Reaching Reluctant Readers: Using Booktalks and More to Entice Teens to Read

CSLA 2009, Ontario
Joy Millam

Concurrent Session F -- 1:00 P.M. - 2:00 P.M.

Joy Millam, Teacher Librarian, Placentia Yourba Linda USD
Joy's Booktalks and MoreWiki
Joy's Quick Picks for Reluctant Reader's Wiki
The The PowerPoint presentation from our session is available at Joy's Wiki.

Heather Gruenthal, Teacher Librarian, Long Beach Unified School District
Heather's Read if You Like Wiki
Heather Gruenthal

This is the Annotated List from our Reluctant Reader's session

Programing With Quick Picks

For more lists to reach reluctant Readers, see the American Library Association's information on the Quick Pick's for Reluctant Reader's List:

YALSA Quick Picks For Reluctant Readers List
ORCA books Reaching Reluctant Readers Site

Haven't heard of Quick Picks? Read Heather's Article on Quick Picks from YALS (the Journal of the Young Adult Library Services Association)

Quick Picks: WARNING! This list contains drugs, violence, language, sex, abuse, and some of the most amazing things on the planet!

The Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers Committee – Who we are…
The committee is made up of eleven library professionals from San Diego to New York City who represent our nation's teens. They work in public schools, private schools, arts academies, youth shelters, public libraries, and juvenile detention centers. Members of the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers Committee read hundreds of books and lurk in teen hang outs such as bookstores, comic book and craft stores, their local teen room, Wall Mart, Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic to find some fun, interesting, and downright crazy books. We survey books published in the last eighteen months that will get even the most reluctant teen to pick up a book and READ!

The committee relies heavily on teen feedback to determine what books other reluctant readers will find interesting. When a book gets the approval of teens from our focus groups across the country, chances are they will work with your teens too. Through my work with Quick Picks, I must admit I’ve become a reluctant reader; I won’t read anything unless it captures my attention immediately. There are too many good books out there to waste any time on something I don’t love. The same rule should apply to our reluctant readers. Quick Picks is a list that appeals to a wide variety of teens, from the kid who never finished a whole book in his life, to the AP student who doesn’t have time to read for fun, but will stay up all night reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (Scholastic 2008) and go on to devour the trilogy. Sometimes we do our job too well, and our students go on from not reading at all, to becoming avid readers once they find their reading niche.

What is a Quick Pick?
Quick Picks Charge and Purpose: “To prepare an annual annotated list of recommended books appropriate for reluctant young adult readers. The list is for young adults (ages 12-18) who, for whatever reasons, do not like to read. The purpose of this list is to identify titles for recreational reading, not for curricular or remedial use.” [1]

It is important to note that Quick Picks are not instructional books for teens taking remedial reading classes; that is another kind of literacy problem that requires special books and instruction. In the past, YALSA had a selection group called the High Interest/Low Literacy Level Materials Evaluation Committee, but the committee’s charge was changed to what is now known as Quick Picks when they found that remedial books “did not accomplish the purpose of improving reading because kids wouldn’t select them. Teens hated being labeled as remedial and singled out with special books. [2]. As a result of these findings, the Quick Picks committee changed its focus to a more teen centered rather than a materials centered approach.

What is a Reluctant Reader?
According to Gregory Lum, Quick Picks 2011 Chair, "It is a girl who does not like to read. It may be a boy more interested in nonfiction than in fiction. It is a girl who turns to the end of the book to see the number of pages. It is an AP student who is “overbooked” with studying, an afterschool job, sports, and activities. It is a boy who wants to read what everyone else is reading. It is a girl who has never found the “right” book. A reluctant teen reader can be from any demographic.” Our target audience, the reluctant reader, can read, but chooses not to because the books they are exposed to are not interesting to them. This is particularly understandable in these tough budget times when there are very few new books to choose from in schools and libraries. Probably the only books these teens get exposure to are instructional materials that teachers make them read.

The Importance of Self Selection
Self selection is important to reluctant readers. The quickest way to kill interest in reading is to force teens to read something. For example, Walter Dean Myers has been a Quick Picks author multiple times for books such as: Shooter (Amistad, 2005), Street Love (Amistad, 2007), What They Found: Love on 145th Street (Wendy Lamb Books, 2007), Dope Sick, (Amistad, 2009), and most recently, Lockdown (Amistad, 2010); proving he can win over a teen audience over and over again. However, teens in focus groups where Myers' books are required reading in schools were not interested. Anne Rouyer, a 2009-2011 committee member from New York reported one teen refusing to pick up the book saying, "Ma'am, that's a SCHOOL book."

When a book is taught in schools, often the joy is taken out of reading. Kelly Gallagher has written a book on the topic called Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It (Stenhouse Publishers, 2009). “Readicide” is defined by Gallagher as: “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools. Gallagher continues, “Many of the reading practices found in today’s classroom are actually contributing to the death of reading.” Central to this practice is focusing on test preparation rather than reading to learn [3]. To illustrate his point, Gallagher asked his 2007-2008 students what they thought about reading, and some of the answers they gave were enlightening:
“Reading, I hate it because of the lack of fun it brings me.”
“Hate runs through me when I spend hours of time I could be spending doing something enjoyable.”“I read books because my teachers make me.”
“I would rather watch TV, play sports, and hang out with my friends.”

Letting teens self select their reading from new and interesting books is key to getting the reluctant reader invested in their reading experience. In The 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report written by the Harrison Group and funded by Scholastic, teens ages 12-17 who were surveyed on their reading habits reported that 90% were more likely to finish a book they choose themselves [5]. In the same study published in 2008 by Scholastic and Yankelovich, among the top reasons teens stated they do not read is they can’t find what they like. More than half of the participants said they didn’t think there were enough good books for boys/girls their age [6]. The job of the Quick Picks Committee is to find those good books teens love and let the professionals who work with teen groups know about them through the annual Quick Picks book list.

The Cover is Key
The covers of Quick Picks books need to be eye catching and interesting. You've heard the saying, "Don't judge a book by its cover,” but that's exactly what we do. The cover is the advertisement for the book. Many of the popular books feature photos of real teens that look like them such as the Bluford High Series (Townsend Press), Drama High Series (Dafina), Kimani Tru Imprint (Kimani Press), and Urban Underground Series (Saddleback Educational Publishing). If teens are going to be seen with a book, it’s an extension of who they are. They want to look cool; they want something that reflects them and their interests. According to Amy Cheney, Quick Picks 2010 Chair, most important of all the cover has to reflect what is inside the book. Teens are really turned off by "false advertising," when the inside of the book does not live up to the cover image [7].

Gateway Books
Sometimes the cool packaging is a factor that draws teens to a book. My teens are crazy about Dorling Kindersley’s The Soccer Book (2010), because it looks and feels like a real soccer ball. Smash hits like Farts: A Spotter's Guide by Crai Bower and Steve Mockus (Chronicle Books, 2008) and How to Speak Zombie: A Guide for the Living by Steve Mockus and Travis Millard (Chronicle Books, 2010) attract teens with their sound effects buttons. These books are what we call the “gateway books.” If we can get a teen interested in a book and have a positive experience with books and libraries; that is the first step towards growing a reader. Anne Rouyer, Committee Member 2009-2011 explains the appeal of these gateway books:

“Browsing books end up being some of the best books we get. If you look at past lists you will see that the non-fiction books are almost all these type of books. Books that touch on subjects that interest teens are IMPORTANT! It doesn't matter if they read word for word, what’s important is that they are excited about a book, about opening that book and sharing that book with friends and family. Some of the best experiences on the committee that you will have is looking at a book like that with a teen or group of teens and talking about it together whether it has text or not.”

The way you can use these gateway books is to help draw teens to your teen area. One Quick Picks Committee Member from 2010-2011 calls these her “coffee table” books. She puts them on a table near the entrance of the library and just watches the teens pick up and interact with the books. The conversations among teens overheard browsing this section gives great insight to what teens like and don’t like.

What’s Hot
A really hot book will take off like a chain letter, a teen loves a book and recommends it to two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so on and so on (like the old Suave commercial if you remember the 70’s). To find out what my teens are interested in, I do an activity called “What’s Hot, and What’s Not?” I show the teens books that were popular with the previous year’s group, and ask them if the topic is still “Hot? or Not!.” You can use a show of hands, or colored signs that say “Hot” in Red, and “Not” in blue, that way you can see at a quick glance what topics your teens will go for. The popular topics that have appeared on Quick Picks recently are: prison, abuse, tattoos, vampires (not romantic – my teens say Twilight is SO OVER!), zombies, werewolves, funny foods, real life memoirs, high school drama, gangs, gross stuff, dystopias, love gone wrong, suicide, cute animals, strange but true, and all things weird and amazing.

Why the list contains controversial materials
Over the years, the Quick Picks list has been the center of controversy regarding some of our nominations. Teens love controversy. It gives them something to think about, engages them in a discussion about things they care about. An example reported by former Quick Picks 2010 Chair, Amy Cheney, from a teen in Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall of what teens like to read is: “My fav book is drugs, money, sex, violence, drama, fighting, guns, gangs, cussing...” Sometimes this type of interest stems simply from teens’ desires to live vicariously, but most often, teens face a lot of problems in their daily lives. They like to read the “trauma fiction” that portrays teens that are in gangs, in jail, pregnant, abused, addicted to drugs, or homeless. It helps them cope with their own daily dramas to know there are other teens that are worse off than themselves.

Librarians ask: Why does the Quick Picks Committee put controversial and sometimes adult books on the list?" (I’d like to keep my job, thank you very much!) Our charge is to serve teens from age 12 to 18, so what is appropriate for an 18 year old (a legal adult) is not necessarily appropriate for a 12 year old. Unlike other selection committees, Quick Picks relies heavily on teen input. One of our most controversial adult book nominations were the books by Bodhi Oser: Fuck This Book (Chronicle Books, 2005) and Fuck the World (Chronicle Books, 2009). These books made the list because the teen response to them was tremendous! What could be better to give to a teen who hates to read? Handing a teen Fuck This Book proves that we really mean it when we try to find books that teens will want to read.

To prove that teen input really is the determining factor in making the final list, one of our adult book nominations that was not approved by teens last year was Andrew Kipple’s, The People of Walmart (Sourcebooks, 2010). The “Walmart book” is like a train wreck, you can’t help looking at it. You have to ask yourself, “How could those people leave the house looking like that?” …and what is it about Walmart that draws people who bring their pet goats shopping? This is one book that did not make the list because many of our teens shop at Walmart, and they thought it was classist, and making fun of poor people. A 2011 Quick Picks member reports a discussion amongst her “coffee table teens” in which one said, "This makes me feel like a bad person" [for laughing at it].

Some critics of the Quick Picks list say, “Shouldn't we be giving teens "good books?" In our opinion, any book that gets teens to read is a good book. Our testers expose their teens to all kinds of books. Sometimes we get our hearts crushed when a book we love is flat out rejected by our teens. It may be a great book, but has a lousy cover or is more appropriate for the Michael J. Printz Award or Best Fiction for Young Adults. But in fact, a good book will appeal to readers of all types. Many years there are books that are featured both on the Quick Picks list [8] and the Best Fiction for Young Adults (Formerly Best Books for Young Adults) [9]. The crossover titles in 2011 are: Matched by Ally Condie (Dutton, 2010), The Maze Runner by James Dashner (Delacorte, 2010), Girl Stolen by April Henry (Henry Holt, 2010), Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers (Amistad, 2010), Scrawl by Mark Shulman (Roaring Brook, 2010), and Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers (St. Martin's Griffin, 2010)

Give Your Teens the Freedom to Read
Although the Quick Picks is a great selection tool, it is not a buy list. Every book is not for every teen in every library. It is important to read reviews and evaluate the appropriateness of the selections for your demographic. The Quick Picks Policies and Procedures remind us in the Evaluation Policy: “All titles should have appeal as self-selected leisure reading for young adults. Books should be evaluated by subject, cover art, readability, format, style and teen feedback. Teen feedback from reluctant readers is encouraged. Standard selection criteria consonant with the ALA Library Bill of Rights shall be applied.” [10] In Conclusion, although we may feel personally that a book is not appropriate for teens, it is our charge to make all books available and let the patrons decide what is appropriate for their reading according to the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement:
  1. Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.
Publishers and librarians serve the educational process by helping to make available knowledge and ideas required for the growth of the mind and the increase of learning. They do not foster education by imposing as mentors the patterns of their own thought. The people should have the freedom to read and consider a broader range of ideas than those that may be held by any single librarian or publisher or government or church. It is wrong that what one can read should be confined to what another thinks proper. [11]

How Can I Participate?
We’re always on the lookout for new hot books, so if you have something that’s taking off with your teens, be sure to submit a field nomination on the YALSA website. Nominate a title at: [12]

[1] YALSA Board, “YALSA’s Booklists & Book Awards Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers Policies and Procedures." 08 01 2009. (accessed 02 08 2011).

[2] Creel-Chavez, Stacy. "Looking at the BBYA and the QP Lists: Three Myths and Three Realities." Young Adult Library Services Spring 2008 35-39.

[3] Gallagher, Kelly. Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2009, 2.

[4] Gallagher, Kelly. Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2009, 4.

[5] Harrison Group, "2010 Kids and Family Reading Report: Turning the Page in the Digital Age." (accessed 02 08 2011), 35

[6] Yankelovich, "2008 Kids & Family Reading Report: Reading in the 21st Century: Turning the Page with Technology." 2008. (accessed 02 08 2011), 35.
[7] ALA Publishing, "Booklist Webcast - Reaching Reluctant Readers: Using High-Interest Fiction to Engage and Inspire." 10 19 2010. (accessed 02 08 2011).
[8] YALSA, "Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers." 2010. (accessed 02 08 2011).
[9] YALSA, "Best Fiction for Young Adults." 2010. (accessed 02 08 2011).

[10] YALSA. “Quick Picks for Young Adult Readers Selection Criteria.” 2010 (accessed 02 08 2011).

[11] ALA. “Freedom to Read Statement” (accessed 02 08 2011).

[12] YALSA. “Quick Picks for Young Adult Readers Nomination Form.” (accessed 02 08 2011).

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Booklist Webcast - Reaching Reluctant Readers