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My daughters are about two years apart, with one year separating them in school. It was just days after my younger daughter’s tenth birthday party when schools closed. Her sister, at a wizened 12-and-a-half years old and in junior high, was pulling away from her, getting her first tastes of adolescent freedom. They were in different schools, had different friends, different schedules, and different hobbies. And then, overnight, all of that was gone: they had only each other. In the liminal spaces of lockdown and social restrictions, I observed something interesting. My 12-year-old embraced the loves that she had eschewed once she became a junior-high-schooler. And my 10-year-old exhibited a grace and maturity more like that of her sister’s junior-high peers.
This fall, as we emerge back into regular school schedules and extracurriculars, they are settling back among their age-level cohorts, but what I saw during our time at home can help inform our work as teen librarians.
1. Teens and tweens can act both older and younger than their years.While they may have stopped counting their age in quarters or twelfths of years, we have all seen the difference in maturity between the beginning and end of the year. Those tiny, wiry sixth-graders we visit in the fall become poised and confident by the summer-reading-promotion visits in the spring. But within that span, teens and tweens will find their own level. In community with their peers, they will meet the expectations of the group. This is a time of trying on different maturity levels, and we need to anticipate those variations in our programming and interactions.
2. They will rise to their circumstances, for better or worse.We hear it constantly: kids are adaptable, flexible, they will roll with the changes. But let’s not pretend that that kind of flexibility comes without a cost, and their coping mechanisms are not always healthy ones. My daughters, in a safe and stable environment, flexed to their circumstance by becoming each other’s best friends. But that kind of privileged pandemic life is not what many of our teens and tweens had. Many teens flexed to become de facto parents, tutors, cooks, housekeepers, and more. Others adapted by drawing inward in their isolation and are struggling to emerge from it. And some are putting on a brave face in circumstances of violence, abuse, or neglect. When our teens come back to our buildings and virtual spaces, they may seem changed—or they may not, but they are. It’s more critical than ever that teen librarianship embrace grace, acceptance, understanding, and support as we welcome young people back.
3. Play is still important.Let’s see, at this house, we went through Minecraft; Roblox; One Night Werewolf; Codenames; Pandemic; Danganronpa; Wavelength; Terraria; The Sims; Trekking the National Parks; Hearts; Genshin Impact; an invented outdoor game involving skateboards, sticks, and rubber ducks; and . . . nickel-stakes Blackjack. And those are just the games I’m aware of! Play—either online, outside, or in their own minds—is what consistently brought my tweens out of their shells, (sometimes) out of their room, and back into those vital connections with other people. As we structure library programs that enrich, build skills, augment classroom experiences, and provide opportunity for growth, we need to remember that play can lead to all of these qualities. And a playful approach to any topic is going to tap into the need that teens and tweens have to just be kids after losing more than a year of childhood. As Maria Montessori famously said, “Play is the work of the child.” And though their eyeliner, height, and vocabulary may beg to differ, tweens and teens are still children and should be afforded all of the benefits of those tender years.
A final note: if anticipating wide maturity variations, nurturing often-hidden emotional needs, and being that fun! upbeat! energetic! teen librarian right now sounds hard, that’s because it is. It’s hard to have the energy to consider fun, engaging, playful programming and caring for others when we’ve all been through so much and illness, worry, and wide-ranging community reactions continue to weigh on us. As you move through this next season, try to stay focused on the infusion of energy you get with those positive teen-patron interactions, remember to reach out to your own community of support, and give yourself some of the grace and acceptance that you extend to those teens you care so deeply about.
Heather Booth is a Booklist editor and teen services librarian.
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