Ci5: Understanding Development and Reading Styles to Connect with Middle Grade and YA Readers

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Children's Institute logoOne of the many education sessions at the fifth ABC Children’s Institute focused on the challenges associated with hand-selling books to middle-grade and young-adult readers, including reluctant readers and readers with different reading abilities.

The panel featured Carol Moyer of Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh, North Carolina; Paige Battle, a teacher-librarian at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon; and Katie O’Dell, the youth services director for Multnomah County Library in Oregon. The panel was moderated by ABC Children’s Group Manager Gen de Botton.

When it comes to engaging with a young reader who visits a bookstore, there’s no substitute for great customer service, said Moyer. “We respect them as individuals, we respect their likes and dislikes, and we treat them as people. We convey that message and then start talking about books and reading,” she said.

The best relationships between librarians and readers come about from a meshing of personalities, said O’Dell; some teens respond well to staff members who enthusiastically engage with them, while others need to be left alone to adjust to their environment. The youth librarian at Multnomah County Library, for example, loves working with teens and has created a strong set of services that kids take advantage of because they feel safe, accepted, and welcome at the library.

O’Dell encouraged booksellers to find the influencers in their communities — adults who are naturally gifted at connecting with teens or teens themselves — and take advantage of those relationships to break down the barrier between the teen world and the adult world.

To connect with students at her school, Battle makes it abundantly clear that she is a big reader of books across many genres; she does this by participating in award committees and by including a tagline featuring what she’s currently reading in her e-mails. Learning students’ personality types and body language is also an advantage to connecting with them, she added.

Ahead of Ci5, Moyer consulted with Quail Ridge Books’ 25-member teen advisory board, which recommended that booksellers not try too hard to seem cool. Teens will know when a staffer is trying too hard to make pop culture and technology references, but at the same time they do love when booksellers make recommendations based on their favorite shows, Moyer relayed.

The teens on the advisory board, who are strictly ages 14–18, meet once a month to discuss books, browse new ARCs, and provide input for author events; they also advise Quail Ridge on its social media efforts, create best books lists, write reviews, and blog about books.

For kids who are reluctant to try a new book or are uncertain about what they want to read, Battle has adopted a strategy that has been successful for the Nordstrom department store chain: A salesperson will provide what the customer is looking for, plus a similar item and a wildly unrelated item. Battle credited librarian Nancy Pearl for applying this strategy to advising readers.

For a reader who is interested in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series (Scholastic), for example, Battle would recommend Red Rising by Pierce Brown (Del Rey) and Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Ember), as well as The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Disney-Hyperion), which is unrelated to dystopian literature but contains similar themes.

Booksellers and public librarians have the ability to use subversion to get a reluctant reader interested in a book by challenging them to tackle a particular subject matter, said O’Dell. “If there are things kids are interested in but aren’t being taught by their teacher, things that are about rebellion or persisting, that can be the challenge — going deeper into something that might be seen as controversial by their parents or their teachers, or that might give them a bit more street cred with their own peer group,” she said.

It’s natural to judge a book by the cover, added O’Dell, so to combat potential resistance, she talks about the content of a book and the themes related to a reader’s interests in order to engage them in the new title.

Before she pulls a book off the shelf, Moyer starts talking about how much she and other staffers at Quail Ridge love it. She gains the reader’s attention and, possibly, their buy-in, she said, to help prevent rejection if the main character ends up not being who the reader expects, such as a character of the opposite sex or of a different background. Moyer will also aim for books with covers that do not specify a gender.

Different learning styles — including global learners, visual learners, and kinesthetic learners — also play into what children and young adults are interested in reading.

For the past year, Battle has focused on applying National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls initiative, which challenges readers to pick up books outside their comfort zone, to the global learners at her school, who tend to understand big-picture ideas before they do the smaller components.

Battle enjoys presenting different kinds of stories to students, whether she’s going into a classroom to do book talks or creating shelf-talkers for the library. “I try to present books that are outside of their everyday,” she said. “When I hear I have a global learner, I can suggest anything to the parent for their child to read.”

Graphic novels are a way to hook visual learners, who tend to remember what they see over what they hear, but O’Dell said she still works with a lot of teachers who have a strong prejudice against this format.

“When you hear about a kid who’s artistic and makes and creates, they’re probably going to love a graphic novel,” she said. “It’s a very valid literary form. To parents, you, as the bookseller, are the expert.” With the parent, talk about storyboarding, sequencing, and the artistic expression channeled through the book, and find a graphic novel even they might relate to, O’Dell suggested.

Kinesthetic learners absorb through touch and feel and prefer the physical book. “With this type of learner, what I tend to do is walk them around and point to the book so that they can pull it off the shelf and turn the pages. I’m just pointing out stuff. I want them interacting with the book,” she said.

When it comes to reading comprehension, O’Dell suggested finding ways to help release parents from the constraints of Lexile levels — assigned levels that designate reading ability — as kids can read across many levels if the subject matter engages them. “What are these kids doing in their free time? That’s the area to delve into,” said O’Dell. She also mentioned low-level, high-interest books, which publishers are beginning to make available for readers who have a higher maturity level but a lower reading level.

Lexile levels don’t work well in a bookstore, noted Moyer, but booksellers can be respectful of parents’ desire to adhere to those levels. Find out what their kids are reading now, what topics interest them, and what they don’t like, Moyer suggested, and pick some books from the shelf. “I’ve never had a parent come back and ask what the Lexile level of that book is. They’re just happy there are books they know their child is going to read,” she said.

The panelists provided attendees with a list of titles to meet the needs of picky or reluctant readers, and also suggested that booksellers browse the book lists provided by the Young Adult Library Services Association or visit Scholastic’s Book Wizard to find books with appropriate Lexile levels.