Programs for Teens

teen programsLast month, I gave a keynote address at the NJ Library Association & NJ State Library Youth Services Forum. I always like to leave time at the end for questions, and here is one question I wish I could have answered better and more thoroughly. Hence, this post.

Q: What sorts of programs do you do for teens?

A: My library does have some opportunities for teens, but…

Most of my work is with preK – grade 8. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I’m a single staffer, so my program roster is limited to what I can manage by myself (currently, I’m juggling two weekly story times, a weekly classroom program, a bi-weekly children’s literary club, an author interview program, a publication, an annual writing contest, this blog, occasional weekend programs, the launch of a new program for underserved kids, and the development of new online middle school programs).

Secondly, I primarily read children’s chapter fiction. YA is not my territory (I also joked that YA is scary to me. I mean, do I really want to revisit all the pain and suffering I went through as a teen? Even if it does mean scoring an awesome sparkly vampire boyfriend?).

That said, my library does offer some opportunities for teens, and I thought I would share them here, along with some suggestions for developing teen programs. Here’s our current programming:

  1. Teens can submit writing pieces to the Picture Book Press, our children’s literary quarterly.  Click the title to read An Ode to the Radish, one of my favorite haiku poems of all time. It was submitted by a 17 year-old.
  2. Our annual writing contest, 350 for 50, has three age categories. The top age category is for 14 -16 year-olds. Click the title to read The Pit, last year’s winner in that category.
  3. Princyclopedia, our (former) massive annual event was for ages 4 -14. You can get a little taste of what Princyclopedia was like in the beginning of this post.
  4. Cotsen Critix, our children’s literary club, is all about books, writing, and doing unusual activities related to literacy. Initially, the club was for children ages 8 & up. So I worked with a number of 13 – 16 year-olds. Unfortunately, it was a difficult to develop content that was appropriate for such a wide age span, so the current age range for Cotsen Critix is 9 -12-year-olds.
  5. Cotsen sometimes offers specialized Saturday programs for teens such as Elvish 101, a 2-hour workshop devoted to learning to read, write, and speak Quenya, the high language of J.R. Tolkien’s elves. During a program break we sipped New Zealand spring water from crystal goblets and munched on lembas bread. Elen sila lûmenn’ omentielvo!

Presently, I’m developing some collections-based programs for middle school students, but someday…oh someday…I would love to do high school lectures based on Cotsen’s collections. Depictions of war in picture books, gender identity as evidenced in children’s magazines, analyzing the zeitgeist of period artwork…I’ll get there someday! By the way, if you’d like to learn a little more about Cotsen’s collections, click here to visit the curatorial blog).

In the meantime, here are my top four recommendations for developing teen programming.

  1. Offer Experts. Whenever possible, I staff my programs with specialists. Some are hired, and some are volunteers. A geologist at a Journey to the Center of the Earth event, a University lecturer at a Chemistry of Magic program, professional stage fighters at a Robin Hood event, a historical reenactor bringing a past century to life, a local artist or student poet leading a creative workshop. I try to create opportunities for teens to engage in a mature, intellectual dialogue that satisfies their curiosity and encouraged their interests.
  2. Collaborate. I like to work one-on-one with teens on creative projects. Currently I’m working with a high school junior to create a full-size Cinderella dress out of trash. We’ll feature it in the Picture Book Press and display it at princess program we’re developing for the spring. Not only do I get to work with a fantastic young mind, but I can offer her an opportunity to engage in a creative collaboration while still (and this is important) managing to meet deadlines.
  3. Ask. If you’re stumped, put together a teen focus group and ask them what they want, what they need, and if they could really use a particular program. With the investment of a little time (and possibly a couple pizzas) you could gain a treasure trove of information (or at the very least, some insight into the minds of your target group).
  4. Fun is good, but…it might be that the needs of your population are homework help, computer skills, English as a second language, or locating resources to get them through tough times. Movie screenings, trivia contests, and gaming conventions are great, but there’s nothing wrong with focusing your resources on the not-so-glamorous-but-very-much-needed programs. Especially if your time and budget are limited.

Food Allergies & Children’s Programs

basket of applesIn 2009, I gave my 13-month-old son a taste of a peanut butter snack I was enjoying. 15 minutes later, we were in an ambulance rushing to the emergency room. His eyes were swollen shut, he was covered in hives, and his crying was choked and ragged. Turns out he’s allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs.

Being the parent of a kid with food allergies has definitely changed my approach to the programs I develop. I thought I would share some of these changes with you! Here they are, in no uncertain order…

  • So long egg cartons. I no longer do craft projects with egg cartons. Also on the “do not use” list, any packaging that once stored food. The exception to this is non-nut flavored tea tins and oatmeal containers. But I always have alternative non-food containers ready, just in case.
  • Careful with food lids and beverage caps. Very rarely, I use food lids for projects. Mostly, I use beverage caps (water, soda, or juice caps). I never use lids or caps from mayonnaise, nut butter, or milk containers. I always announce that I’m using food lids and drink caps, provide hand wipes for cleaning them, and offer an alternative non-food item to use.
  • Goodbye candy prizes. These days, I seldom award candy prizes. Instead I opt for stickers or little trinkets. If I do use candy prizes, I always have an alternative available for food allergic kids. Example: I developed a Robin Hood tax game for an event. Once the contestants “lost” all their money, they received a chocolate coin as a consolation prize. But food allergic kids got to take home a metal replica of a Medieval coin (to the envy of all).
  • Save packaging and labels. Parents of kids with food allergies always have to check food packaging because allergens are sometimes listed in sneaky ways. If you offer food at your program, keep the original packaging on hand so parents can check the labels. Example: At a program about discovering India, kids had an opportunity to enjoy mango lassi samples from a local restaurant. But for kids with food allergies, I offered mango juice poured straight from the original bottle into dedicated cups. There were quite a few takers (including some folks without food allergies!).
  • Consider going nut free at events. Part I. Approximately 1 in 13 kids have food allergies today. The rest of the population is raring for all the fantastic things we enjoy at events – yummy, delicious, goodies dyed neon colors. As a recovering cotton candy addict myself, I certainly don’t want to deny anyone their fun. However, I must say that peanuts and tree nuts (which appear to be the most dangerous in terms of severe allergic reactions) have a way of showing up in unexpected places. A peanut butter ice cream cone drips on to the floor where a baby is crawling and mouthing a toy. Sticky hands that previously held a piece of walnut baklava grasp markers at a neighboring table. Eeek.
  • Consider going nut free at events. Part II. Going nut free doesn’t have to be limiting. For example, at a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event, we served a custom “dirt” gelato. It was basically chocolate gelato with chocolate cookie crumbles. No nuts. True, the gelato was processed in a kitchen with nuts and was therefore inedible to kids with nut allergies – but that’s OK. Food allergic parents are prepared for that sort of thing. But at least there was no chance that a random almond was going to show up at the “cave crawl” or peanut butter was going to be smeared on a bench.  And lemme tell you – not one single person complained about the lack of nuts in that amazing dirt gelato.
  • Clean up art supplies. Recently, I did a program at a local pool, and kids worked on their craft project while eating snacks they brought from home. Later, I cleaned the markers and scissors that had come in contact with the food, to insure no allergens were clinging to them.
  • Save a line for allergens. Any time a kid registers for one of my programs, I always include a line on the registration form for food allergies and an emergency number. If the program is going to involve food, I contact the child’s parents for clarification about the allergies. If the parents don’t feel safe about the food, we work out an alternative that won’t make their child feel isolated from the other kids.
  • Listen & Ask. I’ve been doing children’s programs for over 15 years. In the beginning, food allergic children were rare. Even though I was respectful to parents wishes and made modifications to my programs, I always wondered if those parents were being, well…just a little too sensitive about their child’s diet. But watching my son suffer in that emergency room, I quickly realized that no…they’re not being too sensitive. If a parent contacts you with a concern about something, listen to them and simply ask what they need to feel safe at your program or event. Parents of food allergic kids are used to planning for, and coming up with, reasonable alternatives for things. They will definitely appreciate you helping them make more informed decisions about how to prepare for your event.