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BOOKTALKING: How to get teens reading

I've been "booktalking" in local schools for ten years and I've seen plenty of evidence to refute the myth that teens don't read. Selecting high impact fiction and presenting it in a lively way can jumpstart an interest in the written word; I've witnessed stubborn non-readers blossom into reading group stalwarts, got boys reading soppy love stories, and even, on one occasion, prevented some violent bullying by the power of an exciting extract.  On the "Young Adult Fiction Reviews" page I've highlighted some tried and tested fiction with suggestions for extracts, but here are my tips if you fancy a go at booktalking to Year 10 and above.

  • Chose books you enjoy. It's surprisingly hard to booktalk a book you don't particularly like.
  • Never attempt booktalking to a group larger than 30 and limit your session to 25 minutes, absolute maximum. They can't sit still any longer than that.
  • Don't attempt more than four sessions in a day or you'll hurt your voice.
  • Have water with you and make sure the room is cool, but not cold.
  • Be facing a clock so you keep track of time.
  • Face the students away from the door or desk if you're booktalking in a library or other open venue. They're easily distracted. Close the library to everyone else or you'll find your audience is more interested in looking at whoever tapping away on a computer or browsing the shelves, etc.
  • Start with a really hard-hitting book to get their attention. I always use Melvin Burgess's Junk and it never fails to grab them.
  • Follow up with other hard-hitters such as Bali Rai, Malorie Blackman or Benjamin Zephaniah.
  • You need to chose books with a good "hook" that you can sell in one minute. Sex, death, drugs, violence and gore are the things to go for! 
  • Aim to include up to 8 books, and try and read extracts from 5.
  • Extracts should be brief (2 pages maximum) and include action or dialogue.
  • I will include any swearing except the F and C words (but warn the teacher beforehand).
  • End on a humorous note - Andy Griffiths and Morris Gleitzman have always done me proud.
  • Don't react if you get  bad behaviour. Keep going. If students behave badly, it's up to their accompanying teacher to deal with this.
  • Do allow teens to interrupt and ask questions, and ask questions yourself such as "Have you seen the film of this yet?"
  • Engage in banter but keep in control.
  • Allow time at the end for teens to come and browse and talk to you.
  • Fashions change and books that are madly popular one year will die a death another. Keep refreshing your material and be prepared to let your favourites go.
  • Not all books, no matter how good, are suitable for the booktalking approach to promotion. Don't try to flog a dead horse.

Above all, don't let negative reactions affect you. Every group reacts differently to a booktalking session and just because some might be cheeky, disruptive or appear disinterested, this does not mean that you're not affecting them. Very often the most disruptive students are the ones that come back later to borrow a book - when their friends are not around! Peer pressure, the time of day, the weather, the lesson they've just had or the food they've just eaten will determine how they react to you. Some sessions will leave you buzzing, others disheartened, but don't be deterred.

After ten years, I can confirm that booktalking works. Why not give it a go?



Censorship in the school library: a personal view

Can I simultaneously celebrate the freedom to read yet deny a young person the opportunity to read a book I may consider inappropriate? Where do we draw the line when deciding what to stock in our libraries? Many of us working in schools have had to address this tricky question, or even had to justify ourselves to an angry parent or teacher.

In Sarah McNicol’s survey, she found that of all librarians,

“School librarians were the most restrictive in practice, but supported the theoretical values of intellectual freedom more strongly than staff from public libraries or SLSs… it might also be hypothesised that librarians in school libraries are more isolated than those in public libraries and SLSs, so feel less able to assert their beliefs regarding intellectual freedom.”

Sarah McNicol, Attitudes towards intellectual freedom and censorship amongst school and children’s librarians, Evidence Base, Birmingham

Over the past four years intellectual freedom has for me become a key issue in the type of library service I wish to provide. In fact, I’ve become far more passionately libertarian about the whole issue.

In literary criticism, reader-response theory argues that the act of reading is active, not passive; that the reader themselves constructs the meaning of a text based upon their own experience, understanding and psychology, and that this interpretation of a text can change over time. The text itself is a catalyst for a unique individual experience rather than an end in itself, and there is no “right” way to experience a text. I feel that this is particularly true of young readers who have a very different experience of the world than adults.  They often apply different meanings and have different reactions to a text than an adult may, due to less reading and life experience and less awareness of the wider world and the complex interrelations and contexts of the “adult” world. So, should we be navigating this burgeoning awareness for them, in loco parentis so to speak? It’s a tempting and laudable aim, but I think it’s dangerous territory. It’s too easy to unconsciously impose our own viewpoints at this critical stage and to make value judgements about what students read, and by extension, about students themselves. Conversely, allowing them independence in reading is demonstrating trust and encouraging openness. If a young person is affected by what they’ve read, then it’s my role to talk to them about it, address their worries and help them put content into context.

At 14, young people are becoming adults. They are curious about the world and need a safe environment in which to vicariously experience different aspects of life. Often, reading about “stressful” things can act as catharsis, enabling them to experience and express their worries about all kinds of issues that may be affecting them. Fiction in particular is a uniquely safe forum in which they can explore the world and start to formulate their responses. Dave Pelzer may or may not have written a true story but the popularity of A Child Called It amongst young people speaks for itself. Students want to understand things that they’re worried about.

No student, having read Junk by Melvin Burgess, will think that taking drugs is a good idea – but neither will they feel “preached at” or patronised.  This book treats them as an individual, an adult, and subtly encourages them to think about the reality of drug-taking. In relation to sex, young people are far more prudish than we might imagine! If they encounter sex scenes in a novel they are more likely to skip them than an adult reader would, or simply not understand the content. And if they enjoy them – of course that’s fine, they’re young adults dealing with a growing awareness of sexuality. How many of us, as teenagers, secretly read our parents’ books, looking for naughty bits?

It‘s all about context, of course. We often cite context as a reason for stocking or not stocking a book, but forget that context is often an adult perception. Of course we want to protect our young people from some things – but the reality is that we can’t. All we can do is give them knowledge and the skills to negotiate life’s sometimes difficult path for themselves. As adults we understand the world holistically; we’re more aware of the bigger picture. For example, I can’t watch films or read books which include torture – because as a member of Amnesty International I know that these things are very real. But that’s my response, learnt from my life experience and part of my unique psychology. Other people will have a different response and if I impose my own view upon them, that is unfair and unprofessional. As much as we resist the imposition of other adults’ views on our territory (e.g. a parent complaining about a book on religious grounds), we need to recognise when it’s our issues that are too much at the forefront, too.  Even if they are well-meaning, they can still cause damage. I’ve read books that have upset me – but I don’t regret reading them. They’ve enabled me to understand the world more and they’ve become part of me as much as the books I’ve loved.

One of the books most problematic for school libraries is Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. While it’s a book that would disturb me, one of my students, Jessica, had a very different response:

Admittedly what first drew me to reading Ellis's American Psycho was the shock factor- the references I'd heard within the media such as "vile" and "disgusting", as well as many criticism about Ellis's portrayal of the rape and murder that takes place within the book. However, upon reading I found it interesting, fascinating and enjoyable. Patrick Bateman is a comical character, and the book a parody of 1980s America, as well as being amusing and ideally written for those of a younger generation. His writing style is easily accessible and it leads us not only to amuse ourselves with the antics of a sociopath but to also reflect upon what’s dream and what's reality in Patrick's world. Maybe it's not a book suitable for those who are 14 and under, but upon reading at 15 years old this fast became one of my favourite books.  The book is like a satirical version of Bonfire of the Vanities and the writing of Ellis is often compared to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald's so why, when it is complained that young people don't read enough, should we censor such classic and interesting books?

I feel that Jessica’s views are as cogent as any adults and just as worthy of respect. And it is that necessity to respect young people that, to me, makes restricting access to books something I cannot do, personally and professionally.

In my Resources Policy I include a statement about censorship:

The LRC is committed to the principle that reading introduces young people to a wider world and is an important part of their emotional, psychological, cultural and spiritual growth. Young people are individuals and should have the freedom to read many different types of material. With the exception of material which explicitly aims to promote an agenda of hatred based on race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age or other factor, unless required by legitimate research, or is obscene, abusive or unlawful, there are no restrictions on the printed material that may be supplied to students upon request.  The LRC is opposed to censorship and committed to providing students with the skills to evaluate information and to make appropriate decisions as to their own reading. Guidance, in the form of discussing content with a student, may be supplied by LRC staff but no student shall be refused access to printed material that does not breach College or LRC policy or UK law.

The Information and Learning Resources Manager upholds the Ethical Principles for Library and Information Professionals, which states that the conduct of members should be characterised by:

3. Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

6. Equitable treatment of all information users.

7. Impartiality, and avoidance of inappropriate bias, in acquiring and evaluating information and in mediating it to other information users.

Although my students are 14-19 I would personally have no hesitation in applying this policy at Key Stage 3.


·         Talk to your SLT about these issues, and have a procedure in place for dealing with a challenge before it happens. Get a policy decision. Share with all staff and display a copy in the LRC.

·         Use CILIP’s Ethical Principles to assert your professional position.

·         Ask your SLS for support.

One of the ways in which library staff deal with “controversial” material is to restrict access, for example having a Sixth Form only section. While I agree that this can work as guidance, I would be reluctant to enforce it as a blanket rule. My rule of thumb is to ask myself who I’m really working for and who I’m protecting. If the latter is the sensibilities of an adult, then there is in my mind no justification for a restriction.

The key to managing the issues of access and censorship comes down to communication – talking to your students to find out what they enjoy reading and how they respond to books is crucial. Build relationships and be the person they can talk to about their reading and you will be richly rewarded, and often surprised.

This is an abridged version of an article appearing in School Librarian










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