Stuck in the Middle: Serving Tweens and Young Teens

It wasn’t all that long ago that adolescence was first recognized as a distinct stage of life. But anyone who works with teens can tell you that a twelve-year-old’s adolescence looks a lot different from an eighteen-year-old’s. Over the teen years, the brain undergoes dramatic growth and change. The Office of Head Start and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (part 1 and part 2) point out significant differences in the mental, physical, and emotional development of younger teens versus older ones. One way for libraries to meet this variety of needs, and perhaps to better serve our patrons, is to offer services for tweens and young teens that are separate from those for older teens.

Special services for pre-teens and young teens are a growing trend, and they come under many different names: tween services, middle school services, junior high services, in-betweens. School Library Journal recently created a monthly e-mail newsletter called Be Tween, for “those kids who are not little children anymore—but not quite young adults, either.” Members of a large library system in my state just started a tween services group for staff serving these patrons to network and share ideas.

Along with the lack of a consistent name comes a lot of variety in age groupings. Services are offered in age groupings that can fall anywhere in a range of grades 4-8 or ages 9-14. In keeping with my own area of expertise, I will use the term “young teen” to refer to grade 6-8 or ages 11-14. However, the same or similar ideas can often be applied to patrons a little bit younger or older than this age group.

A little over a year ago, I was hired at a mid-size suburban public library as the inaugural Middle School Librarian. Previously the Teen Librarian had served grades 7-12, but she was overworked and located in the Adult Department, away from the Youth Department that was more familiar and comfortable to many 6th and 7th graders. The 7th-12th grade range didn’t make much sense in our community since our school system contains middle schools grouping grades 6-8. Patron feedback showed that parents felt middle schoolers (and 6th graders especially) were falling through the cracks. Youth departments often place a heavy emphasis on preschool and early literacy services, with programming gradually tapering off until the patron becomes a teen. Often, late elementary schoolers and middle schoolers don’t quite fit into the offerings for either children or teens.

This is perhaps the worst time in life to lose a library patron. Young teens are just at a point where they are discovering themselves, forming their own opinions, and deciding what kind of people they want to be. This is the moment of truth: are libraries cool or lame? Does the library fit with the new me? It’s the perfect time to foster lifelong library users. Plus, simply having a library as a safe and supportive place in the community fulfills several of the 40 Development Assets that help teens grow to be successful adults. I believe many libraries that struggle with teen program attendance might see long-term improvement if they offered more to their late elementary and middle school patrons.

When services for young teens and older teens are separated, staff can plan activities that are more tailored to the interests and abilities of the teens in each type of program. Competitive activities are more fair and balanced. Young teens can talk about their dating lives without fear of ridicule from older teens who think their romances are juvenile, and older teens can feel free to discuss more mature issues in their lives and let loose with a swear or two (if the library rules allow it, of course).

I was brought into the library as a member of the Youth Services Department and charged with creating programming, a collection, and a hang-out/study space especially for middle schoolers. I also perform middle school outreach and serve as an expert in reader’s advisory and education for this age group. I created new programs and repurposed old ones. We used the newsletter, social media, fliers, school visits, and verbal marketing to raise awareness of my existence as the first middle school librarian, so that patrons came to recognize middle schoolers as a unit in our library. The Teen Librarian, the juvenile fiction selector, and I worked out the boundaries of each of our collections, then went through every book in both Juvenile Fiction and Young Adult to decide which were a better fit in the new Middle Ground. We chose the name Middle Ground because it got the idea across but did not directly specify an age group, so patrons reading up or down could feel the collection was for them, too, even if they weren’t in middle school. (Credit to Niles Public Library in Illinois for the name idea.) The middle school hang-out and study space, also called the Middle Ground, is still a work in progress.

I am pleased with the results. Program attendance from middle schoolers is way up, and middle school patrons now head straight to the Middle Ground collection to find books. Feedback from both parents and young teens has been glowing. Once, some middle school program attendees noticed that I’d claimed a drawer in the program kitchen fridge and marked it “Middle School” for storing drinks I’d purchased for our programs. “We have our own drawer?!” they exclaimed. I cracked up. “You have your own librarian!” I said. Clearly, these young teens found it meaningful that the library had a space just for them.

Does that mean every library should separate middle school services into its own unit? Not necessarily in the way or to the extent that it was done at my library. For patrons, it makes the most sense to structure the library the same way local schools are structured. If your system has junior high schools for grades 7 and 8, then having middle school services for grades 6-8 would just be confusing. Also, many libraries are too small for a separation of young teens and older teens to be feasible. I believe, though, that some separation is appropriate in most libraries.

If you do not have a collection for younger teens, you can create booklists and displays to help direct young teens to titles that appeal specifically to their reading levels and interests. (But beware of putting any labels or ratings on the actual books, because you don’t want to create a stigma about who is “supposed to” be reading what books.)

For programming, you can offer two sessions of an event, one for younger teens and one for older teens, with tweaks to make each activity match its audience. Or, you can offer some programs exclusively to one or the other age group.

Staff serving young teens, whatever their department or title, should make a point to read some upper middle grade and younger YA novels. Some teen librarians I have observed seem to recommend YA books without considering the age of the teen. Yes, some young teens will be ready to read John Green, and that is great. But some will not—and that is great too. Staff need to be aware of this so they can ask the right questions to determine what a young teen is looking for and make a good suggestion.

Offering separate services for younger and older teens will allow you to focus your efforts to your audience. You can do this in formal and highly visible ways, like my library did. Or, you can simply recognize the differences between younger and older teens, and do your best to provide suitable options for both while keeping your programs and collections integrated. With a little care, you can use your knowledge on adolescent development to ensure that all feel included, capable, and welcome.

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About Kylie Peters

Kylie Peters is the Middle School Librarian at Geneva Public Library in Illinois. She is passionate about building relationships and community, social justice, comics, middle school literature, gaming, technology, and reader’s advisory. She writes about middle school literature at http://www.flashlightchronicles.com.
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