30 Days of Back to School: Good Books

Just as in April accountants suddenly find themselves surrounded by friends with tax questions, when September rolls around it seems everyone wants to ask the librarians what we’ve been reading. Okay, so maybe it’s a year-round issue, just as doctors probably don’t have a busy season for identifying rashes at dinner parties, but I find that the questions pile up more than usual as teens head back to school. What’s a good book for a thirteen year old girl who likes sports? What should I get for my nephew just starting high school? What are the popular books these days? Suddenly you’re on the spot, expected to do collection development for teens (and adults) you’ve never met.

Personally, I find these conversations even more frustrating than an hour of back-and-forth with a teen who professes a distaste for reading. Asking a school librarian in suburban Massachusetts “What’s popular?” when your grandson lives in downtown Oakland is probably about as helpful as getting ski resort recommendations in Santa Fe. (There aren’t ski resorts there, right?) And while a teen’s other interests may intersect with her reading tastes, hearing that she loves volleyball isn’t quite as useful as knowing the kinds of books she’s enjoyed in the past.

So how do you handle being ambushed by reader’s advisory questions?

First, relax. Particularly when you’re cornered at a family gathering or social engagement outside your library community, remember that these aren’t your patrons–and no doubt they have libraries (and librarians) of their own to consult. While we’d all love to save the day and have the perfect book recommendation at the ready for any teen, not having a great title for your third cousin isn’t the same as not having one for the teen at your desk.

Next, try to stress the importance of asking teens themselves what they like to read. Just as it’s frustrating to try to talk directly to a teen at the library when mom or dad keeps butting in, it’s hard to recommend a title that will really be a good fit if a well-intentioned adult is confusing their definition of good literature with what a teen enjoys. If your interrogator keeps mentioning how trashy YA books are or how great it would be if that teen would just read “something worthwhile for once,” try to redirect the conversation back to books the teen has enjoyed in the past or what genres might be a big hit.

It’s also important to remember that adults might actually be looking for their own recommendations. More than a few adults seem embarrassed to admit they enjoy young adult and children’s books. I myself have been guilty of excusing my reading habits–“I read a lot of YA literature, but just because I want to keep up with my students…”–but it never hurts to remember that young adult books aren’t necessarily less literary, intellectual, or well-written simply because their target audience is teens.

Finally, if you find yourself fielding book questions everywhere you go, give yourself permission to clock out at some point. I know that’s tough for many of us who excel at the customer service aspect of our jobs, but really, just as Megan pointed out, without some work-life balance it’s all too easy to burn out entirely. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Gosh, there are so many great books out, but I was actually on my way to the cheese dip–maybe you could stop by the library sometime with [teen’s name] and we could all chat then.”

Published by

mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.