Teen Librarians Talk Empowerment

Highlights from the 2020 YALSA symposium

November 11, 2020

At the 2020 Young Adult Services Symposium—hosted virtually November 6–8 by ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)—the theme was “Biggest Little Spaces: How Libraries Serve the Expanding Worlds of Teens.” More than 560 people registered for the annual event, which offered more than 20 live sessions, networking opportunities, breakouts, and other activities.

This year’s symposium focused on partnerships, empowerment, and using YA literature to promote equity.

At the Saturday, November 7 session “Our Teens Have a Voice: Methods in Planning and Executing a Youth Conference on Social Justice,” the two presenters—Erin Hoopes, branch manager of Philadelphia City Institute of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and Gabrielle Miller, assistant branch manager and young adult librarian at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore—began with a moment of silence, acknowledging that they, as two white women, were leading a conversation about social justice and racial injustice. As librarians, Hoopes and Miller said they saw a need for spaces that allow teens to speak openly on various social justice topics. They encouraged attendees to provide open, inclusive spaces meant for teens only and provided tips from YALSA’s Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff, including ways to create a youth planning committee and build diverse conference planning teams.

In the Saturday afternoon session “Safe Place: Advocating for Teens Beyond the Library,” presenters Tara Shiman, youth services librarian at Worthington (Ohio) Libraries, and Stephanie Brand, lead librarian at Worthington Libraries, discussed Safe Place, a national outreach program that connects teens in crisis with social service agencies.

“Teens are often the neglected population in libraries,” Brand said. She and Shiman talked about how in spring 2019, with this in mind, their library partnered with Huckleberry House (or “Huck House”), a Columbus, Ohio–based organization that provides housing, counseling, and other services to teens in crisis. The session was a powerful reminder that teens need food, safety, and services that many library workers are not trained to offer.

As teen librarians implement outreach initiatives and hunt for partnership opportunities, the session prompted attendees to look beyond partnering with schools, robotics clubs, and facilities that cultivate “adulting” classes for teenagers, instead finding those organizations like Huck House that can provide youth with the safety some are lacking right now.

At Sunday’s “Expanding Our Minds: Mental Illness and Recovery in YA Literature,” presenter Diane Scrofano took librarians on a deep dive into novels that revolve around mental illness. Scrofano, an English instructor at Moorpark (Calif.) College and author of “Disability Narrative Theory and Young Adult Fiction of Mental Illness,” shared her research on three types of narratives that YA books about mental illness fall into: restitution, in which the main character hopes for a “cure” for their illness; chaos, in which a main character’s illness is not under control; and quest, in which a main character is “living their best life” while handling their illness.

Scrofano shared a spreadsheet of titles she has evaluated, which included books like Calvin by Martine Leavitt and Finding Perfect by Elly Swartz. When evaluating YA books that feature mental illness, library workers should consider what the novel may be overlooking and ask why one type of narrative may dominate, Scrofano said. Do these YA books tell a variety of stories? If not, what effect might they have on our teens?


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