Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Growing Readers, a guest post by Sara Swenson

525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear.

525,600 minutes – how do you measure, measure a year?

Seasons of Love – Rent

The opening song from the musical Rent continues to say a year is measured in love and that’s what we’ve done these past 20 years at Edina High School. We’ve measured each year with the love of reading.

The EHS Breakfast Book Club started to bring students together to talk about books. A school librarian and an English teacher, bagels, and books. Four times a year we gather to talk about the book we’ve all read. Sometimes we all like the book, often, we don’t and that adds to the richness of the discussion. Sometimes we’re fortunate to connect with the author (in-person or online) and then our students dive into asking about characters, the writer’s inspirations, and writing habits. 

Our club members range in age, from students in grades 9-12 and are representative of our student population. Friends bring their friends to book discussions, other students bring the kids in their carpool because we meet before school. During the pandemic, we shifted seamlessly to meeting online. Our school library is a busy place; so, for book club, we meet in a classroom, a comfortable discussion setting where we move the seats into a circle.

Is what we do magical? I think so. We’ve carved out a place for readers to gather with other readers, to talk about books, and to explore books they might not choose on their own. We’ve also been intentional about creating a program where students can work on developing assets determined necessary to be successful in the future. As teacher leaders, it’s our mission to help students grow in their reading lives and start to make bridges to different types of books. Our list of past reads reflects that philosophy. The emails we receive from former students now in college, sharing how they have started book clubs in their dorms tell us we’re making a difference.

Can you do this at your school? Absolutely!

Nuts and Bolts

Find a teacher to collaborate with.

Determine what kinds of books you want to read. (Our goal is to help kids start to bridge reading adult books, so we focus on those types of fiction and non-fiction stories.)

Set a meeting schedule and location for the year. (We are a late start school which is why we meet before school.)

For each book, make a bookmark with the book club discussion date/time/location. It’s a helpful reminder for students as they read. (Mine are not fancy, black, and white, printed on cardstock.)

Treats are fundamental. Determine what will work for your group.

Help students learn to lead the discussion. (A few days ahead of time, I typically ask 2-3 students to have a question ready to ask the group.)

Model with your teacher partner how to add onto a comment to the discussion or disagree with something said

Reassure students that it’s OK not to finish a book.

Have the next book ready to go, so that when you finish discussing the current read the next book can be distributed.

Decide how you want to communicate with students. (I use Remind.)

Funding – we started with grants and are now self-funded via student dues, approx. $40 for the year.

You can do this! Book clubs provide a place for readers to gather and find other readers. They are a pathway for students to grow in their reading and make meaningful connections with adults. School book clubs are essential for students and their teachers.

20 Years of Reading by The Numbers

87 books read

21 author visits

Over 1,000 student readers through the years

Copious amounts of bagels and donuts consumed

Sara Swenson, MLIS, NBCT, Media Specialist, Edina High School, Edina, MN

Happy Arguing, a guest post by Arwen Elys Dayton

Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is a novel in six parts that looks at the unlimited possibilities of biotech advances and the ethical quandaries they will provoke. Arwen Elys Dayton shows us a near and distant future in which we will eradicate disease, extend our lifespans, and reshape the human body. The results can be heavenly—saving the life of your dying child; and horrific—the ability to modify convicts into robot slaves. Deeply thoughtful, poignant, horrifying, and action-packed, this novel is groundbreaking in both form and substance. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful examines how far we will go to remake ourselves into the perfect human specimen, and what it means to be human at all.


strongerThe librarian of my middle child’s high school got wind of my upcoming novel on the topic of human genetic modification and asked if I had a few ARCs she could use for a book group. And would I like to come talk to the students while they were reading it? I’ve done many school visits, often to huge schools where I speak to hundreds of kids. But I was excited all out of proportion by this particular invitation—possibly because I thought it would make me seem fascinating and popular to my middle child. (Side note: I think it might have worked!)


Here’s what I loved about discussing Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful with eight teenage girls: there was a lot to argue about. The book is full of debatable scenarios. Semi-identical twins, both dying. When one lapses into a vegetative state, the decision is made to harvest the healthy parts of her organs to give her brother a chance at life. A girl who is hiding the extent to which her body has been rebuilt, knowing that many of her friends, and in particular the boy she cares about, will not approve of the artificial parts that are now keeping her alive. A child who had been designed to have high intelligence, with disastrous results. And more.


The theme of Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful is this: What will it be like to grow up, to fall in and out of love, to figure out who you are, when the very essence of “you” may be changing? Before writing the book, I’d done lots of research about how scientists are using CRISPR to edit DNA, how they are attempting to grow human-compatible organs in livestock, how they are delaying old age, and how they are pursuing countless other near-miraculous advances. The point of the research was to fill me up to my eyeballs with the realities of bioengineering until I could dream of how it might play out into the future. But the actual writing of the book involved pushing those details into the background and letting the six main characters walk out onto stage and invite us into their stories.


On the days when I joined the book club, we talked about the science, sure. (I’d sent a list of recent articles on gene editing, and the students had read those alongside the book.) But we didn’t argue about the science. We argued instead about what the characters were doing with the science. We debated the book’s sticky decisions. Do parents have a right to manipulate their child’s brain? Should anyone be allowed to make a piece of a dead loved one live on…in a place they were never meant to be? Should a government be permitted to physically modify convicts if it makes them more “useful” to society? What makes us human? What keeps us human?


The students didn’t always agree with the choices my characters made—nor do I. And that is by design. As we become more and more able to alter the human species, we will often disagree. And yet we must all be a part of making those choices. It was invigorating to discuss why the characters made the decisions they made and to challenge eight outspoken, contentious, and thoughtful teenagers to explain what they would have done differently, and why. Soon the dispute was being carried on without me.


And that is what I hope people will take from Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful. Characters they understand, even if they can’t agree with them. Some appreciation of what lies ahead in genetic manipulation and human evolution. And, of course, arguments with friends. What would you do? What should we do?


The future of our species is already unfolding around us. Sometimes it’s easier to understand it in fiction. If we start telling ourselves stories now, maybe we can fashion that future into what we’d like it to be.


Meet Arwen Elys Dayton

ARWEN ELYS DAYTON’s new novel is Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful, out on December 4, 2018. She is the best-selling author of the Egyptian sci-fi thriller Resurrection and the near-future Seeker Series. She spends months doing research for her stories. Her explorations have taken her around the world to places like the Great Pyramid at Giza, Hong Kong, and the Baltic Sea, as well as down many scientific rabbit holes. Arwen lives with her husband and their three children on West Coast of the United States. You can visit her and learn more about her books at arwenelysdayton.com and follow @arwenelysdayton on Instagram and Facebook.


Teen Book Club – Creating a Place to Read and Belong! (a guest post by Sheri Schubbe)

Everyone who works with teens in an educational library setting knows it’s a struggle to compete for a their time and attention. We’re up against schoolwork, sports, various extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, social media and technology. We want teens to spend time in our libraries and love reading, but it can be challenging to get them in the doors. Three years ago, after being a classroom teacher for many years, I became our district’s library media specialist. One of my first goals was to start a book club and, over the past few years, it’s become one of the most successful extra-curricular activities in our school. This year we have 530 students in our school, and about 40 are involved in Book Club. Here’s what I’ve learned since its inception in 2014.


  • Start by partnering with the Youth Services Librarian from your local public library. When the school and public library work together, a community is strengthened. Katelyn Boyle, the Youth Services Manager at the Peotone Public Library, assists in planning and is able to access books through our  interlibrary loan system. She even comes to each book club meeting! Our teens know her as a public library partner to their education, which is a positive thing.


  • Meet regularly. Our book club meets one Friday a month at 7:30 AM. Yes, that’s early, but this is the time that conflicts the least with sports, clubs, and part-time jobs. I serve a simple continental breakfast at each meeting and am flexible in allowing bus-riding students to arrive late. We only meet during the school year; we tried a summer meeting one time, but it was not successful.


  • Create a welcoming, comfortable, and accepting environment. In our Media Center, we push tables together so everyone faces each other. There are also couches and lounge chairs nearby, so students have a choice of where to sit at the meeting. From the beginning, students understand that there are no topics off-limits and all viewpoints are welcomed.There have been discussions where members have expressed different opinions, but we have never had a situation where a student was disrespectful to another. Our kids are aware and proud of this!


  • Select the books yourself. Some school librarians may disagree and believe it’s best to give students a choice, but Katelyn and I feel it’s best we take that responsibility. Our students trust us to pick books they will enjoy. And that is critical. Choose books they will enjoy, not books you, as the librarian, believe would enrich the curriculum. We’ve tried a few award-winning non-fiction titles, but they have not been well-received by our group. Students told us that they are too similar to their required reading for their classes. Listen to what your teens tell you! If they love what they’re reading with the book club and get involved in the discussions, they will keep coming back!


  • Obtain as many copies of your book club selection as possible to hand out at the meeting. Sometimes, we are unable to have enough copies for everyone, so our faster readers know to turn in their books to me as soon as they are finished. I keep a list and contact students when copies become available. To assure that we can obtain many copies of a book through interlibrary loan, we often choose titles that are a few years old.


  • Have activities and discussion questions prepared for each meeting. Sometimes, I’ll start with a brief readers’ theater, book trailer, author interview video, or book review video I find on the author’s website, on YouTube, or on the publisher’s website. In case it’s needed, I always have questions available in a jar that students can randomly pick to get discussion started. Most of the time, it’s not needed.


  • Offer opportunities for book club students to get involved with more than just the monthly meetings. For example, our students help decorate the media center, volunteer at the Eighth Grade Orientation Night to promote our program, work at our annual Barnes & Noble Bookfair, attend book-to-movie outings, participate in book craft events, and work as “Library Helpers” assisting with tasks in the school library. Some of our non-meeting activities are held at the public library to encourage students to become more familiar with the building and the resources available there.


  • Plan activities for your teens to share their love of reading with others. Reading to elementary students in the district or participating in community literacy events are great outreach activities. This year so far, our teens have led a literacy activity for children at the University of Illinois Youth Literature Festival and our district book fair.


  • Reward your awesome teen readers with an author visit. Our students love to read a book, and then meet the author. Even schools on a tight budget, like ours, can find local authors who do not charge a fortune, but give terrific and motivational presentations to teens. Always meet with students ahead of time and help them to prepare for the event by planning questions and comments for the author.


  • Promote your book club by reaching out to younger students in your district. It’s important to meet with middle grade students to  tell them about Book Club and encourage them to get  involved. The continuation of your program depends on new members each year. Ask your current members to tell eighth graders about the Book Club. Our middle schoolers love to hear from the high school students!


  • Communicate often with your readers. I use a group email (all students have a school gmail account) and my teacher website to touch base with my students regularly. I also use the Remind App for text communication. Recently, with administrative approval, we started a Peotone High School Book Club Instagram page. Students cannot post directly to the page, but may e-mail photos to our club gmail account for consideration. In addition to our current members, several of our junior high students and alumni follow the Instagram page. It’s another way to encourage younger students to join the group once they get into high school and to keep in touch with our grads.


  • Design a Book Club T-shirt. We design one each year that members can purchase at a reasonable cost. It gives us that “team” feel, and we look great when we dress alike for events. Consider adopting a slogan as well. We use a John Green quote, “Great books help you understand, and they help you to feel understood.” This year, since our teens participated in the Youth Literature Festival, I bought a professionally printed vertical banner for our group. It displays a beautiful book graphic with our school logo and our slogan. The kids love it!


  • Personally invite students to join Book Club. At any point in the school year, when I see a student who seems to need a “place,” I invite him or her to join. The mix of students in our group is one of my favorite things. Students who probably would never talk to each other in the Commons before school, are interacting and forming friendships at Book Club!


  • Word of mouth! Encourage some of your most enthusiastic members to tell their friends how much they love Book Club. Word will get around, and you’ll be thrilled when students wander into the library media center asking how they can join!

Sheri Schubbe

Library Media Specialist, IL

#MHYALit: Talking about mental health-related books and issues with teens

MHYALitlogoofficfialFor the past nearly four years, I’ve run a monthly YA book club at the library. My crew has remained fairly strong over the years and is a very diverse mix of teens. Generally, we talk about whatever it is we’ve been reading. It’s very casual and there’s always lively discussion. To see some of our past conversations, check out this post about Marieke Nijkamp’s THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS and our discussion on sexual violence in YA lit (no, really—go check that one out right now). If any of you have used #MHYALit as a jumping off point for your book club, we’d love to hear about it. I’m @CiteSomething on Twitter. 


The discussion

Recently, we decided to read books that dealt with mental health issues and discuss not only the books, but the topic in general. I am very open with the teens about my own perpetual struggle with anxiety disorder and my son’s experiences with anxiety, too. Because my crew has stayed very consistent and is fairly close and open, our discussion was very relaxed and honest. Having a similar discussion with a larger group or a less close group may not get the same results as we were able to have. The book club members are all familiar with the #MHYALit project we’re doing here at TLT. Depiction of mental health issues and treatments has been an ongoing discussion for a few years now in our group, so they were well-versed in this subject already. Because of how well we’ve covered this ground, we talked more about larger mental health issues in the lives of teens.


I asked them what, if anything, is talked about in their schools regarding mental health. One girl said that at her school has a Wellness Center at school that is specifically for mental health help and resources. Because of recent suicides at her school, there is an increased attention to this subject. The school has had speakers in to talk to the student body. The Wellness Center has four doctors who come in to provide therapy. The school works with the students and their families to get them help during school hours at the school. They work with the teachers and rotate appointment times so kids don’t miss too much of any one class. Maybe because of this increased attention to mental health needs, this student felt that many teachers are more aware of mental health issues and seem like someone kids could turn to.


Some of the girls who attend another high school, the one I used to work at, felt that their school does nothing to address the needs of students struggling with mental health issues. They felt comfortable maybe approaching certain teachers about things, but didn’t think there was an overall understanding or desire to help students. One girl relayed a terrible story of going to the school guidance counselor and saying she was suicidal and the counselor flat out told her that’s not what that office was there for. “We don’t deal with that,” she told her. (Yes, I had a minor rage blackout over that story.) These girls said that outside of possibly telling a teacher they felt safe with, they wouldn’t know how to go about getting any help with mental health issues at school. They said that even if they went to a teacher, teachers aren’t trained in how to help them (or that’s their perception).


We discussed how mental health issues are talked about with their peers and their friend groups. They said these issues are slowly losing their stigma and that sometimes when one person shares about a struggle, it opens the doors for others to start sharing what they experience, too. They said they generally feel comfortable turning to their friends for help, knowing those friends will care and help you through something, but ultimately they’re just other kids, not trained professionals. This all led into an interesting talk about how there is no one way for depression or anxiety or OCD (etc) to look like, and that you never know what people have going on.


I asked if having more fictional characters facing mental health struggles helped actual teens. They all agreed that it normalizes these experiences and gives teens a peek at someone they might be able to relate to. They said that by seeing characters struggle in stories, they can see into other experiences, especially if they themselves don’t have this particular issue. They said that it helps them know how people suffer and it shows how they might be able to help or react. They said they often worry they’ll say the wrong thing to someone who is struggling and like to see examples of how to be supportive. “I like it when books teach me how to treat people,” one girl said. (Have I mentioned I heart my teens?)


Finally, I asked what they might like to see more or less of in YA regarding mental health issues. They want to see more experiences of teens in therapy or in treatment facilities. They want to see more teens actually liking their therapists and not being “dragged” to one or hating the experience. They want to see characters who see a therapist that’s not a great fit but then seek out someone who is more helpful. They’d like to see more treatment options in general.


My group had so many smart things to say and were so compassionate and open. We talked about the importance of schools and teachers being aware of mental health issues because in many cases, if teens can’t turn to their parents, school is maybe their best shot for someone noticing them struggling and potentially helping them. 


Handout 1: Questions about books

I prepared a handout with the following questions for readers to consider as they read books related to mental health issues. Feel free to use them with your own book club.


Questions to keep in mind as you read

  • What is the mental illness/what are the mental illnesses depicted?
  • What does their illness look like—symptoms, ways it affects them/others, how it might limit them, etc
  • How is the subject of mental illness approached or treated?
  • What help or treatment does the character seek? Who, if anyone, do they talk to about what’s going on? Who helps them?
  • Is there shame and stigma?
  • Is the treatment they receive helpful?
  • Is the issue of medication discussed? How is it approached? Do characters feel “drugged” like they can’t be themselves or like they will be numbed to feelings?
  • Does the author offer resources or notes at the end on the book on mental illness diagnosis, support, treatment, etc?


Handout 2: Additional discussion starters

  • Is mental health ever talked about at school, whether in health class or by counselors or addressed in any way?
  • What are your thoughts as teens on how mental health issues are addressed or stigmatized etc?
  • Does having more characters facing mental health struggles in YA books do anything to help actual teens?
  • What do you wish you’d see more/less of re: mental health in YA books?


Handout 3: Recommended reading

Feel free to use this list in your own library.


The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork (Depression, treatment facilities)

Truest by Jackie Lea Sommers (Solipsism syndrome)

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson (Depression, grief)

Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz (Schizophrenia)

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (Schizophrenia)

Underwater by Marisa Reichardt (Panic disorders, anxiety, PTSD)

Some of the Parts by Hannah Barnaby (Grief)

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (OCD, Anorexia)

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (Depression)

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson (PTSD)

OCD Love Story by Corey Ann Haydu (OCD)

Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone (OCD)

Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn (Mental illness, psychopaths)

The Great American Whatever by Tim Federle (Grief, depression)

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord (Grief)

The Way Back from Broken by Amber J. Keyser (Grief)

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Depression)

When Reason Breaks by Cindy L. Rodriguez (Mental illness)

The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi (Mental illness, identity disorders)

Thicker Than Water by Kelly Fiore (Addiction)

Clean by Amy Reed (Addiction)

Scars by Cheryl Rainfield (Self-harm)

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson (Eating disorders)

Identical by Ellen Hopkins (Multiple personality disorder)

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini (Depression, treatment facilities)

Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (Depression)

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder (Bipolar disorder)