I grew up a soccer orphan. My brother played and my dad coached so my weekends were full of fields and watching kids run around and being bored and contrary. My dad also played in an adult intramural league. His teammates were mostly European and Asian transplants to Long Island and they called themselves ‘Inter(national) United.’ They were great fun to watch, although I’d have never admitted it at the time, as they played and shared a camaraderie that transcended language. (The guys also exposed me, at too young an age, to an infinite world of exotic curse words…but anyway.)
This blog will probably go on a bit about our success with pop culture programming, but it is likely true that no one library program has brought as much joy to my nerdy heart as our Fandoms group, which began back in September of 2013. I’d been thinking about extending our pop-culture events from one-off bonanzas based on movies and book series into something that could be done on a weekly basis and that would look more like a traditional book club, a type of program that I had consistently failed at for seven and a half years. (And still. For the life of me, I can’t make a teen book club work. And I’ve tried every last permutation. And this is a reading town...) I was looking for a way to treat this stuff as seriously as libraries traditionally treat books: a program that would facilitate careful and considered analysis of TV, movies, music, comics and whatever pop culture ephemera might arise. For teens. That was inclusive and universal. And fun. And weekly.
After struggling with these vague notions of bringing Tumblr to life in my library (oof) while vacuuming my apartment (cleaning = brainstorming), I remembered, for some reason, my dad and Inter United. Why not catch-’em-all (I’m sure I’m not Pokemon-ing right…), a program that any one in any fandom could come to? A Fandoms United!
Here we are, almost three years later and this little idea has blossomed into something very special, and something big – an average of 32 teens each Friday afternoon. I couldn’t be prouder of the teens who come each week – they really get what we are trying to do. The goal of this program is to help foster a community for these teens. I’m happy to say, despite some inevitable bumps in the road, we really have!
While fandom-ry is infinite, finding teen-friendly material to run a weekly program with original content will eventually drain you of the will to live, particularly if you’re invested in finding ways to get some of that good library stuff (analysis, concept introduction, learning) jammed in there in between all the squees and screams. It’s good to organize your meetings based on themes (more on the technical stuff in the future with our forthcoming Fandoms Manual) and it’s good to switch it up so you’re not just viewing stuff endlessly. Enter my favorite activity: Fandom Madness!
We are about to come to the end of our third-annual tournament, where we use formal debate skills and drill down and select our champion character.* Like any repeated program, it has evolved (and mercifully simplified) over the years. We set up a bracket system (4 groups of 8 characters as seen above), and let teens nominate fictional characters from any fandom universe one week, then vote for finalists the next week using a weighted system (1st place = 5 points, etc.). That’s where we get our brackets and the real fun begins!
Each character battle is heavily debated by the teens: pros, cons and contrasts. (You haven’t lived until you’ve anticipated middle schoolers making the Leslie Knope vs. Deadpool argument). People get 45 seconds to make their points according to a strict set of guidelines with which to evaluate each bracket battle. Talk about actions. Talk about friends and enemies. Talk about what groups they represent and how well they do so. Talk about character arcs over time. Do not talk about perceived hotness. Back up your statements with examples. And most of all, remember that everyone has a right to state their opinion – if it falls into these parameters. Just because someone disagrees with you it doesn’t make them less of a person and it certainly doesn’t make them stupid.
To do this right, you have to trust that your teens can go deep and then get out of their way. (Lots more on that to come…) To watch them confidently line up to make their arguments about these silly-seeming works of fiction warms my cold little civil servant soul. They come in with notes prepared, ready to defend their points of view (as seen at the top of this post.) They are so passionate, so clever, and so persuasive. They know this stuff. They know they know it, but they rarely get a chance to confidently share their expertise at home or in school, heck, in any setting. Best of all – for all that they know, they are willing to listen and be swayed. More than once I’ve seen high schoolers reconsider their position based on a sharp observation laid down by a little sixth-grader (or fetus, as the older kids uncharitably call the littles, who, of course, are the same age as when they started coming to Fandoms. It’s horrible and cute at the same time) who had, up until this point, been too shy to speak, but wasn’t willing to see Shego get bumped from the game without a fight. (Truth: I still don’t know who Shego is…)
I’m a big nerd who watches an insane amount of TV, argues with her siblings about comics minutiae and reads film criticism for fun. These teens show me new angles on the things I thought I knew backwards and forwards each Friday afternoon, but never more so than in this month when we Madness. It’s my favorite thing we do in Fandoms, apart from the Tina Belchers they make me for my birthday each year, of course.
* Our champions: Leslie Knope in 2014, and Harry Potter in 2015. Both characters are ineligible in future brackets as past winners.
UPDATE: Our 2016 winner is Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender!