Ukuleles, ugly sweaters, laughs, tears, and a sloth named Tibbers. The debut of Teen Reading Lounge, a youth-led, book discussion program at Hollidaysburg Area Public Library, was anything but dull. Even the lures of screen time and competing after-school activities couldn’t deter the dedicated group of young readers from coming back week after week to dive deep into the discussions.
“The kids just kept saying that they didn’t want it to end,” said Tina Cunningham, the adult facilitator for the group. “They just wanted us to keep meeting.”
The program is made possible thanks to a generous sponsorship from Benzel’s Bretzel Bakery, Inc., a family-owned company with deep ties in Blair County. The company’s president, Ann Benzel, represents the fourth generation of the family to run the pretzel business. She prioritizes giving back to the community and has a record of public service in the arts and humanities.
“For me, philanthropy has always been about making tangible change in people’s lives by underwriting things that are important,” said Benzel. “Being able to give teens the tools and support they need in this endeavor is very rewarding.”
With Benzel’s help, the library was not only able to start Teen Reading Lounge but it could finally update the furnishings and ditch the drab colors in the teen area that had become like kryptonite to young people.
“The space wasn't teen-friendly,” said Cunningham. "It looked like the kind of place where you wouldn't be allowed to sit down."
The new space is brightly colored with cozy chairs aplenty and a guitar in the corner -- just in case singing breaks out (which it does.) The casual setting is drawing in young people to the new Teen Reading Lounge program, where they can hang out and talk openly about issues they feel are important without fear of judgement.
Creating supportive spaces away from the stresses of school and social media has become part of the new community role many libraries are embracing, bolstered by recent research on the impact of belonging to learning and development.
"We get to actually express our feelings and no one feels left out or scared,” said Spencer, one of the teen participants. “We’ve become like a family.”
Teen Reading Lounge is youth-led but the adults still play an important role. Staff are given extensive training and ongoing support to ensure the best environment for youth development. Conversations between young people can be difficult, especially when they wade into complex subjects like identity, religion, and politics. Adults are trained to create a safe environment where humanities discussions can take root and teens can assume leadership responsibilities.
“It can be a challenge to let go and give teens the reins but it has really helped the library strengthen its relationship with the kids,” said Melanie Ramsey, Director of Youth and Children's Services at the library.
Since teens run the show, each Teen Reading Lounge site across Pennsylvania is unique. At Hollidaysburg Area Public Library, the group came up with a way to ensure everybody’s voice could be heard. Enter Tibbers, the beloved toy sloth who is passed around like a “talking stick.”
“Everyone loves Tibbers,” said Cunningham. “His job is to make sure everyone is respected and knows they’ll get a chance to talk.”
Tibbers has become a symbol for the mutual respect of the youth community, encouraging active listening and respect for the speaker in a way that is accessible. The conversations he oversees are mostly fun but they can veer into the serious and even tearful.
A discussion about The Perks of Being a Wallflower became especially sensitive. The group saw much of themselves in novel's main character, Charlie, a shy boy with an aptitude for literature. The often tortuous drama Charlie experiences in high school led to group conversations about acceptance and the trials of navigating young adulthood.
Ramsey said that providing space for tears is important for social emotional learning. “We talked a lot with the teens about the ways books can teach you empathy,” she said. “Teen Reading Lounge is giving them experiences they maybe wouldn’t otherwise have.”
A 2018 data analysis conducted by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit supports Ramsey’s assertion. It found that Teen Reading Lounge actively builds participants’ social awareness and increases understanding other perspectives -- particularly among rural youth.
Along with weighty discussions of big ideas and social challenges, participants have ample opportunity to build relationships and collaborate. The Hollidaysburg teens got to know and trust each other while “baking” microwave mug cakes, learning to play ukuleles from a local expert, creating mood boards, and holding an ugly sweater Christmas party.
"I was able to meet some people who I have gotten very close to," said Alma, a teen participant. “Teen Reading Lounge is a fun new thing to get into."
With this pilot session successfully under their belt, Cunningham and Ramsey are recruiting for future sessions. “I tell them, ‘we have so much fun, there are great snacks, a great group of kids, great conversation, a cozy place,’” said Cunningham. “‘We won’t make you talk, we won’t make you sing.’”
But, she admitted, “There is lots of talking and singing.”
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, generous individuals, foundations, and corporations.
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