Hi libraryland! It’s been a while…over five years to be imprecise. It’s been the best of times (turns out, I love my “new” job as much as I loved being a Teen Librarian. I’m doing well at it and have A LOT to say, but never enough time to get my act together and revive this blog) and the worst of times (…insert pithy dumpster fire metaphor here)
Something pretty neat has been going on just outside of my notice (via an inbox I rarely check these days) – nearly six years after setting our Escape Room manual loose into the world I have recently been overwhelmed with requests for it again, from libraries of all types, schools, scholars, and even private Escape Room and educational companies.
Please, someone…tell me how this happened?! How did an old Escape Room manual – designed long before any of us imagined that we’d be moving programs, including game events like this, to a virtual platform. I’m serious…I’m aching to know who platformed this dusty old instructions.
(And please enjoy my vicarious embarrassment at how idiosyncratically weird the writing across the whole thing is, looking back after all this time. Spoilers (but no apologies) – I still have no ability to tone it down or be less…this.)
I’m fixing it up so it’s freely accessible again. I only ask that you acknowledge the work of myself and Marissa Bucci as the people who established and codified of this design style as appropriate to your usage (or conference presentation…we’ve seen some things over the years!), or, at the very least, name a character in your Room plot after one or both of us, especially if you are a commercial enterprise.
I hope to get back to writing soon. Right now I’m busy learning a new job, in a new(-ish) place, with new (fantastic!) people, adjusting to a new schedule due to a (temporarily) significantly longer commute, thereby losing treasured TV and movie and reading (and less-than-treasured-exercise) time, and pretty much always feeling a bit like this:
As the artist, Peter H. Reynolds notes, it’s an image of “a young (in my case, young-ish?) person hovering–looking slightly perplexed–and possibly delighted at the position they’re in.”
Which is exactly right: Diving into a whole new aspect of librarianship is perplexing and delightful, in equal measure. I have a feeling those proportions will change soon, and quickly.
I think I really like where this is all heading.
Of course that’s easy to say when there are wings attached to your pants.
Enjoy these early summer days. I’ll talk to you soon.
‘What’s next?’ is a question. When I started this blog it was primarily for the housing of my Escape Room manual (which was created for a colleague who wanted to try her hand at creating one from scratch. Over 1500 views and clicks from around the world later…) I thought I might take the opportunity to reflect on a decade of Teen librarianship and what I’d learned from successes (and failures) as we built a service from scratch. I decided to subtitle it ‘Reflections on 10+ years of Teen Librarianship and discovering what’s next…‘
‘What’s next’ is a question, but it’s also, in this moment, an answer. What’s next for me is something I hadn’t anticipated just over a year ago when I embarked on this project.
I will be leaving my current position as Head of Teen Services to move into a new area (for me) of librarianship, in a new (sort of) location, as the Outreach Services Specialist for a county library system. (The ‘sort of’ is because I’m a native Long Islander, so in a way I’m going home, even though I’m a Suffolk girl. Not Jersey, Sue B.)
I’m excited and nervous, which is (I hope) the exact right way to feel as I embark on something new. I can’t quite believe this is happening and I’m still in a state of bewildered gratitude for having even been considered. I have a lot to learn, but I really, really like being a student, and more than anything, I’m thrilled to apply the skills I’ve learned as a teen librarian, manager, and teacher to a wider scope of library users (and not-yet-users) who can benefit from our services in meaningful (and even life-altering) ways. I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to make a difference as my focus shifts to the support and strengthening of libraries themselves.
My feelings about moving away from full time teen service work are very complex (rueful, maybe?) Though I’ve had moments of frustration and exhaustion, I’ve never truly felt burnt-out (something that happens to the best of us, which others have described more eloquently than I could ever hope to.) I’m proud of the communities I’ve helped foster through programs like Fandoms and Service Saturday, and One Book One Town, as well as initiatives like our staff Genre Circle and library Collections Team, and the work I’ve done with schools and local youth support groups. I find myself thinking about all that I wanted but never got to do, and the things I hope might still get done before (and after) I’m gone. I hope I’ve been able to convince my colleagues and community that teens must always be seen, heard, and valued. I would have been happy doing this work for the rest of my career, and as I’ve been telling my colleagues, it would have taken a truly extraordinary opportunity at an amazing place to pull me away, and that’s exactly what’s happening.
I’m cataloging ‘lasts’ in my mind and getting a little emotional over things I had not anticipated. I’m blithely refusing to think about the changes coming to friendships I’ve developed with people at my library and with colleagues through this great state, as well as with the citizens of this town, where I have lived and worked for 11 and a half years. (Or my neighbors, some of whom have lived in our little apartment house longer than I have.) I’ve been able to share the news with co-workers (and my friends and family, who are thrilled that I’ll be ‘coming home’), but because of some…political considerations (it’s budget season, after all) I haven’t been able to tell most people until now.
I’m not the only person leaving in the next few weeks and months, so it will be a time of extreme transition for our library, but one that brings the potential for new, exciting things for our community. In a season of change, I can’t wait to see how this most incredible group of professionals finds the opportunity inside the challenge (in the past five or six years it has felt like one ‘Donkey Kong Barrel’ after another thrown at us) much as they have always done. I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a part of me that wonders what role I might have played in the impending revival, even if I’m very much at peace with this new direction (and, as someone who rarely feels peaceful, I know this means it’s right.)
I won’t be able to tell our patrons, some of whom I’ve watched grow from tweens to adults, for another few days. (It seems like I’m running into a lot of teens that I haven’t seen around in a while. This happens all the time, of course, but it feels like they are all turning up at the same time just to make me misty-eyed.) While I hate that there won’t be a lot of time between sharing the news and my departure, I’m glad to have a bit of space to consider the best way not only to tell them, but to let them know that I hope to maintain my connection to them. The internet really is a miracle.
As the shock and surprise wears off and this becomes ‘really real,’ in the next few weeks I’ll be scurrying around, trying to make this transition as smooth as possible for my staff (in particular, the amazing Jen, with whom I’ve built this service over the past 10 years) who will be assuming (some of) my responsibilities. I’ll be packing and cleaning an office and an apartment, and hopefully doing one last weed of my adult collections (Fantasy, I’m coming for you!) I’m going to try and get more manuals together for this blog and start piecing together planned workshops for the state library. I’ll present at a conference (Escape Rooms with the marvelous Marissa!) I’ll run a few more programs. I’ll start moving (very, VERY temporarily to my family home as I look for an apartment or condo or co-op or…maybe a houseboat! Not really, but it’s fun to think about.) I’ll write out plans for the work I’m leaving behind and about a bajillion cards for these people who have made me the librarian (and person) I am today. I’ll go to a dozen lunches, dinners and parties. I’ll make sincere plans to visit, and be visited in return (because I’m not going far.) I’ll turn in my keys and parking permit and (try and fail to) sneak out a side door.
So here we go: a slow reboot of everything in my life. No one can know the future, but I intend to leap into this new opportunity with clear eyes and an inquisitive spirit. I hope you’ll stick around and take this journey with me. Let’s go!
I crossed a big item off my bucket list last month – I traveled solo (sort of) to Scotland. It’s a country that has loomed large in my imagination since I was a little kid (having read Margaret George’s book Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles at far too young an age) and it more than lived up to my expectations. I love travel and exploring new places, and this was the first time I truly felt that I could just drop everything and never, ever leave a new place.
I haven’t, and (for the foreseeable future) I won’t (althoughthere are some big changes coming soon…watch this space) but the memories made during this trip will live in my heart for a long time. I realize that this reverse-wanderlust has a lot to do with the ‘vacation’ aspect of all this – it’s easy to want to live somewhere when your experience consists of hotels, sightseeing and someone cooking your meals (and washing your dishes), and in my case this was enhanced by the fact that I used a fantastic tour company, so most all of the stressful elements of going to a new place were handled.
Like any adventure, the best part of my trip was meeting fantastic people. I didn’t know anyone in my group when I arrived in Glasgow, but a week later, flying out of Edinburgh, I had connected with and made new friends that I wound up spending a significant amount of time with (which is sort of a big deal, as I really enjoy my ‘wandering city streets and skulking in foreign alleys-alone time’ quite a bit.)
Since I’ve returned, I’ve been thinking a bit about how it is that our little crew (or clan, because Scotland), with a 15-year age-span, all engaged in wildly different work, and hailing from different corners of the country, managed to forge such a meaningful connection. It is, as one of our fellow tour-mates noted, because we spoke the same (semi-coded) language: References.
The first time I noticed it was at a castle (we were always at some incredible castle, because Scotland) when I heard, from somewhere in the pile of people, ‘Don’t Blink.’ My head shot up and I started scanning for the person who dropped the Doctor Who reference. We made eye contact and shared a smile. It was on.
As the trip proceeded we began speaking in pop culture, connecting over shared (and sometimes surprising) interests in a way that seemed like we had developed our own language of strange phrases and private jokes. Giggling, singing songs from ‘The Nightman Cometh.’ Quoting ‘Hannibal.’ (I will find my Fannibals anywhere!) Bridging the silence with gentle teasing about our own obscure favorites and clapping with joy finding out that someone else had heard of or loved something we treasure.
It might seem like a superficial way to connect, but this introduction via pop culture lead to expansive conversations (and a sense of goodwill when opinions diverged) over the course of long bus transfers, quiet moments in hotel lobbies and amazing meals in pubs all over the country (Haggis: Delicious!) It was intensely familiar: this is how I talk with my oldest friends and family members near(ish) to my age. It was anything but shallow. These new relationships were quick, comfortable, and thanks to the miracle of the Internet, will likely last for a long while.
I think we’ve all had those moments of connection over pop culture ‘ephemera’ at work. One of the most wonderful things about working with teens is getting to witness that delighted moment of recognition when you compliment a shirt or a pin, or can drop in on a conversation about OTPs, or ask them for recommendations on books, shows, movies, or bands to enjoy (I would never have fallen in love with Bob’s Burgers or Steven Universe if it weren’t for my Fandoms group insisting that I get over my ambivalence towards animation.) I have these kinds of interactions with adults, too, but they are more often than not muted and cautious. (Of course, as generations shift and what used to be marginalized as ‘nerd culture’ becomes more and more profitable, universal, and centralized, this is changing.) What do we have to lose when we share our enthusiasm, demonstrate our expertise in the things we love, or allow others to do the same?
It’s important, and often vital, to keep a ‘professional’ distance from patrons in a public library, but professional doesn’t have to mean impersonal. Recognizing and responding to our users in this way can lead to opportunities with lasting value for everyone involved. I’m thrilled to see more and more libraries turning to pop culture as another avenue to expand their reach into their communities and demonstrate that our ‘institutions’ truly see, appreciate, and value everyone.
Many teens in our weekly Fandoms group came to their first meeting knowing they’d be walking into a room full of strangers (a major anxiety trigger no matter your age or experience level) having only met me, the librarian who geeked out for a minute over their Sherlock laptop sticker or Fourth Doctor-inspired scarf. As each new person introduces themselves to the group, they name a few of their beloved fandoms. As they do, without fail, others in the group will whoop, clap, or shout a catchphrase, and the newbie will smile, or wave, or respond with a reference in kind. You can see their tension ease. They have found a place.
Over time, I’ll see these teens turn up at other classes and events, volunteer for different departments, or use our spaces to gather, study, or just hang out. Many of them will become library-users for life, and it all started with a simple moment of reference and response. They know that the library is theirs, and that someone who works there speaks their language, or at least is willing to learn it.
For me and many of my colleagues, the winter months are dominated by One Book One Town – I’ve been a co-chair of our community reading initiative for eight of the past 10 years and as it’s our big anniversary season, things have been extra-intense in the best way. We have chosen two titles (Books for Living by Will Schwalbe and A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston) to celebrate the power of reading and the primacy of story in our culture and lives. Our signature event, where we bring our author to town, has been postponed due to Snowpocalypse Stella (currently beating a military tattoo of hail on the roof of my apartment) so this OBOT is going to stretch on a bit longer than normal.
But teen events and outreach and other duties continue, so the winter seems to pass in a blaze of activity, speeding away from me and leaving little time to write. So here is a quick update. I hope to go back and detail most of this stuff, but, like my television-watching habits, there tends to only be time to move forward and never a chance to go back and pick up what I have missed. (For example, Iknow I’d love Battlestar Galactica. I know it is never going to happen.)
Our winter sessions of the Getting Ready for College series kicked off with our annual Summer Jumpstart event (about courses, camps, internships and other things to do during those hazy days that help students stand out during the super-stressful admissions season), presented by one of our high school Career and College counselors, Alice. She’s one of my favorite people in town, a frequent program-planning partner and a great ally in spreading the word about library services to teens and parents. We run 4-5 GRFC sessions each season on all sorts of ‘post-high school/college-bound’ topics and while they tend to be ‘adult-heavy’ in terms of attendance (even the test prep ones, which will always bewilder me…) this one had about an even split between teens arriving independently and adults. Like all our speakers in this series, Alice presents her work pro bono, sharing her expertise with the community for free and helping those who might be unable to afford or access the ‘college-counselor-for-hire’ market and the essential information it provides to navigate this increasingly complicated process.
Just a few days after our awesome all-ages Hamilton event, I once again collaborated with our local University, this time with a teaching librarian, Matthew, for an all-ages take on the ‘Fake News’ phenomenon. It was another wonderful extension of a community partnership I’ve been nurturing for some time, since we see a lot of college students at our public library, particularly around exam times. We set a fast-paced program called ‘Trust or Truthiness,’ where we addressed some of the underlying psychology of how ‘alternative facts’ can spread (confirmation biases and the anchoring effect), who benefits from false information, why it’s important to seek out and find the sources which both present the news you need which strive to do so in a professional, verifiable fashion, and how to spot clickbait, with video tutorials from the wonderful Checkology curriculum by the News Literarcy Project. Matthew and I made a great team, passing the ‘presentational baton’ easily between each other, and attendees, which included teens, teachers and adults, had very positive reactions (thoughsome adults were slightly put-out that we wouldn’t just ‘tell them what to look at’ in terms of ‘good news sites.’ We continually stressed that being a participant in a democracy means that we, as citizens, are going to have to do a little work for it now and then) so we know it was a success. I’ve been advocating for more of these ‘mixed’ programs for teens and adults together so I’m glad to have another great example of how engaged young people can bring their intellect, experience, and perspective to the community conversation. Our library is just getting started on this topic and I feel like we can’t address it, or highlight the library’s role in combating it, enough.
Our third Escape Room series was also a huge success…so far. We lost two days of sessions due to snow. I accept that I brought this upon myself when I designed an original game called ‘Escape the Arctic’ for a February run. I kind of adore some of the new puzzles I created for this game, and I’ll certainly write more about them once it is all well and truly done. One of the highlights of this third new game was that I was able to invite local librarians to come and play, creating a nice impromptu workshop on game design, which was valuable for me, with more conference presentations and teaching gigs at the State Library planned for 2017. We are going to run make-up sessions for the registered families and teens who lost their time due to the bad weather (of course, as I write this, it is blizzarding outside, with more snow to come on Sunday.) I have promised that next Winter’s session will be some variation on the theme of ‘Escape the Tropics.’
My favorite moment of the games thus far: A player yelling at his team that someone lost a key…that was in his hand. We’ve all been there, friend!
Our monthly Service Saturday drop-in volunteer program continues. We are just about through the super-intense ‘confirmation season’ where teens who need hours for their religious obligations flood the library. We hit an all-time high of 28 individual volunteers in one six-hour day. Last year we furnished over 500 hours to local teens and we are on-track to crush that previous record. This is one of the most essential services (no pun intended) that we provide our teen community, and while it leaves me with not a drop of energy at the end of the day, I’m proud that our library can be responsive to the needs of young people. And it just keeps growing…
Our first big One Book One Town program was the revival of an oldie-but-goodie: Reader’s Theatre! (I love getting to dredge up those old stage skills from my college days.) We’ve done several of these based on previous OBOT titles but this time it was different: An experiential show where the audience toured the library, encountering actors in different spots and nooks all around the building. We used A Child of Books as our jumping-off point, and each performer read a selection from a classic title featured in that amazing picture book or a beloved folktale. (I got to read my favorite, The Crane Wife.)
What made this Readers Theatre truly remarkable was the incredible set and prop design by one of our Children’s librarians, the astoundingly-talented Kristina (who is also the person who brought A Child of Books to OBOT for consideration, because she gets it. I’m so glad that she’s part of the committee.) I’m still in awe of the work she did to bring these stories to life in the most evocative ways. Our cast, made up of library staff, adult, and teen community members, all got to play their parts in the incredible landscapes Kristina not only created, but put up in the very short window of time between the library’s closing and the after-hours event. She’s a true marvel, that one. The family audience enjoyed the show and many learned some new stories from around the world along the way. It was a great kickoff to OBOT season and a dynamic celebration of a pitch-perfect picture book.
What’s next? Working with one of our high schools to refine their ‘Summer Symposium’ program (which I will certainly be detailing soon, as it’s another incredible library/school collaboration), Jen’s ninth-annual Peeps diorama contest at our Branch Teen Center, at least two (maybe SIX?!) all-day-marathon book-talking/outreach sessions at the high schools, more Librarians on Loan visits to facilitate private book club discussions, GRFC sessions on test prep, admissions, financial planning and performing arts admissions, some with fantastic presenters I have been working with for eight years now (wow!), and Fandom Madness IV, with teens taking on even more responsibility in designing and executing this beloved event.
Oh, and the One Book One Town signature event with several hundred people at the University Arts Center.
Oh, and vacation…to SCOTLAND! Bucket list level stuff for me.
But really, what’s next is shoveling. All the shoveling.
UPDATE: How did I forget our third-annual How to Win Your Oscar Pool program! It’s one of my favorite non-teen programs of the year, where my colleague, the brilliant Philip and I ‘Siskel & Ebert’ our way through the year in film, sharing information on how to make predictions and giving our own opinions on what should win. I think I love it because we get to share our expertise (although this is relative, at least for me when co-presenting with our library A/V guru!) and passion and be all snarky for the audience, which really seems to get a kick out of it. This year was great fun, but not as contentious as usual because, for once, we were in agreement about the best film of the year…and well…what do you know…?!
I am always saying how lucky I am (because it’s true!): I have a job that I love in a profession I believe in and I know that the work I do each day makes a difference. The staff of my library is outstanding – truly the best that I have ever worked with or seen. Unlike some teen librarians I talk to, my colleagues seem to like working with teens (even outside my constant harping about it.) So I was surprised when a someone was a bit…snarky about my excitement over the impending Youth Media Awards. (As an irrepressible ‘list and awards’ fan, the announcement each year at ALA Midwinter ranks just under the Oscars for me.) I’m choosing to take that moment of side-eye as having more to do with my (often excessive) enthusiasm than that other thing. It was a fleeting moment, certain to be instantly forgotten. But I’m not sure, and it’s still (slightly) bothering me a few days later.
It might be that other thing: That it’s easy and comfortable for adults to scoff at young people and their stuff and their seemingly temporary concerns and ‘dramas.’
I’ve known many extraordinary teens in the time I’ve been a librarian. Some that I am working with now really stand out: the members of the LGBTQIA+ support group that uses one of our libraries as their meeting space. I try to sit in with them as often as I can and always make sure to have their information on hand for anyone interested or in need. It may be self-serving, but these teens are the ones I seek out when things in the wider world get tough because they are incredibly kind, brave and just plain fun to be around.
I made sure to arrange my overloaded schedule to be with them on Friday. The tenor of the group was much as it ever is – bright, cheerful, laughing. A room of teens from across the county gathering, catching up after being apart for a week or longer, celebrating the small victories of their day. As we got into the session, though, things darkened as they began to share thoughts on the inauguration and fears about what reactionary politics could mean for the gains in equality we’ve seen up to this point. Some were quiet, some angry, some were making mordant jokes, but all of them expressed fear and a growing sense of helplessness.
Whatever your politics might be, this is no time to disregard the fears of our teens. When it was my turn to contribute, I tried to focus their energy towards action, challenging them to think about how they would respond to the things that are making them uncomfortable and unsure. When a trans teen said that they felt useless, I responded honestly. Of course you do, I said, ‘you all have it harder than adults.’
They were thunderstruck. Usually this group is so energetic they overlap questions and answers with a rapidity that would impress the most caffeinated professional pundits. After a few beats of silence, the teen whispered “Oh. Please say that again.” And so I did.
I told them how I see it: Teens have little control over so many factors of their lives: They don’t have economic power (even in this affluent corner of the world.) They have to abide by the rules of their guardians, and while some have compassionate support systems, more endure home-lives that range from willfully ignorant about their needs, to hostile, to dangerous or even non-existent. Their access to transportation, medical care, education and (often) information is strictly controlled. Few of them are truly seen, or heard, or taken seriously by anyone in their lives except each other. In so many ways, they must rely on others to act for them.
Another beat of silence, and this time, with a sly smile, the teen again whispered. “Say. That. Again.”
When I’m working on other desks, or just living my life out in the community, I am often asked how I can stand working with teens. What most people are really asking is how can I stand these teens these days. This is a lazy, self-indulgent question that, to me, indicates an abdication of the responsibility we have as ‘grown-ups’ and representatives of older (but rarely wiser) generations to help young people learn exactly how to navigate the often-fuzzy ‘rules’ of adulthood.
I (too often) find myself defending the value of service to teens. I worry that it has become a losing game. Those who work with young people must never become complacent about the importance of seeing, hearing and helping young people, or insisting that others treat them an essential part of our communities. To tell a teen to ‘get over it,’ that they are ‘lucky’ to have contemporary problems (as opposed to the ‘historical’ ones of older generations) or, that they’ll understand it all in some future, hazy ‘one day’ does nothing to assuage their fears or feelings of helplessness in the moment. When someone says something like this, they aren’t interested in helping. They either cannot or will not remember that they once experienced those same fears and uncertainties. They are just making themselves feel better.
It might feel true: Maybe it’s likely that teens will look back, with the advantage of age, and realize that their current problems aren’t such a big deal. But in the moment (this moment, especially) the challenges they are facing as individuals, as well as in their communities, country, and planet, seem insurmountable. How can we expect them to ‘get over it’ if we only offer an generic insistence that they will, without providing the specific support they need to gain the skills they need to cope, or without sharing our own stories, revealing our past (and current) vulnerabilities, treating young people with the respect they deserve?
I asked this amazing group what they were going to do to ensure that their place in the world remains visible, accessible, and protected. Though they know that their options to act are limited, they responded: They would band together. They would stand up for what they believe in, where and when they could. They would carve out and hold space for those still afraid or unable to live their lives authentically.
When a co-worker asked me the same question this weekend, I wasn’t able to answer as thoughtfully as the teens did. After a long, silent moment I said: Through my work.
We (myself and the fabulous Hayley, a librarian at the local college and sub at our library) finally pulled the trigger on our Hamilton program this week. Because we plan programs so far in advance (not the best way to go about developing responsive services for teens, but in a heavy-programming library system, setting the schedule 4-6 months ahead of time is the only way to secure space) I worried that our ship may have left the harbor, but so many people are still completely obsessed with this (nearly-perfect) piece of musical theatre we didn’t want to throw away our shot.
It went really well, if not exactly as imagined. When you love (or, are obsessed with) a thing you are programming around, you are all but helpless in the face of your vision for it. I’ve learned how to prioritize which elements are essential, which are nice, and which can be jettisoned when you inevitably run out of time, but when you engage with super-popular thing that you, yourself, feel passionately about, it’s easy to go overboard.
In planning Ham(ilton) Jam!, I didn’t realize until the event was running that I had created what I call a ‘leveled’ program (There probably is a proper technical term for this, but that’s how I think of them) created to cater to different levels of audience engagement simultaneously. This is commonplace, especially for youth and family programs, but something I’ve been reflecting more on in regards to teen programs. You want everyone to get something out of a session, but people prefer engage in their own way, on their own terms. If we want to put on frothy events, we have to be cognizant of and respond to this.
The Ham Jam (visualize that! Or…don’t!) was a fine example of a leveled program. Finding a good time to run it was (as always) a challenge: school stuff, a barely-existent budget, other library programs, etc. Wd decided to go on Hamilton’s birthday – January 11th. This was before our library program bible (we do SO many programs that I call our seasonal brochure a Cheesecake Factory menu. I kid, but I’m proud that we offer such a quantity and variety of classes and events to our community) was released so publicity would require extra effort, it was midweek (Wednesday) and it was during our traditionally quieter winter months. (I’ve had luck programming in such ‘slow times’ lately, with larger-than-expected turnouts, and as this whole thing was a banana-pants experiment anyway, I decided to go with it.) The ‘Hamilton’s Birthday’ angle was too delightful to resist.
Although this was conceived as a teen program I didn’t limit registration and soon saw from our online reservation system that we were attracting a diverse age range, which was borne out by the attendance: About 60 Hamilfanatics ranging from an 85 year-old who knew every word to a crew of 3rd graders who requested that I just play ‘My Shot’ over and over again to a three year-old with serious dance moves (who showed them off in front of the crowd.) Some popped in for a few songs, some stayed for the first act, and about a third of the attendees stuck it out for the full three hours.
How can you plan for a crowd with such a diverse age range? Well, in short, I didn’t: I planned a teen program. Lately, it’s pretty much the same thing. I had to consider that there would be vastly different levels of engagement and focus in the room: Some would be singing. Some would gaze at screens, either the large one in the room or the small ones in their hands. Some would dive into the table games provided. Some would (purposely or not) pull focus and run around and dance. And some (a few benevolent chaperone-type parents in the room) would just endure it, just shy of complete indifference.
All of these responses and levels of engagement are valid and worthwhile.
I wanna talk about what I have learned; the hard-won wisdom I have earned, because it took me a while to let go of my own expectations inside of my programs. The intellectual and creative exhaustion that occurred during my second year of weekly Fandoms group broke me for the better in this. I’d go into a session ready to share something I thought was important, or an obscurity that I thought the teens would love (sometimes it works: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; sometimes it does not: Documentary Now!) and many would respond by…ignoring the featured content, pulling out phones and/or just hanging out. After spending time preparing for each session, trying to thoughtfully incorporate high-interest educational elements, this could be frustrating, and alas, I admit it: sometimes it showed.
I don’t know how much of my irritation was due to a heretofore undiscovered teacher-type mentality lurking within me. Or maybe it was that Fandoms was the most success I’d had with a weekly program so I was being too ambitious, or that in our second year the number of teens in the room (35, 40, 50) felt unmanageable (I got used to it.) Or maybe it’s that I was a theater major who studied directing and liked to have things go exactly as I envisioned them. I don’t know when it happened, but one day I just let go and…stopped…trying to direct their focus. (I didn’t give up control of the room, exactly. We installed an in-program ‘policy’ where people who aren’t interested in that week’s conversation/viewing filter to the back of the room and try not to get too loud as they play or hang out, and those who want to engage in the planned content move up, closer to the screen and speakers.) I realized that for our teens, who are often over-scheduled and stressed, to opt in to a library program on a Friday afternoon was a special thing and significant commitment, so they should spend their truly precious time as they saw fit, and if that meant getting sucked into phones, so be it. I would never want a teen to stop doing what they want in order to meet my expectations. (Unless it’s in any way destructive, but you know what I mean.)
(When I have some time I mean to study up on the way teens and others split their attention. I find that teens who seemingly never lift their eyes from their screens absorb a lot of whatever it is we are talking about during Fandoms, and other ‘gathering’-style programs, in a sort of mental multitasking. I find it fascinating and need to learn more.)
How did we plan a three-hour program for all ages that can satisfy multiple levels of engagement? I’ve mentioned some bits of it, but here are the specifics:
There are ten things you need to know:
We played the full score and encouraged people to sing along.
We did not scroll lyrics for the show, but encouraged attendees to bring their own sheets/books/Hamiltomes, and to share them. Instead we scrolled…
A 200+ slide presentation of #hamilfacts about the history in the show, the production, references to other songs and showtunes, and Revolutionary-era trivia. I keyed each fact to a lyric so I could track and manually advance the slides with a clicker while I walked around and supervised the room. I used Genius as a starting point, saving time and sanity as I generated a resource list for attendees.
We put out a display of books for all ages on Hamilton, Burr and other figures from the show.
We had table games, including a cast/historical figure match game, a word scramble and a crossword puzzle, as well as coloring sheets.
We also set out birthday party hats and mini-signs with words from the show (Work! Hamilton! Boom!) made with barbecue skewers (an essential craft supply…I use them for everything.)
We had snacks – pretzels, cookies, and a birthday cake.
We had a ten-minute intermission, where we ate said cake and sang the Birthday song.
We set a hashtag for Instagram and Snapchat and incorporated them into the slide show.
We walked around the room and sat at different tables to chat with attendees and celebrate our favorite songs and moments.
Not everyone did every thing. Some people just chatted or snapped or musical.ly-ed, some let their energy run wild, some sang their hearts out. No one seemed helpless or irritated by anyone engaging with the program elements in their own way and everyone walked out with something positive to say (including a dad sitting with his overjoyed daughter and her crew, reading a newspaper, who said at the end “That was not…terrible?”)
It was a community event in every sense of the word, centered on a contemporary rap/sung Broadway musical about the scandalous life and times of an immigrant Founding Father, which is kind of amazing. It had something for everybody, including those who didn’t really want to be there. It was super-library and we were all satisfied.
We’re going to run it one last time, at our branch library this spring. (Probably during the day on a weekend – three hours on a weeknight was way too much for the littles in the room.) And this time we’ll call it ‘Jamilton!,’ as suggested by one of my Fandoms teens after this first run. (‘Why didn’t you mention that sooner? It’s perfect!’ I cried. ‘You seemed to really like Ham Jam, so I didn’t want to ruin it for you’ he replied. Beware: Enthusiasm can drown out better ideas if you get overly-attached to your own vision. Another thing for me to work on.)
I’m glad that the world, and our event design, was wide enough for all these patrons who may not ordinarily ‘see’ or interact each other out in the community to come together and enjoy this program together, each in their own way.
PS: Fun fact – Aaron Burr’s dad was born here in Fairfield. There is an elementary school named for the family, and whenever I visit, I listen to ‘Wait for It’ and ‘The Room Where It Happens’ on the drive there and back.
This is my favorite time of year: List Season! In addition to my passion for the written word, I am a huge film and TV nerd (or, as a coworker once stated, he and I are both ‘voracious consumers of media,’) and mid- to late-December is when ‘top-everything’ notices start to appear, and movie awards start being announced. (I’ve been told that my love of the Oscars et. al., and gaming out odds on nominations and winners is weird, but it’s no weirder than fantasy sports if you think about it. I’ve been able to argue this point with sports-obsessed friends and…they seem to get it!).
I realize such things are wildly subjective (andrarely reward who or what they should, but they do form a historical record so they are important, for better or worse. I speak from experience, as a kid whose family was not engaged by art and discovered these spheres through a grocery store-bought encyclopedia set.) but I don’t care, nor do I dwell on what the unabashed joy I feel in ranking things indicates about my personal psychology.I’m passionate about things I love and decided long ago to decline enthusiasm-related shame.
It was, as most would agree, a pretty rotten year, but there was some great stuff to set our eyeballs on: This is the stuff I loved the most of the things I’ve seen or read. Unlike the lists I make for work, I’m not concerned with balance or signal-boosting (except for TV stuff), or the admittedly problematic nature of some of these choices. Really, this is a personal record, since as I (…ahem…) age I find myself needing touchstones to keep track of all this voracity. Anyway:
Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee – Still weeping over this sensitive and gorgeous novel about love, loss and the magic of nature.
Paper and Fire by Rachel Caine – I need part three of this adventure series right NOW! I’ve called it librarian catnip, but it is pure pleasure for any reader.
Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Bartoletti Campbell – Thoughtful and mysterious NF about justice for those who are defiant – or perhaps dangerous – outsiders.
Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand – Captures the moment when you realize your family has a secret history you might never fully know or understand.
The Emotionary by Eden Sher and Julia Wertz – Me, in a book.
Kill the Boy Band by Goldie Moldavsky – A twisted, hilarious, and candid look at the dark side of fandom enthusiasm. I’d read unreliable narrators all day, every day.
The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan – Tan+the Grimms= My dark soul.
Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick – Not perfect, but the 2016 book I’d most like to shove into the hands of the striving, ‘on-track’ teens I work with.
The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh – Breathtaking conclusion to a reworking of the Scheherazade story. Steamy, magical, and completely satisfying.
Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephardt – A powerful book that sneaks up on you, as two kids forge a friendship in the balmy Florida sun that will melt your heart.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Cheat, but the first thing I read this year. It shredded me, then haunted me, and I knew nothing would surpass it…
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – …Although this came close.
Ashes of Fiery Weather by Kathleen Donohoe – A gorgeous family saga about the women who bind generations of NYC firefighters together. A debut masterpiece.
Becoming Unbecoming by Una – Essential reading for every woman. I wish this existed when I was young and struggling with the contradictions of femininity.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell – Slamming this into the hands of all my Hamilfanatics. My favorite adult NF author to booktalk.
Books for Living by Will Schwalbe – A love-letter to the reading life that is deeply personal and universally revelatory at the same time, like all the best NF.
Havana by Mark Kurlansky – Cheat, as it comes out in 2017, but I’m going to Cuba this summer and found this history of the city unputdownable.
The Trial of Roger Casement by Fionnula Doran – Casement is an complex and controversial figure in Irish history. I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on him, so…
Love that Boy by Ron Fournier – A heartfelt, earnest book about learning to wildly celebrate kids who are not like the ones who you dreamed of having.
The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McElvie – Set the silly concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ aside and indulge in this comics series and all its subversive glory.
Moonlight – It’s perfect. I felt it in my bones. Essential viewing.
Midnight Special & Loving – Cheat, but Jeff Nichols had a YEAR, with two films about strength and solace derived from the unbreakable bonds of love.
Arrival – An intellectual sci-fi thrill ride about the power of language to shape our perception of the world. Librarian catnip.
Manchester by the Sea – Guilt and grief and return. I know this story. This version is almost unbearably true. Lonergan is a master. Lucas Hedges is startlingly good.
The Nice Guys – My eternal love of Russell Crowe: He’s perfectly paired with Ryan Gosling in a rare comedic role. The most fun I had in a theatre this year.
13th – If you can watch this and not shake with rage I question your humanity. Ava DuVernay is an unfathomable talent.
Sing Street – A sweet and sour story about growing up through music, with what should be a star-making turn by Jack Reynor: He is a jet engine.
Hail, Caesar – My eternal love of Ralph Fiennes. Anyone nervous about the upcoming Han Solo movie: watch Alden Ehrenreich in this and be relieved of doubt.
The Lobster – Best audience moment of the year: A seemingly-sweet senior lady yells over the pre-closing credits darkness ‘What the ever-loving f*ck was that?!’
Deadpool – Maybe I’m God’s perfect idiot, but this brought me so much joy.
TBD: There is still more to see…High hopes for La La Land, Elle, Jackie and Fences.
One of my resolutions this year was to continue my film education. I’ve managed to connect with a group of film-loving teens at the library and they’ve been gloriously, enthusiastically instructive. (Also: Are you on Letterboxd? I am! It’s a fantastic app/site and you should check it out!)
Andrei Rublev – A stark look at the struggle to make art in the brutal world of early czarist Russia, with an explosively gorgeous coda that shook me to the core.
Tokyo Story – They all said start with Ozu and they were right.
M – Expressionism is my favorite artistic ‘-ism.’ Knowing the story ahead of time didn’t diminish my astonishment.
Paths of Glory & Barry Lyndon – Cheat, but I Kubrick-ed hard this spring. Two stories set in Europes of wildly different circumstance, about falsehood, fate and futility.
Broadcast News – “I can sing while I read, I am singing and reading both.” That should be carved into my theoretical tombstone.
Make Way for Tomorrow – BRB, I need to cry my eyes out just thinking of this
Brief Encounter –Why did they even bother with contemporary star-crossed love stories after this one?
Burden of Dreams – I can only imagine what a Jason Robards/Mick Jagger-led version of Fitzcarraldo would have been. Young Herzog was foxy? I feel weird.
Marat/Sade – My college staged this play and I avoided the film for a long time because the experience warped me. I remembered every word. Deliriously terrifying.
The China Syndrome – My eternal love of Jack Lemmon. The Apartment is one of my all-time favorites but this might be the best of his legendary performances.
(I watch a lot of television. It’s my favorite thing and I’m not shy about it. I can’t order this list: I could probably list 50 shows I adore. Here are the ones I wish more people would watch, and/or I most consistently talk up to friends and library users:)
Rectify – A slow-burn gothic true crime novel brought to life. Languid, character-driven and unforgettable. I’ll miss these characters when it ends this season.
The Americans – It had me at ‘Soviet spies living and working in the American 1980s.’ It has never let me go. All together now: Poor *insert character name here.*
Atlanta – Surreal, heartfelt, uncompromising and as funny as anything you’ll see on screen.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – Feminist musical perfection. My Fandoms group has adopted as it as a new and surprising obsession, leading to countless great conversations.
You’re the Worst – Delightfully demented. My most frequent recommendation for the little characterization callbacks alone. *sings* ‘New phone, who dis?‘
RuPaul’s Drag Race – I like reality shows that show craftspeople at work, and this is the best. Mama Ru’s Emmy win this year gave me life. Always: Purse first.
High Maintenance – Don’t be turned off by the ostensible premise: This is a tone poem about individuals connecting (or not) in the not-so-anonymous big city.
Halt and Catch Fire – Five actors at the top of their game in a sublime piece of computer-age historical fiction. Catch up before its final season airs next summer.
Transparent – What it all comes down to, is that everything’s gonna be fine fine fine.
The Path – Cult stuff, so of course I love it. I’d watch Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy (Will Graham, always in my heart) in anything.
Fleabag – Breaking the fourth wall is annoying, except for when it’s perfect. Bonus points for outstanding deployment of Olivia Colman.
Game of Thrones – I’ve been reading the books longer than I’ve known some people in my life. This season deep speculation became (show, at least) canon.
Black Mirror – Still morbid, still twisted and still scarily on-point. I like having an idea of where we might be headed, as I am a well-known catastrophist.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee – Righteous rage might be the defining emotion of 2016 and Sam Bee wields it like a razor.
Movie Scenes & TV Episodes
You’re The Worst: Twenty-Two – Desmin Borges is perfect. Mandatory viewing for all, and vital for anyone serious about supporting veterans.
Hail, Caesar: Would that it were so simple – I used to direct theatre in college. I still have to give direction at large library events. This is my new manta.
Moonlight: Learning to swim – My heart…
The Nice Guys: The bathroom stall – Gosling and Crowe are comedy gold.
Black Mirror: San Junipero – The queer tech romance I never knew I needed. Beautiful, emotional, with just a hint of the usual creepery.
A Bigger Splash: Emotional Rescue – Ralph Fiennes doesn’t have an Oscar. He should get one for this role and he should have to dance in everything from now on.
Manchester by the Sea: All the scenes in the car – Supposedly, men communicate most authentically sitting side by side. Maybe that’s not true, but in this movie it is.
SNL: Diego Calls His Mom – A transcendent, deceptively subversive moment that stole my breath. Real and true. Thanks again, Lin-Manuel Miranda…for everything.
Rectify: Therapy – In a show that is uplifting and traumatizing in equal measure, this scene from the penultimate episode encapsulates the series’ tone perfectly.
Jane the Virgin: Doing It – After an animated sequence that felt like a rare misstep, the second-time around was pure magic and had me howling with joy. Go Jane!
Even in the best of times, I’m an over-thinker (or catastrophist, or self-obsessive, or worrier, or weirdo, depending on your point of view.) The events of this year, specifically this past month, have only added to my list of personal, local, national and global concerns, as they have for almost everyone I know. I haven’t felt like writing or reading. I’ve been working myself to exhaustion in an attempt to quiet my mind (shift the entire adult fiction section to accommodate new genre shelving by moving 30,000 books, by hand, alone? LET’S GO!) but now that quiet, steady haven of a project is done. With a program planning deadline looming (and loosely-formed, disconnected thoughts about how, maybe, we need to slide a bit away from STE/A/M stuff and back towards focused and engaging information literacy work…) I find myself sinking into the helpless hopelessness I’d managed to forestall through repetitive physical labor. I usually find solace in the knowledge that this work, in the library and with teens in particular, makes a difference.
Except what if it doesn’t? As a person plagued with an ever-present, vague uncertainty, the validity of my work and the pride I take in it was one of the only things I never had occasion to doubt. This train of thought is terrifying.
When I tell people what I do, I get, from some people (colleagues, loved ones, strangers), a reaction can only be described as a sort of pity, mixed with revulsion. (Try saying “Ew!” and “Aww!” at the same time. That’s the face.) It makes me smile. I say that I love working with teens because I love to learn. I learn from teens every day.
When I first started our Fandoms United! group in 2013, it was easy to just wing it in terms of content: There was so much to cover, whole universes to unpack, and a lot of history to bestow. But, as I’ve said before, having weekly sessions with no plan will quickly sap your will to live. At a year and a half in, with no organizing principle, we had run out of stuff to do, say and watch. I was reaching, and they knew it. When our third year started, I announced that each month would be themed and that they would decide on the specific content of each week within said theme. It has worked beautifully: It’s easier to plan and the teens like knowing what’s coming, when their favorite topics will be celebrated, and how they can contribute and lead.
Because I cannot resist alliteration, in making that first monthly schedule I sought a ‘D’ theme for the holiday-shortened month of December and decided to try something different: sessions where we could discuss the ideas, topics, and controversies that permeate fandom life: Deep Thoughts December. For the first run, we talked about shipping and remake culture (featuring my low-key and oft-repeated rant about how the Patrick Swayze canon is sacrosanct and that his films should never, ever, EVER be remade. Don’t @ me.) using a broad outline I generated after some research, which was then handed off to a teen, who would lead and guide the conversation. We began each session with a brief reminder that all views were welcome and personal attacks would not be tolerated. I also offered teens who did not wish to sit for an hour-long discussion the option to grab some cookies to-go that no one opted for (over the years I’ve learned that snacks should usually be served in the middle, not the beginning of programs.) The sessions were wild successes of the ‘let’s do this every week’ variety. (An attempt to spin-off Fandoms into a social issues discussion group didn’t fly – but we did try last fall. I’m think the time is right to try again.)
While some may not be articulate, I’ve found that most teens are thoughtful and hungry to voice and share their opinions. Many are not given (enough) outlets to do so as peers, in conversation with adults. I don’t know if that’s ever been untrue. When I get the ‘Ew/Aww face’ from others, or sense an incredulity when I talk about the things I have learned about from teens (including many of my own favorite ‘fandom-y’ things, to say nothing of breathtaking insight on the world at large) over the years, I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Teens are people. For every ‘bad’ one there are a dozen fantastic, intelligent, caring and motivated ones. Just like, you know, grown-ups.
Facilitating spaces where teens can be themselves, exuberantly engaged in and/or with the things they love, and taken seriously at the same time is one of the most valuable things I do for my teen patronage. It is transformative. (There is a thing about the intersection of pop culture, libraries and communities here that I don’t have the energy to cover right now. I’ve done presentations on it and, believe it or not, it starts with me riding a camel. Yes. Definitely not enough energy for that right now.)
Knowing what December is for, our Fandoms group was eager to dive into a new slate of Deep Thoughts. This time I let them select the topics: they came up with minority representation in pop culture, and the collision of canon, ‘fanon’ and speculative theory. They are not messing around (or making it easy to prepare for, not that I mind.) and it’s no surprise. (We started this first session with sincere acknowledgement that very few of us in that room endure systemic racism in our daily lives, and so carry distinct forms of privilege into the conversation)
Teens know what’s going on. They know that they will very soon have to choose in which ways they interact with and impact the world. It’s my job to help them, how and where I can, to be ready and, in their own way, to be brave. It’s not something I take lightly. I’m not as worried about the future as I might be when I remember that these teens will have a hand in shaping it.
If I see that future, of course. It may depend on if I continue to survive the mid-program snack-grab stampede without serious injury. There have been some close calls.