Teens at the Erie County Public Library were inspired to create "blessing bags" for the homeless after reading "The War Outside," a YA novel.
This YA novel sparked a project to help Erie’s homeless population

In Monica Hesse’s acclaimed YA novel The War Outside, German and Japanese families are held as prisoners of war in separate areas at Texas’s Crystal City Internment Camp in the 1940s. Haruko and Margot, teen girls divided by culture and circumstance, develop a secret relationship, meeting regularly in the privacy of an icehouse to share their feelings. The tense drama that unfolds raises topical questions about justice and the politics of fear.

The Teen Reading Lounge group at the Erie County Public Library, a kind of “icehouse” in northwestern Pennsylvania, read Hesse’s book last fall and identified with the plight of Haruko and Margot.

Tammy Blount, Teen Services Librarian at Erie County Public Library

“They were talking about how awful it would be to live in an internment camp and not have access to the things you need,” said Tammy Blount, the Teen Services Librarian who facilitates the group. “The kids were asking themselves, ‘Where do we see that nowadays?’”

Teen Reading Lounge is a youth-led, nontraditional book club that encourages deep discussions and projects that have a social impact. The group was started at the Erie Public Library in the fall of 2015 and has been part of their recent growth in youth programming. The library is currently undergoing an expansion that will feature a new teen space with its own book collection, makerspace, and tech area.

Blount says she appreciates how Teen Reading Lounge has helped her to develop meaningful relationships with many of the new young people coming to the library. “We get to have important discussions that teens are not typically having,” she said. “The topics are weighty and that builds a deeper bond.”

Teens learn Japanese calligraphy during Teen Reading Lounge at the Erie County Public Library.

The group is drawing together youth from towns across the county, bringing a diversity of voices to bear on issues raised in the discussions. With the support of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the participants, some of whom face economic hardship, are given the opportunity to go on field trips, engage in special learning activities, and listen to guest speakers -- all tied to the book discussions. Past events have included a sail on an historic schooner, listening to a teen TedX speaker, learning Japanese calligraphy, and hosting Penn State Behrend's portable planetarium at the library.

On the opening day of Teen Reading Lounge, the group reviews the library’s oversized “The Humanities Matter!” infographic.
Teen Reading Lounge discussions challenge teens "to see the world through someone else's eyes," says Tammy Blount.

The popularity of the program has library administrators setting their sights on starting a new, after-school group at a branch location. Blount insists that the appeal is not just about the books. “It is much bigger than reading,” she said. “The discussions challenge the teens to see the world through someone else's eyes.”

"Teen Reading Lounge has opened me up to many new viewpoints and has taught me how to think about other people's perspectives,” said Clara Tupitza, a regular to the group. She says the opportunity to meet youth outside her usual social circles is a big plus.

“It has helped me come out of my hermit shell,” said Madeleine Karikhoff, who says she is pleasantly surprised by how popular it is. She believes the discussions have made her more assertive and helped her to find her voice.

When the group reflected on when Haruko and Margot spoke for the first time at the Texas internment camp -- during a powerful dust storm -- they remembered the harshness of their own weather. The winters in Erie County can be severe and the teens figured that the people most impacted by bad weather would be those facing housing insecurity.

“There is a lot of need in the area,” said Logan Blount, a junior at Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy.

They searched online for realistic, impactful ways to help and came up with the idea of making “blessing bags” -- small bags stuffed with essentials. Once their project was publicized at the library the donations poured in.  

Teens assemble "blessing bags" during Teen Reading Lounge at the Erie County Public Library.

The teens got to work, filling the blessing bags with donated socks, hats, gloves, and toiletries. They also created nonperishable food bags with water, granola bars, packs of nuts, and beef jerky. In January, all the bags were taken to the Upper Room of Erie, an area homeless services agency, with hopes that they would provide some comfort to those seeking shelter from the bitter cold. Luis Cole, the staff member at the Upper Room who received the delivery, said he would be handing them out within the hour.

Similar humanities-inspired service projects are happening at Teen Reading Lounge sites throughout Pennsylvania. Based on a 2018 analysis conducted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the program is successfully building participants’ social awareness and empathy -- most strongly in rural and urban areas.

Staff at the Upper Room of Erie accepted donations from Erie County Public Library youth.

At the Erie County Public Library, the teens say they just wanted to do the right thing.

“Our discussions about The War Outside showed me that even the smallest bit of kindness can go a long way,” said Tupitza. “I wanted to be able to give that kindness.”

Teen Reading Lounge is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education through the Office of Commonwealth Libraries, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, Governor. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities.



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