Friday, February 23, 2007

Support Systems

As I was sitting blankly in front of my computer monitor this evening wondering what I could talk about, it suddenly struck my that in our reading for this week, Tyrell had a very limited adult support system. His father's in jail, and not the greatest role model. His mother's...well, she's hopeless and hopelessly useless to boot. Of all the useless adults in the book, she was the one who really made me mad. At least Tyrell's father had been trying to make a better life for his family, but I found myself getting so mad at an adult who would put that kind of pressure on her son. Really, the only adult in the midst of this that seems to care is Ms. Jenkins, his girlfriend's mother. Most of the support -- the sympathy and help -- that Tyrell gets is from Novisha (though, in the end, he's disappointed in her, too), Cal (who's dealing drugs), and Jasmine (who understands him, but has a lot of issues of her own). They're 14- and 15-year-old kids. I can remember what I was like at 14, and I sure wasn't ready for this kind of adult responsibility. It kills me that some teens have to deal with that sort of thing.

I wonder, too, if I would be able to be a support for the teens who came into the library needing an adult in that role. If someone like Tyrell came into the library and told me what was going on, what should my response be? I'm sure I could help someone look for a book or for information on a subject. Providing information is what librarians are supposed to do, after all. I guess what I'm wondering is when does helping a troubled teen become beyond what my job/role is? Is it "unprofessional" to start to know the teens and talk with them about their lives, their schools, and other non-library topics at the library? I'm struggling to define the support role that's appropriate for me to take as a librarian. Where do I draw the line between helping inform someone and giving advice inappropriately?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Misconceptions & Credibility

Before reading V for Vendetta earlier this week, I had never read a graphic novel before. Though I knew that a graphic novel was a story told in comic book format, and that there were many genres within this format, I still had one glaring misconception. Since I thought graphic novels were for "reluctant readers," I assumed they would also be fairly basic, straightforward stories with lots of pictures. Well. I was really surprised by V for Vendetta, which used both pictures and text to tell a really compex story in a way that I found fascinating. I printed off a list of graphic novels from the YALSA website so that I could try some more.

My misconception made me think about how my biases could affect services to teens. If I had continued to think graphic novels were only for reluctant readers I probably would not have suggested one to a serious or committed reader. If I had thought "graphic" referred to content, like my mother did up until a week ago, I may not have suggested one for young teens or children. Other misconceptions, either about the content of books or about teens that come in to the library, can really hurt the quality of my service.

Furthermore, if teens see me in action, operating under a perception they know to be incorrect, I lose credibility. Though I can't know everything, I can try to learn about whatever I'm unfamiliar with - graphic novels, indie music, etc. - and be honest when I don't know. By asking questions, I not only gain credibility, but I affirm the teen's interests, both giving and gaining respect.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Book Lists -- Help or Hindrance?

How helpful are book lists when helping a young adult -- or anyone, for that matter -- with readers' advisory?

If you look around our library, you'll find lots of lists: books for guys, fantasy authors, adventure books, trilogies, books made into movies, even a binder full of lists of adult books on all subjects and genres you can think of. YALSA has "Best Books" and "Quick Picks" as well as lists of audiobooks and teens' picks from the past few years of Teen Read Weeks. Personally, I love lists for my own use. They give my ideas of books to read or listen to next, sometimes leading me to books I might have overlooked. Lists of genres I'm not as familiar with, like science fiction and adventure, can help me broaden my reading and make me more familiar with the library's collection.

Perhaps this easy access to lists of all shapes, sizes, and interests is why it seems so easy to drag out a list when a teen asks for recommendations. It's easy to forget, especially when I don't personally read the same genre as the teen, how diverse one genre can be and how divergent people's interests can be even when they enjoy the same genre. In this way, looking at a list can be a lot like trying to use a readers' advisory site with few subject terms to match up "Read-a-likes." The result can sometimes be a very poor match, such as a search I once did on "What Do I Read Next?" I was looking for read-a-likes of an edge-of-your-seat mystery/suspense novel. This search resulted in only a few suggestions, one of which was a tearjerker about a young woman with cancer. The similarities between the books were the main characters were in their early twenties and Christian. If I hadn't read both of these books before seeing the list, I would have been in for a great surprise if I had tried the recommended book. So knowing what makes a book appealing is really important, but this aspect can get a bit lost when depending on a list. Good annotations can make up for this in part, but they cannot fully represent all the ways in which a book may catch someome's interest. Since I tend to use a list when I am unfamiliar with a genre, I am more likely to give a poor recommendation because I haven't determined why a teen likes a particular book or genre and I don't know which books on the list will catch their interest most. Instead of being dependent on a list, I need to be more familiar with the teen's tastes and the collection.

This isn't to say that lists don't have their place. Though I read a lot of the fantasy books in our young adult collection, I sometimes go to the list of fantasy authors to help my recollection of what I've read and what else is available. A list can also be helpful for the middle-schoolers who come in to find a book for school -- one of the teachers assigns a genre, so several teens will come in looking for science fiction one month and historical fiction the next. Again, though a list is helpful, understanding the teens' interests and the collection can help in finding a book that the teen will enjoy (or at least not hate too much!) within that genre. For example, some historical fiction novels are more action-oriented, while others are dominated by historical fact, and still others involve time travel. Short annotations on a list simply can't make up for a lack of knowledge of the collection.

While lists can be a starting point, I think it's dangerous to become too dependent upon them. In my experience, teens tend to prefer a recommendation that I have personally read or can talk about knowledgeably instead of a list. If I can show an interest in their preferences and find a few books they might enjoy, I've gone a step further than simply handing them a book that fulfills their school requirements. It shows that I care about their interests and that I'll listen to them. If I can do this, they're more likely to come back and ask for help another time.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Respecting Teens

Do adults remember what it was like to be a teen? I'm rather at an advantage, because I'm not that far removed from my teenage years. I haven't had time to forget what it was like, and to a great extent I find myself relating more to teens than to "real" adults. I won't consider myself a real adult, you see, until I have my own house and am thus financially independent from my parents. This feeling of being not quite adult puts me in rather a unique position as a young adult. In many ways, for example, I still feel the tension teens do with their parents for autonomy and respect, and to be quite truthful I read many more young adult novels than real adult novels.

So perhaps it should not have been such a surprise to me that I still related to a lot of the teenage attitudes explained in Peter Zollo's book. After all, I was still a teen when some of those surveys were done. And I have to say, for those who might read this and think, "Are teenagers really like this?" YES. His surveys and insights very accurately reflect what I myself was like as a teen and (what sort of scares me) what I still feel like to a certain extent as a young adult. Reading his book, I was completely transported back to my 16-year-old self.

In my opinion, one of the most important points he brings up is the need teens have to be respected and taken seriously. I think adults, including myself, have a tendency to forget the actual maturity level of children of all ages. I remember reading some books about kids my age, thinking, "I don't think like that. That's dumb." Adults tend to forget how mature a 9-year-old, 12-year-old, 16-year-old, really are, and they tend to think of them as younger. This isn't always the case, but I've found that it's often true in my own experience. The fact that college-age kids play teenage kids on just about any sitcom doesn't help, because then a girl who looks her age is mistaken to be younger. Talk about embarrassing!

This isn't to say that adults are entirely at fault for not taking teens seriously or respecting them. Sometimes teens read into what adults are saying. One argument I've had with my mother was and is when she reminds me to do things: "Don't forget to load your dishes in the dish washer," she'll say as I'm on my way to do it. Why does this annoy me? Isn't she simply reminding me so that she won't have to clean up behind me? Well, yes...and no. Yes, because there's nothing innately disrespectful about what she's saying. No, because what I'm interpreting is, "You're just a child who needs to be reminded. You won't remember on your own." This is why I answer, "Mom, let me forget before you remind me!" In her book You're Wearing That?!, Deborah Tannen discusses the caring vs. criticizing dynamic between mothers and daughters in conversations similar to this. Though she's mainly discussing adult daughters and their mothers, this dynamic applies to teens and parents, too. Apparently innocuous comments like "Load your dishes" or "Are you sure you want to wear that on an interview?" can become an argument out of nowhere because a parent thinks it's a caring comment, and the teen thinks it's criticism. Really, there's an element of both. Add to this a teen's desire to not be treated like a child, be respected, and be independent, and you've got yourself an argument in the grand parent-teen (or parent-young adult) tradition.

I think this need to be respected and taken seriously is why teens want to be older than they are. I found it really interesting that young teens want to be 17 and even 18 and 19-year-olds wanted to be 20. These numbers match up almost perfectly to the desires teens have for their future -- getting their license for young teens and graduating and going to college for older teens. The age teens want to be ranges only from 17-20: old enough to be responsible, independent, respected, taken seriously, but not old enough for "real adult" responsibilities.

Works Cited:
Tannen, Deborah. You're Wearing That? : Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. New York: Random House, 2006.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Teen Marketing Gone Wild

"The Merchants of Cool" rings a lot truer than I wish it did. I'm not that far removed from my teen years, so I can relate to that constant pressure to be "cool," and knowing that once cool became mainstream, it wasn't cool anymore. Teens are pretty savvy, though, and they know when they're being manipulated. Remember the response to the Sprite ads? A teen basically outlined the whole plan of the ad campaign to sell Sprite by saying, "Don't listen to an athlete being paid an endorsement" while telling you to listen to the athlete after all. At the same time, conversely, there is this "giant feedback loop" of marketing listening to teens, creating a product like the mook and the midriff, and (some) teens getting the idea that that's what "cool" teens are like, which in turn causes marketing to ratchet it up further looking for the next "pop."

This sort of pressure to perform comes not only from advertisers, but also from other teens. I remember my sister refusing to carry her gym clothes in an old plastic bag from Stop & Shop. It couldn't be just any bag. It had to be American Eagle or Old Navy. Even her cast-off bags for gym clothes had to prove she shopped at the "right" stores.

So where does that leave us? Are teens doomed to the downward spiral of advertising and peer pressure? I don't think so. I think a lot of teens have higher standards than we sometimes give them credit for. Not all of them rebel against marketing in quite the form as the fans of rage rock. My own "rebellion" was (is) to not wear t-shirts that advertise a brand across the front and to buy what I like on sale and because I like it. A lot of the teens I know don't have an interest in Spring Break-like escapades, but really care about values, people, and what their parents think (I always thought I was a "unique" teen, but it turns out to be a trend in teens of my generation). Every summer for the past few years, I've travelled to Workcamps with about 35 other teens and adults (mostly young adults) who would give up a week of their summer vacation, sleep on a classroom floor, eat cafeteria food, and work on a stranger's house with five other people they've never met before. They don't get paid; it actually costs around $400, not counting the cost of food on the way there and back. Yet it's one of the most popular events our teen group has.

I began this post saying that teens are savvy to marketing. This relates to libraries, too, because aren't we trying to promote our programs, books, etc. for teens? I think libraries and librarians can be different in two ways. First, we can give them what they actually want instead of finding out what they want so that we can sell them what we want. Next, we can ask them about themselves -- likes, dislikes, books they want to read, things they're interested in -- because we care, not because we want to repackage it and sell it. They will notice.