Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Take 5: Memoirs on writing to hand to aspiring teen authors

“How do you become an author?” We’ve heard teens ask that question every time they meet an author – published, famous, or neither. And we’ve all heard the answer too: read. Read everything. Read more. No, even more than that.

Reading is essential. But more than novels, teens who are firmly dedicated to the writing life will benefit from reading some writing on the craft. Here are five books to hand to teens for inspiration and instruction.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne LamottLamott’s brief classic on writing (and life) is a must-read for teens seeking with a desire to live a life full of creativity. Her approach is gentle and frank, and full of examples and ideas that will spark action.

Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

Hole in my life by Jack GantosHow much do you want to be a writer? Why? It took a series of crappy decisions resulting in incarceration on a drug offense for children’s author Gantos to really answer those questions. Hand this Printz Honor book to teens who don’t see a path from their current life to the writer’s life.

A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Paterson

A Sense of Wonder by Katherine PatersonAnother path to writing for youth by  Newberry Medal and National Book Award winner Katherine Paterson. This essay collection is culled from her many years of work. It gives insight into the books she has written, why she wrote them, and offers comfort and copious inspiration to those who aspire to write for youth.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King

Teens with aspirations of publishing would be well served to learn from one of the biggest publishing successes of our time. King begins his memoir with his path to authorship through poverty and addiction, and into his craft. The second half of the book offers specific instructions and examples of the rules King lives and writes by. Essential reading.

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose

Reading Like a WriterReading for the pure joy of reading transports us to different places and times. It helps us connect with each other and with ourselves. What teens will learn over time is that reading for the pleasure of reading is only one way to do it. When I started selecting books for the library, I looked at them differently, just like when I started reviewing books. When I began editing books, yet another way of reading emerged. Here, Prose walks readers through the experience of reading as a writer, looking at successful writers and sussing out what it is about their work that allows for us to connect with it as readers.

Sunday Reflections: Growing Children as Readers

Every piece of recent research points to the fact that, above all else, freedom of choice is the key to engaging children with reading and turning them into lifelong learners. And not just choice of reading material, although that is of primary importance, but choice of what to read, when to read, how to read, and even why to read. Children (and by this I am referring to the broadest possible definition of the term, 0-18 year olds) need to choose their own reading materials. They need autonomy in choosing topic, format, length, and reading level. They thrive if they are given a choice of where to read and how to read – in a group or alone, in a chair, on the floor, one book at a time, several at once, devouring a series in order or jumping in at the middle, reading a book only after seeing a the movie, or vice versa – these are all key factors for some readers. Determining for themselves when it is best to read (within reason) gives them ownership over their reading. And finally, they need to choose why to read, and that choice needs to be for themselves. Children will only get so far as readers if they are reading to please an adult, fulfill a requirement, or earn a prize. To build lifelong readers, we need to engage children at their most basic, selfish level. This is something I DO FOR ME.

This is not to say that we sit back and just let children flounder about on their own. There are a myriad of ways to encourage children to take ownership of their own reading life. Simply generating excitement for reading materials and authors is a positive step in the right direction. Author visits, character visits, readers advisory, eye-catching and varied displays, and ample time to explore their own interests are important in the development of children as readers.

Children can also thrive in an environment where they monitor and track their own reading progress, if it is handled correctly. Children should be sitting down regularly with an engaged and knowledgeable adult who will help them determine and set their own goals for their reading life and set up a way for them to keep track of where they are in terms of reaching their own goals. Regular ‘temperature check’ visits with this adult will help them to determine if they need to adjust their goals and to celebrate their progress. In an ideal world, this adult would be a parent or caregiver. In a practical world, many parents aren’t able to provide this support to their children, and even more feel unqualified to do it, whether they are or not.

Public library youth services librarians are key to combatting this particular issue. Many public library initiatives exist to both develop children as readers and develop parents as partners in reading. Programs like Every Child Ready to Read and 1000 Books Before Kindergarten seek to provide both child and parent with requisite skills to help children become successful, independent, lifelong readers. The library professionals and paraprofessionals who champion these programs are the first wave of those who can make a difference in the reading lives of children. Unfortunately, many families either don’t have access to or don’t know how or why to access library youth services programming. I make an effort every semester to worm my way into the early childhood caregiver unit in our life skills classes to raise awareness of the services public libraries supply and how to access them. The vast majority of the students I interact with in these classes are surprised to learn of these resources.

Most often, however, this role of the adult partner in reading is expected of the school teacher. This expectation is becoming increasingly less reasonable as student to teacher ratio continues to increase in conjunction with time constraints within the teaching day brought on by a focus on ‘test readiness’ to the exclusion of anything else. As well, there has been a culture of ‘do more with less’ in our schools that dates back to well before the latest economic downturn in 2008 and still continues today. Teachers are paid poorly, and many choose to change careers before they reach a state of having mastered the craft. Even those who stay are at a severe disadvantage as staff development funds dwindle and there are fewer long term career teachers to mentor them.

In the face of these realities, many schools turn to programs that are meant to incentivize reading as well as measure student progress. These programs make sense on the surface. After all, in our current culture of measurement as the pinnacle of success, anything that is not readily quantifiable, such as a student’s long term engagement with reading and learning, is not worth investing in. These programs are used to determine both what (at which reading level) and how (how often, how many books) children are to read. They also supply the why of reading – for points, which in turn become either grades or awards certificates, or entry to rewards programs. The end result of these programs is a restriction of student choice. They cannot choose to read books that aren’t included within the program. They may be denied the opportunity to read something simply because it is not on their level. Perhaps worst of all, they cannot re-read beloved books (because you can only get credit once.)

So, why do schools turn to these packaged reading programs? Lack of understanding, misinformation, and our current educational culture all play their part, but the real culprit is expediency. They are a shortcut that promises results. They may even provide results in the short term, but their long term impact can be devastating. Is this really what we want for our children? And what can we do when faced with these programs?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may be familiar with my strategy. If you are a parent, I would exhort you to read everything you can about the subject and then share this information with your children’s teachers and the administrators at their schools (who are often the driving force behind use of these programs.) Don’t allow your frustration over the impact of these programs to immobilize you. Ask to meet with your child’s teachers and calmly explain your position as you express your desire to opt your child out of this program. Take a stand against the harm these programs cause. If you are a public librarian, look into ways to form partnerships with your local schools to have access to those making these decisions. Offer to provide training, guest speakers, or alternative programs. Continue to work to educate the parents and caregivers of the children you serve.

Unlike the ‘shortcut to results’ programs, this is a long game we are playing. We need to pace ourselves and realize that gains and changes will take time. There will be setbacks as well as victories. We need to support each other and work together to make this difference for our children.


Sunday Reflections: Shameful Reading

I may have looked normal growing up, but I never really felt normal, if that makes any sense. I really doubt anyone does feel “normal”, but I was definitely a book lover from an early age. We have pictures of me reading everywhere- to my newborn baby brother, in campers, in the backyard, in the pool, at camp, on the bus during games…
And while what I read outside my house was “normal” (picture will show Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, BTW, if you look close), what I read at home wasn’t. My parents never censored my reading-they turned me loose to whatever I wanted, and trusted that if I had questions or didn’t feel up to a book that I would turn away from it. So at home I would alternate between the serializations and novelizations of Star Trek and Start Trek: The Next Generation, all the horror I could find by Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Saul, highlander romances by Julie Garwood and the oh-so twisted stories VC Andrews. 

Outside my house, however, it was always a different story. Being a reader was a thing, and being a brain and a girl was a thing, and then reading the things I was reading was definitely an ISSUE (brought up by a few well-meaning adults), and I was definitely shy… So instead of confrontation (or even covering the books- because they were LIBRARY books and you don’t even bend the PAGES down on library books) I adjusted my reading habits outside. I read the Babysitters Club, and Sweet Valley High series. I read Mary Higgins Clark outside, because that was OK, and I read Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes. Poe was OK because everyone thought he was assigned reading. But nothing too dark or too weird for the high school girl.

Today, I still get that weird vibe from people that I don’t know. I read all sorts of things- one day I will be reading a YA book for TLT, the next I could be reading a book for a committee that I’m on, or the next I could be reading urban fantasy because I LIKE it. Yet someone always seems to feel the need to say something about what I’m reading. I can be at lunch, and be buried into the newest Eric Jerome Dickey book (who I met during a TxLA conference, BTW, awesome guy), and someone will make noises in the booth next to me and then start telling me why I shouldn’t be reading that.
Or I can have the newest book by Laurell K. Hamilton, and I have been stopped on my way out and told that I shouldn’t be reading that type of book. As if they know what type of book it is by the cover.
I’ve been stopped and chastised for reading The Lunar Chronicles. Why? Because it had a machine foot on the cover. “No good girl needs to be reading about androids and aliens.”
No one has ever stopped That Guy and told HIM he can’t read a Laurell K. Hamilton book or an Eric Jerome Dickey book. If he carried around 50 Shades of Gray they wouldn’t stop him either. So why stop me? Is it because I turn a much more interesting shade of red when embarrassed? Because I don’t want to get gunk on my book?

I was and still can be embarrassed by strangers for noticing what I read. Not for asking what it is that I’m reading, or for taking an interest- that’s not a problem, and I love sharing books. I’d be in the wrong profession, and writing on the wrong blog if I wasn’t. However, no one should be shamed about what they read, which is why the tagline from Lifetime’s spot for The Flowers in the Attic irks me.

I wasn’t forbidden to read it, no one I know was forbidden to read it- and to use that as a tag line just to make it all that more scandalous is just wrong. There are plenty of things you can use: The book you hid away to read, the book you hid under the covers to read, the book you snuck away to read…. Yes, they’re twisted and weird and just oh so wrong (and if you haven’t read the entire Dollinganger series including Garden of Shadows, you don’t know how twisted it is) but there’s nothing wrong with that. Making people feel ashamed of liking the books is wrong.

It’s extremely similar to what I see happening to my guys. I don’t think that guys don’t like to read- I think they get shamed OUT of it. They start all enthusiastic in picture books. And run towards Diary of Wimpy Kid, Guinness Book of World Records, and others. But then once they hit later elementary/early middle school, it starts to be shameful to be a reader for boys now. You’re supposed to be into gaming and sports or you aren’t manly and upholding your image. If you’re too much into anime and manga you’re a geek, if you read too much sci fi you’re a nerd, and lord help you if you actually *like* an assigned reading like The Outsiders or one of the current YA pick lists. Girls are allowed to be raving over authors like Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson and John Green, but if you’re a guy and into them just as much? Being called a “girl” is the nicest thing I’ve heard. 

For fear of having other guys catch them, I’ve seen my teens hide books in the magazines and chairs so others won’t catch them reading, I’ve checked things out on the sly and sneak them into their backpacks so that others won’t know they checked them out. I’ve had teens keep books in my office and just chill after school. 

Guys like to read- I’ve got a dozen that proved that by reading 35 hours or more over their Winter break in order to spend 13 hours locked in my building overnight. But not when they are made ashamed to read or ashamed of what they’re reading. And this is something we, as teen services specialists, need to work on- because no one deserves to feel ashamed of reading.

Sunday Reflections: True confessions of a #seriesslacker

Have you ever started a series and just never finished it?  If you answered yes, then you are a series slacker. 

This recently came up on Twitter.  Christie called me out because I have started reading several series and just never finished them.  And it turns out, there are a lot.

Beautiful Creatures
The Mortal Instruments

The list goes on.
It is possible that the only series I have finished are Harry Potter and Twilight.

It’s not that I didn’t even like the series, it’s just that a bunch of other books came out in between and I fell behind.  I don’t know about you, but my TBR (to be read list) is always longer than the actual amount of time that I have in my life.

Sometimes, of course, I don’t finish because I simply decide I don’t like the series.  To be honest, I never even finished book 1 of Beautiful Creatures.  But I really liked the movie and might try it again.

I have heard some people talk about waiting until a complete series is written before even reading book 1.  They do this because they don’t want to wait in between titles, which makes complete sense when you have just picked up book 2 which has come out a year later and you can’t remember the details of book 1.  I wonder how many people actually do this?

Christie, however, apparently believes very strongly in finishing a series.

So for fun today, share with us either in the comments or on Twitter (#seriesslacker) if you are a series slacker and what series you haven’t finished reading (yet).

A Day In the Life of a Library: Lock-In Preparation

A lock-in can be extremely rewarding for teens and libraries if done the proper way.  You, the teen services specialist, need buy in not only from your teens (which is relatively easy- I mean, if you don’t have teens clamoring to stay all night in the library, email me, we need to talk), but also within your community (meaning the parents/guardians and other patrons) and your administration (not only your boss, but your director, the Friends of the Library, and the Library Board).  Getting that buy-in may not always be easy, but if you have a secure plan in place, I find it’s a sure-fire way to start.

I have always tied mine in with a reading program (summer or winter) in order to have the teens EARN the privileged to stay the night.  I know that other libraries may not do this (I know others have special lock-ins for TAG groups, for instance) but I work (and have worked) in areas where teens need that extra push to read- they need a goal to work for, and the prizes that we’re able to give may not be the encouragement that they need.  Having adults that care enough to spend the night with them, and crazy enough to plan fun and interesting activities, shows that there is someone out there that wants them to succeed enough to devote the time and energy to them.  And it is a LOT of time and energy, so much that I don’t think anyone really realizes it from the outside. I know that a lot of my teens don’t. On lock-in days alone, I am physically AT my building starting at 5 p.m., and do not leave before 8:30 a.m. the next morning (15 1/2 hours).  In addition, on lock-in days, I am gathering donations from sponsors and collecting last minute necessities and prepping for the day.  Easily, I work (and I mean WORK) 20 hours on a lock-in day.

A typical lock-in day will go like this:

    11 a.m.-1 p.m.
    Placing calls and finalizing details.  This can involve arranging last minute delivery of donated food from local vendors like pizza, or arranging to pick-up T-shirts for the lock-in.  I’m also going over my check-list of places I need to go to and things I need to pick-up, as well as packing for the day.  I’ll stop back by my house between 4-5 p.m., and then I won’t be back until 9 a.m. the next morning, so I need to have everything in bins ready to grab and go. 
    1-4 p.m.
    Driving and gathering donations from various vendors around town.  This can be anything from pre-packaged pastries for breakfast, to freebies and trinkets from the Dollar Store, to juice and Kool-Aide donated from the local grocery stores.

    4-5 p.m.
    Packing up any supplies and materials at my house for transport to the library: PS3 and Wii games and controllers, board games, plates, napkins, and other donations that have been given by parents or other members of the community.

    5-7 p.m.

    Arrive at building, and set up library and large meeting rooms for lock-in.  Check off teen and chaperone names as they come in, and remind them that they need to be in the large meeting room at 7 for lock-down.  Have teens help set up tables and chairs for dinner, and gaming systems in the library.

    7-8 p.m.
    Building check with other staff to make sure building is clear, call any parents of teens that are AWOL.  Dinner.

    8-9 p.m.
    Group games.  We have done Clue, Werewolf, Building Capture the Flag, Muggle Quidditch, Apples to Apples, Killer Bunnies- anything that can be done as a group that will get some energy burned off.
    9-10 p.m.: Free time.  Teens can be anywhere in the building except the off limits zones.  I will be wandering halls, checking on teens, and making sure things are going smoothly.

    10-11 p.m.
    Gym time.  We have a tradition of chaperone vs. teen volleyball games, then dodgeball, basketball, or anything else we desire.

    11-12 midnight
    Free time.

    12 midnight- 2 a.m.
    Group movie time.  Anyone not asleep in the safe rooms (separate for boys and girls, and I check) is required to come to the library to watch the group movie.  This year it will be Flash Gordon.

    2 – 3 a.m.

    Free time.

    3 – 4 a.m.
    Group games.  Anyone not asleep in the safe rooms is required to join us in the large meeting room for group games.  These are usually based around a theme- this year it will be 80’s games like Twister, musical chairs to 80’s bands, and Team Operation.

    4-7 a.m.
    Free time.  This is the most important time to be wandering around.  Anyone found asleep who is not in the safe room is fair game for marking, and I get LOTS of pictures.  We’ve found them under desks, in corners, everywhere.  And one teen always gets marked, no matter what he does.

    7-8 a.m.
    Group wake-up, clean up, and breakfast.  One of the main rules I have with any teen program is that we set up and we clean up, and a lock-in is no exception.  We have to leave the BUILDING in opening order, so we have to clean up any messes that have been made, and when I mean WE, I mean the teens.  Kool-Aid on the floor, go find the mop.  Pizza crusts didn’t make in the garbage, go clean it up.  Everything is clean before the donated breakfast (usually donuts or other pastries) is served.

    8 a.m.
    Teens are released.  Those that are within walking distance can walk home, and those that need rides can call, or leave with parents. Hopefully all parents are waiting by 8 to pick up everyone, but I have had some be as late as 9.

    8:30 a.m.
    I am hopefully leaving the building after doing a final walk-through, loading up my car, and locking up everything before the building opens in 30 minutes.  The library staff will show at 9, the building itself will open at 9, but the library won’t open until 10.  If any teens have not been picked up, I stay until 9 when the building is opened, and then they are on their own.

    Yet, the fact that I have 12 at-risk teens who read 35 hours over their winter break, and the fact that my summer lock-in grows every year, shows that I’m doing something right.  These same teens are the ones who’s reading scores were failing and are now passing or higher.  While I cannot concretely tie it to involvement in the library, the reading program, and the lock-ins, I have to be doing something right.  They’re coming to the library, and they are reading.  They’re sharing their favorite authors with me, and I’ll catch two or three of them reading new books during free time. Every year, my roster of volunteer chaperones gets larger- they are my former teens wanting to make a difference.  So, something is right.

    Show Me How to Live: Guest blogger Eric Devine talks YA Lit with the boys in his class

    Today, ya author of Tap Out and high school teacher Eric Devine presents a guest post on getting boys to read.  As you know, trying to turn teenage boys into readers can be a challenge.  So Eric sat down with the boys in his class and asked them what they wanted in the books that they read.  Here is that discussion.

    Show Me How to Live

    As a YA fiction writer, I write books that I hope teenage boys will read. As a high school English teacher, I try to foster readership for all my students. Based on my conversation with a mostly white, middle class group of sophomore boys, and my own inclinations as a writer and educator, I may be striving for the impossible.

    The Questions

    I asked my aforementioned boys the following:

    1.     What do you like about Young Adult literature?

    2.     What do you dislike about Young Adult literature?

    3.     Do you read YA for pleasure? If so, why? If not, why?

     First off, the boys had a difficult time defining “Young Adult literature”. I narrowed the field to stories about anyone 14 to 17 years old. One of the girls said, “Like Hunger Games? Or Twilight?” I affirmed her response and that got the ball rolling. Sort of.

    The Likes:







    Individuals with power (supernatural or otherwise)


    Romance (a small minority)

    This makes sense to me. Boys are drawn to action and adventure, either by design or by upbringing. Even the most sensitive male teen will fall into a story that is fast-paced. I have also seen that boys like violence, especially in the form of vengeance by one of the powerful or superhero characters. This, to me, speaks of their comfort with the universal black and white, good versus evil archetype. They don’t see this violence as excessive or unnecessary. It’s part of the world when evil exists. More on this later. I can also appreciate the inclination toward the supernatural and Sci-Fi, because such genres are of “other” places, where events occur outside the realm of possibility, and are, therefore, not threatening, because they’re not about “real life”.

    The Dislikes:

    Events are not handled as they would be in real life

    The characters act too immature

    The time it takes to read

    The title “Young Adult” itself

    I was surprised by these answers to a degree. I’ve long seen boys choose video games over books, but the idea that conflicts and characters were not demonstrative of how life is was unnerving. And the last comment, the label, was something I had never considered. According to one boy, “Why would I want to be seen checking out a book for a young adult. I want to read adult things?”

    [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0gQNxQ4kjw] 

     Why/Why Not?

    The time it takes

    More enjoyable to watch a movie than to read a book

    Simply, “I do not read.”

    There was nothing shocking here. Boys will be blunt. Reading is not their thing. It’s for girls. They have better ways to spend their time.

     My Conclusions

    I already knew as a teacher that I’m in a staggering uphill battle. Therefore, this conversation only confirmed that I must continue to show the merit of reading and practice what I preach. Talk books, garner interest, bring them to the library.

    As a writer I cannot shy away from the reluctance. I must use it as a challenge, which I’ve already done with Tap Out. I wrote a novel that meets all of the requirements on the “like” list, while refusing to succumb to a shallow representation of the good versus evil motif. I demonstrated that life is gray, muddled, and that who is good and just isn’t always clear. There aren’t always untarnished protagonists, who in the end are victorious.

    And that act and this conversation have brought me to one conclusion: Boys want to be shown how to live.

    I mean this in both the literal and figurative sense. Boys will read. They will read non-fiction, especially sports and military related stories. There’s comfort there, and no stigma. Same with the superheroes and supernatural, because really, aren’t our sports stars and military heroes the template for such? Or vice versa?

    Boys want manuals for life, stories about how to get from A to B, and not with the safety nets that are sometimes present in YA, because they know they will never exist for them in the real world. Boys want to walk away from a story with a lesson that is valuable for what they deem is important in life. And by the “like” list we can see that they need some guidance.

    If we follow my logic, they don’t like violence inherently, they read about it to avoid the scrape, or possibly to learn how to kick ass if the time comes. That’s not an endorsement, but a reality. Boys get this. They also want to see themselves in mythical status, the superhero of their story. And why shouldn’t they? That’s how you build confidence, which so many of my boys lack, or fail to present in any way beyond cockiness. Boys also seem to understand that the villain also sees himself as the hero of his own story, and that whoever has the most power dictates which narrative unfolds. Frightening, but true in a world of social media, instant rumor mill and the pervasive bully, who now lurks in corners, hangs out in the open, and strikes from all angles.

    I believe the zombies and romance elements are rooted in the same concern: love. This is a giant untouchable for boys. They don’t talk about love. They don’t talk about feelings much, period (at least in a class). Men don’t either. Not stereotypically or theoretically, but in the majority. So why should boys buck the trend? Because they’re still naive enough, still hopeful enough, and still vulnerable enough to learn.

    Zombies are the manifestation of death of the human spirit. They exist, but have no emotion, just pure desire for the ultimate taboo. Romance is on the other end of the spectrum, the pining, the swooning, the tears—all of which gets made fun of during Romeo and Juliet, but in reality hits home when it’s delivered correctly in YA. Boys stumble, are inarticulate, are overwhelmed by hormones. They need a character to be there, too, but somehow still manage to go out with the girl. Not because possession of the girl is the goal, but love is. Feeling. Not being a zombie.

    Teachers, find stories that address the criteria of the “like” list for your boys. Ignore the dislikes. Enough good reading and they may forget they disliked books in the first place. Read with them. Talk to them about what they’re reading. Encourage. We have enough non-readers as is, and as Twain said, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

    Writers, be brave, and if writing for boys, just go for it. Don’t be afraid to be politically correct or feel compelled to follow some stock template for your protagonist. Believe that you are filling a fundamental need, and that is to teach our youth something vital. That’s what storytelling is all about, anyway. Your characters should be flawed and genuine, and if you care enough to bring them through conflicts that alter their perceptions, challenge their biases and beliefs, stretch their mettle beyond what they assume reasonable, guess what? You’ll have done the same for our boys. You will have shown them how to live. For that, we can all thank you.
     Eric Devine is a teacher and author of the new young adult novel Tap Out, published by Running Press Kids.  You can read more about it at his webpage or at Goodreads.  Tap Out is the contemporary story of 17-year-old Tony, growing up in a trailer park where a string of abusive men come in and out of his and his mother’s life.  Tony may have found a way out when he joins a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class, but there are so many elements – including local gangs – that can be hard to escape in the neighborhood.  The Mr. read Tap Out and gave it a thumbs up.  It is gritty and raw and real, but so our the lives that some of our teens are living.  The language can be rough, but it reflects the environment that Tony is growing up in.  For some teens, they will see themselves reflected in this book.  For others, they will get a glimpse into a life that can’t imagine but is sadly all to real for some of our teenage boys.  Tap Out by Eric Devine is in stores now (ISBN 9780762445691).