Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Dear Well Meaning Adult, Here’s how to buy books for teens on your list.

Dear Well Meaning Adult,

Maybe you’re a relative, maybe you’re a friend, but no matter what, it is so awesome that you want to buy books for teens this holiday season. If you don’t mind, can I give you a few tips about how to buy books that these teens that you so clearly care about will actually read and enjoy? It won’t take long, I promise. I know you’re busy.

gift booksHere are a teen service librarian’s tips on buying books for the different kinds of teens who might be on your list this year.

The teen you don’t know very well, but know they like to read

If you know this teen likes to read, that’s a good first step. Chances are, he or she has read the big blockbusters (you know, the ones with movies out?) or has some favorite authors or genres. Ask for some broad details – realistic or fantasy? historical or contemporary? generally light or generally serious? A good place to start with this kind of teen is the stuff that’s a click or two away from the really popular stuff.  Get the name of a favorite author and look to find his or her first novel. Or check the jacket copy on the books that are front and center and see which authors have provided endorsements or quotes, then look for them. For a voracious reader, you could go one of two ways: try to find the newest, hottest author before they’ve hit it big, or go five to ten years back and find something that was well received back then. Remember – something hot seven years ago was hot when today’s thirteen year olds were still learning to read. For the newest and hottest, well that’s a tricky proposition, especially for a teen you don’t know very well. But look to your local librarian or indie book store owner for personal recommendations. Or check out some amazing teen book review blogs for their picks!

The teen you know who doesn’t read but you know you want to give them a book anyway because they spend too much time doing something other than reading

It happens – I’m not judging, that’s cool. But before you head out to pick up a piece of Quality Literature though, take a minute and think about this gift. Who’s it really for and why?

If you have a beloved favorite title that was so meaningful to you as a young person that you just have to share it, please do. And as you’re doing so, please explain to the teen just why it is so important to you. Open a dialogue and share a piece of yourself with this teen as you do so. Finding caring adults who treat them with respect is a tricky thing for a lot of teens, and if they know that you are one of those people who really cares to hear what they think about something that was meaningful to you, you’ve done them a much greater service than just giving them some snow day entertainment.

If you just want them to get their face out of their phones, think for a minute about why their faces are always in their phones. Do they love celebrity gossip? Gaming? The social interaction? Messing with photography or stop motion animation apps? These are their interests, and chances are you’ll be able to find a novel, nonfiction title, or magazine that dovetails nicely with the stuff they’re already interested in. The goal here is to not shame them about their preferred pastime, but to augment it.

The teen you know and love, whether or not they are avid readers

This is the easy one, because you’ve got access to this person. Sit down and fess up: you want to know them better by learning about what they want to read, what they don’t want to read, whether or not they have a favorite book, and what they think you should read. Take them out for a hot cocoa or go for a jog together and strike up a conversation. This is the gift. This time with you, with you spending more time listening than talking, even if they may roll their eyes sometimes, is part one of your gift to them.

Part two is when you’ve paid close attention and can take this conversation back to your local library where (hopefully) a skilled teen service librarian will be thrilled to suggest some great books that your (hopefully) local indie book store can order for you. And who knows. They may even gift wrap it for free.

In closing, Well Meaning Adult, we librarians want to thank you. Teens need and want people like you in their lives – people who care enough about them to believe that they need more books in their lives. Let us help you find them a book that will make their eyes light up and get a genuine “thank you” before they rush out of the room to dig into it. We know what it’s like when a suggestion falls flat. It kind of sucks. But we get another chance to get it right every day! Let us help you get it right the first time — it’s so much more rewarding. We’ll call that our gift to you.


Heather & the rest of us YA librarians out there

Take 5 Gift-Making Programs (TPiB)

Whether it’s in conjunction with the winter holidays, Mother’s Day, or just for something fun, these simple activities are inexpensive, easy to put together, and provide each teen with a nice giftable item to take home.


1. Snack-in-a-Jar

Photo credit:
There are innumerable variations on the in-a-jar theme, but the very simplest is a snack mix.  Provide jars or ask teens to bring their own – a clean spaghetti sauce jar is a good option.  Having plastic gloves and a warning about food allergies and sensitivities is a must.  The set up is simple: a table with bowls of the various snack options and scoops.  Teens mix and match and layer their preferred snack – sweet, savory, or a mix!  

Suggested items:
cheese crackers, pretzels, or other small crackers
breakfast cereals like Os, Life, Chex
sweets like M&Ms, chocolate or butterscotch chips
raisins or other dried fruits
nuts or sunflower seeds

2. Decorated Soaps

Photo credit:
I just did this craft the hard way – with persnickety adults – but doing it with teens would be lots of fun too.  Ten bars of Ivory soap were $5 at Target this week, and you probably have the other supplies already: stickers, fabric scraps, scrapbook paper, and Mod Podge.  
Shape your soap with a table knife if you want – Ivory is very soft and easy to carve.  Then cover one side of your soap with a layer of Mod Podge, arrange your decoration, and then another layer of Mod Podge.  You can get fancy and use dried flowers or herbs, or dip the decorated side in melted paraffin, or you could make fancy paper wraps for the soap, or you could skip that and just have fun.  
Broaden the appeal by including decorations like local favorite sports teams, trendy motifs (mustaches, foxes, chevrons), or seasonal items (snowmen in the winter, hearts around Valentine’s, beachy stuff in the summer).

3. “Where I’m From” Poetry

Mitten shout-out. Photo credit:
This is an approachable poetry technique that encourages the writer to pull small but significant images, senses, emotions, and events from their past, weaving them into a poem with a simple structure.  This is a technique that enables even those who have never written a poem before to create a lovely piece, and it very regularly leads to beautiful, tear-jerking results, making it an ideal gift for family, close friends, and loved ones.  First, read the George Ella Lyon poem that originated the exercise, and share several teen examples as well.  Scholastic has a nice lesson plan.  For the super creative, encourage teens to illustrate their poems.  You could also adapt this into a word cloud, to different effect. 

4. Custom Hot Cocoa Mixes

Photo credit: http://www.vanillajoy.com/
Great for an easy winter program, I’ve done this as a part of my Valentine’s Day chocolate extravaganza.  Use this recipe to make your own cocoa mix, or buy pre-made Swiss Miss.  The fun is in customizing the cocoa with add-ins like:
Chocolate or white chocolate shavings
Crushed peppermints
Cayenne pepper
Mini marshmallows
Mini chocolate chips

5. Tub Teas

Photo credit: www.marthastweart.com
This could be a spa-night activity too, but it makes a great mom/auntie/grandma item, especially for younger teens who lack resources but want something sweet and nice to give as a gift.  Martha’s tutorial uses heat sealable tea bags and fancy herbs, which can add up fast, but there are some easy ways to make this more economical:
1. Instead of the heat sealable tea bags, buy the fold-over style, or layer a few squares of cheese cloth and tie with a pretty ribbon.
2. Include a healthy scoop of epsom salt.
3. Shop your local bulk store for the herbs. 
4. Purchase a few bottles of essential oil to scent the salt.  I little goes a looong way.


TPiB: Sugar Skulls for Dia de los Muertos (not as hard as it looks)

Photo from www.MexicanSugarSkull.com – a great resource.
If you’re looking to incorporate some cultural programming with a high fun factor into your program year, I highly recommend trying this out.  Decorating calaveras, or Mexican sugar skulls in honor of Dia de los Muertos, is something I have wanted to share with my teens for several years now, but have been intimidated by how complicated it all seemed.  It appeals to several elements that my teens respond to in programs.  It’s novel, they leave with something, it’s creative, and is uses sugar.  A friend assured me that it was easier than it looked, and so I jumped in and the fifteen teens, ranging from 6th-11th grade all had a fun time.  This is not a holiday any of my teens (or I) celebrate in our own families, but if you or your teens do, all the better to share.

About the holiday:

The region I’m from has a large Mexican American population, but the community in which I work does not.  I think this is a really good reason to explore Dia de los Muertos because these teens will certainly reach beyond the borders of our sleepy suburb and encounter many different kinds of people, and it’s always good to know a little bit about other cultures, regardless of where you live.  Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, is celebrated on November 2nd.  It’s not about scary skeletons and ghosts.  It’s not Halloween.  It’s a celebration of life and transition and love for those who have died.  The sugar skulls are decorated and exchanged or given as gifts similarly to how Valentines are exchanged.  If you’re not already familiar with the celebration, it’s a good idea to read up on the holiday and traditions associated with it so you can talk about it with your teens.  Here are some useful sources

The plan:

My major road block in running this program before now was finding the blank sugar skulls.  I could find kits and I could find already decorated skulls, but no one sold the blanks (and shipped them for a reasonable price).  With the reassurance of a Spanish teacher friend of mine, I ordered a kit from Teacher’s Discovery (click through the Spanish link).  She was right.  It is easier than it looks.  I viewed a video on making the paste and another on making the blanks, and then easily knocked out about 30 skulls in my kitchen at home the day before the program.  You could make the blanks on site a day or so ahead of time as well and then not have to worry about dropping them all on your way to work.  Next came the royal icing, which I loathe, but sucked it up and did it for the teens.  I made three colors (pink, green, and yellow) which was plenty, and gave each table one set of each color, loaded into ziploc bags that they could use to pipe the color on.   See my post on making gingerbread houses for more on royal icing, but know that using the meringue powder included in the kit makes this way way easier.  Because the kit from Teacher’s Discovery contains all of the decorating supplies too, the only additional materials I needed were:


  • granulated sugar (12 cups)
  • powdered sugar (2 pounds)
  • gel type food coloring (the liquid isn’t saturated enough)
  • cardboard to rest the skulls on 
  • foil
  • scissors
  • extra bottles of glue
  • snack sized zip lock bags
  • cleaning supplies
  • gloves (if you prefer)

Most of this I had on hand, so the total cost of the program is as follows:

$27 Sugar Skull kit
$1.50 powdered sugar
$3 granulated sugar
$3 baggies                  

This produced enough skulls and royal icing for about 30 kids, which puts your cost per person right around $1 each.  Plenty of meringue powder, glitter, foil paper, and sequins remain and could be used in a subsequent program, which means I could run this again next year for only the cost of the sugars.  So if I were to do that, the price per person would be just pennies.  I’m sold.

And wow, can I tell you how amazing it was to buy that kit with all of the little bits all together after all of the programs where I’m scrounging through Michaels and the Dollar Store to get all of the random pieces?  So nice. So so so nice.

I have very good things to say about Teacher’s Discovery too.  What great customer service!  And the kit was top notch too.  The skull making supplies within the kit came from Mexican Sugar Skull, which is widely regarded as a real authority on the process and history and is where I found the useful instruction videos that I watched before making the skulls.  It’s also a good spot to find sample decorating motifs that you can show to the teens for inspiration.

skull3 skull4


Fortuantely, there are lots of great resources out there upon which to draw.  The Mexic-Arte Museum in Austin has a whole curriculum that includes games, activities, and lots of good background and conversation fodder.
I printed out a brief introduction to Dia de los Muertos from the Peabody Museum at Harvard for kids to take home and read.
I also printed up the Pan de Muertos recipe from a curricular resource from Denver Public Schools in case they wanted to get deeper into the traditions at home.
If your group is open to sharing personal details, you could use this as an opportunity to share memories of people in their lives who have died, and if you have display space in your library for teens, you could create a small ofrenda to display the skulls as well as information about the celebration.

Watch out for:

  • You know how it goes. There’s always someone who’s goofing off and wasting supplies.  Add sugar to the mix and it’s a sure thing.  Pre-setting each workspace can help moderate the crazy as there’s less movement around the room.  If  you have the resources, giving each teen a complete set of supplies ensures that you won’t have a frosting hog.
  • Remind the teens that though these are technically edible till you cover them with glue and sequins, they are not supposed to be eaten.  Especially if your library has policies regarding food prepared at home.  This is not food, it is a craft medium.  If the food ban is especially severe, you could replicate the skulls with a flour/salt dough (still technically food but wholly unappealing to the palate) or Crayola Model Magic clay (which would significantly increase the cost).  This would also mean you’d have to make the skulls much further in advance for drying time.
  • Make the skulls far enough in advance that they are completely dry – at least 24 hours ahead.
  • If your teens are on bikes or if they have to leave early, you may want to have a place for them to store their creations till they are fully dry, or advise them to bring something to transport their skull.  A plastic take out container or something like that.
  • I really hope this wouldn’t be a concern, but it’s possible that some community members could be offended at the skull imagery.  If this is the case, go back to the cultural reference links above.

Sunday Reflections: Tween Conversations

Fade In: Me, at reference desk on Valentines Day, working.  Tween Boy, 12 years old, sitting next to me.

Tween:  Miss, so you and Mr. That Guy don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day?
Me:  Yep.
Tween: Why not?
Me: Just cause.
Tween: But you like each other, right? Cuz he brings you dinner, and you hold hands and stuff.
Me: Yep.
Tween: So you didn’t get him nothing and he didn’t get you nothing.
Me: Nope.
Tween: But you made us Valentines.

Me: Yep, because you guys celebrate Valentines.
Tween: Oh.

Tween: So what else don’t you and Mr. That Guy don’t celebrate?
Me: Hanukkah. Ramadan. Kwanzaa.  Chinese New Years.
Tween: WAIT. You don’t celebrate THOSE?  WHY NOT?
Me: Hanukkah is for those who are Jewish and we’re not. Ramadan is for those who are Muslim and we’re not. Kwanzaa is for those who are primarily African-American and while I like the principals I don’t celebrate it.  We’re not Chinese.
Tween: BUT we celebrate all those in the LIBRARY!!!!!
Me: Yep.
Tween: BUT WHY? If you don’t celebrate those, why do we have them?
Me: We celebrate them because everyone who walks in the library is different, and special, and has their own beliefs.  They celebrate different things, and I can’t celebrate one thing and not the other, so we celebrate everything.

Tween: Huh.
Me: Just like we celebrate Cinco de Mayo and dieciseis de septiembre at the library even though I’m not Hispanic.
Tween: Wait, you’re an Honorary Mexican, Diego said so.
Me: Yes, but if we only celebrated my actual heritage, we’d do Irish, Scottish, German, English, and Jedi.
Tween: Wait, you’re a JEDI?!?!?
Me: Yes, that’s how I know what they’re doing in the corner. STOP RUNNING AND SIT DOWN.
Tween:  WHOA.  I love this library, Miss.  It’s awesome. Do other libraries celebrate everything?
Me: Yes, because libraries welcome everyone.
Tween:  Libraries are awesome.

True story. No embellishment. If you doubt me, ask That Guy or Karen.  They have been at my library and have met my kids.

Confessions of a Teen Librarian: Holiday Edition with Christie G

There’s been a lot of talk lately in the blogsphere (or maybe I just have been seeing the wrong blogs) about the perceptions and expectations about librarians.  To my mind, there have always been expectations that go with certain aspects of the profession, but that those that work with youth tend to get pigeonholed more than most.

It’s like we’re all to be cut from the same dough, that teen (and youth) librarians and specialists have to like certain things (*cough* Twilight *cough*), to be uber happy and joyful and sugary sweet.  Like this.  And when you’re more like this, it’s BAD.  

Hmmm.  I don’t think so.  You can’t bend your personality into something that it’s not meant to be- it’s not healthy mentally or physically, and it’s definitely not something to model to the youth that we work with on a daily basis.  We all have to put on a public face when dealing with things, but not everyone has an outlet to share them. Whether it’s a journal, blog, vlog, screaming at the wall, a best friend, a significant other, a pet- sometimes you just have to let it out.  And it seems like the holidays mean we have to hide most of all.  So….

I’ll tell you my holiday secrets if you tell me yours in the comments….

Christmas music  
I hate it.  I really do.  Which is really bad as I was in a number of bands in college.  The only song I like is Carol of the Bells, and my favorite version is actually on this little known CD.  And everything else could be lost and I’d be happy.  Especially since I’ve been hearing Christmas music in stores since before Halloween.  However, that will not happen, and it definitely won’t happen in the workplace, so I can at least make my car a Christmas song free zone.  

Holiday scheduling
It stresses me out to no end, and I’m always worried that a. someone’s going to be upset that they’re working a certain day, or b. someone’s going to call in and we’re going to be overly short (as opposed to normally short).  My part time employees do not get paid holidays, so we have to juggle their schedules around so that they can make up hours around holiday plans and second jobs, yet make sure that they don’t lose hours at this job.  And days off for full time employees have to be taken by a certain date.  I’ve been lucky the past few years that my staff have not all wanted the same days, but I have had to re-arrange my own travel plans in years past to accommodate others.  Trust me, and put yourself in your manager’s shoes when you’re looking at the schedule; if you have a good one, they’re doing their best to make everyone’s requests possible.

This time of year seems to be always a dance of what to say and how to say it.  I know that I’ve got kids who are Angels on donation trees, and registered for the city gift giving charities.  I know I have others who are getting tons of presents this year (they’ve already asked for help for when their WiiU is connected).  And I cringe for the days after Christmas when they come to the library and compare who got what, because there will be some who got nothing- and in all my years, I’ve never figured out how to take the sting out of that realization.  And it’s not like I can give them presents, because if I do for one, I have to do for all…  And then we have patrons who would love nothing better than to give us food, or gift certificates, or other things to show how much they appreciate how much we do in the community; it’s a delicate dance to turn things down that don’t fit within the regulations without offending because we are part of their family.

“The Reason For The Season”

Yes, I know that Christmas has Christ in it.  Yes, I am aware that Christianity celebrates the birth of Christ on Christmas, hence the name.  Yes, I know the purported origin of red and white candy canes (and I think the story creepy, BTW).  HOWEVER, I will wish you HAPPY HOLIDAYS not because I am a heathen or blasphemous (yes, I have been called that in the past for doing so) but because I do not know the religion of the person to whom I speak.  You could be Wiccan, Jewish, Buddist, Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, Vulcan, Jedi, or anything, because we as Americans welcome all.  Part of the reason for the country, y’all.  So, if you don’t like my HAPPY HOLIDAYS, don’t wish it back.  But karma’s a bitch.

Holiday Movies
I am very particular about the movies that I like.  My criteria may seem silly, but they’re my preferences, not yours, so that’s OK.  I don’t like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Polar Express, Scrooged, or The Santa Clause and it’s sequels.  I like Charlie Brown, and the original black and white Miracle on 34th Street.  For the rest, give me the funny or twisted ones.  National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Elf, Fred Clause, Four Christmases, Die Hard, The Ref, and Gremlins.  I need the relief from the sugar.

So what are your holiday confessions?  What breaks the cookie cutter on you?  Share in the comments below!