How do you figure out what your teens want?

Image by ILoveDoodle


It’s not a hard concept. You don’t even need to do this in any kind of “proper” setting – just walk up to the teen you always see taking out stacks of manga & find out what’s new that they wish we stocked. I can guarantee you he’ll give you a long list of stuff, both old & new.

Show them a picture of the Hunger Games cast & see what they think.

Ask the kids always glued to the Wii if there’s something new they’d like to try.

Ask the teens sitting in your teen area, wherever that might be, what books they enjoy. You might be surprised at their answers – Hunger Games isn’t all that popular where I am, but the Fallen, Hush Hush, & Mortal Instruments series are never on the shelves.

Find out how many of them have Kindles or Nooks or iPads, & if they actually want eBooks. Maybe that’s a budget you don’t need!

Ask the kids wearing the One Piece & Naruto shirts what other anime they’d like to watch. Maybe they know something you don’t!

Ask the teens on the computer what they do online. My teens had never even heard of Second Life when it was so popular on ALA a few years ago, & they’ve moved on from Runescape to a game called Vindictus. Some of them love Angry Birds while others are loyal to Facebook Scrabble or Plants vs Zombies. A bunch of them are on a new-ish social network called Plurk, which I’ve never heard of from anywhere else. Some of them are moving on to Twitter, but most are on all three. They all love Tumblr & some still use LiveJournal for pictures & fanfic.

After visiting Hot Topic (which ought to be a regular stop for you, no matter how awkward you might feel going inside), ask them about anything you don’t know or recognize. Fair warning: if it’s in Hot Topic, it might be heading towards old news, but it’s still something you should know about.

Some of this information I glean from our teen advisory board meetings, but honestly, a lot of things, especially all the new stuff, I get just from walking up to them & asking, hey, what’s your opinion on a bookcart drill team? (They all unanimously thought it was as lame as I did.) When I see a teen reading or carrying a stack of books anywhere in the library, I walk up to them & tell them (if I don’t know them) that hey, I’m the nosy teen librarian & I want to know what you’re reading.

I constantly see, across the listservs & workshops, people asking what’s popular, what’s new, begging for updates. Honestly, the only way to know what’s what where you are is to talk to them. The teens here are different from the teens there! Anime might not even be all that popular at your library – or maybe they don’t come to your gaming programs because they all have the systems at home. I’m lucky, now, that my desk is in the teen space so I can just ask any question to any of them whenever I want, but prior to that, I used any time I had off the reference desk to be in the teen space when teens were there. I know teens can be scary & annoying & smelly, but the only way to know if their needs are being served is to ask. Ask them as they check out books what they thought of the first in the series. Talk to them when they venture to the scary ref desk to put a hold on something if they know about the upcoming program, & what they’d like to see in the future. Have a conversation while you weed if that old project is still being done – maybe there’s a whole shelf of books you don’t need anymore! Pay attention while you shelve which books are going out – & coming back looking like they’ve been read a lot. Ask the teens around if they’ve read what you’re shelving & if it was any good. Talk to them, all of them, any time you’re around them.

I promise, you won’t regret it.

[update 10/2020] If you need more evidence that talking to your teens and community about what they need or want, check out this amazing webinar, Go Out & Play. The webinar is focused on the community as a whole, but if you take the principles of talking to your community and focus it on teens, I promise you, you won’t regret it. 

Of Ship Breakers & Hunger Games: About That WSJ Article…

Ugh. I can’t imagine I’m alone when I say that I’m really tired of hearing about this. EVERYONE has talked about it, & now, so am I.

If, by some miracle, you don’t know what I’m talking about, skim through the offending article. It’s pretty terrible, but to be perfectly honest, my first thought was one of sarcasm, rather than alarm. I mean, come on, YA people. Someone is attacking teen lit? Is it a day that ends in Y? Defending teen lit comes with the territory. Why was this particular article so shocking & alarming? Frankly, I’m still reeling from James Frey’s “teen lit is easy to write” comment far more than this is bothering me.

But, I’ll throw my two cents in if I must. Here’s what I think: THIS WOMAN HAS NO IDEA WHAT SHE’S EVEN TALKING ABOUT.

Let me tell you why…

She begins with a tale of her FRIEND going to a bookstore & being frustrated that YA is filled with death & despair – which, let’s own it guys, IT IS. Teen lit right now is full of vampires, zombies, & other undead/not dead/can’t die supernatural beasties. I think Tamora Pierce said it best when she asked if the next big teen thing could please have living people in it. But the thing is, it’s so full of death because the teen years are the first time you’re confronted with your own mortality. Teens are obsessed with it because it’s first time they’ve really thought about it! Sometimes it’s just that they’re mature enough, but often, it’s because someone in their school dies. A car accident, a suicide, an illness… it’s one thing if grandpa dies when you’re young, it’s another if the girl next door who’s a year younger dies.

But here’s where the author loses her cred, at least with me – that popular stuff? Is usually NOT the hardcore stuff the author goes on to complain about. I rarely, if ever, see the hardcore stuff in any bookstore. A Great & Terrible Beauty? Sure. Going Bovine? No. Elizabeth Scott’s fluffy fun romance? It’s on display next to Sarah Dessen. Living Dead Girl? Maybe one if you’re lucky.

You know why? BECAUSE TEENS WANT THE FUN FLUFFY STUFF. I would say that probably only 10-15% of that hardcore stuff is what’s actually being published. Yeah, it’s awesome, & yeah, it’s on my shelves & I proudly put it on display, but it’s the House of Night & Hunger Games & Mortal Instruments & all the not-great knock-offs that they want. My hardcore readers, especially my TAB members, will pick up anything, especially if its on the Best Books list or if I’ve read it. But the casual reader who just wants an escape? They aren’t going to grab Cut. They’re going to grab Boys, Bears, & A Serious Pair of Hiking Boots, if for no other reason than it has a great cover.

When I go to our local bookstore, I see lots of the fluffy stuff. Vampires, teen romance, re-pubs of stuff from the 90s in shiny new covers. I don’t see the hardcore stuff. I rarely see more than one copy of John Green’s works, which one could hardly call hardcore; just more Clique, Gossip Girl, & Pretty Little Liars. Which is fine, but I’d be surprised if the author’s local bookstore even stocks what she’s concerned about.

The author also mentions the extreme violence of Hunger Games, & there’s no denying that it is so. But in the recommended blurb next to the article, Ship Breaker is the first rec. Although I LOVED LOVED LOVED it, I personally found it MUCH more in your face violent than Hunger Games, if for no other reason than it’s adults going after children. When I saw this, I didn’t even finish the article. How out of touch is she?

In my library, I have a display & corresponding book list of Books that won’t make you blush! There’s also a sign posted, welcoming parents to the teen area & gently explaining that hey, teen fiction covers the full range of the teenage years. I invite them to talk to me, because I’ll be honest, there are plenty of books in my beloved & carefully crafted collection that no, I don’t think are appropriate for a thirteen-year-old to read.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t think Will Grayson Will Grayson shouldn’t be required reading for every student in America (how much would you love a teacher who read that in his classroom?), but I do think that it’s be better once you’re older. Some books just ought to be saved for the age at which you are ready! As a high school junior who was a big reader (I did become a librarian, after all), I was extremely uncomfortable reading The Color Purple. I wasn’t ready for it, & I didn’t finish it. Why is adult fiction always considered okay for teens, but teen fiction not?

You’re a very different person as a thirteen-year-old than when you’re a sixteen-year-old. At thirteen, you still love Hannah Montana. At sixteen, you love Lady Gaga. At thirteen, you ought to be reading Princess Diaries. At sixteen, How I Live Now. Someday, maybe, people will get that. But until then, we’re going to be explaining this over & over & over. Everyone take a deep breathe, talk to the parents of your teens, & stop panicking every time someone who doesn’t get it writes an article. We’ve got more important things to worry about – summer reading is in full swing, & my manga shelves are nearly empty!

When books don't belong at the library…

Linda Braun, the teen-tech guru, wrote a very good post over at the YALSA blog late last week. Now, before I go any further, I will say that although Linda Braun is amazing at what she does, I don’t always agree with her views of teens & technology – or at least, the view she sees is very different from what I see. The teens in the area I serve know very little about the Internet outside of myspace & Runescape; in fact, when I asked about it, none of them had even heard of Second Life, never mind played there. But what she does is invaluable to a lot of us (even me!) who don’t use all the new-fangled technology as soon as its out there – & she often comes up with fabulous ways it could be implemented in the library.

Anyways! So there’s a school that’s decided to turn its library into a digital paradise – which means no more books. It turns out that as of last spring, only 43 books had been checked for the year, & many of those were children’s books for the facultys’ children (staff remain on campus). The librarian at this school is heartbroken, & librarians & bibliophiles everywhere are responding in hysterics, as though this one library (in a 9-12 boarding school; my guess is that its college prep) will be the first of many to do this. & of course, the eternal TEENS DON’T READ mantra that the media loves to tout; a thriving teen lit industry begs to differ. I’m very grateful to Linda for writing her post in which she asks us to give this more in-depth thought, rather than simply panicking over the loss of the printed word. Her points are valid & absolutely right – there are cons, but there are lots of pros as well.

Things that I would like to say about it, sans hysteria:

Thing 01: Many libraries spread themselves way too thin trying to offer everything, when in reality it would be better for resource expenditure & for their patrons if they simply sat down & really took a good look at the purpose of their library. Research? Popular fiction? Classroom support? My guess is that this school took a look at what was being offered, & chose to turn the library into a research center. The best way to do that, especially in a college-prep, boarding school with very connected teens, is to go digital.

Thing 02: If you didn’t have to buy books, magazines, & other physical materials, think of the databases & information you could purchase! These students will have access to so much fabulous material!

Thing 03: As an MLIS student, I didn’t use my academic library once. Well, no, that’s not entirely true. Rather, I should say, I relied on the electronic resources made available by my university that were accessible via the Internet – and from my apartment. But as for all those expensive reference volumes? Nada. In my reference work at my job, I only rarely need to use one.

Thing 04: If this campus is affluent, there’s a pretty good chance that these teens are used to purchasing their fiction. Generation X & later prefers the bookstore – it’s more hip, more inviting, & often times, friendlier. Sorry – the reference librarian stereotype exists for a reason. As long as these teens’ “reading for fun” needs are being met elsewhere, I’ve no problem with this approach.

Thing 05: My guess? These teens are connected. These are the teens all those companies aim their products at – these are the teens that use everything digital; their photography, their books, their music. They download tv to watch on their iPods. They do their assignments on their laptops at the mall. A digital library is going to be incredibly helpful for these teens.

Thing 06: If the librarian had no input, that sucks. Big time. What’s the use of her professional opinion if they didn’t even bother to ask her?

Thing 07: The printed book still reigns supreme, no matter what this school or what the folks at Kindle may hope you believe.

Thing 08: This school won’t be the last one to do something like this. It remains to be seen if this will be a viable option for more of us.

Basically, to sum up: is this radical? Sure! But if this meets the needs of the students, bravo for them. Isn’t the purpose of a library just that – to meet the needs of its users?