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Really? That’s What They Are Reading?

I’ve been hearing recently about some of the title choices of teen book discussion groups and I’ve said to myself, “Really? “That’s what they are reading?” For example, I found out that a middle school book group recently read 2006 Alex Award title Never Let Me G0 by Kazuo Ishiguro and next on the group’s list was Emma Donoghue’s Room. I was slightly flabbergasted, well maybe totally flabbergasted, to learn that these were the two most recent books for the group.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with teens – middle school or high school – reading either or both of these books. But, I do wonder, why would they be the books that are selected for a middle school book group? And, I wonder, are they books that teens of the middle school age can really talk about in a facilitated discussion? What would they talk about? Of course, the plot could easily be discussed, but there is so much more to each of the books, why discuss them in middle school? Why not wait until high school where the value of the book will be so much more recognized. (At least for some teens.)

young people's ladder of participationI think one thing that happens is that librarians, rightly so, want to give teens the lead in selecting materials for book discussion groups. There is nothing wrong with that. But, I think what also happens is that by giving the lead the librarian sometimes abdicates responsibility and doesn’t really help teens in the decision-making process. I’m a big fan of the Young People’s Ladder of Participation as a framework for thinking about how librarians working with teens can be successful in youth participatory activities. You’ll see on the ladder, shown on the right, that the highest level of participation doesn’t have teens making decisions completely on their own. Instead, teens and adults share decision-making.

If shared decision-making is the highest level of participation for teens, then how might that work within the context of selecting titles for a book discussion group? I see it as a brainstorming session in which teens and the librarian talk about possible titles, the pros and cons of titles, and so on. A teen might say, “The movie Never Let Me Go just came out and I think it would be great to read that book.” Another teen might say, “I heard it’s not so good, I’m not sure.” The librarian might say, “It is an interesting book and one that has lots going on in the story. There is a romance, a mystery, and adults talking about their lives and what they wish had been different. I’m thinking that maybe a book that just came out for teens, Matched, might be another good option. It has mystery and romance but not all of the talk of adults wondering about life.” I’m not suggesting that the librarian lay down the law and insist on reading Matched or a like title. But, I am suggesting that the librarian get into a discussion with teens about what to read, and help teens make a decisions based on what is going to truly make sense for the group.

A big part of what successful teen librarianship is all about is helping teens to make good decisions through the collections and programs and services made available. This goes along with the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets which lists decision-making as a skill that teens need to acquire.

Also, if a parent comes in and asks why a book was selected for a book discussion, the librarian that can say, “The teens and I chose it through discussion about a variety of possible titles” is much better equipped to help a parent understand the value of a book selection than the librarian who simply says, “The teens selected it.” Does the librarian come off as someone with skill and knowledge of the field and adolescents if she simply says, “I let the teens pick?” I’d suggest not. In order to continually demonstrate the value of teen services, it’s important that teen librarians are seen as skilled, trained, and knowledgeable community members.

With so many great titles available for teens, as seen in YALSA’s many selected lists, it seems that it wouldn’t be too difficult to help teens select books that make sense for who they are at a certain point in time. Think about the role that you can play in helping teens to select books for discussions. At the same time give teens the opportunity to participate actively and fully in the discussion planning. In the long run, a shared-decision making process will most likely lead to more effective discussions and perhaps even sessions that have higher attendance.

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  1. Sarah Debraski Sarah Debraski

    I think this is such an interesting piece. I feel like it’s a good example of “even if a book has won an award, it may not be the best choice for a certain situation (or age)”, as well as a librarian needing to use some judgement and provide guidance. I think your mock dialogue is so good because it also points out that even when a book doesn’t have gratuitous sex/violence/drug use/what have you, general themes can also, as you say, not “make sense for who they are at a certain time.”
    A friend who is a high school English teacher recently told me his school was about to try out Wintergirls for class discussion. I happened to love the book, but really had to wonder how many of the girls in his class were going to really talk openly about it in the classroom, as opposed to just with each other in private. I’m curious to see how that turned out.

  2. Kris Kris

    Some of the books my Middle School book club enjoyed this year were…

    House of the Scorpion
    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
    Before I Fall
    My Sister’s Keeper
    Safe Haven
    Thirteen Reasons Why

    They did tend towards the more adult options, but I think we kept the right balance. Our FACULTY book club is going to read Never Let Me Go this year, but I can’t imagaine doing that one with 13 year olds. House of the Scorpion hit on a lot of the same themes.

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