June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What Do Tweens Want?


Photos courtesy of San Mateo Public Library.

Tweens at the San Mateo Public Library.
Photos courtesy of San Mateo Public Library

“No hour in the life of a tween is the same as another hour,” says Andrew Medlar, president of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC). “They are bridging being a kid and being a teenager…looking back at the safe world of childhood and the unknown world ahead of them.”

Tweens, generally considered to be between the ages of eight and 12, are indeed living in transition. In libraries, they often feel too old for children’s services but are wary of the world of young adults.

With brains blitzed by chemical changes, preteens have a specific set of needs that mark this stage in their lives. Peter Scales, a researcher in the realm of adolescent development, describes seven developmental needs for early adolescence. They include physical activity, a sense of competence and achievement, self-definition, creative expression, positive social interaction, structure and clear limits, and meaningful participation.

Youth services librarians are well poised to support preteen development, particularly in the areas of creativity; contributing to society in a safe, structured environment; and finding a secure space to make their own decisions, Medlar says. “We are folks who know child development and understand the importance of access to information. We are in a unique position to know how to bring these [elements] together.”

Candice Mack, president of ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), notes that research is beginning to show that for older teens to be college and career ready, youth-serving librarians need to start with the tween population.

The library can also offer particular benefit to students who are looking for a “neutral location” where “they can visit their friends and it’s OK to be smart and a reader,” says Cathy Townsend, children’s’ librarian with the New Canaan (CT) Library. For those middle graders who are not socially adept, the library helps them “get a sense of belonging; they are part of a group,” she adds. Mack noted another common trait in the preteen population: “[they] are so eager and enthusiastic,” she says. “It’s a great time to bring them in and start getting [them] involved.”

A tween-specific budget boost allowed Jill Harris to expand  the preteen collection at the San Rafael Public Library. Courtesy of San Rafael Public Library

A tween-specific budget boost allowed Jill Harris to expand
the preteen collection at the San Rafael Public Library.
Courtesy of San Rafael Public Library


Do you need a tween section?

A needs assessment of your patrons could be the first step in deciding whether you want to carve out a special tween space from your youth services area or lobby to create a new one. Medlar, who works as assistant chief of technology, content, and innovation with the Chicago Public Library (CPL), heard from a CPL librarian who watched as tweens walked back and forth between the juvenile and teen collections, looking for something just right.

In the Geneva (IL) Public Library District (GPL), “Both staff and patron feedback suggested there was a gap in services to middle schoolers,” notes Kylie Peters, a middle school librarian there. “Sixth graders, in particular, feel somewhere between youth and young adult services, and often got lost.” Peters adds that many 11- and 12-year-olds say, “I can’t go to a teen program, I’m not a teen.”

“We wanted to reach out to kids who weren’t quite ready for the teen area/programs yet, but who were getting lumped into that group,” says Maureen Eichner, youth services assistant at the Plainfield-Guilford Township (IN) Public Library (PTPL), which created a tween space.

Many librarians working with this age group also ask whether “tween” is the best label to use. “‘Tween’ is convenient, but it becomes a label,” Medlar says, while “‘middle grade’ is a publishing-world term, and that feels a little blah.” Others use the term “middle school” or grade ranges. “We observed that [‘tween’] was a word used by adults to describe the group, but not used by the kids,” says Jill Harris, supervising children’s librarian at the San Rafael (CA) Public Library (SRPL).

Designing for tweens

How have librarians given tweens a place of their own? Creating a special space for tweens meant designating an area in the children’s room at SRPL. Though the space is technically part of the children’s room, Harris and her colleagues differentiate the Middle School Lounge using some creative solutions. “[The space] has a large chalkboard painted sign that reads ‘Middle School Lounge,’” she says. “We typically decorate the space in a way that has more tween/teen appeal…The walls are painted a different color from the rest of the room, and it includes furniture from Fatboy that has a more lounge-y feel.”

The reorganized space “preserves line of sight from the reference desk, but still makes [the Lounge] feel like a somewhat separate space,” Harris says. It features a tween print collection that was previously shelved at the end of the juvenile fiction area in the children’s room. “The books felt hidden away and forgotten,” Harris adds. The tween collection received a budget increase and now includes hardcover and paperback titles, audiobooks, magazines, and graphic novels geared toward grades five through nine. The Lounge allows tweens to “feel distinct and special, but still connected to the rest of the children’s room, with caregivers and siblings close by,” said Harris.

The tween area at the PTPL is also within the children’s room—but away from the little kids. The library “zoned it by age so the tween area is across the room from the toddler/preschool area,” says Eichner. “Lots of the kids who use it also use the teen area, but many of them prefer to use the tween area for homework or personal conversations since it’s generally quieter.”

Britni Cherrington-Stoddart also found room in the children’s department at the Charlotte Mecklenburg (NC) Library, where she is a teen librarian. Cherrington-Stoddart identified an area of shelving that held rarely used collections and relocated high tween-appeal juvenile paperbacks and graphic novels there. After adding a few new furnishings and fun decor, “we immediately began to see use. Several parents expressed gratitude for the new space,“ she wrote in the October 2014 issue of VOYA.

Tweens at the San Mateo Public Library  (left) enjoy programming conceived collaboratively by youth librarians Alison Day (above left) and Addie Spanbock (above right).

Alison Day (left) and Addie Spanbock (right).

Craving independence and connection

Alison Day and Addie Spanbock, youth services librarians with the San Mateo (CA) Public Library (SMPL), noted that with the growing desire to be social, tweens in their library are “pretty open to doing a variety of activities as long as they are allowed to work in groups and talk,” Day says. Harris, noting the need for tweens to develop their independence, recommends giving them “an opportunity to participate in programs without their parents, [who] may still see them as kids….Tweens are craving time to explore new interests with their peers.”

Pop culture plays a large role in a tween’s life: what’s on TV, what are the hottest video games, what’s gone viral on YouTube. “One of the best ways to find out what tweens are interested in is by listening to what they are asking for,” advises Sarah Bean Thompson, youth services manager, Springfield-Greene County (MO) Library District, in “Don’t Forget the Tweens,” a 2013 Public Libraries Online article. “When they come into the library and ask about a book, TV series, or movie, pay attention and think about programming around what they are interested in.”

Great tween programs can range from craft afternoons to after-hours events. Every summer, Day and Spanbock invite tweens to the library from 5 to 7:30 p.m., after the library has closed. “This gives them the opportunity to be as loud as they like!” says Day. Tween-only book clubs offer a great opportunity for partnering with local schools. Thompson writes about her “Chat and Chew” school lunchtime book club, which concludes at the end of the school year with an ice cream party at the public library. “We noticed a big drop in tween programming, [so] we decided to go to where the tweens were…The tweens get to attend something special and they love having something just for them.”

How far should library staff stretch resources for a new service age group? Sometimes collaborative support comes naturally. At the SMPL, Day was hired as a children’s services librarian, and Spanbock arrived at the same time as a teen services librarian. “It was suggested we come together to do programs for this age range,” says Day. They have been partnering in tween services for two years.

Other library systems have expanded staff specifically to serve tweens, as was the case when PTPL hired Peters. Similarly, Harris was brought on specifically to “re-engage younger tweens and teens,” she says. She participated in the Eureka! Leadership Institute offered by the California Library Association; that gave her grant-funded support to focus on tweens. “During the grant year, we [made] a tween space, formed a Middle School Advisory Board, offered monthly programs, and partnered with other community organizations that serve tweens,” she says.

Harris encourages librarians to explore tween services not only because this age group deserves their own special attention, but also because “middle schoolers are a lot of fun! They’re at a cool age where they’re just starting to explore different interests and personas independently, but they’re not as jaded as some teens.” Gathering tween feedback and setting specific outcomes for this population will help shape newly established tween services; being flexible and open to experimentation is also key. Day and Spanbock recommend instruction sheets that break down the steps of an activity: “What makes sense and is clear to us isn’t [always] as clear to tweens,” says Day.

Over the past year at PTPL, Eichner has seen increased attendance and engagement in tween programming. She says, “Some of the kids who came to the programs last year were sad that they were aging out of the group”—a sure sign of success.

April Witteveen is a community and teen services librarian with Deschutes (OR) Public Library.

resources and PROGRAMMING ideas

The Tween Scene: A Year of Programs for 10- to 14-Year Olds, by Tiffany Balducci and Brianne Wilkins-Bester (VOYA, 2014) Tips on tweens activities from two librarians.

The Before Project, directed and edited by Terence Brown
A documentary film featuring interviews with Seattle 11-year-olds on their last day of elementary school.

Being 12: The Year Everything Changes: A WNYC radio, podcast, and video series

Bristlebots: Using a Bristlebots kit or supplies purchased individually, tweens can make tiny robots and experiment with STEM concepts

Minecraft: Whether you set up a Minecraft server or offer related crafts, Minecraft will be a hit.

LEGO Block Party: Younger tweens love diving into crates of LEGOs. Add a building contest or create a theme for your Block Party.

Minute to Win It: These silly (and challenging) activities will get tweens moving and laughing.

“Origami Yoda”–related programming: Tom Angleberger’s series is a big hit with tween readers.

Passive DIY programming: Let tweens serve themselves with a variety of DIY activities.

DIY Spa Day: Tweens can create their own pampering bath products and play around with nail art.

This article was published in School Library Journal's October 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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