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. 

Starting a Vampire Book Club, a guest post by Carrie (The Sunnydale Project Year 3)

Back when Edward Cullen was at his very sparkliest, I was teaching English at an all-girls high school. I have never seen anything like it. Spontaneous character debates broke out in class and my pro-Jacob leanings earned me some enemies (I make no apologies. He was WARM and could FIX THINGS). Whispers of “Team Edward” followed me down the hallways. Backpacks were heavy with books and my heart was light: kids were READING. 
 I do not want to bag on Twilight. It got kids to read, and that is an amazing and admirable thing. We should never shame anybody for reading whatever they damn well please, and the reason I wanted my students to go beyond Bella wasn’t that I thought Twilightwas a “bad book,” it was because I wanted them to realize that it wasn’t the ONLY book, that they could keep having that incredible experience of being immersed in another world, over and over again, for the rest of their lives.
I also wanted to give them more characters who could help them navigate their lives with confidence and courage. When I looked at the students in my class I saw smart, strong, funny, kick-ass young women who could change the world. I also saw vulnerable kids fending off endless online approaches by strange men and whose boyfriends demanded they get Brazilians before the big dance. (And that’s just the stuff I knew about.) They needed somebody fierce to help guide them.
So I gave them Buffy.
First, I started a vampire book club. It would be totes legit, I assured my skeptical colleagues: We would investigate vampire myths! We would explore the genre! We would move on to classic literature and soon the girls would be gushing about gothic novels instead of Edward’s abs…
Yeah, none of that really happened. 
Image from Muppet Wikia

They did read some new books, and a few even tackled Dracula. We discussed how vampire myths are tied to the Count on Sesame Street and we had a good time, but it never felt like enough. I was entertaining them, sure, but I wasn’t giving them any characters or ideas they could take away and hold close to bring out when they felt scared or unsure. I wondered about this in my three minutes of free time a week (#teacherlife) and decided I was being unrealistic. Maybe what I wanted to give them didn’t really exist – or maybe it wasn’t even mine to give.

We met during lunchtimes and after a few months the girls decided that watching some vampire videos would really “help with their understanding,” and, coincidentally, they just happened to have The Vampire Diariesright here.  
“No!” I said, desperately fighting to maintain control of my creation. “Come back tomorrow and we will watch the best show about vampires that ever has been, is, or will be.”
And that’s how my book club turned into a Buffy club.
None of the students had seen it before, and after a few “look at baby Booth” giggles they settled in. In fact, they were hooked. Once a week wasn’t enough for them anymore: soon they were knocking everyday on the staffroom door, eyes shining and hands outstretched, pleading for the next episode.
They cheered when Buffy told Angel that being stalked “isn’t exactly a big turn on for girls” and they cried when he lost his soul and Buffy realized when she would have to do to stop him. A lot of the references flew past them (New Zealand teenagers have never seen the softer side of Sears) but it didn’t matter: the characters and the themes were relatable and timeless. They got it. Buffy was in their heads and she’d be there, making bad puns and refusing to back down, whenever they needed a boost of confidence.
I left the classroom but stayed in town and I still run into the Buffy girls every now and again. One of them served me a coffee a year later and told me she and a few friends had pooled their money to buy all five seasons of Angel. At the New Zealand film festival screening of Much Ado About Nothing I waved across the room to a group of them, giddy with excitement and dressed to the nines in honor of Joss Whedon’s latest production.
Buffy is not a perfect character. She is not the “anti-Bella” or the answer to every teenage girl’s problems. Nothing is that simple. But showing teenagers a brave, flawed, kind, strong, ass-kicking female character canmake a difference. Those students probably don’t remember all the stuff I spouted in class about visual and verbal language features (even I have blocked most of those memories) – but they do remember Buffy.
My vampire book club (like so many things in life and teaching) didn’t quite turn out the way I thought it would. We didn’t read as many books as I’d hoped, and I certainly can’t prove I upped any test scores. But it is one of my absolute favorite teaching memories, and I will always be grateful that Buffy was there when my students and I really needed her. 

Meet our guest blogger, Carrie Boufard
Bio: I’m a Vermonter in New Zealand who spends my days working with teachers and librarians to build strong reading cultures in schools and get students excited about books. I spend my nights writing middle grade stories and drinking lots of coffee. I’m repped by Carrie Howland, which makes me a very lucky writer indeed. I’m jumping back into social media after a break (there was a whole baby/sleep deprivation thing) and I would love to connect with you on my blog, Twitter, or Goodreads.

TPIB: Kitchen Road Trippin’ – Eat (and Read) Around the Globe

If you have ever read my bio here at TLT, you know that I hate to cook. Loathe and detest it.  But – I have kids.  They insist on eating.  Several times a day actually.  They will in fact ask if they can have a snack WHILE they are eating dinner.  So, I got my hands on some cookbooks.  They seem to be easy to find where I work (wink wink).  I was particularly interested in a copy of The Mother Daughter Cookbook: Recipes to Nourish Relationships by Lynette Rohrer Shirk (Zest Books) because it said Mother & Daughter right there in the title.  So it had to be for me – right?  Well, I have yet to actually cook anything out of the book.  Or anything from another book.  But . . .

There is a section in The Mother Daughter Cookbook called Kitchen Road Trippin that is just screaming to be a TPIB.  This section calls for recipes from all over including: Hawaiian Pineapple-Ham Kabobs, Tex-Mex Corn Canoes, Georgia Pecan Peaches, Coast to Coast Pizza, and Baked Alaska Brownies.  They sound mouth watering delicious.  Especially the brownies, yum.

Pair that with this amazing Unites States of YA map put together at Epic Reads, and you have a fantastic Reading Road Trip.

Screen grab of The United State of YA, copyright of Epic Reads
Thank you Epic Reads for putting this together 
You should visit Epic Reads often

In fact, it would make an “epic” (see what I did there?) book discussion group theme.  Spend the year reading through the US and sharing foods from the various states you are reading about.  Have a little trivia contest prepared about the state in question at each meeting.  And think of some of the fun regional things you can do: make leis on the day you talk about Hawaii (Under the Blood Red Sun) and have Hawaiian Kabobs, read Divergent and have some Chicago deep dish pizza, discuss a little Julie of the Wolves while you have some baked Alaskan brownies and make sugar cube igloos.

World Reads, World Eats 
I have always wanted to do a community taste test around the world.  Get your local food places to donate food and set up an event: you would have Italian food, Chinese food, Thai food, etc.  Then everyone can come in and taste food from local businesses while you get a flare for food around the world.  And the possible tie-ins are astounding: you can have multicultural performers, crafts from around the world. 

I have read about libraries having pizza taste tests where teens come and sample pizza from local pizza places and then vote on their favorite.

I have done a version of Iron Chef at my library (documented here) and really recommend it.

As for the reading part, put together a reading booklist road trip – with a road map of course! – and turn your traditional book club to a read across the US or across the World.  You can use your good friend Google to find crafts that go along with each location (or recipes if you so choose).  

You can use the recipes in The Mother Daughter Cookbook for this reading road map:

Hawaii: Return to Me by Justina Chen with Hawaiian Pineapple Ham Kabobs

Texas: In Honor by Jessi Kirby with Tex Mex Corn Canoes (bonus, this book is actually about a road trip)

Georgia:  Hex Hall and Georgia Pecan Peaches

Alaska: Touching Spirit Bear and Baked Alaska Brownies

General Craft Note: If you don’t want to do specific crafts for each location, you can have your participants make postcards of either the location you are reading about or the journey as a whole with your book club.  You could also make scrapbooks (or mini-scrapbooks) and passports.  While doing the reading club put a large map on the wall and pin each location you “visit” with your books.

PS, for those of you who are worried about my children.  The Mr. does the cooking.  I did recently make chili in the crockpot.  They are being fed.

Coming soon: 5 multicultural crafts and a book to pair them with for an International Reading Road Trip.

What’s it take to run a book club with teens? Author Teri Brown shares her experience

When I set out to run a book club for teens at a community center in a low income apartment complex, I thought it would be a piece of cake.


I know, I know. Naïve much?

At the time, I was working fifteen hours a week for the children’s program at Community Partners of Affordable Housing, an organization that fights poverty on many levels. As a teen author, I gravitated toward the middle grade and teen members of the community and starting a book club seemed like a natural fit.

My goal in starting the book club was simple…I wanted the kids to love reading as much as I did. Literacy has always been important to me and this was a way I could share what I loved with others. So I spoke to the powers that be, got the go ahead and started in. A few things became immediately apparent:

First off, free books wouldn’t be enough to fill up the signup sheet. I needed something more. So I decided food would be the draw. Teens love food!

Secondly, coming up with eight to ten of the same books wasn’t easy. Authors often don’t get that many books and most of what we get is earmarked for contests and such. It was during this time that I found out just how awesome the teen lit community is and actually had authors buy other authors books for the club. Amazing.

And third, I would lean on my local fellow teen authors for free visits.

It worked like a charm. Suddenly my spots filled up and I had ten happy, hungry teens. I couldn’t have any more than that as I wasn’t sure I would be able to come up with nine months of free books every year for ten teens, let alone more.

The book club ran for almost four years. I watched several of my teens go from freshmen to proud graduates, overcoming obstacles that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Running a book club for teens at a community center was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done … even if I did feel like a fish out of water more than once.

 A few of the things I learned:

*No matter how much you’re enjoying yourself, someone has to remain firmly in charge. It amazed me just how quickly something fun, such as a spitwad blown through a straw, could disintegrate into a food fight. I know this seems elementary, but it still took me by surprise.

*I tried to offer new food experiences… once we had an English tea and another time we had both cheese and chocolate fondue. Once a year we would do a potluck and they would share their favorite foods…I think it helped them take ownership of our club.

* Two to three times a year I would choose a book from a local author and we would have them come to visit. The visitor would come a bit later so that I could make sure the kids had prepped. They LOVED meeting authors.

* Too my surprise, they loved reading out loud and always asked to do it. I never made someone read but after passing a couple of times, everyone would overcome their shyness, even the kids to whom English was a second language.

One of the things I had to come to grips with is the transitory nature of friendships with teens. They grow up. They move on. Out of the ten kids that started book club with me, three of them are confirmed readers. Two have gone on to higher education, making them the first in their families to do so and I feel confident the third will as soon as she graduates. I’ve lost touch with the others, but hope that they remember our time together with fondness and are still reading books for the love of reading.

Born of Illusion by Teri Brown
June 11, 2013 by Balzer & Bray
Teri Brown is proud of her two children but coming in a close second is the fact that she parachuted out of a plane and beat the original Legend of Zelda video game. She is the author of the Summerset Abbey Series, a New Adult Edwardian trilogy she writes under TJ Brown and the author of Born of Illusion, a Young Adult novel coming out in June 2013 from Balzer +Bray. You can find her at www.tjbrownbooks.com or www.Teribrownbooks.com.

You Mock My Printz! The 10-1 Book Club

This past October, sixteen freshmen and sophomores got together in their school library, after school, with the express goal of finding the best teen book of the year over the four months that would follow.  It’s a big job, but they had plenty of help on hand: five librarians, four public and one school, that had come together to make the job a fun and easy one.  Recently, I wrote about the benefits of networking with teen services librarians in nearby locations.  This school year, one of my networking projects has been this multi-library book club that began as a combination joint TAB and Mock Printz book discussion group.  The 10 to 1 Book Club meets between October (10) and January (1) and narrows the field from ten books to the one it thinks is the best of the bunch.  It’s been a real success, and we are extra excited heading toward the Youth Media Awards to see how close we came to matching the Printz award and honors books.

It’s not always straightforward to connect teens with the newest, best reviewed fiction.  Library budget and processing cycles mean it may be months before a newly released book makes it onto the shelves.  Heavy course loads and highly demanding extracurriculars limit the amount of time teens have to read recreationally.  Busy teens have difficulties making it to the library between school, sports, extracurriculars, jobs, family responsibilities, and doing that essential teen task: hanging out.  Additionally, we have noticed that while participation may be strong early in the school year, as obligations mount, attendance can dwindle in the springtime.  Our book club took both of these factors into account.  We have structured the group for the teens, making it easy for them to get to the meetings by spreading them around at the four local libraries as well as the school library, and only meeting between October and January.  We have all made a commitment to providing multiple copies of the books, and using displays, and the same bookmarks, posters, and stickers to promote them at all of the libraries.

All involved libraries used uniform signs, spine labels, and bookmarks to highlight the titles.

Choosing the books

In selecting the list, I say it is a balanced selections of contenders because though we are trying to encourage teens to choose the best YA book of the year, we stacked our list in hopes of appealing to a wide range of readers.  We included speculative and realistic, contemporary and historical, guy and girl appeal.  Our list was drawn from our newest favorites, and relied heavily on Karyn Silverman and Sarah Couri’s Someday My Printz Will Come blog and reviews.  From a long list of possibilities, each of us read and previewed and then chose our top twelve.  The votes were tallied to come up with a shorter list, which we then tweaked and balanced based on the interest of our local teens.

Setting the meetings

Understanding that we were asking teens to read above and beyond their schoolwork and hoping they would choose our books for their recreational reading, but knowing that we’d be pushing some out of their comfort zone, we wanted to make the meetings as simple as possible.  The four public libraries are all in communities that feed into one public high school.  Meetings were scheduled roughly once a month, distributed across each public library, with more meetings happening at the school.  We promised to feed them at every meeting, providing lunch at the meeting on the half day of school and at our final meeting, the voting party.

Finding participants

We drew on summer reading participants in the public library, and our amazing school librarian hand delivered invitations to each of her top readers – many of whom made up our group.  We used a uniform flyer for promotion, and branded the program with the same logo at each location to give it more of a presence.  Several of the teens knew one another, but as it is a large school, there were some new friendships formed as well.

Discussing the books

This part was a cake walk.  Once we provided the list, we invited teens to read any and all of the books on their own schedule, so each meeting was full of teens talking up the books that they had read and persuading one another to read the good ones or skip those that didn’t resonate with them.  Very little guidance on our part was needed, as the teens were wonderfully articulate and informed.  We did have lots of opportunity for readers’ advisory and offering further reading suggestions, and the teens swapped suggestions too.

Our vote

Our final meeting was January 21st.  It was a day off of school, so we meet at a local lunch spot where the librarians treated the teens to lunch, collected their votes, and thanked them for participating by raffling off an autographed copy of Ask the Passengers, which I was fortunate to pick up at the YALSA YA Literature Symposium.  If you think autographed books are appealing to teens, you should have seen the dropped jaws when I held this carrot out to the teens.  Don’t get jaded — ARCs and autographs, Skype chats and simple notes from authors are HUGES to teens who are not as connected to the world of books and authors as librarians are these days.

And the winner was….

CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein
The two runners-up:
Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley
Every Day by David Levithan

Next steps

Since we are located in the Chicago suburbs, we are hoping to bring some teens to the Exhibits at ALA’s Annual Convention this summer.  Offering the opportunity to meet authors and get galleys was incredibly exciting to our teens, and helped to persuade several to join.  But there are still more ways to keep the teens engaged for the 2-9 portion of the year, such as…

  • involving them in choosing next year’s ten books
  • trying to arrange a Skype chat with winning authors 
  • encouraging the teens to involve their friends with “bring one – get one” incentives with small gift cards to local businesses or first dibs on ARCs
  • getting their feedback on the development of the school’s summer reading list (something that was a big topic of conversation at lunch on the 21st)
  • drawing on their enthusiasm to drive our Summer Reading Clubs (they didn’t know they were actually signing up for a stealth TAB group!)
  • inviting them to review books for our library webpages and blogs.

If you think setting up a Mock Printz for teen readers is beyond your abilities, it’s not.  Invite some other librarians to join you and jump in.  It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had this year.
Please feel free to share your experiences with teen book groups and Mock Printz programs in the comments.