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Kairi Hollon tried to go to the library when he was a teenager in Brooklyn in the 1980s, but he kept getting kicked out. Years later, he came back to the library and started to create spaces just for teens. We’ll listen in on a Dungeons & Dragons game in Mill Basin, a teen party at Central, and learn how video games are changing the library.

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Episode Transcript

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Felice did you spend a lot of time in the library as a teenager?

Felice Belle I actually don’t remember spending any time in the library as a teenager. And I loved reading, but all my memories of the library are as a child or in college. How about you?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I do have a strong memory of my school library when I was a teenager because I was really into a book series that my mom didn’t think was great reading, so my she conspired with the school librarian to get different books to slip under my nose, so that I'd be reading something of better literary value. And the librarian introduced me to Cynthia Voigt’s first book which is called Homecoming and it's part of a series. And it really blew my mind because it was such beautiful, lyrical writing about the inner lives of tweens and teenagers, and I hadn’t really read that sort of thing anywhere else, other than Little Women.

Felice Belle That's awesome, I think when we were growing up, the Young Adult genre—books for ages 12 to 18—it wasn’t a huge part of the literary market like it is today. The YA genre really exploded in the early 2000s with the Harry Potter series, and hugely successful YA writers like Meg Cabot and John Green.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Today’s teens are pretty lucky, when it comes to books. We’re in what some are calling the “second golden age” of YA books, after the first wave of YA books—mostly those epic fantasy books like Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series—in the middle of the 20th century.

Felice Belle But it’s not just teens who are lucky… many YA readers today are not young adults at all. A study in 2012 found that 55 percent of YA readers are over the age of 18. In fact, reading among teens in general has plummeted in the last decade or so. According to Common Sense Media, the percentage of 17-year-olds who read for pleasure at least once a week went from 64 percent in 1984 to 40 percent in 2012. And the number of teens who say they never read for pleasure went from 9 percent to 27 percent in the same 28-year period.

A teen reading outside Brooklyn's Central Library in 2019. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I think it’s safe to say that books are no longer the only thing that will bring teenagers into the library. So, we have got to figure something else out.

Jasmine Pegus Hi, my name is Jasmine. And my character’s name is Lavina Moon Whisperer. She's a cleric, she’s nice. She's tiny, small, she’s a dwarf. A hill dwarf. 

Jewel Pegus My character is Zelda. She is a wizard. She does all kinds of spells.

Jalen Hi, my name is Jalen and in the game my name is Yondu after the Guardians of the Galaxy character. He's basically a dragon-born who spits poisonous spit. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In a small room in the Mill Basin neighborhood of Brooklyn, a group of middle schoolers are gathered around a table. There’s the smell of pizza and huge bottles of soda in tiny cups are scattered across the table. It feels like a pretty typical pre-teen hangout.

Jonache Atime Hi my name is Jonache Atime. It’s a french last name. Anyways, my character’s name is Brog. He is a monk, which is a type of class that you have. He’s a half Ork-Monk and the only thing he ever says is “Brog.” 

Felice Belle For the uninitiated, these kids are talking about Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing board game that’s played with lots of imagination … and lots of dice.

Jonache Atime This is a 12-sided which is a die you could use for damage. This is a 10-sided die, a 6-sided die … 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras After the kids eat some pizza and a few first-timers choose their characters, Giovanni, the Game Master, gets everyone’s attention. The game is about to start.

Giovanni Washington All right everybody, can you settle down? So, last time, Damla died fighting the Nothic, a crazed wizard …

Felice Belle For the next hour and a half, the preteens play the game. Characters throw stones, re-group, and jump over each other. It’s a room full of laughter and concentration—which, for 11 to 14-year-olds, is pretty cool. Here’s Giovanni.

Giovanni Washington We started playing at the library because it’s a quiet place. And then Damla came and proposed that we make a program out of it.

Damla Bek Our program is all about making it work. It’s not really about preserving the integrity of the game, or anything like that. So, sorry, but it’s about what they want, and them being able to control a narrative.

Felice Belle That last voice is Damla Bek.

Damla Bek I am the Young Adult librarian here at Mill Basin branch library.. We do have a middle school about four blocks down that way, so we do get the 6th, 7th and 8th graders in here a lot. They come in every day after school, 2:30 on the dot. And for a while we had trouble with crowd control. We also have a lot of families who come here and when you have really little kids hearing cursing, or if the tweens are running around and not watching where they are going, which is a thing that they do, they have zero bodily awareness ... we needed to do something.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is a tension that a lot of our smaller branch libraries face: How do you encourage people of all ages to use the library while making sure that the habits of one age group don’t scare off another?

Felice Belle So, staff at Mill Basin decided to make the library’s one meeting room into a teen zone during after-school hours.

Damla Bek So from 2:30 to four, I set out some programming laptops for them, let them play on the Xbox, because Fortnite is super big. They also play Madden, I’m waiting on 2K ...

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s working for Mill Basin. For a few hours after school, middle schoolers have a place to be themselves without fear of disrupting the rest of the library.

Damla Bek Libraries are easily one of the last places in this country that you can go to and you’re not expected to buy anything. They're 12, they don’t have jobs, they can't just go to the diner and sit there for four hours. This isnt Riverdale. They don’t have the money to spend. 

Felice Belle This isn’t Riverdale. This is Brooklyn.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And you’re listening to Borrowed. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Felice Belle And I’m Felice Belle. Today: Teens Take Over.

Teens perform at the Urban Art Jamm at Central Library in 2019. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

DJ Hey, everybody, how we doing? [CHEERING] Welcome to Urban Art Jamm 2019, Gen Next!

Drummer One, two three, four! [MUSIC]

Alec Farber So, I’m helping to run the Urban Art Jamm. It’s an event for teens, it has all teenager performers, teenage visual artists, teenage spoken word, and of course put on for teens.

Aminah Latif The Urban Art Jamm is one of the biggest events that shows teenagers that they can come to the library and have fun, too. And it doesn’t always have to be about reading…

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This past April, on a Saturday night, teens took over Central Library for a big party. Urban Art Jamm had its fourth annual showcase—complete with food, loud music, and lots of 13 to 19-year-olds.

Dyquan Waters Basically, you know, teens get together for one night, they watch performances, eat, and just have spaces to bond.

Felice Belle It turns out that’s a big focus of the library these days. Those three teens you just heard, Alec, Aminah and Dyquan, are members of the library’s Youth Council.

Teens hang out at the Central Library's 2019 Urban Art Jamm, put on for teens, by teens. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Jane Ekhtman I hadn't really been to the library since I was a lot younger. I stopped going when I was maybe 12 or 13.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Jane, another teen who’s very involved in the library. She’s 16 and works as a librarian intern at New Utrecht, her local branch.

Jane Ekhtman Right now, most of what I do varies day by day, like each day there’s a new thing to do. Some days it might be painting something for the arts and crafts, or making a display for Father's Day. A lot of times it's helping supervise the programs whether it's with teens, like teen tech time or with the kids, arts and crafts.

Felice Belle Jane is also a library peer leader—a group of teenagers who worked as interns at BPL and now are back to advise staff on how to make teen experiences better at the library.

Lily Wong I’m Lily and I am a peer leader at the Mapleton branch. Maybe the floorplan of these libraries just ... I don’t think they considered having teens in it in the first place.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s true, most of our branches—and public libraries across the country in general—just weren’t designed with teenagers in mind. At Mapleton, where Lily works, there isn’t really much of a place for them.

Lily Wong It's just a couple tables and if the kids aren't already there, they might have to sit with the adults or stand around. Some of them go to the toddler area and it’s really awkward, so maybe you should go downstairs? But then it's like, oh it's too quiet, I don’t want to work in that.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Once you turn 13, you enter a strange limbo in the library. You don’t belong in the children’s section anymore, and you can't uset the kid computers. You can check out books from the adult section, if you want, and you have to use the adult computers—which can be uncomfortable for teens and adults, depending on what each age group chooses to watch or do on the computers.

Felice Belle The peer leaders have thought a lot about what make for good teen spaces.

Jannatun Naeem Us teenagers, we think simple. So the teen area should be simple color.

Tianna Carrington I don’t know why adults think we like color so much.

Kelly Yan I feel like if you make the teen space appealing and attractive, teens might come to the library more to take pictures of it like, you know, for Instagram.

Felice Belle These teens have lots of ideas for the library. They also recommended that teen spaces have marker boards, test prep books, and computers just for teens where they can print their homework quickly.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, Brooklyn is planning to make teen spaces just like that, in all 60 of our libraries. Just this past March, a big, new teen tech center opened at Kings Highway lLibrary, with computers, a recording studio, and lots of software and hardware for digital media-making. And it has been packed every day since it opened.

Teens cut the ribbon on Brooklyn Public Library's new Best Buy Teen Tech Center at Kings Highway Library.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Felice Belle Unfortunately, the library hasn’t always been such a welcoming place for teens.

Kairi Hollon When I was a teenager, my branch that I went to was Clinton Hill. I went in there a couple of times and every single time I went in there, I got kicked out.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Kairi Hollon was a teenager in Brooklyn in the 1980s.

Kairi Hollon You were kind of either preditors or prey. It's sad for me to say it like that, growing up in Brooklyn. But I grew up during the crack era, and so I’ve seen a lot of what I would call bad. I’ve also seen a lot of good. But during this time, as a teenager, we were a very lost and forgotten-about age group. I was isolated.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Kairi still remembers the last time he got kicked out of the library.

Two boys hold pumpkins outside the recenly-opened
Clinton Hill Library in the 1970s.
(Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library)

Kairi Hollon I went in there with a friend of mine from school, and we kind of were ducking out in there, knowing that there was already a bad element running around in the neighborhood. So we were kind of using this as a lay low cover. Some of those kids ended up coming in there and they saw us and they knew, oh yeah, these are guys we could try to mess with. And then the security there said, "Hey, if you guys don’t quiet down, I’m going to kick you guys out." And I told him, "Hey, we’re not with these guys." And he said, "I don’t care, I see all of you guys together, I’m kicking you all out." So I tried to sit back down and just hopefully stay unnoticed, and it didn't work because these kids started throwing stuff at us, and then the security said, "All of y’all get out." Lets just say, during that time I learned to become a track star.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Kairi’s story is pretty indefensible. He was trying to use the library as a safe haven, but the library kicked him out.

Kairi Hollon I realized this is not a place I can go, especially to feel safe, to feel welcome. So I stopped using it all together. I didn’t come back until they actually hired me. 

Felice Belle This is not the approach we have today toward teenagers. We want teens to use the library.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And Kairi did come back to the library, years after he was kicked out, as a clerk, and then a Tech Resource Specialist. It was in the early 2000s, while working at Windsor Terrace Library, that Kairi started to pick up on a problem.

Kairi Hollon There was no community centers for the children, especially free ones. And then I realized, I am in a position where I can do something. 

Felice Belle It started with a group of teens playing the card game Yu-Gi-Oh. Kairi saw the teens, and opened up the meeting room for Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments. Soon enough, the teens told their friends. Kairi put in couches and a PlayStation for Rock Band, and it became a tradition.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Every afternoon, from 2:30 until five or six, the meeting room became this popular hangout space in the community. One day, a few years later…

Kairi Hollon One kid came to me and was like is the club house open? And it didn’t process to me at the time, and I was like, oh the meeting room! Oh yeah, it's open. So that’s how that name, thee clubhouse, stuck in with the kids. It just became its own entity if you will. And this happened ... I'm going to say for the better part of eight years, it was going on that successful.

Felice Belle Now the original “club house” kids are in their late 20s. A handful come back once a year to see Kairi for dinner and update him on their lives.

Kairi Hollon ... there's one girl who, I am godfather to her baby; one is studying to be a pediatrician right now; one is a registered nurse; one is an accountant with New York State Retirement Services, so I told him to make sure that my money’s right when I retire; one is an FBI analyst .... a lot of them have gone on to great things. So, I made a lot of what I would call mistakes growing up. I always said if I could teach one and give him a better environment, where he could realize that education can help him and also information can help propel him, then I’ve done my job. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Since Kairi started the clubhouse at Windsor Terrace Library, there have been other thriving teen groups. And a lot of them center around games and gaming.

Yosenex Orengo If you told me ten years ago that libraries bought video games and invested money in gaming, I would have laughed. I would have been like, what?

Felice Belle This is Yosenex Orengo, a YA librarian at Stone Avenue in Brownsville, which is where he grew up.

Yosenex Orengo I remember as a child being kind of ... There's always been a stigma against gamers or people who are into video games and teachers would ridicule me, but I’m like look where I am now. I’ve taught, I've lived abroad, I work as a librarian now, I've earned my masters. I learned a lot of stuff from gaming.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One thing that Yosenex learned from video games is Japanese. He spent two years after college teaching English in Japan, and when he became a librarian, he started teaching Japanese classes at the library.

Yosenex Orengo So last week we did a little katakana exercise… does anybody remember what katakana is?

Felice Belle Yosenex is a very popular person among the teens at Stone Avenue. The librarians there like to joke that the most frequently asked question at the reference desk is “Where’s Yosenex?”

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And it’s not just Japanese. Yosenex runs a ton of different of teen programs.

Yosenex Orengo Mondays we do STEM, Tuesdays and Fridays is always, like, anticipation for gaming and seeing how the kids will compete. Board games—we do board games on Thursdays, which ties into our chess instructing.

Felice Belle Gaming has had a big impact on his life. It’s also what connects him to the teens at the library.

Kids play a video game at Brownsville Library. (Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Yosenex Orengo If I see anyone wear a gaming shirt, show any sort of interest, or if they’re watching games on YouTube, I invite them to the programs that we have and they come and little by little they become part of the family. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yosenex just won Brooklyn Public Library’s 2019 librarian excellence award. And it is totally deserved. Young Adult librarians like Yosenex spend a lot of time around teens and that means that they end up being these subject matter specialists on what it means to be a teenager.

Yosenex Orengo You know, they seem me as one of their leaders, too. They see me as one of them in a strange way. I guess I’m a big teenager in disguise, you know, in  disguise as a librarian.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Up next we have our BookMatch segment with another teen librarian. Emma Carbone has a list of books about games and gaming.

Emma Carbone YA right now is having a great moment in literature. And it’s really an area that’s exploded in the past few years. And even if the stories are similar, like here you can see they all have a gaming aspect or competiton in them, there’s always something new to discover and I feel like being able to read books about these characters who are still figuring things out is very refreshing and sometimes offers a lot of optimism to see that it’s never too late to course correct and keep trying.

My first recommendation is Caraval by Stephanie Garber and the story starts with a character named Scarlett who spent several years writing to Caraval Master Legend, trying to convince him to bring the game of Caraval back to her home, but nothing has quite worked. And she has just resigned herself to the face that she won’t be able to attend the game before her marriage when she gets a letter with a ticket to Caraval. Caraval is meant to be a game and a diversion for the players and the spectators. But Scarlett soon realizes that the stakes are very real. And as one of the people in the game warns her, it’s easy to get swept away, but she has to be careful not to get swept too far. She can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle, but she has to always remember that it’s a game. And if she forgets that, she risks losing herself and her sister forever.

I’m a big fan of Pokémon GO. I’m still playing it even though it’s been a few years since it first came out. So if you’ve ever wondered what a story might look like with an augmented reality game like that one, or like the Harry Potter ones that are coming out, Warcross by Marie Lu is a great one to check out. And this book, it’s nearish future and it’s set in a world where everyone has augmented reality glasses or contact lenses. And everyone plays this game called Warcross, which the author has described as a cross between augmented reality and Quidditch. So when Emika decides to take a big risk and try to hack the Warcross championships, she feels like the rewards could pay off. Except that the hack glitches and she actually puts herself into the games. So suddenly Emika is no longer an anonymous hacker, her secret is out and she’s pretty sure she’s heading to jail. Then everything goes sideways and instead she’s recruited by the eccentric billionaire founder of Warcross Hideo Tanaka to head to Japan, actually join the Warcross games and try to track down a spy inside the Warcross championship.

And then in a totally different vein I have a graphic novel which is Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong written by Prudence Shen and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks. And the story follows Charlie, who is the supermodel captain of the school basketball team and his best friend Nate, who is the kind of eccentric, kind of frantic head of the robotics club. The two of them used to be best friends, but then Nate wound up declaring war on the cheerleaders and the cheerleaders retaliated by pitting Nate and his best friend Charlie against each other in a really nasty class election. The class president helps decide which will get funded: there can be uniforms for the cheerleaders or there can be money to head to a robotics competition. Not both. Unless Charlie and Nate can figure out a way to change the rules, only one of them can win. And this one is laugh out loud funny with a lot of great artwork, so I’m sure you’ll find something to enjoy in there.

Felice Belle Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Felice Belle, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts, as well as a link to the Book Match list. We’ve also put links to information about the various teen programs at the library.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Felice Belle We are recording from Central Library’s Information Commons Recording studio. And guess what, if you have a BPL library card, you can reserve time here too and make your own podcast.  

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And as long as we’re recommending books on Borrowed, why not recommend other podcasts? These two podcasts are very dear to our hearts because they are made by our very own teens at Brooklyn Public Library! KNRC Youth Radio and BrownsvillExcerpts are two podcasts produced by teens, from Canarsie Library and from Brownsville Library. Both feature stories from teens about stories that are important to them in their neighborhoods.

Felice Belle You can find both of those podcasts on our website, or on iTunes. And while you’re there in your podcast app, leave a rating and review for Borrowed. We’d really appreciate it.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s it for this episode. Don't grow up. It's a trap.

Teens Thanks for listening to Borrowed!

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