Are you sure you like teens?



The following is the text of the LibChat (aka, library TEDTalk) that I gave at the 2016 Ohio Library Council Annual Convention and Expo. 

A microphone! They don’t usually let me have one of these. When I was in college, a work friend saw me pass outside the Wendy’s on High St and said to his friend, “That’s the loudest girl I know. She’s going to be a librarian.”

Of course, what he didn’t know and what I didn’t know is that I was going to be a teen librarian. The ability to be loud is pretty important in my line of work. I can be a pretty loud person, both vocally and personality-wise, but what most people don’t know is that I’m really quite an introvert, which is also helpful. While plenty of teens are rowdy, noisy, and excitable, an awful lot of my nerds are quiet and awkward – they need someone who can come down to their level when they need it.

And that’s what being a teen librarian is all about – doing what TEENS need. Absolutely everything is about them. And if you don’t like TEENS, you shouldn’t work with them.

When most people think about teen services, they immediately think of teen fiction, which, don’t get me wrong, is having an amazing moment. But my focus has to be on what THEY want to read, not what *I* like. I mean, my favorite book, teen fiction or otherwise, is Christina Meldrum’s MADAPPLE. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl raised in isolation, filled with beautiful imagery about nutritional plants and virgin births in various religions throughout history, and just a dash of incest.

That’s sounds like an easy sell to an eighth-grader, right?

So while I have an interesting answer for every teen reader who asks me, ‘Hey Sarah, what’s your favorite book?” for the majority of my patrons, I need to have an understanding of what THEY want.

A few years ago, I kept seeing THE GIVER on lists of books to give to readers of THE HUNGER GAMES, and I don’t think that’s accurate. Hunger Games is a masterful work of storytelling that compels you to keep reading because every single chapter ends in a cliffhanger.

And while THE GIVER is an absolute masterpiece that every single person on this planet should read, it’s not the book to give to a kid who just sped through the non-stop action-adventure of THE HUNGER GAMES. They need another action-packed thriller to keep them reading, even if it’s not of the same caliber.

Because that’s how you create a reader.

I mean, everyone loves John Green. But once they’ve burned through his four and three-quarters books, I have to know what else to give them. And that’s where knowing teen culture comes along. And let’s face it – we have a problem in the library world, where we still put books first. We’re the gatekeepers of knowledge and culture. Those things exist in a variety of mediums, and always have.

I’m going to list a bunch of things. When you know what I’m talking about, I want you to raise your hand.

  • Michelle Phan
  • Good Mythical Morning
  • Gunnarolla
  • Hannah Hart
  • Rosana Pansino
  • Dan & Phil
  • Rooster Teeth
  • JackSepticEye
  • Zoella
  • Tyler Oakley
  • Markiplier
  • Pewdiepie
  • The Vlogbrothers… otherwise known as John & Hank Green… creators of free educational content being used in classrooms around the world…

If you didn’t raise your hand, congratulations. You’re out of touch with an entire generation.

That collection of people are Youtubers (and some of the biggest names at that). They are the movers and shakers of our culture for ages 30 and below. They are making movies, writing books, creating shows, and shaking the very foundations of traditional media. They’re connecting with their fans, raising money for charity, and creating genuine communities online. Millions of people around the world are tuning in to watch them each day.

Pewdiepie, the biggest Youtuber as of this moment, has 40 million subscribers. Network television would KILL for those sorts of numbers!

That’s one of the reasons why everything is being rebooted. Traditional media is desperate to reach this generation, so they’re going back to what they know worked before. I’m… not convinced it’s working, although most of my teens who saw it enjoyed the new Ghostbusters.

When I first became a teen librarian in 2007, I would frequently pair books with tv shows and movies for quick book recommendations. Now, I simply ask what they watch, and the answer is almost always ‘YouTube.’

Knowing what they like is a big part of the puzzle that helps you create programming and build collections. But it’s also a great way to prove to them that you care about what they care about. Teens are just beginning to discover what THEY like, and we as librarians have the power to legitimize those interests by simply having a bit of knowledge.

I had a young teen come in asking for THIS BOOK LOVES YOU and I immediately said, “Oh, the new book by Pewdiepie?” You should have seen his face when he found an ADULT who knew what he was talking about. It’s even better that I can continue the conversation by saying, ‘Pewdiepie is fine, but I personally prefer Markiplier and the Game Grumps.”

Asking if they saw the newest episode of Supernatural when you spot the Winchester tattoo doodled on their notebook means that you can have a conversation and create a connection. That in turn makes it a whole lot easier to demand good behavior – because they know you’re on their side.

Recognizing the red shirt with the yellow star from STEVEN UNIVERSE means that I know it exists. It’s a cartoon with lots of queer-friendly content, and that goes a long way to reaching a teen who possibly feels alone everywhere else.

You don’t have to be an expert on these things, but you do have to stop at Hot Topic and see which fandoms are in right now. Which music videos are they listening to while they check their Facebook? Which shows are on the CW, MTV, Cartoon Network, and FreeForm? All these things go a long, long way to connecting with an audience that is notoriously hard to reach.

Because again, the biggest part of the job is the teens themselves.

I often like to tell people that my job is a mix of bookstore manager, pop culture guru, party planner, and social worker/therapist. I’m somewhere between teacher and cool much-older stepsister.

Teens need someone like that in their lives. Most kids have that person: a youth pastor, soccer coach, drama club advisor. But for the kids who aren’t involved in those sorts of activities, I’m their person.

I’m often among the first they come out to; someone who they can trust to use the name and pronoun they prefer without question or judgement.

They come to me with questions about STDs. I know which of them are sexually active (and yes, I remind them to use protection).

They respond to ‘What’s going on?’ With a plea for advice on what to do now that his girlfriend is pregnant. He’s excited to be the father he never had, but she’s thinking about terminating the pregnancy, and he’s panicking about it. What would you say to him?

I know who has learned to ‘play the game,’ becoming a different person depending on the group they’re in so they can better navigate the moods at home.

I watch them return home when the college financial aid dance becomes too complicated and life on campus alone gets too scary without the support system so many people take for granted. Home might not be great, but at least it’s familiar.

I know which of them suffer from emotional abuse and avoid being at home as much as possible, often skipping meals to do so and walking long miles to get to the safety of Teen Central.

I suspect who’s being physically abused, based on the hoodies and jeans being worn during one of the hottest summers I can remember. I put the suicide hotline number in their hands after I notice what they were looking at online, asking no other questions.

They leave me notes that say things like ‘hey girlie miss you lol’ a few weeks before shooting their abusive father in the head at 2 in the morning while he slept. I hadn’t seen her in months.

There’s nothing that can prepare you for this part of the job, other than love for the kids. Yeah, being a teen librarian is filled with movie premiere parties, the latest social media app, the newest Five Nights at Freddy’s game and tons of nerdy, awesome laughter, but it is also a heartbreaking experience, one shared by all of your teen librarians.

And if you don’t like these noisy, smelly, emotional creatures, please, stay out of my profession. Thank you.




A group of my teens, Spring 2015. I know so much about each of them.

Life as a teen librarian is a fascinating/frustrating experience.

I’m not your parent, although I often know more about your interests and who you really are better than your parents.

I’m not your teacher, though I know your reading habits and what other skills & strengths you have outside of test-taking.

I’m not your sibling, though I’m often the person you come to with questions about STDs and other difficult issues you couldn’t find on Google.

I’m not your best friend, though I’m often one of the first people you come out to.

I’m not your social worker, though I know which of you have water and electricity and heat and which of you don’t.

I’m not your therapist, though I help you find books and information you need when your guardian won’t take you to a therapist. I put the suicide hotline number in your hands after I notice what you were looking at online, asking no other questions.

I know which of you suffer from emotional abuse and avoid being at home as much as possible, often skipping meals to do so and walking long miles to get to the safety of Teen Central.

I know which of you have learned to ‘play the game,’ becoming a different person depending on the group you’re in so you can better navigate the moods at home.

I suspect which of you are physically abused based on the long sweatshirts & jeans being worn in our sweltering high-humidity, 90 degree Ohio summer days.

I stand on the sidelines, wanting to help you break out of the violence and poverty that has been your life, but unable to do so when the college financial aid dance becomes too complicated and life on campus alone without the support system so many people take for granted gets too scary. Home might not be great, but at least it’s familiar.

I help when and where I can. But too often, I know you so well but am not a big enough presence in your life to help before it’s too late. I hear things through the grapevine; so-and-so’s back from college, they’re pregnant, he got shot. Social workers, parents, teachers – they’re told things. People let them know when tragedy strikes. But no one thinks to tell the teen librarian – she hears about it on news, stalks people on Facebook who neglect their privacy settings, desperately seeks information online.

Lately, colleagues ask me about Pokemon Go, if the kids are excited about Suicide Squad, if they care about the new Harry Potter book. I give these answers, but what I really want to know is what I’m supposed to do with my memories of the smart, hilarious, and sassy girl who left me a note on my desk two weeks ago just to say ‘Hey girly miss you lol’ after I haven’t seen her in months who shot her father last week.

What can I do for a former teen who is so smart and  been through so much who got shot in a botched robbery attempt, losing a lung and nearly dying in the hospital to infection? I was a wreck that month, but thankfully, he pulled through. Now he’s finding it difficult to get back to school to finish his double-major of chemistry and physics, what with his new disability and the knowledge that his shooter was allowed to walk free due to no evidence outside of his word.

How do I respond to a nineteen-year-old that I’ve known since I started who is excited to be a father but is panicking that his girlfriend might want to terminate the pregnancy?

I don’t know what to do for a teen who summons up the courage to tell her mom that she suspects she’s suffering from anxiety and depression and wants help then gets told to just get over it after laughing in her face.

I want to know how to help these kids get through more than a semester of college without the support system that I had.

I want to be as big a part of their lives as the knowledge I have about them, but I don’t know how. I know so many of these kids, give them a safe place to grow and explore and figure out who they are, and yet, nine years after starting, I still don’t know what to do about this big stuff. It hasn’t become any easier.

My life as a teen librarian is filled with gaming, the latest book-to-movie adaptation, lots of noise and tons of nerdy, awesome laughter; I know that. And I know that that’s what most people think of when they hear the phrase ‘teen librarian’. But my life is also filled with so much frustration.

My heart hurts.

A Summer Reading Reboot


Teen SRP 2015 booklet - front cover

Can we just take a moment to reflect on the glory of the 2015 teen summer artwork? Oh, it was everything I’ve always dreamed of.


So every year previous, the summer reading program for teens was the ever-simple ‘fill out an entry form for each item you read’ sort of thing. Simple, I suppose, in that it doesn’t take a lot of work on (most) staff’s part, and it’s easy to explain. Annoying, however, in that counting how many entries were turned in from how many people was always an all-day, spread-out-throughout-the-room sort of day. So many piles! Not to mention the fact that I never really believed those teens who turned in more than twenty or so slips. In fact, to those teens, I want to say, if you weren’t just stuffing the box, please go outside and do something else! Watch some tv!

But perhaps that’s just me.

2015 become the year we finally Changed. We had wanted to turn our summer reading program into more of a summer ‘learning’ experience – which I am very much in favor of, since I think a teen needs to learn from many things, not just re-reading the 70-some issues of One Piece for the chance to win an iPad. Plus I think it’s far more fun to earn a prize rather than to try to win one.

The Teen Advisory Board was also on board, even though it meant the prizes had to be something small – there was no way each teen could get a t-shirt. This is what we talked about while creating our very first learning challenge:

  • There needed to be some sort of reading minimum – it didn’t seem fair to win everything just through the ‘experiences’, which I’ll talk about in a moment. They said that you should have earn at least two points in each box by reading – that way someone doesn’t just do a bunch of other stuff to start, and end up not reading anything.
  • Earning ‘points’ had to be reasonable, but still a challenge. They came up with 20, and you earned a prize after each five.
  • ‘Experiences’ needed to be varied – it didn’t seem fair to only reward those doing science experiments, when there’s plenty to learn from a nature hike or starting a Youtube channel. And they couldn’t all require money or transportation, as both are scarce in our community.
  • Some experiences could only be earned once (ie; you could only create one Youtube channel.)
  • Five manga should count as one book.
  • Prizes:
    • Five points: food coupon (Chipotle was by far the most popular)
    • Ten points: deck of playing cards
    • Fifteen points: drawstring backpack
    • Ten points: book and invitation to a special after-hours event

In the end, the TAB came up with or approved all the experiences, and the ‘reading experiences’ was completely their idea – after all, expanding your reading horizons is as important as anything else! The first time you completed a reading challenge, it was worth TWO points, meaning you could actually complete the entire learning challenge having read only four books (which was a big selling point to some of the more reluctant participants). That proved to be the hardest to explain to both staff and participants alike, but having someone walk away after registering asking ‘What’s a good audiobook to try?’ was fabulous.

The experiences:

  • Attend a library event
  • Attend a concert or play
  • Write/draw a graphic novel & enter our contest
  • Go on a nature hike
  • Visit a museum
  • Start a blog and create 5 entries of original content
  • Get a library card
  • Take a 5-10 mile bike ride
  • Write a book review and submit it to
  • Volunteer in your community
  • Conduct a science experiment
  • Visit a comic book shop
  • Watch a documentary
  • Create a Youtube channel and upload two original videos

Reading experiences:

  • Audiobook
  • Historical fiction
  • Poetry
  • Non-fiction
  • Graphic novel
  • Biography

In the end, we added a few experiences we hadn’t thought about: attending a festival, and watching ten episodes of subtitled anime (which we included as reading). Pictured at top is the cover of the summer  challenge booklet they received upon registering, while below is the inside and back cover.

Teen SRP 2015 booklet - left

Teen SRP 2015 booklet - right

Teen SRP 2015 booklet - back

All in all, it was a success. It was bit hard to determine what the participation would be, and therefore what prizes to purchase, but our numbers were up across the board, so I am happy! We’ll definitely be continuing it this year.

[UPDATE]So the secret is out…



[ EDIT 10.4.2016 ]

After much thought and seeking the advice of colleagues, I have tendered my resignation as columnist at VOYA Magazine. (I assume you know why.) I am sad that I will not have the opportunity to help my fellow teen librarians by writing ‘Get with the Program’, but I will continue to share my ideas here on the blog. I sincerely hope that VOYA Magazine learns from the events that transpired and becomes a trusted, valuable resource once again, but I personally cannot be a part of an organization that acts in such a manner. 

That being said, there are two more columns that will be published (I assume, as they were already turned in) by them, but please know that I resigned today, October 4, 2016.

The traffic over here has EXPLODED, and I’ve discovered that it’s because the news is out! I’m going to be taking over Get with the Program in VOYA Magazine! My first article should appear in the April issue, and I look forward to sharing everything I know with you. To say I’m excited and little bit terrified is an understatement!

In other news, I’ve been doing some much-needed housekeeping – deleting a few posts that weren’t really relevant (who cares about the 2012 summer reading artwork? Why did I use this as a platform for whining about that?) and adding some past presentations that I didn’t realize I’d neglected to post. So if you receive an email or something from 2011, don’t panic!

[edit] Turns out that due to technical difficulties, my first column won’t appear until the August issue. Ah well.