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