Alumnae/i Feature

By Teens, For Teens: Kelsey Ford ’22MS Asks Teens What They Want in Young Adult Literature

Kelsey Ford '22MS is the creator of Bookish in the 'Burgh, Pittsburgh's Teen Book Festival, as well as the creator and adult advisor of the Bridges & Books Podcast and PA Reads YA, both projects created alongside teen leaders in Pennsylvania and designed to amplify teen voices and highlight and champion diverse books.

Tell us about your work with teens and YA lit.

Right now, the two teen programs I'm working on the most are the Bridges & Books podcast, which is underneath the umbrella of PA reads YA. Bridges & Books started in the fall of 2020, after the Bookish in 'Burgh Festival was canceled [due to the pandemic]. Some teens I worked with wanted to do something virtual; since I was on furlough, we decided to create something of our own and built this really cool podcast.

PA reads YA was created because the teens wanted to do more literacy programs and connect with teens all over Pennsylvania. I thought there was an opportunity for an organization to be led by teens and for teens and to create something that didn't have to be tied to a formal organization with red tape. It's been a giant experiment! I took the teens through the whole process of developing a mission, vision, and values. It's demonstrated that teenagers can do this work, they can be reflective and strategic. The teens I work with are also super committed.

What is the goal of the organization?

The core mission of Bridges & Books is to champion and highlight diverse books by diverse creators, and to facilitate conversations between authors and the teens for whom they are writing. The truth is that a lot of us working with YA literature–authors, editors, publishers, librarians–aren't talking directly to teens. The YA industry is essentially profiting off of teenstories, but not regularly connecting with them, personally.

People working in youth services across industries make assumptions about what kinds of programs and books teens want without talking to them. The goal of programs like PA Reads YA and Bridges & Books is to give the power back to teens to create their own programs and to demonstrate to the greater YA publishing industry that teens are a viable part of that industry and should be consulted. These teenagers are passionate about diverse books. For anyone working in youth services, it's your responsibility to keep publishing these books, keep putting these books in your collection and curriculum.

Have the teens discussed the recent wave of book bans?

The teens and I talk about this a lot, especially how this disproportionately affects BIPOC and queer teens. They believe in book choice, that these books are worth fighting for and celebrating. We're trying to figure out what they can do as teens to actually make a positive impact in this fight.

The auction we held in May was part of that. We were frustrated by book bans and challenges and by the recent education legislation [limiting LGBTQ+ discussion in public schools]. They wanted to do a book drive and send the books with queer representation to teens in the states impacted by the legislation, but then thought this may be dangerous for queer and trans teens to have these physical books depending on their home and school situations. So they decided to hold an auction to benefit the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], instead, with a fundraising goal of $1,500. Thanks to generous donations, they raised nearly $5,000.

This summer and fall, we plan to partner with the Pennsylvania Library youth services division to create a round up of resources for how teens themselves can fight book bans in their schools, such as how to be prepared to approach a school board. The ALA website offers some tips for what adults can do; but for teens we need information that demystifies the organizational hierarchy and structure. PA Reads YA and Bridges & Books have recently become partners in the new ALA initiative, Unite Against Book Bans.

In light of PRIDE month, any special thoughts on how to protect access to LGBTQ+ books for teens?

Those working in schools and youth serving organizations have a responsibility to make sure queer books are on book displays, not just during Pride month, but always. Same with books featuring BIPOC main characters. Make sure any panel you're putting together is diverse, and remember that queer creators should be on panels not just to talk about queer issues. This can make teens feel less “othered” as well - they are are desperate for teen stories where being queer is not the plot, it's just part of their lives. The more we present books like that, the more they'll be accepted, as they should be.

As educators, we need to show teens what they have access to with their library cards. I found out this year that if you live in Pennsylvania you can get a library card for the Philadelphia Library, which gives access to their large collection on Libby. I'm hoping to reach kids in rural towns, too.

How did Simmons SLIS prepare you to become a leader in your field?

I think that this field is kind of unique in that a lot of people come to it after they have been working for a while. I worked at arts non-profits before getting my MLS. Sometimes, when doing a career shift there is a fear that you have to start at the bottom, but Simmons did an exceptional job of connecting the dots between my prior experience and what I want to do in the future. All of my experience with young people and YA literature will be useful in future roles. The faculty were also really empowering, encouraging us to apply to present at conferences and take advantage of opportunities. I presented at LibLearnX and will present at ALA Annual this summer, and I've also been volunteering for ALA for the past year. The faculty show you how you can be impactful as a student, and that there is no need to wait.

Photo credit: Chancelor Humphrey

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