Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Escape (Room) the Teen Book Club!; a guest post by Teen Librarians Rachel Spivack and Austin Ferraro

Are you looking for a fun and innovative way to get teens involved in a book club? Today’s guest bloggers have a great idea for you!

Our to-do list for our Teen Book Club in September went something like this:

– Borrow wire cutters to trim the tomato cage and hot glue gun Mardi Gras beads on it to make a chandelier
– Make 6 origami flowers (Note – find instructions for origami flowers)
 – 3D print something with a hidden compartment
– Cut six capital letter As out of blue vinyl (Note – measure plastic ants first)
Don’t forget to finish the book.

An unusual list for an unusual book club, but we think that the amount of fun our teen regulars have every month means it’s working…even if reading the book is more what you’d call a guideline than an actual rule.

Let us explain.

In late 2020 when our library system was soft-launching virtual book clubs, we spent a closing shift on a dreary, wintery Friday evening frustrated. With specialties in Makerspace and Teen Services respectively, we didn’t see how book clubs were going to let us reconnect with the patrons we were used to seeing in the comfortable chaos of our library spaces. As we were talking through the challenges, it occurred to us that even without a pandemic, there’s a lot about a standard book club that makes it inaccessible to teens, especially teens with learning disabilities (including ADHD). One thing led to another and soon we had permission to run a virtual teen book club, which has since transitioned to a successful monthly in-person meeting. The thing that makes it work? The book club is an escape room.

Escape Room? Book Club? How Does It Work?

The book club is advertised like more a typical library program than a typical book club in that promotional materials emphasize the escape room activity over the monthly book selection. Additionally, we make a point to list all of the formats that the novel is available in through our catalog (e.g., graphic novel, audiobook, ebook, etc) so readers are aware of their options. Our preparation for the program includes planning 4-5 puzzles for the teens to solve (which add up to the final puzzle), and staging an interactive station for #ambiance, all of which are themed around the book choice that month. The station includes props that we have made ourselves. Bringing creativity and a “maker mindset” to this really makes a difference!

We start the program by chatting about any major thoughts and/or feelings the teens want to share about the characters, plot, writing style, etc. Once they are done sharing, we invite them to dive into the puzzles. The teens interact with the items on display (and each other) like a typical escape room, looking for clues to open various locks and combinations. As needed, we may offer hints to help the teens along if they seem stuck, but we try to walk the line of encouraging some productive struggle with the challenges. The clues all add up to the final combination lock of a BreakOutEDU box that contains small prizes – snacks, donated books, little items made in the Makerspace. As we wrap up the program, we take turns talking about other books we have been reading and making recommendations to each other (staff included). There are months where they spend almost as much time chatting about book recommendations as working on the escape room! The conversation may meander, but the fact that it has gone on that long between teens who did not know each other prior to the program demonstrates the advantage of letting them guide the discussion.

This is a novel book club in many ways, but here’s part of it: teens are not required to read the book to participate. The escape rooms are structured to provide a slight advantage to the teens who read the book, but they’re perfectly doable without it. And that seems insane because is it a book club if they don’t have to read the book? Yes. For us, a library book club is a success if it makes teens feel welcome in the library and encourages them to want to read – and this does.

In our escape rooms, teens have positive interactions with literacy on their own terms. By not requiring the teens to have read the book before attending the book club, we’re distancing reading from the academic assignments that they’re inundated with while still creating informal learning opportunities. We’re also not creating additional stress for teens who may, for whatever reason, struggle with reading speed and/or comprehension. They know that we love it when they read the book, but also know it’s okay if they don’t have time. When we didn’t finish a book, we’re honest about it too! We focus on encouraging them to think, problem-solve, move around, and try different solutions rather than asking them to spend more of their day seated and quietly answering questions about something they read. Even when it comes to discussing the book, we ask them about their impressions, feelings, and reactions rather than pushing them to answer questions about themes or character decisions. The result? After every single meeting of this book club, the teens who didn’t read or finish the book walk away really wanting to read it.

But Why?

The pandemic changed how we do everything out of necessity, but we saw an opportunity in that necessity to create space in the library for teens who might not necessarily see themselves as readers who would participate in a book club. In practice, this means that the structure of our book club is adaptable to the interests, needs, and dynamics of the teens who attend. We also wanted the book format to be flexible for our teens. More available formats means more accessibility, and we only choose titles that come in at least two formats – sometimes this is full-text and audio, although sometimes it’s full-text and graphic novel, and on two occasions we have picked books with strong movie adaptations as well.

By making multiple formats explicitly advertised and available and creating an environment that focuses on activity over analysis, we’re directly addressing aspects of standard format book clubs that neurodivergent teens find stressful and off-putting. A dyslexic reader might prefer audiobook or graphic novel format, whereas a reader with ADHD might switch between formats while reading or find that they have an easier time focusing on one format over another. We both personally find different formats easier to read ourselves, in fact.

Flexibility has been the key for this book club since the beginning – and that’s what makes it work. We started out online, but were explicit at the beginning of each meeting that while we would like to see their faces on camera and we’d like to hear them talk, that there were other ways to participate. One of our escape rooms actually happened with no verbal communication between the teens at all; they used the chat, reaction buttons, and raised hand features instead. When we moved to in-person, we didn’t know what it was going to look like so we kept our goals simple: have some discussion of the book, and do an escape room. Now that we have done several in-person programs, our teens have developed a structure that really works for them, but that’s the key: aside from our basic goals, our structure is entirely driven by the teens. This is especially important with neurodivergent teens because their needs are much more specific and individualized; the exact structure that works for us now might not work for us later, and it might look entirely different at a different library.

Curious? Give it a shot!

Rachel Spivack Rachel Spivack, M.A.T., is an educator-turned-library staff at Loudoun County Public Library in northern Virginia. For three years she has helped run the library’s makerspaces, teaching patrons and staff how to use various creative STEAM technologies, such as 3D print & design, carving & lasering, and robots (definitely robots). Prior to the library world, Rachel taught students with disabilities and credits them with a lot of her current inspirations and ideas.

Austin Ferraro Austin Ferraro is a teen librarian with a background in academic libraries, a brain full of ADHD-fueled ridiculous ideas, and too many books to read. He started at Loudoun County Public Library in Virginia shortly before COVID-19, so his move from academic to public libraries has been both interesting and eventful. 


  1. This is such an awesome idea! How did you handle the escape room part as a virtual activity, if you were making and setting up objects in a physical space? (At least that’s how it seemed in the article.) I have a breakout box – do you have any resources to recommend for puzzle creation? Thanks!

    • Austin Ferraro says

      Hi Krista!

      We did the escape room in its entirety as a Google Form from December 2020 – April 2021, took a month off when our system switched to in-person programming, and then have done in person since June 2021. Sorry that was unclear!

      In terms of puzzle creation, we usually do a code, riddle, or other written-type puzzle each time and sites like Word Scrambler, Rebus Club, and Maze Generator have been really useful for that. When we were first starting out, we’d honestly just google “escape room puzzles” and read through articles until we found something that clicked with our resources and theme. As time has gone on, we’ve kind of caught the knack for catching things as really good potential puzzles as we’re reading. I think a lot of puzzle creation is going to depend on what resources you have as a library – we are very fortunate to have a well equipped Makerspace (and of course, a Maker expert as half the brains of the operation) so we rely a little more on clues in physical hiding spaces because we can fabricate those items easily, but sometimes we actually get more mileage out of a whiteboard and a pair of Expo markers. It took us a solid six months to really figure out what was going to work best for us, watching how our teens were responding and learning from the flops so this is definitely a program that you learn and grow from every time as someone creating it.

      We do write up instructions with visuals on how to do our escape rooms, so if you’d like some examples (or even if you’d like to go ahead and use what we’ve made) please feel free to email me at austin.ferraro at loudoun.gov and I can send some over 🙂

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