Let’s Hear It from the Boys: Mike Mullin’s Perspective on YA Library Services for Guys

It’s been said many times, that teen boys can be a difficult group to engage through library outreach and entice through traditional YA library programming. Therefore, it seems important to get to the nitty-gritty inner workings of the male, teenage mind and learn how to increase service impact. Our first stop is with talented YA author and hilarious guy, Mike Mullin.

SH: Thank you so much for agreeing to contribute to the YALSAblog series “Let’s Hear It From the Boys” which will showcase the male YA author perspective on library services, resources and programming for male teens.‘ 

Mike: Sure thing. Thanks for inviting me.

SH: I appreciate your time and effort to share your unique perspective and encourage you to answer any or all of the following questions as they appeal to you. Please feel free to pose your own questions and expand on ideas that I may be missing.‘ 

Mike: You sure you want to give a creative person carte blanche to ask and answer his own questions? Okay, I’ll bite.

(Mike tackles both interviewer and interviewee duties from this point on.)

Mike: What was the greatest author presentation you ever saw?

Mike: It was that time when Mike Mullin went to the Burlington Public Library with his troupe of five singing alligators. Well, at least until the alligators got hungry. That part wasn’t so good.

Mike: You do not have a troupe of singing alligators.

Mike: But I wish I did, doesn’t that count?

Mike: No, it does not count.

Mike: But it seemed so real in my head!

Mike: You need to have your head examined.

Mike: I have!

Mike: The school nurse checking you for lice didn’t count.

Mike: But it was a head examination.

Mike: I meant brain—you need to have your brain examined.

Mike: Jeez, for a writer, you’re not very precise with your word choice.

Mike: Now you’re just being insulting.

Mike: Whatev. Why don’t we answer the real questions now.

Mike: Okay. Who’s this “we” you’re talking about anyway?

Mike: NOW!

Mike: Okay, okay already.

What stories interested you the most during your childhood and do they influence your worldview and work today?

Mike: From age two to four my favorite book was Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. My younger brother and I had a special ritual for it—when Mom reached the words, “’And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!’” we would begin to dance. We didn’t need any music, just the example of Max and his subjects over the three full-page spreads that followed. The other book I loved at that age was Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, for perhaps obvious reasons. When Darla is geeking out over construction equipment in ASHFALL, I’m definitely writing what I know.

By kindergarten, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie had supplanted Sendak. I even went so far as to organize a production of it in my backyard. I recruited classmates to act, held rehearsals, and scheduled a big opening night (well, afternoon) with parents and classmates comprising the audience. When Mom asked why I didn’t have a role in my own play, I told her indignantly, “I can’t act—I’m the director.” The young actor assigned to play Captain Hook froze up with stage fright so bad he peed his pants. I convinced Dad to jump in and improvise the role.

Our family was firmly middle class, and I got all the usual stuff for Christmas: Lincoln Logs, Legos, even a bicycle one year. But the best Christmas gift of my childhood was the one I got while I was in fourth grade—a boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia. I read the series eleven times over the following year, keeping count with hash marks inside the front covers. That year I’d been placed in a gifted and talented class with a particularly vicious and mean-spirited teacher, Mrs. Walsh, and C.S. Lewis provided me with a much-needed escape. Once, I escaped in a literal as well as figurative sense—Mrs. Walsh interrupted her excruciatingly boring lecture about reading to scream, “Michael Mullin, if you’re just going to read that book under your desk, you can go out in the hall to do it!” Busted! So I calmly got up, left the classroom, and settled in one of the study carrels in the hall to finish The Horse and His Boy.

As a teenager, I needed the escape books provided even more desperately. I voraciously read adult science fiction and fantasy, but my favorite book was one written for teens: Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky. It described my perfect world—one without adults, where teens could live without the oppressive constraints of parents and teachers. Like the protagonist, Rod Walker, I was interested in primitive survival at that time. I practiced building shelters, foraging for edible plants, and matchless fire starting, both on my own and with the Boy Scouts. Today I prefer a lighter or matches for starting fires and hotel rooms over improvised shelter, but I still enjoy foraging for edible wild plants.

At twenty (and today), I still was reading science fiction, but my tastes were a little more sophisticated. My favorite book was probably David Brin’s Startide Rising. It’s a novel brimming with strange creatures and ideas, populated by aliens and humans both sympathetic and viciously self-interested. I’ve reread it several times since then, and it still ranks among my favorites.

Everything I read influences me and my work. I’m striving to create worlds as engrossing as those Heinlein, Asimov, Cormier, Blume, and Peck created. Striving to give my readers what those authors gave to me—a few hours of escape from a childhood that was sometimes kind of crappy.

Were there any specific experiences or programs at your library, youth center, or school during your young adulthood that left a significant impact?

Mike: I remember the public library I frequented until I was nine—the Broadway branch of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library. It was in a square box of a building with bland white walls and water-stained ceiling tiles. My most vivid memory of that library is of the time the librarian ordered a book from another branch for me, and when it came in she invited me into the glassed in office to retrieve it. I felt like I was entering the holy of holies, the inner sanctum, the secret lair of superhero librarians. That stuck with me better than any of the programs I attended.

What has been the most impressive program or event you have seen at a public library during your touring as an author?

Mike: I’ve participated in many amazing programs since ASHFALL came out two years ago. But the standout was the Teen Read ‘N’ Feed organized by Staci Terrell at the Anderson Public Library in Indiana. She gets a grant to do the program each year—the year I participated the local Rotary Club funded it. Anyway, she arranges for authors to attend the program—I was on the bill with Stephanie Bodeen and Steve Sheinkin. Then Staci buys a few hundred paperback copies of the authors’ books—in our case she was using ASHFALL, THE BOMB, and COMPOUND.’  She goes out into her local schools and booktalks the selected books. And here’s the kicker—any student who promises to read the book and attend the event gets a free copy of one of the authors’ books—whichever book interests them most. More than 250 teens turned out for the event on a Saturday at 10 am! And they were a crazy-enthusiastic crowd. The ones who’d chosen ASHFALL were busily trying to get everyone else to read it. The bookstore sold everything they’d brought to the event, and my signing line after my talk was half a block long. It was wonderful!

What information/library services do you believe could be improved to better assist and engage male teens?

Mike: The libraries that are doing a great job reaching teenagers (including guys) aren’t doing anything particularly revolutionary—they’re doing the basic block-and-tackle work that most teen librarians do, but doing it particularly well. They have strong teen advisory groups and great relationships with school librarians and classroom teachers. You can rarely reach these librarians on the phone, because they spend so much time in the schools. Many of them are hauling huge carts of books to and from the schools, checking them out to students right in the students’ classrooms.’  The programming at the library is different at each library, because it’s chosen and planned by their teen advisory group, not imposed from the top down. I’ve seen book clubs, technology clubs, teen writers’ groups, and movie clubs—they work because that’s what those particular teenagers are enthusiastic about and willing to help sell to their peers. This is critically important work by the way—teenagers who read for pleasure are less likely to become involved in crime, less likely to abuse illegal drugs or alcohol, and more likely to delay sexual activity—all things that pay big dividends for the library’s whole community.

What is one interesting fact about you that not many others know?

Mike: I have a troupe of five singing alligators that opens for me when I do library shows. Or I wish I did. Also, I’m not too sure what this word “fact” means.

If you were teenager again today, what would entice you into your local library?

Mike: Books. You have books at the library. You couldn’t keep me away with a stick. In fact, I worked as a page for the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library when I was sixteen and seventeen. It was a terrible deal for the library—I spent most of my time hiding in the stacks and reading.

‘ Could you tell us a little about your current work and what we have to look forward to from you in the near future?

Mike: Well, I just finished reviewing the copy-edits for SUNRISE, the conclusion to the ASHFALL trilogy, which will be out on March 17th, 2014. I’m drafting a new novel now, a young adult thriller about a teenager who sees a group of terrorists crashing a plane (from the ground). He’s the only one who knows how they did it. And they saw him watching them, so they want him dead. It’s tentatively called SURFACE TENSION. I don’t have a contract for it, so I have no idea when or if it will be released. Wish me luck!

Thank you, Mike. We appreciate your willingness to share your insight and wish you the best of luck! To learn more about Mr. Mullins, please visit mikemullinauthor.com.

Trendspotting: Know Your Weaknesses

1966 ... rec room party

Image Courtesy of James Vaughan

There is a famous line from the Lethal Weapon movies spoken by Roger Murtaugh: “I’m getting too old for this . . . .” It can be easy to feel this way when working with teens, who are constantly changing their minds. Something is hot one minute and cold the next, sometimes trends are equally hot and cold (ask a group of teens about Justin Bieber or One Direction and pay close attention to the split). It can be hard enough to keep up with what teens are into, but sometimes an age difference of a few years can seem like decades to a teen. Trust me, that divide seems just as vast to librarians. In music alone we have to keep up with J-Biebs and 1D, while deciding whether to give attention to flashes in the pan, such as Baauer. Will Taylor Swift continue to be relevant to teens, or as she matures as an artist will teens lose touch with her material? There are so many what-ifs in pop culture, and how teens relate to pop culture, that it would be so much easier to echo Murtaugh’s refrain and throw in the towel.

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Teen Read Week: An Opportunity for Outreach

This has been a rough week in my school. In our county, four teenagers have committed suicide in the space of a week, apparently unrelated in any way to one another. Yesterday, our school, which has thankfully been untouched aside from having students who were friends with some of the victims, had an assembly where we delivered the message of the resources the school had available, a brief religious message (we are a private independent school), and then sent our students into small advisor groups for discussion. Coincidentally, the entire U.S. Army engaged in suicide prevention education as well, having experienced in 2012 some of the highest suicide rates in its history.

When I heard of the army’s situation, the first thought which occurred to me was that the military is full of adolescents, the age group to whom I provide library services. Many members of the military are new recruits 18 or 19 years of age, placing them firmly in the age range of adolescent development. For Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. Since the YALSA mission statement clearly states that its “mission is to expand and strengthen library services for teens, aged 12-18,” this at risk age group is our target demographic.

I guess the fact that I was thinking about suicide while also pondering the upcoming programming for Banned Books Week and Teen Read Week made me wonder how these two disparate ideas could be linked. But while intellectual freedom programming or celebrating recreational reading don’t seem to have much impact on preventing suicide, in a small way they do. In fact it relates to my personal mission as a librarian, which includes the statement.

There is no such thing as too many caring adults in a student’s life.

Hopefully our programming, no matter how fluffy or serious it may be, includes a plan to reach out to a variety of interests and personality types in our target group. My “It Came from the Library” brainstorming will include my Library Advisory Board (LAB), a group of students specifically chosen for their friendly personalities and variety of activities and interests. By constructing a board which possesses multiple layers of diversity, their guidance and ideas automatically assists me in reaching different groups of students. Add to that their goal of developing themed programming which includes as many students as possible, and I’m putting their brainpower to work making the library as inclusive as it can be.

So I’m turning to my TRW Manual and my LAB for ideas that will make my library a fun sanctuary for everyone in the hope that my efforts will be not only informative and enjoyable, but help every student who enters this space realize that he or she is deeply cared about. Caring can come from the library, too.

Courtney L. Lewis, Director of Libraries, Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School, Kingston, PA.

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Days Like These

I posted in July about a day at my library. A Friday where everything seemed to come to life and was just a beautiful concert of library, community, and coming together. Today was similar and worth sharing. It reminded me a bit of Jami’s post on the Holiday Spirit. I don’t consider myself a romantic by any means and have worked with a population of people long and closely enough to understand that the holidays aren’t a Rockwell painting for all, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing a bit of joy, ever. July, December, anytime.

So here goes today:

*a group of teen girls singing ‘happy birthday’ to their friend in a video they were making in the animation studio

*a teen volunteer organizing the graphic novels like nobody’s business and diligently cutting out squares of fabric for an upcoming craft project

*working with my supervisor for a much needed weeding project and listening to her laugh while reading Kiki Strike

*harpsichordist and pianist in the foyer playing slow, joyful music

*families with children dressed in tights and calico dresses or sweaters and pants eagerly attending holiday performances

*a co-worker having the ‘this has been a day look’ and being rejuvinated by the pot of candy my other co-worker keeps on her desk

*the weather-70 and sunny

*a pink hat with flowers found at the end of the day and returned to the ‘lost but not yet found’ area

It was a good day at the library. Anyone else have stories to share?

Posted by Kelly Czarnecki