Novels like Jojo Moyes’s The Giver of Stars, Kathleen M. Jacobs’s Sophie and the Book Mobile, and Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek all highlight the importance of books to rural readers and the lengths folks have been willing to go, to make sure that there were books in rural spaces to read. Two out of the three of those novels are adult fiction, highlighting an issue Anthony “Skip” Olson discusses in this week’s guest blog post.
In his post, Olson describes the bifurcated focus on readers at either end of the age spectrum and provides some suggestions for how rural librarians, teachers, and community members can work together to encourage and engage teen readers.
This topic is super important and deeply resonates with me for several reasons. Here are a few:
- The only libraries in my hometown (even still) were those located in the schools. I desperately wanted a library card to a big library, but the only way we could get one was if we owned property in Center Township/Muncie city limits. I imagine this is still true because I’ve seen recent movements to put Little Free Libraries up at strategic locations throughout my hometown.
- Book challenges and bannings are more frequent and more visible than they ever have been, and if schools are forced by the small but loud minority of folks who support censorship, then rural teens need and deserve to have other places to go to find diverse literature to explore and learn from.
- With more and more testing-focused curriculum demands, teachers are often forced to teach their content in ways that don’t provide students opportunities to pursue, discuss, and engage with ideas and topics that are interesting to them and they’re passionate about. Libraries provide access to those ideas and the space students need to explore.
Olson addresses many of these same issues in his post. I hope you’ll read it and join in the effort to help sustain rural libraries and support them in cultivating welcoming spaces where young folks can explore and learn and grow.
Libraries, now more than ever, are critical in rural America, especially in light of the misinformation, prejudice, and extremism that permeates our country. Libraries – those institutions of reading, discussion, understanding, preservation, and community to help serve the public – provide fiction for us to fall into, non-fiction to help guide us, and poetry to awaken our emotions. Libraries have become much more though – computer and Internet access, safe spaces, communal places for kids to hang out. And while you, the reader, and many other bibliophiles, may read this and nod, there’s one group of people who are missing out: young adults.
Rural libraries are, like all libraries, meant to serve the public. Yet the public in a rural library are typically the very young or the very old. Walk into a small, rural library and look at the displays – surely there’s something for the younger elementary students and there’s maybe even some displays for the adults. Maybe there are signs advertising large print editions. But the next time you walk into your rural library, I challenge you to find the Young Adult section. Are there eye-catching displays? Are there invitations to programs, activities, or speakers for teen readers? Look at the people you see at the library – do you see many teens? In my own library, the YA section is around the corner with a couch and some brightly colored cubes to sit on. It looks inviting, yet I’ve never seen teens there.
Ask a teenager about the town library and they’ll probably tell you they went there when they were little. But what about now? Do these young folks see the library as a place to use for reading, studying, or hanging out? Below are just a few ways librarians, teachers, and communities can work together to make libraries more attractive and welcoming places for teens. In order to attract teen readers, the following must take place.
- We – teachers, librarians, community members – should help students reevaluate what a library is. Often people think of libraries as stuffy places of old books and harsh librarians shushing every little sound. Libraries have undergone quite a shift in recent years. In order to keep up with the times, many libraries have reviewed their policies and expectations. This ties in with the community’s expectations as well: if we want teens going to the library, we have to acknowledge that times have changed and avoid overreacting if students are a little too noisy. Further, we can’t stand by the notion that libraries are antiquated and that all of our answers can be found online. We must remember to show all library patrons the value that libraries have and to value all that public libraries stand for. Infographics showing all the services libraries offer along with special events placed throughout the community (and especially schools) could help bolster the library’s image in the community. Even a social media account with updates on new releases from popular authors, new releases within the library, or new releases in series. Social media accounts could also offer discussion questions that engage viewers or book reviews would reach a younger demographic. Book Tok – a subgroup of readers on TikTok – is a thriving community of readers, librarians, teachers, authors, and book nerds, meaning the infrastructure is already there, librarians just need to capitalize on it.
- Rural libraries should create programs for all library patrons – including teens. It’s no secret that reading habits drop off as kids get older, a fact caused by many factors. But one factor that perhaps we need to address is what libraries are doing to attract and retain teen readers. Summer reading programs and story hours typically cater to elementary students while book clubs usually cater to older readers. So where’s the middle ground? There are teen readers in our rural communities and if they knew programs were in place – programs that were attractive, authentic, dynamic, and flexible – they would surely join. Admittedly, numbers for a teen reading program would probably be small at the start. But even a small handful of teen readers can transform into a thriving community. And with the use of social media – especially Instagram and TikTok – a community can spread quickly and reach more teen readers. Furthermore, libraries need to give the same attention to YA books as elementary and adult books via stands, diagrams, and displays. Specifically, those that feature Neftlix shows based on books, books featured in the headlines recently, or books that feature local history and/or rural voices/settings. This last diagram/display idea could help young readers see the potential in both reading and writing about their place and experiences. Librarians could also ask students for their input and could include a picture of that young patron to give some ownership to those students.
- High interest books are critical for YA readers. To gain teen readers, libraries must have high interest books. Classics are good and the potboilers are nice, but when looking at YA books, librarians need to actively search for what teen readers want. Librarians could talk to their teen readers, school librarians, and/or English teachers along with checking online forums, groups, and lists. The best way to attract teen readers, though, is by putting the task to them: What do you like to read? Everyone likes to share their opinion and teens are filled with them. Ask what they read or what they don’t read. Ask them their hobbies, interests, or activities. Additionally, find diverse books. Public libraries are for the public and should stand as safe places to read multiple perspectives. Even if your community is predominantly white and heteronormative, include queer authors and authors of color. It’s my belief that because your community is mostly white and conservative, you should be talking about race and the experiences of other marginalized identities even more, and what better place than a safe space like a library? Unlike a classroom, libraries may seem to offer more freedom to young people, whereas a classroom may feel more constrained.
- Rural libraries should acknowledge and embrace their place in their communities. America faces an uphill challenge: with so much discussion, at multiple levels, about Critical Race Theory and queer youth; with so much disinformation spread; with so much borderline antagonism towards education, libraries must see that their place in their communities is vital not only to their town, but to our democracy overall. A well-read populace, created through public libraries and public education, is just one, albeit large, factor in saving, healing, and strengthening a democracy. Libraries, particularly rural libraries, must see themselves as something more than a community center for young children and the elderly. Our teen readers are at a vulnerable place – adrift in virtually endless content through social media, strong opinions from home, and combative news on TV, not to mention living during a global pandemic and witnessing political upheaval that will define us. It is therefore imperative that libraries engage these young readers, welcome them into a safe place of ideas and discussion, and help them see the value of a public institution like libraries. Understandably, some librarians may be uncomfortable with the idea of libraries hosting discussions with teenagers on gun control, abortion rights, or race in America. Instead, librarians should embrace these opportunities, remembering that discussing such topics is no different than first graders discussing The Lorax and the perils of deforestation and greed or the book club discussing The Help.
- Okay, this is all nice, but our town doesn’t have a library (or it’s a shell of its former self). Rural areas are many things, but flush with resources isn’t usually one of them. So what does a town do with no library or a (maybe literally) crumbling library? Rural people are usually really good at doing a lot with a little.These communities can get creative. They might create a book mobile-style library with a van or small bus full of books that can travel throughout the area. These book mobiles could follow a route with times and stay in one location for a set period of time wherein patrons could visit and check out books until the next round. This is not a new idea, though it’s an idea that never should have gone away. And with the amount of people looking for new work or volunteer opportunities, this idea could gain some traction with folks who want to make a difference and keep an open exchange of ideas present in their towns. Patrons could provide feedback on types of books, especially those new to reading or those who cannot figure out online shopping. And, of course, look to your high school students. Many young readers may feel ignored in a small town of blue collar workers and/or family members – get them behind the wheel (in more ways than one) and let them meet a group of readers. Or maybe a nearby community center or communal building could open once a night for readers to bring their books to share, trade, maybe even sell. Those in charge could raise funds to have a consistent library for all patrons each week or every other week. The point of all this work is clear: it is imperative that each and every community, no matter how small or lacking in resources, shows all of its citizens that reading – and the things that come with reading like thinking, discussion, and fellowship – is an important part of not only their community, but their larger democracy as well.
As with any solution, detractors emerge. Can reading really fix all these problems? Do teens really want to read anymore with so much social media around them? Is our tiny library really going to make that big of a difference? I cannot unequivocally answer these questions. But I can say that teens, if given the proper encouragement and access to high-interest books, will read. And I can say that reading will not fix everything, but it will fix a great deal by introducing students to issues of race, intolerance, abuse, mental health, and so much more. In an effort to strengthen our small towns, and our democracy as a whole, it is time for rural libraries to see their value and either go back to being, or continue being, the community glue. Almost anything in rural America is humble, but rural libraries and their communities should see that a library is a powerhouse of, and for, the community. And once young voices join, truly exceptional things will come to these rural areas.
Anthony “Skip” Olson grew up in Bode, Iowa – population 300 on a good day – and graduated from a class of 23. He now lives in Manson, Iowa (which is five times the size of his home town!) and teaches 8th grade English, 10th grade English, and earlybird college composition. While working on his Master’s degree, he focused on whether rural students felt like they could become writers or see writing as a viable future. He helps students see issues and assets alike in rural areas.