Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Looking back: TLT, connection, and a life spent reading

And so ends another decade. My teenager is fond of pointing out how MANY of these I have now seen. He also looooves to tell me that now 1990 is 30 years ago, and not, like, ten, which is what it is in my head. Rude.

Many of these past few years (what do we call these? the 2010s? 20-teens?) have been filled with TLT goodness. I sat down to think about what I wanted to write and started to think of how I’d summarize the highlights of various decades. A theme becomes quite obvious:

The 1970s were my toddler years and so many of the pictures from then were either of me sleeping on reading parents or being read to.

1978. With the first dachshund in my life, Ludwig.

The 1980s saw my absolute love of reading grow. For a while, we lived in a teeny tiny town (like 300 people) in very rural southern Minnesota. There was a one-room library (with a great Care Bear mural on the side) that I was allowed to bike to. I read every single children’s book they had (in order of how they were shelved), so it’s a good thing we upgraded and then moved to a town of 9,000.

My mom saved this little packet from elementary school. It’s many pages long and reading shows up as answers about a dozen times.

The 90s brought a continued obsession with reading and writing, making my own zine, and getting degrees in English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies—both reading-heavy fields.

1998. My brother’s polka dot hair was pretty great. My hair color changed weekly.

The zines I wrote in the 90s. Long live teen angst!

Some of my 1990s journals. I wrote in them almost every single day for the whole decade.

The 2000s saw me work in three bookstores, get a master’s degree in Children’s Literature, start reviewing books professionally, marry a bookstore manager, and also become a mother (having a child was a great reason to constantly buy more books).

Callum at age 3.

The 2010s (again, the whats? tens? teens?) brought working in three libraries, presenting about YA lit in various capacities, and working for Teen Librarian Toolbox. Through all of those decades, through the various ways I consumed and produced work about books, it was the connections I made that meant as much to me as all the reading did.


We’ve reflected on what TLT means to us before. You can read what I said here at year seven and here at year six. I’m not going to repeat what I wrote. I am going to say, though, that I can’t imagine having not been blogging for TLT the past five and a half years. It’s brought so many great people into life, and those connections have made me a better parent, librarian, writer, advocate, and person. Though my Twitter is often just a dachshund account, I started it around the same time I started blogging here and think of the two as totally tied together. I feel lucky to always be learning from teachers, librarians, writers, and other readers. For me, TLT is a chance to share, yes, but it’s also a chance to connect, to learn. How lucky to feel that I get this great outlet and I get to always be learning.

I look forward to seeing what book-related joys the 2020s bring into my life.

Happy new year and happy reading!

It’s Time to Break Down our Reading Boxes

In the third grade, my daughter read and loved Fudge by Judy Blume.  So I asked her if she wanted to read Double Fudge, and she looked at me and said, “Oh I am not allowed because it is above my level.”  I had a very visceral reaction to this reply.  My first thought was, who the heck is telling my daughter that she can’t read something – isn’t that my job?  Then I moved on to the, why would we tell a kid they couldn’t read something they wanted to read?

The AR Box

It turns out that she wasn’t allowed to read it according to her teacher because they were doing AR (accelerated reader) and it was leveled higher than what her grade level was. I tried to explain to her that she could read it, of course, but the truth was that if she wanted to stay on track to get the number of AR points that she needed for school then there wasn’t a lot of time for any non-AR reading. Which is when I decided that I hated AR as I sat there and watched it suck the joy out of reading from my child.

For 3 years now I have watched her scramble to find ways to get a certain number of points. I have watched her suffer miserably as she read utter crap to get those last 2 points that she needed in 2 days time. I have watched her pick up a book around our house with a fiery, burning interest in her eyes only to see her put it back down again because it’s not on the AR list. Or it’s not on “her level”.

Then I learned that they had “Reading Clubs.” What this means is that they can read say a Nancy Drew book, but they can only read 3 and then they have to move on to a different reading club. Magic Tree Houses, A to Z Mysteries, etc. So if you find a series you really, really like, you can only read 3 of them. This rule is, I’m sure, designed to get readers to try a wide variety of books. What it does is give the illusion of free choice – because as we know being able to select your reading materials increases you enjoyment of reading – while really only gives kids a limited reading choice. Plus, it creates frustrating reading experiences while kids find series that they want to read but are forced to move on to different choices to meet outside demands. More boxes.

Read. Read for fun. Read all the time we say.  And then we go and put readers in boxes and suck all the joy out of reading.

This is a girl book. This is a boy book.  This book is above your level.  This book is below your level.  Tons of boxes.

The Big Box of Reading Levels

The other day a mother came in and asked where the books for 3rd graders are. Well, we don’t have a section of books for 3rd graders. We have a large selection of books for Middle Grade readers (approximately ages 8 through 12ish).  She wanted to know why we didn’t put stickers on the spines that said 3RD GRADE. So we had a chat. You see, not all 3rd graders are alike. They don’t all read at the same level. They don’t all like the same things. And can you imagine if we grade levelled all of our books what it would be like for that 3rd grader caught reading a book that said 1st grade on the spine. Actually, I can assure you they probably just wouldn’t be caught carrying around a book.

The Gender Box

This is also true of boys and girls. We like to talk about what “boys” read and what “girls” read. A family was in the other day selecting some Bluebonnet books off the list to read. On one of the covers was a boy, so she kind of cast the cover aside and said, “This is a boy book.” “Actually,” I said, “There are no boy books or girl books. There are just books. Books are about life, our world. They help us to learn about the lives of different people, the validate our experiences and emotions, the broaden our view of the world.” She paused, “That’s true,” she said. But they didn’t check out the “boy book”. But they did consider it, where they wouldn’t before.

The Reading Must Be Educational Box, i.e. “Good Books” Box (see also, quality books or literature or whatever term you choose to use to denote “quality”)

Another mom came in and wanted classics for her 7 year old daughter. She didn’t want her reading any of that “crap”. She really wanted her daughter to develop a large vocabulary. “The truth is,” I said, “reading is about more than learning new words. If your daughter likes to read Magic Rainbow Fairy Pixie Dust books, she is learning about relationships and how to navigate them, she is learning decision making, she is learning about cause and effect, she is learning about problem solving, she is learning about creative thinking . . . books are about so much more than big vocabulary words.” This mother was very receptive and I was able to get her to check out some books that her daughter was actually interested in reading instead of making her try and read Moby Dick in the 1st.

Boxes, Boxes Everywhere

Cute Puppy Alert!

In this world, I have noticed, we are so interested in putting people in our boxes. We want to make them smaller than they really are. We want to label them. He goes in the boxes marked “boy”, “jock” and “angry”. She goes in the box marked “girl”, “slut”, and “depressed”. As if we aren’t complicated creatures. As if we aren’t fluid and changing. Here is some fancy psychology talk for you. Piaget talks about the idea of assimilation and accommodation. When we are little, before we know much of the world, we see an animal and think CUTE PUPPY. Because we know what a puppy is so every other hairy, four-legged creature is a puppy in our small, limited mental capacity. But as we grow and our view of the world expands, we begin to realize that not all four-legged creatures are puppies so we get more and more boxes to label things. There are puppies and kitties and bears – oh my! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). It’s time to grow up and change the way we view readers.

Less Boxes, More Individuals

But when it comes to looking at people, the people standing in front of us, shouldn’t we stop putting them in boxes and see them as individuals? The correct answer here is yes! I am a girl and my daughter is a girl and really the only thing we have in common that makes us both girls is that we have these female anatomy bits. She has a sister. They are both girls but that have very little in common. If you put them in a box together based on their female bits you would be very, very wrong and know absolutely nothing about them. And the same is true for boys. Knowing someone’s gender doesn’t tell you what they like to read.

I once had a boy come in and ask for the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I am ashamed to say that I assumed that he was being forced to read it for school. But he wasn’t, he just wanted to read it. And then I got a library director, a man, who loved – and I do mean loved – Harlequin romances. He read them, he collected them, and he goes around speaking about them. If you gave him a number he could tell you what the title and author of that number would be. They didn’t fit in my boxes, so I had to break my boxes down.

Because boxes aren’t helpful. They are limiting. They are based on assumptions, and you know what happens when we assume, right? They are damaging. They make the world smaller when what we are trying to do by promoting reading is make it bigger. They take away choice and put up limits and walls and barriers. They limit discovery.

It’s time to break down our reading boxes. Deal with individuals, not stereotypes or preconceived ideas. Discuss books in terms of themes and writing styles, not genderized audiences, grade levels or AR points. Take the time to really help individual readers select and connect with books that will ignite a passion for reading in them. Make the world bigger.