Relationships and Book Clubs

One of the new things I tried this past year was a book club for faculty and staff. Like many of the successful programs in my library, it was suggested by a coworker, and I only had to be brave enough to say “let’s do it!” However, I had two caveats for this undertaking: we would only use YA materials and each meeting would have a theme. At my school most teachers were familiar with professional development books, but not as many were comfortable with YA materials. I felt that faculty and staff who read books popular with our kids would have one more tool in their arsenal to forge positive and helpful relationships with their students. (It turns out this was 100% true.) I wanted to have a theme to make it easier for the readers to connect…and easier for me to choose book options.

I started with a “Book Tasting” based around the theme of Empathy. With the help of Canva and more creative colleagues, I sent an invitation to every adult on campus to come and sample books during their lunchtimes. I provided cookies as a bribe, because who doesn’t love free food? Afterwards, I followed up with a Google survey for participants to vote on the title for our first meeting, and they chose The Hate You Give. (This was the only time I held a book tasting. Subsequent book titles were chosen by survey with book descriptions revolving around various themes such as diversity, mental health, etc.)

With the support of the Director of Learning and Instruction (and her budget), I was able to provide the title to everyone who wanted to join the book club. I sent out periodic timelines, and we met after the deadline to finish the book. Our discussions were thought provoking, eye opening, and meaningful. I could see the participants making connections with society, each other, and perhaps most importantly, with our students. Largely being a predominately white prep school, The Hate You Give gave an understanding of possible experiences and sentiments of our minority students that many had not considered before. However, the most exciting thing to me, especially if this was one of the first or few times a person had read YA, was the dawning that they could learn something from a “kids book!” They saw value in Young Adult fiction. Not only for the kids who read it, but also for them. They could see the importance and positivity for our students to be able to see themselves in a book or learn about people different from them.

There was one thing that got me, however, above all the other positive outcomes of our Faculty and Staff book club. This one thing has ensured that I will keep the book club in my ever-increasing, hectic, sometimes overwhelming, schedule. That one thing began with a conversation. A faculty member told me that a rather quiet, somewhat withdrawn student approached their desk where The Hate You Give was sitting. The girl initiated a conversation that, admittedly, began with surprise that their teacher had read this book, a book that was one of her very favorites. She was impressed and felt that her teacher was clearly taking an interest in the students by reading “their” books. This sparked a year-long discussion of books, shared book recommendations, and made it easier for the teacher and student to connect. (Not surprisingly, that student did much better in class after making this connection!) I am grateful the teacher chose to share this with me, and so happy that I was able to make a difference with her relationships with her students.

Don’t get me wrong, not every book we read last year had such a heart warming result. I learned quite a bit about scheduling, location, cookies vs brownies, frequency of emails, and how many books is too many book options. As I sit here with my summer brain and contemplate the upcoming year with the false sense of always having enough time (ha!), I realize that changing the relationships for even only one person is worth it.

Let me know if you want more information about the Book Tasting or book club procedures. If you’d like to follow our fun in the library on Twitter, check out the hashtags #TPSlibrary and #TPSreads.

Some thoughts on YA…

When I started in my current position thirteen years ago, our young adult section was primarily for students in grades 8 – 10. Now, it’s skewing much younger; our grade six students can regularly be found scouring the shelves for good titles, and our more ‘racy’ material has been pushed up to our adult fiction section. It seems as though every other fiction title that arrives in the library office merits some discussion about where best to place it in the library collection as we grapple with issues of content, suitability and appropriateness. I have a grade 1 – 12 library; defining these individual leveled reading sections is becoming more and more of a challenge.

The original definition of Young Adult, in a psychological sense, is someone in the age range 20 – 39. This is not useful for our school library purposes. Internationally, the term is open to debate. In the UK, ‘teen’ covers 12-14 year olds, and YA is for readers aged 14+. Here in North America, teen is a synonym for YA. As the publishing industry, and us mere librarians, grapple with these definitions, one can see how rules can be applied inconsistently to our collections. I also occasionally see references to ‘New Adult’ fiction, and have surmised that this is for college-age readers – YA with an ‘edge’ is how I’ve heard it described. But a lot of the YA we have is pretty edgy. Indeed, I consider ‘edgy’ to be a hallmark of a good YA book…

Our grade 7s ask for ‘realistic fiction’, but happily accept YA level fantasy. Our grade 8s ask for ‘romance’. Our grade 6s ask for teen books. Our grade 10s ask for an ‘easy read’. They all want the same thing. Is it any wonder that publishers are struggling to market these books, and identify a core market? Take, for example, an author such as Rainbow Rowell. Her first novel, Attachments, was marketed as an adult novel, and her second Eleanor and Park was touted as YA fiction. Her other novels, including Landline (maybe more adult than YA?), FanGirl and Carry On could fall in either camp. They have been marketed both ways; indeed, each can claim to be a true cross-over book.

My school is a great reading community, but on the whole, we find that adult readers are resistant to YA. There is little YA on our summer required reading lists (although this is improving), and when students come to the library to ask for a novel for independent study they tell us that it must be a ‘grown-up book’ (i.e. from our adult fiction collection); our English faculty are not YA readers. My fellow librarian and I are working to spread the YA love, but it is something of an uphill battle.

(And where does fanfiction fit in here? Are teens writing the material they want to read? And if so, why hasn’t a publisher jumped on this?)

I like this definition from Michael Cart: ‘…young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation and risk-taking’. Maybe we should stop trying to apply labels, and just let our readers roam free in the stacks. They always manage to find a good book, regardless.