Library Influencers: How Tween Advisory Boards Optimize Programming

How to steer a board of nine- to twelve-year-olds and turn ideas into bold initiatives.

When Grace Moore was hired as the full-time tween librarian at Winter Park (FL) Library in 2015, she knew she needed a little help.

“The first thing I did was start a tween advisory board,” Moore says. “I was in a new position and just starting programming, and I wanted to hear from the kids about what they wanted to do.”

Moore’s library is one of many around the country that has started tween-only boards to inform programming and draw more kids in this age group into their space. Even during the pandemic, these boards have been instrumental in helping youth services librarians develop tween-specific activities, including intricate take-home craft kits, digital escape rooms, and virtual book clubs.

“Having a tween board is a great way to help them feel included and engaged,” says Kelly Allen, youth services librarian at Oregon (WI) Public Library. “Developmentally they are not in the same place as high schoolers. Tweens are still kids. They are more silly. They also want their space where they can hang out with their friends.”


Growing into the library

Tweens, generally grouped as kids between the ages of nine and 12, are at home in digital environments and heavily influenced by pop culture and what they see on social media. They’re also going through several transitions at once, including beginning middle school, starting to experience the emotional and physical changes of puberty, and becoming more independent. Increasingly aware of the world around them, they are gaining more interest in social and political issues. They’re often too old for library programming for younger kids, and too young for the teenage activities.

Moore is completely focused on this age group—she was the first full-time tween librarian hired in the state of Florida. “When you think of a children’s librarian, they are serving ages zero to twelve, and that’s a huge age range in terms of interests and abilities,” she says. “You can serve tweens better if you can focus on them.”

During normal times, “If you want tweens, you need to offer food, mess, and fun,” advises Emily Trezza, department head of teen services at West Hempstead (NY) Public Library. “You need to provide them an opportunity to chat and learn an engaging activity. Tweens don’t want to listen to a lecture; they want to figure it out for themselves with their friends.”

Libraries also offer tweens the opportunity to develop independence in a safe space, librarians say. They can meet friends alone and explore books that they want to read outside of their home or school environments.

“Most tweens start gaining autonomy from their caregivers,” says Trezza. At public libraries, they can “try out new things as they decide what they like and don’t like.”

“If you can hook the tweens with happy library moments, they will remember the public library as teens, when they need information, help, or a safe place to hang out,” Trezza adds.

READ: Tweens Revolutionize Online Activism

Guiding tween boards

Moore’s tween board met monthly before the pandemic and resumed virtually in January. In meetings, Moore listens carefully to what members say and uses their feedback to help her plan. “They get to know me, and I get to know their interests. It means a lot to them to see that the library cares about them,” she says.

Working with a tween board requires more communication with parents than a teen board does. “I end up building relationships with them as well as the tweens,” Moore says. “My role involves more of supporting and guiding projects they take on. While they have great ideas and do great things, they usually have less experience with volunteering than the teens do.”

Allen, who has guided both teen and tween boards, says she needs to be more of a driving force with tweens. “Teens usually have a better understanding of what an advisory board is,” Allen says. “It is easier for them to grasp the concept that they will drive the projects and focus of the board. I am there as an adviser. The tweens are really learning what it means to not only offer their opinions on topics but to be part of the planning and running of the selected project. I focus more on asking for suggestions for prizes, books, and events.”

Allen’s library is in the process of planning for a new building, and she sought feedback from the tween board about the designs. “They take it really seriously,” she says. Their suggestions included “cool reading nooks.”

“They see the library as a place where they can hang out with their friends,” Allen adds. “We are close to a lot of the schools and they want to walk here, play games with their friends, and just read on their own.”

Moore’s virtual tween meetings followed a similar format to her in-person ones. The group played virtual games and they discussed ideas for summer reading programs. “For distributing books to review, instead of having a card for them to look over like I would in person, I just showed them a list and held up books for my camera one at a time and they shouted out what they wanted.”

While designing tween programs, it’s key to keep trying new things and stay up on pop culture. “It’s not enough to know what they like,” says Erica Testani, youth services librarian at L.E. Smoot Memorial Library in King George, VA. “You have to actually listen to some of the music they are listening to and watch their TV shows. I don’t always like all of it, but it’s a way that I can have a conversation starter with them.”

Testani set up a box in her library where kids can drop in names of books they’d like the library to purchase. “I tell the kids that I will buy every single book they want as long as it’s available. It helps them feel that they are really part of the department,” she says. They also start to share their thoughts on other things.

With the help of her tween board, Testani worked on a number of physical escape room activities based on book series, including one with a Baby-Sitters Club theme, her “most successful program ever.” She comes up with clues based on the books and makes props from toilet paper rolls and other objects.

During the pandemic, she has sent home craft kits including one for friendship bracelets, and made instructional YouTube videos to go along with the kits. Trezza has also been offering materials for crafts and posting instructional videos, some purchased from artists or craft professionals.


Gaining feedback

In non-pandemic times, Testani chats with the tweens informally during activities. Later, while having snacks in a different room, “I ask them to tell me what they liked about the program and what they didn’t. It’s still fresh in their mind, and they give a lot of honest feedback,” she says.

Moore now has six years of program ideas since she began working with her tween board. They include robotics classes, art events, cooking programs, improv lessons, and a ukulele class. She has partnered with local arts organizations and brought in community residents to lead these programs. Her board came up with the idea for a Pokemon trading card night—a popular and “really simple idea but it worked really well,” she says.

Last year, a group of tweens at her library met regularly with a theater teacher to write plays. During the pandemic, the tweens took to Zoom to finish the classes and perform their scripts. “They had put so much work into it, and it was heartbreaking at first when we thought they weren’t going to be able to perform,” says Moore. “I was so happy that they were able to do it online.”

Book clubs are popular with tweens, including virtual ones. Usually led by librarians, these gatherings offer a way for kids to share their thoughts and opinions about books outside of school. Book reviews are another way for tweens to connect and share ideas: The Garden City (NY) Public Library, for example, posts reviews on a dedicated page on its website.


Bookish innovations

One of Allen’s most successful tween programs has been a Books and Activities Club. The group discusses a book and then does an activity connected to the genre of that book: They’ll read a fantasy title, for instance, and paint tote bags with a galaxy theme while discussing it.

Some of Trezza’s most popular initiatives focus on crafts and art. Family paint nights, which bring together one tween and one adult, have been a big hit. “Some tweens brought parents, while others brought aunts or uncles. It was a great bonding activity, she says. Some activities have been less successful in a virtual format. “Virtual escape rooms aren’t that attractive to our community,” she notes.

Trezza has also seen a positive response to a pandemic-era virtual program, Book in a Bag, that imitates a book box subscription and has substituted for her in-person graphic novel book club. “I choose a graphic novel and interloan copies from local libraries. Then I find some goodies to pair with it.” She has included lollipops, notepads, pens, and bookmarks; featured books include New Kid by Jerry Craft and Be Wary of the Silent Woods by Svetlana Chmakova.

The pandemic has seen a surge in graphic novel sales and kid lit overall. Sales for juvenile fiction, which includes picture books and middle grade books, rose 11 percent in 2020 over 2019, according to NPD BookScan. While perennial tween favorites such as “Harry Potter” and the “Percy Jackson” series continue to draw new readers, many middle grade books now address social and health issues, including gender identity, racism, disabilities, and mental health.

“The middle grade books in our collection have a greater checkout than the teen books,” says Testani. The “Percy Jackson” series and other books by Rick Riordan circulate most, along with the “Wings of Fire” series by Tui T. Sutherland.

Community service programs are also a hit with tweens, as it can be sometimes hard for them to find these opportunities at their age. In Trezza’s craft-oriented service programs, tweens pick up materials at the library, work on the project at home, and bring the completed craft back. One initiative was designed to bring awareness of Reason2Smile, an organization that helps fund schools in Africa. Another involved creating postcards for Sending Smiles, a service project that sends postcards to children living with serious illness.

“This age group is just beginning to figure out what they like and don’t,” Trezza says. “Don’t be afraid to try new things and fail. The wider variety of programs you offer, the more chances a tween will discover something they love.”

Melanie Kletter is a teacher and freelance writer in New York City.

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