Working with Incarcerated Youth Take II, a reflection by Karen Jensen
Each month I would put together a collection of 50 titles and check it out to a special card created for the juvenile detention center. A gentleman from the center would come pick up the collection and then distribute them among the youth with his own system of keeping track of who had what. Then at the end of the month he would return them and pick up a new collection of 50 titles.
It was a pretty good system to be honest, except for the issue of what, exactly, the teens could and could not read. For example, although they requested graphic novels, the detention center eventually ruled that they did not want these titles because of the way they depicted women. Likewise, although the guys requested wrestling magazines, these too were deemed objectionable.
But what I really wrestled with were the types of fiction titles they requested. You are talking some hard, graphic adult titles dealing with serial killers and rape and well – books I’m not sure you want teenagers who are already considering a life of crime reading. So we had talks about what these collections should look like and how to balance them and provide options. And because they only had 50 titles to choose from each month, they would choose to read things outside of their regular comfort zone. Sometimes a note would come back to me telling me they had read something and liked it. Often there would be requests. Ironically, John Grisham was very popular.
When putting together my outreach collections, I always choose a balance of teen and adult titles, both nonfiction and fiction. I would stick things in there like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey. In addition, I bought and included things like 5 Minute Mysteries for more reluctant readers. And of course I included biographies and other interesting nonfiction titles.
Doing an outreach collection like this is so different than helping connect a reader to a title through an RA interview. There is no RA interview and there is a bridge that you must gap, in this case the institution itself and its rules, and still try to connect reader with book. Occasionally, I succeeded, but probably not as often as one would hope. But the coordinator on the other end would come back with feedback telling me what books the guys were reading and liking, and he would often come back with more specific requests.
This particular juvenile detention center had a yearly career day for the teens which I gladly participated in. So each year they invited me and I put together a presentation about what I did as a librarian and how the library could help them in their quest to find out more about the occupation of their choice. Each year that I visited I took one of our male employees with me. A female library employee once remarked to me that she didn’t know what I was so afraid of that I had to take a male employee with me. The truth is, as I explained to her, I didn’t take a male employee with me out of fear, I took a male employee with me because these teenage boys needed to see positive male role models; they needed to see men that they would look up to making good decisions and being successful. They needed to see that the library was a cool place for guys. They needed to see a guy talk about reading and the books that he liked and know that guys do in fact read and enjoy it and it was okay.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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