March 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

NaNoWriMo: Fostering Writing in the Library

For many authors, November is synonymous with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, a non-profit initiative meant to encourage both experienced and aspiring writers to get their novels out of their heads and out onto paper. It’s all about setting aside dedicated time and space to write with a community providing encouragement—and it’s also the perfect time to think about the ways in which the library can inspire and support writing among its children and teen patrons.

In my Missouri library system, we aim to encourage writing in even the youngest library customers. Informal writing happens in the children’s library all the time, with plenty of writing tools and activities available for library visitors throughout the year. At any given time, a child may practice shapes and letters on a magnetic drawing board; draw pictures and write letters to favorite book characters and deposit them in the library’s play mailbox; or put the title of a beloved book on a sticky note to add to our collaborative “What We’re Reading” wall. All of these informal activities require limited mediation by library staff, but they promote basic writing skills like forming letters, wielding writing implements, and translating ideas into words on paper.

The options for writing only grow in program settings. In many preschool programs, children are encouraged to create their own books. In the context of a stuffed animal sleepover program, for example, I’ve given children their own four-page books on which to tell the stories of their stuffed friends’ adventures. The results are both adorable and highly beneficial for developing writing skills.

School-age children, with their experiences writing at school, are ready for more structured and creative writing programs.

During National Poetry Month in April, I’ve hosted programs with a brief instruction section followed by free writing time. We’ve discussed the formats of haikus and adjective poems before writing our own, and I never cease to be impressed by what the children write.

Teens are a library audience practically begging for opportunities to write. Being a teen is all about finding and expressing oneself, and writing can help satisfy that urge. The “What We’re Reading” wall works well for teens as an informal writing activity, but formal opportunities to write are the bread and butter for this crowd.

At our teens’ request, my library now hosts a monthly writing club. Each session opens with a short writing prompt to get the creative juices flowing and to serve as an ice breaker activity. Once everyone is in the writing-and-talking-about-writing zone, the teens take turns sharing and workshopping their own work en masse or in smaller groups.

Their comments and critiques of each other’s writing are both encouraging and constructive; the environment is wholly about an urge to develop as individual writers. While most of the composition takes place outside of Writing Club, the program is all about writing and giving teens the tools and encouragement they need to do it. As a result, our teens have formed a tight-knit support group that helps them work through their writing issues as a community of peers.

My library system also has several longstanding programs meant to encourage and support the adult writers in our community. A particularly successful initiative is to host writing workshops that develop skills in specific types of writing. Several libraries have hosted “Writing for Children,” a six-week course led by experienced children’s book writer and professor Nancy Polette, that explores the basics of writing for a child audience. We have also tapped our local universities for writers and professors to teach similar courses on memoir, fiction, and screenplays. Many a library can offer comparable writing programming by turning to the writing experts in their communities. If the wait lists for our writing programs are any indication, there is demand for this sort of writing support among the adults we serve.

Our adult writers also benefit from two writing program initiatives during November. Several of our libraries carve out meeting room time and space for dedicated NaNoWriMo sessions, and writers of every ilk and level of experience are welcome to visit for quiet and camaraderie. Library staff set out tables with access to power outlets as well as bottles of water, and writers use the space to work toward their daily word-count goals.

Our second November program is our annual Local Authors Open House. This evening event overtakes one of our larger branches; over fifty local authors set up tables with their books and chat with attendees, many of whom browse to purchase reading material for themselves or for holiday gifts. The Local Authors Open House boasts historians, memoirists, humorists, poets, and fiction writers in nearly every genre and who write for a variety of ages. This event has become so popular that several interested authors are added to a wait list in case additional space becomes available. This sort of event closes the circle of promoting writing at the library: after putting in time to write and edit, authors in our community can proudly share their books with readers.

In addition to these existing writing programs and initiatives in the library, there are a few programs I would love to develop and try at our libraries in the future.

Writing preschool stories in the library.

For children and teens, I would love to participate in 24-Hour Comics Day. In a library context, I’d adapt the timeframe to fit our open hours, but the impetus would remain the same: encourage kids and teens who love comics and story to tap their own imaginations and storytelling to create their own. I envision this program as a day-long, open-room event with plenty of paper, drawing and inking supplies, and books about comics, graphic novels, and manga to provide inspiration and support. The created comics could be temporarily showcased at the library before heading home with their creators.

Another event I would love to try is a poetry or story slam. The library strives to be a third place, a scene for cultural and community engagement for customers, and hosting literary events can aid that goal. A poetry or story slam would transform the program space into a sort of performance venue, with seats and tables for listeners and a stage and microphone for performers. Community members could share their poetry and stories, both written and from memory, with the audience. If writers write to be heard or read, this type of event could really resonate with writers in our community.

The library has always been about the written word, but by fostering writing among our customers, we help them find their own power to create the written word in addition to consuming it. If it’s important to the library to promote community and love of language and story, offering programming that encourages and supports writing is definitely something to consider.

Blogger and SLJ contributor Amy Koester is the children’s librarian at the Corporate Parkway Branch of St. Charles City-County Library in Missouri.