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How to connect with young people through books

By Samantha Grant

Years ago, I worked in a youth program with a group of young people who kept me at arm's length. Accustomed to a constant turnover of staff, they didn't want to get close. One day, a girl in the group came in bubbling about a book. Luckily, it was the latest Twilight novel, which I had just finished reading. We had a deep conversation about the merits of being Team Edward or Team Jacob, and this opened up a connection in our group.

As a youth worker, you can build connections with youth through books. Here are some ways to do that.
  • Find out what books young people in your program are reading. Librarians are troves of knowledge, so ask them for advice. If you’re working with grade school youth, you had better know something about Captain Underpants and other graphic novels. The fantasy genre connects well with tweens and teens, so check out young adult series like the Hunger Games or the Divergent Series.
  • Set a goal to read at least one book each season that someone in your program recommends. How cool would it be to read a book and discuss with someone in your youth program? 

“There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.” ~ Frank Serafini

“Reading is a way for me to expand my mind, open my eyes, and fill my heart.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

Literature is a way for you to learn more about the realities of young people in your program. Do you know what it’s like to be an African American 12-year-old? How about a Native American 6-year-old? As a white woman, I certainly don’t, but reading about youth with different life experiences than my own has helped me to broaden my perspective. Check out Brown Girl Dreaming if you want to read literature that transports you to life as an African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s. The Journey is an immigration story from the view of a family risking everything for the hope of something better. Last Stop on Market Street highlights urban living and the value of day-to-day experiences.

Reading is important, and one of the greatest predictors for a lifelong love of reading is having a culture of reading at home. I would argue that we should not leave all this responsibility to parents. Youth need to see many adults in their lives reading and loving books.

If you love books, bring them into your program. Find out what youth are interested in and connect them to reading about it. Finally, read books that help you to learn about the past and present experiences of young people.

What books would you recommend to other youth workers this year and every year?

-- Samantha Grant, evaluation director

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  1. Sometimes I find it challenging to read a book recommended by someone else, especially young people. But it's so important to know what kids are reading so I can spark conversations based on what they're thinking about. It doesn't have to be a "reading group" type approach, even just offhand comments about how adults are portrayed in YA books, or how characters react to situations, or how plot events make me feel can open sensitive topics or provide springboards for meaningful discussions. Talking about characters or plots takes some of the pressure off otherwise "heavy" discussions -- while simultaneously creating a culture of analyzing, synthesizing, summarizing, inferring, etc.

    1. Great points, Andrea. I agree that you don't have to set up a book group to have great conversations about literature. Books are just another way that adults can build relationships with young people. Showing you care about what youth in your program care about helps to build connection.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful blog. As a young person one of the places that I learned to love books was at a church youth group. The leader and I as well as some of the other youth in this group shared an appreciation for Janette Oke's novels. This is a great reminder to me about the important connections this can build. Do you have any advice when young people are reading a book that has themes you don't agree with? Or themes you don't think they are quite ready to consider at their current age?

    1. Wow, what great questions! Art is subjective, so I'm sure youth workers could run into some complex conversations when talking about books. If you are questioning the themes or the age appropriateness of a book, I would first ask if you are reading the whole book or just judging the cover. (Common Sense Media is another resource to see age recommendations for books.) As a youth worker I probably can't influence the literature a young person is reading but I can talk about what concerns me and open up a discussion. Personally I try to read books that I don't agree with in order to consider other perspectives, so you never really know why someone is picking up a book. Do you have any ideas?


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