If you were to ask a librarian whether she would prefer to talk about books to a room full of seventh graders or walk into a cage with some tigers, there would be a short pause. Then the inevitable question: “How many... tigers?”
It’s not that you think that the students are judging you. You know they’re judging you. The very thought transports you back to middle school when some boy pulled up your skirt in the school play and everyone called you Susie Underpants for the rest of your school career. Or maybe that was a Friends episode.
In any case, you do not need to be afraid. You will probably be judged, but it will be less frightening than you thought. They’ll laugh if you mention that the book Plastic Man made your car smell like rubber, but they will then move their mental attention to the topic of whether Madison really kissed Tom after the game and will Evan pound Tom or instead make a move on Annie? Important stuff.
I have not been booktalking at middle school for long, but I can share what I have learned to make your experience successful. Or perhaps convince you to give it a try.
- Dress Down
While it would be unwise to wear layered tanks and pants with “JUICY” across the butt, it would also be unwise to dress in a tailored suit with a flowered pin. While not drawing attention to your clothes, you want to look like a person who enjoys young adult books. Actually, you want to look like the kind of person who wouldn’t use the phrase “young adult books.” Start with the assumption of flat-front khakis, black V-neck T-shirt, and decent black shoes as the perfect outfit and work from that point.
- Work the Crowd
Comedians and rock stars have a warm-up act to get the audience ready for the show. You just have... well, you. If you are in an auditorium where kids are filing in, try to make a little conversation. I’ve asked kids about the shirts they made for a school project. I’ve asked if they’ve seen the latest hot movie. I’ve said hello to kids I’ve seen at the library. I’ve encouraged them to move closer to the front. All of this gives the kids a chance to warm up to me a bit. If I were coming into a class, I might not have this same chance. But I might start my booktalks with one that asked a question of the class, or ask about any projects displayed in the classroom.
- Identify the Problem Spots
Walking around also pinpoints the kids who might mouth off. I’ve subtly asked teachers if a kid will be a problem, and they’ve sat with him. I had one kid try to shock me by telling me that when he played soccer he would get hit in the balls. I said, “Wow, you must not be very good.” Snap. Then during my booktalk, I asked that kid to explain to the group how mummies are made, using his need to be noticed for good.
- Quick Introduction
I usually go to the middle school at the beginning and the end of the school year. I introduce myself, and talk about the library services for teenagers or the summer reading program. I do this quickly, walking the front of the stage and making lots of eye contact. If I see talkers, I give them a little extra eye contact.
- Beg for Tolerance
After my quick intro, I take a long pause. Then I say, “Talking in front of all of you guys is not the easiest thing librarians do. I hope that you’ll pay attention and hear about some great books. But if you can’t listen, just please don’t talk. It’s very distracting, and makes it harder for me to keep it interesting for you. Thanks.”
- Jump Right In
Lead off strong with your clearest winner. Mix up your booktalks with types of books and types of talks. I usually do one book where I ask the teens a question. Then maybe I do a straightforward booktalk. Then maybe one with a little gimmick. Then maybe I read from a book. Keep it moving and keep it fresh.
- Show No Fear
After my little “No Talking” speech, I can usually keep things quiet with steady eye contact on the talkers. If that doesn’t work, I walk near that person and talk directly to them until they get the point. My last strategy involves a completely innocent tone. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you have something to say about the book? No. Then do you mind if I finish sharing it with the class? Thanks.” Then I move right on. Only once has someone responded with, “This is boring.” I responded, “Yeah, I can see how you would rather be writing a report. I’m sure your teacher could arrange that if you prefer.” “Nah, I’m okay,” I heard next.
- Drink Water
If you’re talking a lot, you’ll get thirsty. Enough said.
- Bring Your Best Game
Full booktalking days generally give me a headache. I take Advil before I even leave home. Do what you need to do to keep your energy up.
- Time Your Closing
When the bell rings, those kids are gone. I’ve learned to time some of my booktalks for right at the end. Know what time you’re got and actually work with it. This is my favorite ending booktalk: “You’ve all heard of book banning, right? Generally, it’s the content of the book that is in question. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a movement to have a book banned based entirely on the title. [Tell about the story.] Now, do you want to know what is this title that is so destructive to today’s kids? [Here’s the reveal of the book.] Sex Kittens and Horn Dawgs Fall in Love.” As the kids go wild about me saying the word “sex” in school if I timed it just right the bell rings.