Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why YA? The remix

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post defending the notion that adults not only could, but that they should read YA fiction.  You can read the post here, but the basic premise is this: we work with teens, we live in a world with teens, we were once teens so, of course, we should read teen fiction.  Then we started a meme and invited teens and adults to share their favorite YA experiences.  And then - bam - yesterday on the YALSA blog there was a post questioning what it means for ya collection development to have adults reading (and liking) ya literature.  The underlying question seems to be this: are we building collections for adults or for teens?  As a teen services librarian, I build the collection for teens, but I am happy whenever any reader finds a book that speaks to them and walks out of the library a satisfied customer.  That's just good business.

Collection development is both a science and an art.  There is some guess work involved, some prognosticating if you will.  Over time as you are part of a community and you experience its ebbs and flows, you begin to learn what moves off the shelves and what will sit and collect dust.  There are actually a lot of truths for teen collection development that are universal truths for adult collection development, too: Often the best reviewed fiction will sit on the shelf while the books that critics scorn move like they are doing the salsa with a fiery Latin lover; that one book you cut from the order because of middling reviews and budget constraints is going to be the next best seller (I put that in there just for you Debra); and yes you will have to buy the newest (insert author here) book even though chances are good they really didn't write it - or they have been dead for years.  To be honest, I checked the other day and the Mary Kate and Ashley books are still circulating in my J Fic collection so, you know, what are you going to do.

The reality is that librarians everywhere - and in all age groups - have been building collections for patrons with tastes different than theirs for the history of librarianship. In order to have a well rounded collection that meets the various needs and tastes of our entire community, we buy stuff we don't read and we skip buying stuff that we like sometimes.  This is especially true in smaller libraries where there is one person in charge of say the entire adult fiction collection.  They may personally be mystery fans but they buy to represent an entire population, including horror, romance and science fiction fans.  If they do their jobs well they spend time looking at circulation statistics, reading reviews, and - gasp - talking to their public.

Funny story, that's what I do with my teens.  Just Monday night I sat in a room with my teen volunteers and picked their brains asking them what they were reading - and liking - and why.  When I see a teen browsing my teen collection I don't hesitate to engage in conversation with them.  I ask them what they are looking for, throw some books at them (not literally) and say hey, when you're done, come back and tell me what you thought.  Since my goal is to get teens reading and get teens using the library, my goal is to build a kick butt collection that won't sit on my shelf gathering dust.  It's not the Karen collection, it's the TEEN COLLECTION.

To be honest, it seems the fact that I read - and enjoy - ya literature makes me better at my job.  You see, when I approach that teen and ask them what they are looking for, I can then offer up some choices that fit their needs because I - gasp - have knowledge of my collection.  And to be honest, "oh my gosh you have to read this book it is so amazing" is a much better talking point then "this book will theoretically fill your RA requests given that it has 4 starred reviews which indicate it is on the topic you are interested in."  Although my favorite selling point it is: "the other day a teen told me this was the best series ever."

Some of the comments in reply to the YALSA post seemed to indicate that because they were grown ups that had left childish things behind and could no longer engage in teen fiction.  This expressed such a diconcerting disdain for our audience that I don't even know how to respond.  You see, I feel like you have to genuinely care about teens to be a successful teen librarian.  I think you have to spend some time in their world; to, as one commenter said, be able to "step meaningfully into their world."  Teens want to be valued and respected and know that the adults in their lives, their communities, care.  When we read ya lit, we are better equipped to do this.  And like any fiction, it helps us to walk in their shoes and reminds us what it is like to be a teen; those harried emotions, living with one foot in the world of child and one foot in the world of adult, that aching need to belong . . . it is easy to spend so much time in the grown up world that we forget and, in forgetting, lose are ability to empathize with our teens.  I am a better teen services librarian because I can remember all too viscerally the utter despair that comes when the boy you love loves someone else or what it is like to be the last one chose every single time in gym class.  Not that those things ever happened to me.  Having that ability to remember and empathize doesn't make me less of a grown up, it just makes me a better teen services librarian. 

As for building collections - to be honest, that is just what every collection development librarian does.  We step aside from the personal and look at the bigger picture.  And to be fair, it IS okay that adults step into the teen area and check out teen books.  After all, teens have been stepping into the adult collections since the beginning of time.  It only seems fair that it should go both ways. And at the end of the day, a good book is a good book and it doesn't matter what collection we shelve it in and it doesn't matter who is reading it; what matters is that it is being read and changing hearts and minds.

This is what Stephanie Wilkes had to say in her comment on the YALSA blog post:
So many different things I want to say here but I do want to address your statement, Ken. I have grown up. I am a mother. I am a wife. I love adult things. And I read YA books for many different reasons…1) Because they’re just damn good books, 2) Because that is my JOB, and 3) Because when I put my faith and heart into a book that I recommend to a teen, I want to do so from experience.
Developing my teen collection, reading teen books…I do all of this because I DO LOVE my teens.
I feel as if we are trying to create a problem to explain how and why to deal with the problem of slashed budgets for teen collections. The answer is not to purchase some teen books with adult money and then put them in the adult collection. And let me just say that I think the application of a ‘type’ of book, be it adult, ya/teen, juvenile fiction, does not exhibit a person’s lifestyle, intelligence, or any said factor. People read what they want to read because they enjoy it. Plain and simple.
The problem we need to address is how to keep our teens reading. That’s our job. To provide the BOOK for PATRONS, regardless of who they are.

This is what I said: I am a grown up and a professional. I have spent the past 19 years devoted to the cause of connecting teens with libraries and literature. That has involved spending the time to study adolescent development, collection developement, marketing, the 40 developmental assets, advocacy, program development, project management – to name just a few. I have served on committees, professional boards, and more. Part of what makes me good at my job is that I do read and love YA. And that I spend time having meaningful conversations with my teens about it. We are capable of looking at a sheet of statistics and making collection development decisions from them. I find the idea that I and other librarians can’t separate the personal from the professional actaully offensive. We all spend time cultivating the tools that we need to serve our teens in our communities effectively because we believe in what we do. I also believe, very strongly, that it is important for those working with and serving teens to be able to remember what it is like to be a teenager; to be able to talk meaningfully with teens about the world that they live in – including the books, movies, and music that they like as well as their experiences. I believe that when we can’t, we fail. Just yesterday I sat in a meeting with my teen volunteers discussing what they were reading and loving, what types of programming they wanted, what types of SRC prizes they were interested in. And teen librarians around the globe are engaging in these same professional pursuits. Because I live in a community with teenagers – and because we all always will – it behoves us to respect them, to be engaged with them, and to – wait for it – read teen lit (also true of children’s and adult lit). And if we are reading it, it is okay that we love it too. That doesn’t mean that I’m not intelligent or thoughtful or mature or doing grown up things. It also doesn’t mean that I am building collections to suit my personal tastes. It means simply this: I am both a grown up professional who works hard to be successful at my job as a teen services librarian because I believe it has value AND I am someone who likes to read teen fiction. Call me crazy, but people are just complicated that way and not easily put into boxes.

Now it's your turn . . .


  1. I agree with your response to some of the commenters on the original article. However, I don't think the original post was questioning librarians' ability to separate the personal from the professional in terms of collection development.

    I did not think Ms. Braun was questioning whether or not librarians were buying material that only they personally, and not teens, liked to read. Instead, I think she was questioning which patrons librarians are building the teen collection for: teens who read YA or adults (other than the librarians) who read YA.

    While I do agree that providing any patron with material they want is a crucial part of the librarian's job, I also agree with Ms. Braun that we should be mindful of who is ultimately reading the books in the teen collection. I interpreted the post not as an accusation that we are building teen collections for adults, but as something to be aware of now that there is more acceptance and promotion of YA literature for adults.

    1. Part of the difficulty with this post is that it is both a response to the post and to some of the comments. In the end I think that good librarians have and will continue to build collections for their teens because that is who they are trying to serve. Any additional readership is just a bonus.

  2. This is exactly why you rock at your job.

    The thing is, the best teen librarian knows their kids and loves YA, just like you said. My favorite librarian before I moved to Texas was so close to me, I would totally call her a friend. She was always pushing new books at me, and encouraged me to expand my reading even further. She encouraged me to start blogging, and she even let me go onto her blog to blog, which was so kind and amazing all at the same time. She was the one that encouraged me to get a Goodreads account, who encouraged me to start reviewing books. She encouraged me to do all of this because she knew me as a person.

    Bottom line, to be a good librarian, you have got to talk to teens. The librarian I was talking about above talked to me almost everyday, and she was always asking me what I thought about books [and we also argued about books, also, but that's a different story]. She understood me.

    I know this comment has gotten long and rambly, but that's all I wanted to say. =) You rock, Karen, at being a librarian. Other teen librarians need to look up to you.

    -Aneeqah =)