. It’s got the ghetto thing going on.
  • Anna, Jessie, and Lily: No.
  • Theresa: It looks like he is standing outside a basketball court and I like basketball so I might read it.
  • Kevin and Tim. No

Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers

Cohn, Rachel and Levithan, David. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

  • Johnny: This looks kinda cool. I like the cover, and it looks like it’s about this boy and girl. (Reads the back) It sounds interesting. I might read that. Probably not though.
  • Lily and Jessie: No. It looks like it’s for older kids and it doesn’t seem like a book I’d read.
  • Anna: It says playlist which makes me think about music playlists and I really like music so I might read it. It looks modern too and I like modern stories.
  • Kevin and Tim: Nope.

Giles, Gail. What Happened to Cass McBride?

  • Johnny: I’d want to find out what happened to Cass McBride. I might pick this up if I were standing in line or waiting somewhere.
  • Lily: I like mysteries and this looks like a mystery so I might read it.
  • Anna: Yeah, I might like this.
  • Theresa: No, not really.
  • Jessie: looks kind of good. I like scary stories and this looks kind of scary.
  • Tim and Kevin: Hmmmm. Maybe.

Saltz, Ina. Body Type: Intimate Messages Etched in Flesh

  • Johnny: Wow. This is totally cool. I want to get a tattoo. I’d definitely read this.
  • Girls (all): Gross! Ick! Eeeewww. I don’t like tattooes. I’d never get one. They look trashy.
  • Kevin and Tim: It’s a lot of pictures of tattoos. I’m not into tattoos, so I wouldn’t really read this book.

Shan, Darren. Lord Loss

  • Johnny: The cover is kind of evil. Yeah. I might at least read the back cover.
  • Jessie: I like scary stories and stuff so I’d probably like that one.
  • Anna: No. It’s creepy. Theresa: No. I don’t like scary books.
  • Lily: It looks scary and I don’t like scary books. I like mysteries but that looks more creepy than like a mystery.
  • Kevin and Tim: Maybe.

Ruby, Laura. Good Girls

  • Johnny: Definite no. This is a books for girls.
  • Anna: I would read this book because there is a cell phone on the cover and I LOVE my cellphone.
  • Theresa: Maybe.
  • Jessie: Maybe.
  • Lily: It looks like chick lit and I like that kind of book so I might read this.
  • Kevin and Tim: No. This looks like it’s for girls.

Take home lesson?

There is a huge opportunity here for YA librarians to get to know YA literature, their collection–and their teens!– well enough to make recommendations that match up teens’ interests–or reading levels–with good, well written, and engaging or entertaining books. Recommendations from friends clearly count, and I have to think recommendations from adults who aren’t trying to “sell” kids something the adult wants them to like–might also be welcome.

If my experience was any indication, absent some context or recommendation, kids make uninformed and snap judgments about books based mostly on the cover. Tyrell for example is about anything BUT basketball. On the other hand, if a book cover (Lord Loss for example) can communicate a genre or theme of interest to a teen–like mystery or horror–the teen may linger long enough to take at least a second look.

If the common wisdom for web designers is that they have less than 60 seconds to make a favorable impression, then I’d say the same is true for those who write and market YA books. The cover mean A LOT. If you want more than a minute of a teen’s attention, your product needs positive buzz from YA librarians, teachers, and YAs themselves who have read it and will recommend it to their friends.

Introducing! The YA Librarian.

Meet Stephanie Legg. Former securities trader in NYC; graduate of Simmons GSLIS, freelance cataloguer; reference librarian at the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy; mother of one, Stephanie now heads up the YA department at the Stoughton Public Library. Since her arrival there six months ago, Stephanie has been in the news for the newly formed Stoughton Teen Advisory Board, and innovative teen programs and services. Stephanie also possesses four qualities that make her a favorite among teens: humor, intelligence, an open mind, and the ability to NOT hover.

I worked at the Thomas Crane Library in Quincy with Stephanie. We were all happy when she got her “dream job” at Stoughton–and sad to see her go. I interviewed Stephanie by email.

Key questions:

  • What books and what KIND of books (novel, manga, graphic, fiction, non fiction) are most popular with your teens; any titles in particular?
  • How you go about selecting the books you want to buy, whether your teens help you by making suggestions or recommendation.
  • Do you ever have trouble buying titles because they are controversial or threatening–and if so–trouble from whom–administration? parents? teens themselves?
  • How do teens use their time your library–reading? using cmputers?
  • Do you have booktalks and if so, are they well attended and what IS well attended?
  • Do teens use the library website?
  • Do you have a teen area apart from the rest of the library space?
  • How active is the TAB and has it changed staff perception of your teen audience?


We classify Young Adults as kids 11-17 or grades 6-12. They usually read novel fiction, and we also have a core group of graphic novel/manga lovers.

I use book review magazines to look up titles: Kirkus, Booklist, Kliatt, and Publisher’s Weekly. Then I check those titles in our SIRSI system (Unicorn Workflows). Workflows will tell me how many times a book has gone out system wide, and where another library has shelved the book (J or YA or Adult). If the book is too new to be in the system, I go to Amazon and read the summary. Often the author has written other YA titles, so I can check if that author’s books has circulated here or at other libraries, again using Workflows.

Also, I check to see how merchandisable (is that a word?) the book will be. A brightly colored book will attract browsers (as well as a catchy title, etc).

I also stroll through Borders and Barnes and Noble to check out their new books. I also use the YALSA web site and their book lists.

We did start a Teen Advisory Board, but I haven’t had real good attendance yet, so I really have not gotten too deeply into what kids are reading fiction-wise.

We also started an Anime Club (through the efforts of one member of the TAB), and I totally leave Manga ideas to them.

It is also important to keep up with series titles, and I have yet to
find one website that helps me with that. I have a list of series that we collect, and I try to update the publication dates monthly.

I looked over books I ordered last year, and here are the titles/series that have gone out the most:

Rick Riordan
Cinda Williams Chima (author) Warrior Heir
Gossip Girls (series)
A-List (series)
Clique (series)
Pam Lowell (author) Returnable Girl
Princess Diaries series (Meg Cabot); Pants on Fire
Harry Potter series
Malcome Rose (author) Traces series
Anthony Horowitz (author) Stormbreaker
Melody Carlson (Faded denim series)

I have ordered almost all the books on the YALSA lists, but they just
don’t go out as much.

I try to keep track by sight of what is going out, but I am sure that is not the best way.

I spend between $500-$800 a month on new books, including graphic novels and non-fiction. Most of it is fiction in novelized form, and I try to order as many different new titles in different genres as possible.

There is a report that I can run that will tell me how often my new
Titles are circulating (or any YA title), but to tell you the truth, I haven’t had time to ask for it and decide on the parameters. I’ll probably do it with nonfiction this summer.

As far as censorship: We have a “no censorship” collection development policy, and as far as I know, there has never been a problem. I am careful about the graphic novels I order. I order older teen titles, and I order ‘tween titles. I don’t worry about the content of the older kid titles too much, but I try to stay away from books that are reviewed as totally about sex.

I take a couple of genre based and/or youth lit continuing education course(s) every 6 months. They really help and they are fun.

Teens in our library usually come in to do homework and specific
research. Right now they are also coming in for Summer Reading assignments and for some of the programs.

I have never done a booktalk formally, but I do pick out books for kids to sample while I talk to them. I just had my first book discussion, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, but only one kid showed up. We had fun anyway. I’ll keep trying.

We do have a teen space in the library, but it is also home to two of
the public access computers, and is not exactly festive.

The TAB has been very helpful, and I think will continue to grow in
Very small steps. Most of the kids who come regularly are private school kids who live in Stoughton.

The TAB didn’t really affect staff views on teens. I would say that
the staff views teens favorably.

Don’t know how many YAs visit our website.

Hope this helps,

“What’s it all about, Alfie?”–The YA Librarian’s Infinite Playlist

  • Read YA Literature. If it makes you uncomfortable? Chances are good there is something about your own assumptions and values that you need to look at or at least be aware of. Which isn’t to say everything out there is good and belongs in your collection–but your collection does need to resonate with what teens find interesting and compelling. Your collection also needs to include various formats like graphic novels and manga, along with DVDs of popular movies and television shows, and CDs of popular music–and of hard to read classics like….MOBY DICK.
  • Talk to teens about what they are reading, and what they like. I was surprised by just about everything that my son had to say about those books.
  • Be yourself. To find out what I mean, go visit Robin Peek over in Brookline or Stephanie Legg over in Stoughton. Neither of these women is trying to be teenager-ish. Neither is trying to be cool. Neither is trying to “relate” to teens. Instead, they are being themselves. Dressing in the clothes they like. Being matter of fact in their expectations, and matter of fact in setting limits. Speaking their minds. Offering their opinions. But also listening to the opinions of teens, and showing respect by being honest and genuinely interested.
  • Always be looking for ways to USE what you see and read. If you come across a photo/essay format in a book that teens like? Like Robbie Cooper’s Alter Ego: Avatars and Their Creators? See if teens are interested in creating their own photo/essays on a similar subject.
  • Lighten up. Your child probably did NOT get kicked out of that college dorm because he didn’t read enough books. He got kicked out because he drank too much beer. And acted exactly like Huckleberry Finn.

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