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December 20, 2014

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Community Reads: Librarians Partner with YA Author A.S. King to Engage Teens

As part of her ongoing efforts to inspire and engage teens, young adult author A.S. King has recently partnered with school and public libraries in four communities for multi-generational reads of her novels. The resulting experiences and conversations have been illuminating for both teens and adults—and it’s the type of project that more towns and cities could, and should, try to do themselves, the author and her partnering librarians tell School Library Journal.

AntsWall 600x390 Community Reads: Librarians Partner with YA Author A.S. King to Engage Teens

Author A.S. King at the Avalon School in Saint Paul, MN.

“When I’m standing in front of students and teachers and adults—a mixed, multi-generational audience— there’s just nothing like it,” King says. “There’s nothing like having that conversation and looking at the adults and saying, ‘Hey, you know how you roll your eyes every time you say the word ‘teenager’? Let’s not do that.’ When I walk into a room full of adults to talk, I like to say, ‘Teenagers aren’t dumb. We have been rolling our eyes at them for years, but in actual fact, their brains are still opening and yours may be closing. How many of you remember the periodic table of elements?’”

King’s streak of public/school library partnerships got its start last year in Massachusetts—in an affluent suburb about 30 miles west of Boston—when the Westborough Reads Together project featured her award-winning novel Please Ignore Vera Dietz (Knopf, 2010), a Printz Honor Book.

Her enthusiasm for what Westborough’s librarians had accomplished was infectious. She soon had inspired librarians in Saint Paul to ramp up their own community-wide reading project, which in February 2013 was launched as “Read Brave” featuring King’s acclaimed novel Everybody Sees the Ants (Little, Brown, 2011). In August, Ants was again featured in a community read, for the “One Summer, One Book” program in three public libraries and an independent bookstore in Montgomery County, PA, and in October, it was the chosen book for the Greater Rochester (NY) Teen Read.

These experiences gave King and her partners unique insights into what can happen when school and public librarians team up and, above all, reach out to their communities to engage teens, she says. King had an opportunity to share some of that knowledge in November, when she joined Westborough’s librarians at the National Conference of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) to present a session called “Reading + Collaboration = A Shared Community Experience.”

“I wouldn’t have let them do it without me,” King jokes to SLJ.

Westborough reads together
The co-chairs of Westborough’s project are Anita Cellucci, library media teacher at Westborough High School, and Maureen Ambrosino, director of the Westborough Public Library. The two had both begun in their respective positions during the summer of 2010, and immediately began brainstorming collaborative projects, they tell SLJ. At the top of their list was the idea of a community-wide read.

“At that time, the town had discussing a lot of issues that had been facing our teens,” Cellucci says. “We knew that if we put our heads together, we could come up with a way to creatively handle some of those issues and give kids a way to really connect and talk about them.”

“Drinking and driving brought it to the forefront,” adds Ambrosino. “Fortunately no one died, but we had two accidents with teenagers within a couple of weeks of each other. Also, drugs are a problem in our community. It’s also a place where people don’t want to acknowledge that there are problems. We wanted the parents to know that they’re not the only parents that have faced these issues and that have a hard time talking to their teenagers about hard topics. So this was a way to help a segment of our community that we really felt needed the support.”

Says Cellucci, “A big part of that was thinking about how to create that dialog between teens and adults. So we set out to look for a book that would do that for us. Vera Dietz seemed like a story that a lot of people could connect to; there was something in it that really would touch everyone who read it.”

Given its tackling of tough subjects, King agrees that the choice of Dietz made a lot of sense for what Westborough was seeking to accomplish. “I like having adult problems in my books, because kids aren’t blind,” she tells SLJ. “I love including teens instead of excluding them from the adult experience because they’re very shortly going to be adults and there’s no reason to hide it from them.”

Cellucci and Ambrosino spent months garnering support in their community. Knowing that they wanted to use Vera Dietz once the project got going, Cellucci fostered early buy-in from students and teachers by including the book on her school’s list of potential summer reading books way back in 2011, and planned a Skype session with King when students returned to school that fall held in the office of the superintendent, which King calls “one of the coolest things” a school has ever done.

The librarians sought out additional partners: Westborough Youth and Family Services and Westborough TV, the local cable station. To drum up additional interest, the librarians and members of their planning committee took a comprehensive approach, reaching out to an interfaith clergy group and local civic organizations, speaking at a televised meeting of the town’s governing body, and presenting the concept to the school council (students, parents, teachers, and administrators).

Fundraising also took off at the grassroots level. Without a large grant to work with, the project needed donations from the community, Ambrosino says. A retired volunteer serendipitously offered help organizing those efforts, while committee members appealed to smaller local family foundations, civic groups, and local business. The total budget for the project was about $5,000.

“We ended up buying 250 copies, and for a community our size, that’s tremendous,” Ambrosino says. The bulk of those were given away at both of the libraries during the project’s big kick-off event in November 2011, with the only requirement for taking a book the leaving of one’s email address and promising to try to pass it on to a new reader when one was finished with it.

Another 100 copies of the book were distributed in January, just in time for the first discussion groups to begin meeting—student groups at the high school and adult groups at the public library. In addition, at least two English teachers opted to use the book as part of its curriculum, and Cellucci made sure that the school principal, vice principals, and other administrators had copies, she tells SLJ.

The culmination of the project was King’s visit to Westborough in April, during which she presented at two assemblies to students at the high school. Says Cellucci, “The kids were all saying the same thing to everyone: that they really felt heard, and this [book] portrayed who they are as a generation.”

Westborough also hosted a multi-generational discussion at a local independent bookstore that had helped with the project’s big book giveaway. The most surprising thing about the evening? The positive engagement of the town’s senior citizens, who read the novel despite the librarians’ concerns that they might find its scenes of drinking and drug use unappealing or inappropriate, they said.

“So many of them said they never really realized the stuff in the news affects our kids, the ones here in town,” Ambrosino says. “They were really happy for the chance to have a discussion around this book. I thought that was great. It gave them so much of a better understanding to what kids are dealing with these days, the pressure that they’re under, academically and socially.”

Saint Paul reads brave
King next set off for Minnesota to visit Teens Know Best (TKB)—a YA book club at the Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) that reads and reviews pre-published books—to thank them for their support of her first novel, The Dust of 100 Dogs (Flux, 2009). From the second King arrived there in April 2012, all talk was on community reads, says Marika Staloch, SPPL’s youth services coordinator.

“When I came back from Westborough I was on such a high. It was an amazing conversation to be part of—and to spark,” King tells SLJ. “So I explained this to Marika, and she said, ‘Wow. That would be amazing to do with Everybody Sees the Ants.’ And so that’s where it started.”

“[King’s] passion for connecting with the community around literature was obvious, and I immediately started thinking of how this could be applied to Saint Paul,” Staloch tells SLJ. “I loved her anecdotes about adults connecting with teens, and we wanted to try something similar.”

SPPL’s Read Brave program, which first took place in February 2013, actually began as a One Book, One Library project, as Staloch and her SPPL colleagues were eager to try such a program with a YA novel. “I rallied behind doing an A.S. King book knowing that her passion for reaching the community would be valuable,” Staloch says.  “Ants has great cross-over appeal to adults and the book brings up several pertinent issues to our times, the main topics being bullying and war/POWs.”

At the same time, SPPL and the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation department had received an IMLS Learning Labs grant to build a teen technology presence similar to YOUmedia in Chicago, Staloch explains. During a site visit to Saint Paul, YOUmedia’s Mike Hawkins mentioned the Born Brave Bus, a pre-concert tailgaite venture of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation that offered teens a chance to participate in creative activities while the pop singer arrived in their city. Hawkins asked SPPL if they could help connect the Saint Paul stop on that tour with some of SPPL’s teen programming.

As a result, SPPL renamed its project Read Brave, and formulated a much more ambitious plan. Instead of a simple community-wide read, their project would grow to encompass creative activities across Saint Paul, an appearance of the Born Brave Bus, author events featuring King as well as Jay Asher and his book Th1rteen R3asons Why, anti-bullying events, and staff workshops.

Staloch and her team sought partnerships around the community, including adult and teen book clubs within SPPL, the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation department, the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Youth Science Center, and the Saint Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN).

SPPL then forged a tight bond with Avalon School, a teacher collaborative charter school, at which more than 100 teens read the book. Because of its unique setup, Avalon’s library is student-run. Therefore, Kevin Ward, language arts advisor, helped plan out students’ reading of the book, while Regina Goldner, upper-grade advisor and math teacher, became the school’s liaison to Read Brave.

Avalon’s involvement “had many positive outcomes,” Goldner says. “Each day, after reading time you could hear these great conversations (sometimes arguments) about the book’s themes and characters. We talked openly about bullying as a community. We learned about the draft and POW/MIA’s from Vietnam. The kids were happy and upset and sad—it depended on where we stopped in the book on a given day.” Interest in the reading King’s book also extended to some of the teens’ parents, and to some students at the middle school, who were not formally part of the project.

And, as Staloch and Goldner note, Avalon’s students also participated in a big way in the activities sponsored by Born Brave, responding to the themes in King’s book through a creative medium—a painting, video, slideshow, or other form of art—in order to score a pass to board the bus.

“They championed the project, taking it to different directions on their own,” adds Staloch. “What blossomed out of that was unreal.”

King agrees. “Seeing some of those students there and to know they were brave enough to speak up and make videos about their experiences was pretty cool,” she says. “It’s heavy when someone writes a poem about your character. That’s why I write books. I’m not an easy crier…but there were tears. These are just honest, hard subjects to talk about, but teens are talking about them.”

King’s visit in February also included appearances at the Avalon School (for an assembly, a writing workshop, and a lunch with students); at the Merriam Park branch of SPPL; at a staff breakfast of the project’s community partners; and at independent YA bookstore Addendum, which King calls “the hippest bookstore ever.” The focus of her talks centered on relationships, dealing with one’s baggage, self-respect, standing up for yourself, standing up for others, and having confidence, she says.

“We received some wonderful written feedback from the students,” Staloch adds. “They loved connecting with her. They had suggestions, too: [that] we do a similar program around racism. “

Says Goldner, “The majority of students loved the book—and loved meeting Amy even more.” She tells SLJ, “I am not a librarian, but from this experience I would advise any school to get involved with their local library. At Avalon, we have a goal that our students become stronger readers; the partnership with Saint Paul Public Library supported this goal.”

East Coast reads Ants
Over the summer, King headed to Montgomery County, PA, outside Philadelphia, for appearances at the Ludington Library, the Abington Library, the Wissahickon Valley Library, and Children’s Book World in Haverford. The entire community there had been reading Everybody Sees the Ants for “One Summer, One Book.” That community read actually got off the ground thanks to Heather Herbert, who runs the independent bookstore, partnering with the local library system to reach teens, King says.

“It was really put together by [Children’s Book World], and they’re wonderful,” King tells SLJ. “[That’s] all my champions are right there: school librarians, public librarians, independent bookstores.”

The love for Ants continued through October, when King headed to New York for Teen Read Week. During the celebration, the Monroe County Library System (MCLS) hosted its fourth annual community-wide Greater Rochester Teen Read, spearheaded by Deena Viviani, manager of young adult programming at Brighton Memorial Library in Rochester.

Viviani, who had applied for a YALSA/Dollar General Teen Read Week grant specifically to cover King’s travel costs, partnered with library media specialist Kimberly Rouleau at the all-girl, suburban Our Lady of Mercy High School as well as other librarians in the county.

MCLS is used to collaboration, Rouleau tells SLJ. For the past eight years, they have hosted the Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival (TBF); the ninth will be in May 2014. The free event has grown into a 30-author extravaganza with nearly 4,000 teen attendees.

And, as Rouleau notes, serving on the TBF committee with Viviani has helped them create a strong working relationship, which aided in supporting the teen read. As in Saint Paul, this year’s choice of King’s novel helped foster “a whole community conversation about bullying,” she says. The visit “impacted my students like you wouldn’t believe. They love her. She talks about how to combat bullying and how to not be involved with it, and about the drama. It really resonates with students.”

About 250 teens at her school—and many hundreds more across the county—read King’s book this fall, Rouleau says. MCLS also offered a non-fiction book during the event, Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins, 2011). Its inclusion in the program was important, Rouleau says, because some kids can empathize better with it than they could a fiction title. “I like the fact that there were two books because that opens it up to more people being a part of this conversation,” she says.

King’s October visit included appearances at Mercy and Brighton High School, at MCLS’s urban Teen Central branch, and at a juvenile detention facility in the area.

“What was unique about it was it was all facets of society, because bullying really isn’t a problem that’s limited to just one aspect of society,” Rouleau notes.

After a stop at the Less Than Three anti-bullying conference in St. Louis, MO, King headed to Hartford, CT, for AASL. At Cellucci and Ambrosino’s session, the librarians and King spoke about what they learned in Westborough—above all, “how to strongly impact the fabric of the entire community”—and to impart practical advice to other librarians, King says.

The big takeaways? Start small. Find your community partners. Be flexible. Have a sense of humor. Be creative. Plan your funding as early in the process as possible.

“Having a public librarian who is involved; having a school librarian who has the support of the administration, board, and English department; and to also have children and family services or another family organization on board—those pieces fill out the puzzle,” King says. “I really have to give Maureen and Anita credit, because they showed me this could be done, and they did it so well, and the connection to community services was amazing.”

Adds Cellucci, “We have to make the time. It’s about making kids understand that libraries are one of their rights, and if we don’t show them, who will? So we have to work together.”

Look ahead, King is excited about the prospect of doing more of these types of events in the future in more communities, she tells SLJ. “I’m not just open to it, this is why I [write YA].” As a young woman, she says, she wanted to “write novels that would help kids understand adults and adults understand teenagers a little better. And now that I’m here, it’s pretty amazing.”

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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