Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

The Cassandra Project, or youth involvement from the ground floor (a guest post by Patrick Jones)

Today, I am very honored to present a guest post by YA Librarian GURU Patrick Jones, the author of many teen books and what has long been the ya librarian bible, Connecting Young Adults and Libraries.  As a librarian in Ohio, I once attended library training presented by Patrick Jones as a result of an OLC Grant.  Drew Carey had won money and donated it to Ohio Library Foundation, he was a huge supporter. Cleveland rocks and all that.
It started back in 1986, in my first young adult librarian job at the Springfield (MA) City Library.   We’d decided to expand the magazine offerings beyond Boys Life. Since I was new to the YA field and could find  no professional articles about YA magazines I put together a survey asking teens which magazines they wanted in the library.  While this was passive youth involvement, the seed was born.   From that time up through my last YA job in 2001 – where as a consultant I helped Hennepin County Library put together Teens Online, the YA advisory group for the redesigned webpage – this idea of youth involvement was a core philosophy I advocated and practiced.   

When I started writing for teens, it seemed like a good model to use.  While my first novel Things Change didn’t use any teen input, my following five novels all involved teens – mostly those I’d met during school visits – reading the manuscript before it was sent to my editor at Walker Bloomsbury.  In 2006, I began a semi-formal relationship with two teachers at a nearby high school where they would organize a group of teens to read, comment, and eat pizza.  

For The Tear Collector in 2009, I took youth involvement to the next level by featuring a poem “I Hurt ”written by a teen (for which she was credited and paid) in the book itself.  

And then came the Grumpy Dragon.

SpringLea Ellorien Henry – editor / publisher – of Grumpy Dragon Books approached me about working together on a project (aka the porn book).  While that title didn’t seem right for the Grumpy Dragon brand, we discussed doing another Tear Collector title, more in line with Grumpy Dragon’s paranormal focus.  We hadn’t decided to work together until one cold January day when SpringLea called with an idea, a youth involvement idea.

The previous summer SpringLea had taught creative writing to a group of teens and many of them expressed interest in learning more about the editing process.  If only they had a practical way to do that…..
So, we created the Cassandra Project (Cassandra is the narrator and protagonist in the Tear Collector world) where I would work with a group of teens to create a book.  As they commented on my first draft, I made huge changes and saw great opportunities based on their raw yet reasoned reader reaction. At first, the relationship was through technology – a Skype visit and Facebook interaction – but a face to face was needed. 

One August day in 2011 I flew to Colorado and spent the day working through the book in a way I’d never done with any editor, from my library professional books to my young adult fiction.  Their involvement demanded more credit than a few words in the acknowledgements so they dubbed themselves the Elsinore Quills (the book – Cassandra’s Turn – weighs heavy with Hamlet references and themes) and earned co-authorship credit.

I had deliberately NOT written the ending so we could brainstorm it together in person.  We discussed each plotline, talked about static versus changing characters, examined motives and opportunities, and decided which ends to leave loose and which to wrap up.   By the flight home the next day, I’d taken their notes and outlined the three final chapters.   Within a few weeks, I completed the final chapters and incorporated (almost) all of their.  The Quills had another chance to review the manuscript while the Grumpy Dragon editorial team worked on it as well.

We together decided the book needed a prologue so one of the Quills did a first draft.  Another teen from Michigan also wrote part of the book (It was a strange conversation – What are you doing today Cyndey?  Nothing, why?  You want to make $50?  How?  Write me a suicide note. Okay). One member of the Quills wrote about her experience for VOYA’s Notes from the Teenage Underground.  Together we presented at the Teen Literature Conference in Denver, and I will use interviews for a presentation at the Children’s & Young Adult Literature Conference at The Loft in Minneapolis in May 2013.

When I was moving out of teen librarianship I began to think more about the idea of the outcomes of our work:  not about increasing circulation, but about building assets, in part through youth involvement. This project yielded the outcomes we want in youth involvement work. Because these teens were brutal and bold and beautiful in their approach I got a much different book than had I written it without their input.  They got be part of the publishing process: not just writing a review, not just speaking at BBYA, and not just examining ARCs but on the ground floor of a published book.

It is win win when youth are involved.


More about Youth Involvement at TLT:
Draw It: Teen Summer Reading Club art contest
Putting the “Teen” in your Teen Space
Teens Got Talent: Empowering teens and creating buy in
Teen volunteers
Youth Empowerment: social campaigns aimed towards getting teens involved

Cut Through the Static, Get Feedback

You have heard me say it time and time again but my mantra is simple: you can’t serve teens unless you care about them, know them, and value them.  And if you are really good at your job, you will empower them and help give them a voice. (Think 40 Developmental Assets!)  One of the best ways to do that is to get their input.  You can do this through Teen Advisory Boards, no doubt.  But I believe there is tremendous value in doing a large scale, once a year survey to get large scale feedback.

Move teens from thinking of it as “the library” to “my library


The truth is, TAB attract a certain type of teen and they tend to be limited in scope because you have to limit their numbers for them to function effectively.  With TABs, you don’t always get the input of your outliers.  So at the end of every summer or the beginning of the school year, I like to put together a large scale survey.

Your goals as a teen librarian: Help your teens find their voice, empower them

I get that a survey is not a perfect tool.  But the truth is any tool is better than no tool.  And in your best case scenario, you use a variety of tools.  So ideally you would have a TAB, engage your teens on a daily basis, do mini-surveys on your social media sites, etc.  But don’t underestimate the value of a large scale survey.

Some of the benefits of a survey include:

  • It gives you large scale feedback from a wider sample of your target demographic
  • It gives you good feedback to make decisions and discuss the decisions in terms that make sense to administrators.  Remember, numbers matter to admin.
  • It gives you feedback to share with your community and community agencies that work with teens.
  • It gives you valuable teen quotes to share in all your various PR forums.
  • It gives your teens a voice and empowers them.

So, how do you do a survey?

1.  Outline the type of feedback that you need to be successful at your job: collection development, programming types, hours, days, etc., TSRC prizes and format and more.

2.  Formulate a template (one is provided below).  Make sure on your format that you have a way to get both statistical data and verbal feedback.  Ask open ended questions as well as your basic rate this types of questions.

3.  After you put your survey together, find a way that works well for your system to distribute it.  If you have a good relationship with your schools, you can ask the schools to help distribute it.  Put them in your teen area and share them through your various online resources.

4.  Give yourself a good time window to get surveys back – but put a finite end date on it.

5.  Remember that anonymity helps ensure that you get more honest feedback.  Although I will be honest, I have also provided incentives for filling them out and it resulted in a higher return rate.  Depending on the budget of your system, you can hand out $5.00 food gift certificates to teens who return their completed surveys to the circulation desk and let them put it directly into an envelope to help make sure their are no faces associated with comments.

6.  Compile your data and run with it.

Sample Survey 

Teen Summer Reading Club

Did you participate in the 2012 Teen Summer Reading Club?     Yes     No

If yes, what is your overall grade for the club?   (Excellent)  A     B     C     D     F (Poor)

How do you prefer to keep track of your reading?

Number of Books Read                Amount of Time Spent Reading     Other ____________

What types of activities would you like to see included in future Teen Summer Reading Clubs?

What did you think of the prizes?         (Excellent)  A     B     C     D     F (Poor)

What types of prizes would you like to see in the future?

Comments about the Teen Summer Reading Club:

Teen Programs

Did you attend any of the teen programs in the last year?     Yes     No

If yes, what did you think of the programs?         (Excellent)  A     B     C     D     F (Poor)

What type of library programs are you interested in?

Crafts   Trivia   Games   Speakers   Book Discussion    None     Other ________________

Suggestions for future programs:

What is the best day of the week for you to attend programs?    

Monday     Tuesday     Wednesday     Thursday     Friday

What is the best time of day for you to attend programs?

3-4 PM     4-5 PM     5-6 PM     6-7 PM     7-8 PM

How do you hear about our programs?

Website     Newspaper     School     Friends     In Library     Other  _________________

Teen Contests

Did you participate in any of the teen contests in the last year?     Yes     No

If yes, what did you think of the contests?  (Excellent)  A     B     C     D     F (Poor)

What was your favorite contest from the past year (and why)?

Suggestions for future contests:

The Teen Area

What is your overall grade for the teen area?     (Excellent)  A     B     C     D     F (Poor)

What parts of the teen collection do you use?

Nonfiction                   Never     Monthly     Weekly     Other _______________

General Fiction           Never     Monthly     Weekly     Other _______________

Graphic Novels           Never     Monthly     Weekly     Other _______________

Inspirational Fiction    Never     Monthly     Weekly     Other _______________

Audio Books               Never     Monthly     Weekly     Other _______________

Teen Magazines           Never     Monthly     Weekly     Other _______________

What are your favorite genres? (Circle all that apply)

Realistic Fiction     Historical Fiction     Science Fiction     Inspirational Fiction     Horror

Mysteries     Humorous Fiction     Fantasy     TV/Movie Tie-ins     Graphic Novels     Nonfiction