Three cheers for Miskatonic University! That’s the rallying cry of the La Vista Public Library (NE)’s teen advisory board (TAB)—who, under the exuberant guidance of youth librarian and advisor Lindsey Tomsu, a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker—turned its 2012 Teen Read Week into a massive celebration of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, complete with crafts, workshops, and a life-sized version of the complex, cooperative Arkham Horror board game based on the Cthulhu Mythos. The event was so successful and engaging that the teens hope to repeat it every year.
“I like complex board games for teens because they teach a variety of different skills in a fun setting,” Tomsu tells School Library Journal. “Arkham involves teamwork (since it is players versus the board), lots of reading, mathematical skills, and critical thinking.”
In Arkham Horror, up to eight players take on the roles of investigators in 1920s Prohibition-era Arkham, MA, the fictional town where Lovecraft set many of his stories, Tomsu explains. Each investigator has a special occupation—such as chef, archeologist, explorer, and librarian—and his or her own special abilities and talents. “The goal of the game,” Tomsu says, “is for the players to work together to kill monsters and stop gates to other dimensions from opening. If they fail, the Ancient One (a super tough monster) will awaken and attempt to take over the world.”
Says teen advisory board member Keyahna Wood, “I like that we work as a team to win,” while Mary Bragg says, “It is more complex than most normal board games and a lot more challenging.” Huyen-Yen Hoang agrees: “It’s awesome. It is fun and complex but in an easy-to-understand way.”
It takes patience and time to learn the rules of the game, and an average game can take up to six to eight hours to complete, Tomsu says. But La Vista’s teens were undaunted. They were first introduced to the game by Tomsu’s fiancé, Gordon Wyant—himself a youth librarian at the Bellevue Public Library (NE)—at an overnight lock-in for her teen advisory board that he chaperoned together with Tomsu.
The game’s box artwork and details caught her teens’ attention first, Tomsu says. “They could see that it was something on a whole new level. The artwork was meticulous and there were so many components (cards, tokens, etc.) and so many rules to follow.”
She adds, “[Gordon] later told me he thought, ‘Okay, after 15 minutes they’ll give up because it’s too hard.’ My TAB surprised him and really got into it, and were still playing it at 3 a.m.”
That enthusiasm led Tomsu to apply for a Nebraska Library Commission Youth Excellence grant, which awarded Tomsu and La Vista $800 to start an Arkham Horror gaming club. Tomsu used her funds to purchase three copies of the original board game; its four expansion packs (Dunwich, Innsmouth, Kingsport, and Miskatonic University); Elder Sign, a card-based version of Arkham with a shorter play time; Mansions of Madness, a spinoff game with some of the same characters and monsters as the original; and plastic containers to hold all the games’ various cards and tokens.
Tomsu also purchased Del Rey print editions—featuring creepy cover art—of Lovecraft’s stories and novels for La Vista’s teen collection. “I made sure I got [the Del Ray] editions because I knew they’d get attention just for the covers,” she says. “I like that my teens can have fun playing the game and, if interested in the source material, can read the original stories or the cool, game-based Arkham Horror series of paperbacks by [game creator] Fantasy Flight to connect the game with reading.”
The first TAB member to read some of Lovecraft’s original science fiction and horror fiction was Elliot Dritt, who says he enjoyed the author because “Lovecraft left the horror up to your imagination. The stories could be as scary as your mind would let them be.”
A core group of players—ranging in age from 9 to 21—meets on a Saturday about every two months during the school year to play the game, and more frequently over the summer. “We also usually have an all-day Game Day during spring break,” Tomsu says, noting that she and her teens promote the club to new players through word-of-mouth promotion and collaboration with the Bellevue Public Library.
“It’s really cool how it brings in all ages and interest levels,” Tomsu says. “I’ve got the nerdy teens playing it and girly teens who usually read nothing but romance novels. Guys and girls like it a lot. They loved it enough to get the grant, and eventually the idea that lead to the creation of the life-sized version.” Tomsu credits her teens with the bulk of the planning for that life-size game, which came to fruition during Teen Read Week last October. With a meager budget for programming, Tomsu called an emergency TAB meeting and asked the group: Could we put together a grant proposal for something amazing for Teen Read Week? Her teens rose to the challenge.
TAB member Sarah Kreber came up with the original idea for a life-size game, and the rest of the TAB sprang into action to brainstorm additional activities for an epic Lovecraft-themed festival. Fortunately, YALSA/Dollar General granted Tomsu and La Vista $1,000 to make those dreams a reality.
“Lindsey helped us make it happen and it turned out so awesome,” Kreber says.
Including a lot of details and potential programming specifics in her grant application was key to being awarded the funds, Tomsu feels. She advises prospective grant applicants, to: “If you can, show a grant committee what you want to accomplish instead of just generalized ideas.”
Tomsu utilized this second grant primarily to purchase props to enhance the experience of the life-size game—such as a fully articulated skeleton for the game’s Science Building set, a high-quality costume straitjacket for the Arkham Asylum set, and tons of other items to represent the 26 different locations found on the game board—as well as prizes and additional game copies for the club.
Activities during the week included crafting their own paper Arkham monsters and Necronomicons; using bleach stencils to make T-shirts honoring the fictional Miskatonic University; a character creation workshop where teens dreamed up original Arkham characters or mash-up characters from other fictional universes; and the extensive preparations for the life-size game, which involved painting sets, creating costumes, and assembling props.
Teens brought in donated items—such as empty pill bottles filled with candy and first aid supplies for the St. Mary’s Hospital set, or a toy train to represent the Train Station set—and Tomsu sought additional cheap supplies at dollar stories, Walmart, and Nobbies, she says.
Her TAB then took a week to create physical representations of Lovecraft’s various monsters (including hounds, cultists, zombies, ghouls, warlocks, and much more) out of dolls and plush toys, as well as various key set pieces like paper-towel-tube sticks of dynamite.
“My favorite was probably Katie Kocanda’s Hound of Tindalos—a stuffed dinosaur that she cut open its mouth and glued on toothpicks at weird angles to make gigantic jagged teeth. It was definitely an adorable monster,” Tomsu says.
The teens also drew and painted murals of the game’s various portals to alternate dimensions—and the work did not stop there. While TAB members put together their costumes, Tomsu and library staff volunteers created over-sized, laminated versions of the game’s cards and tokens.
“I have a better appreciation for the people who make games like this—there is a lot of stuff that goes into making a game like this work,” says Keyahna Wood.
Adds TAB member Peyton Banks, “I was most proud of how realistic we came through with making the game and that we could actually dress up as the characters. It seemed like we were really experiencing what was happening in the game.”
TAB member Audi Blann also enjoyed the “cosplay” component, she says, although she was most proud of being able to assist Tomsu in the final preparations on the big day. “Since I have already graduated, I was able to come in first thing in the morning and help Lindsey…really set up the scene. Because of that, I got to see the final room before anyone else saw it.”
For Mary Bragg and Kayla Harbour, creating the monsters and props were some of the best parts of the experience, they say. Harbour adds she was especially proud that she “got to help with the creation of this big project. I had an amazing time making everything.”
Surprisingly, all of the props for the life-size game fit down into just two storage boxes, Tomsu says, making it ideal for saving and using again as a once-a-year event—and the next time they host it, it will cost next to nothing for them. The club hopes to host the game in September this year, on a weekend when invited representatives from Fantasy Flight could attend. (They missed the inaugural game last year due to a scheduling conflict, but sent $300 worth of merchandise to Tomsu’s TAB with their regrets, she notes.)
Tomsu says she is proud of the enthusiasm and the hundreds of hours that her teens put into the programming. “Many say that the event and planning for it is one of their favorite library moments,” she says. “They thought that the planning was just as much fun as the actual game.”
And what was the reaction from the parents? “They thought it was pretty epic,” Tomsu says. “Cheryl Gregg, Katie Kocanda’s mom, said, ‘I am just happy that Katie has somewhere positive to go and hang out with other teens. The work she put into life-size Arkham was amazing. To her it wasn’t volunteering at all—it was just having fun.’ Alyssa Stubbs, mom of Emily Jones, said, ‘I thought the life-size version was fantastic.” Elliot Dritt saw it as an excuse to finally shave his head—all for the sake of his shaman character. His mom helped him create one of the best costumes of the event, which included a bed sheet toga, magic staff, and weird symbols she helped paint on his head.”
Fighting monsters? It’s all just another day at La Vista for Tomsu, a passionate advocate for the teens in her charge, they say. “Lindsey listens to us and we can come up with our own programs ourselves. We have lots of fun,” Kreber says. “The people of TAB are like my family, Lindsey included,” says Harbour.
Adds Huyen-Yen Hoang, “Everything we do at the library is awesome. Teen programming is an escape…[TAB is a] wonderful opportunity…to be yourself.”