Jenny Adams Perinovic is taking public library outreach services to another level at the Free Library of Philadelphia. As the outreach coordinator for The Field Family Teen Author Series, she has the enviable job of working closely with trending authors and students of Pennsylvania’s school system. The program works by bringing authors into a school for a face-to-face discussion with students. Participants are given free copies of the author’s book, and get to ask the author questions. After attending a Teen Author Series session, many students discover a love for reading. The inspiring Teen Author Series is a rarity in the public library world. Outreach programs are fossilizing and bookmobiles are rusting. Perinovic’s work helps to reach kids who may have never had the opportunity to visit a library, let alone a chance to speak with an author about his or her book.
Perinovic is a recent graduate of Drexel University’s Master of Library & Information Science degree program. In addition to her role as an outreach coordinator since September 2015, she is an accomplished YA author. She published her debut novel A Magic Dark and Bright in 2015. Recently, it was an Amazon #1 bestseller for Teen Sci-Fi & Fantasy/Horror. Below is an interview Andrew Hart did for Public Libraries Online via email with Perinovic on April 8th, 2017.
PL: What is The Field Family Teen Author Series, and how long has it been in operation?
JP: The Field Family Teen Author Series is an invite-only program at the Free Library of Philadelphia intended to connect 7th-12th grade students in Philadelphia public, magnet, private, and charter schools with authors of books for young adults. We’ve existed system-wide since 2002, and we’ve been funded by Joseph and Marie Field the entire time. In addition to having the opportunity to meet an author, every single student who attends one of our programs receives a copy of the author’s book, which is theirs to keep. Our events are generally an hour and a half long (including an author talk, a Q&A, and a book signing!), and take place during the school day. There is no cost to participating classes besides their transportation to and from the library.
This is my second year as outreach coordinator, and in that time, we’ve hosted over 4,000 students and an amazing and diverse array of authors, including Becky Albertalli, Angie Thomas, John Lewis, Ta’Nehisi Coats, Matthew Quick, Colum McCann, Andrea Davis Pinkney, and Daniel Jose Older.
PL: What are the goals of the program?
JP: Our goal is to promote a lifelong love of reading by enabling a connection between students and authors. We also want the students who participate to become familiar with the Free Library of Philadelphia as a system, and we try to spread our events out across our 53 neighborhood libraries.
Another unique aspect of the Teen Author Series is our school outreach. A few weeks before every event, I visit each of our participating classrooms. During my visit, I introduce the book with a short booktalk, start a discussion about the book’s topic, and answer any preliminary questions they might have about the author or the event. These visits are probably my favorite part of my job – I get to know the students and build a relationship with them.
PL: What sorts of challenges do you face as the program’s coordinator, and how do you overcome them?
JP: In the beginning, the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to schedule all of my events, classroom visits, and deliveries without driving myself crazy. Our events generally include between 100-400 students, which can be anywhere from three to twenty classes. I visit every single one of them, and depending on the discussion we have, they can take anywhere from twenty minutes to the entire class period!
The other challenging aspect is also related to my classroom visits. We don’t shy away from tough subjects in the Teen Author Series—one of my goals, as coordinator, is to provide our teens access to books that both accurately reflect the world we live in and make them think. This means that sometimes, during my classroom visits, we have to talk about these difficult subjects, and it’s my job to provide these students with an open, safe, and non-judgmental space to have these conversations. In the 2016-17 school year alone, I’ve held classroom discussions on topics including human trafficking and teenage prostitution (for E.R. Frank’s DIME), gentrification (Renee Watson’s THIS SIDE OF HOME), sexual assault (E.K. Johnston’s EXIT PURSUED BY A BEAR), anxiety and depression (Claire Legrand’s SOME KIND OF HAPPINESS), gender identity (Alex Gino’s GEORGE), and racism (Angie Thomas’ THE HATE U GIVE and John Lewis’ MARCH).
As uncomfortable as it can be for me to stand in front of a room of 15-year-olds and rattle off statistics about human trafficking, I’ve witnessed some incredible and thought-provoking conversations.
PL: How are authors chosen to participate in the Teen Author Series?
JP: Our team—which includes myself, two amazing teen librarians from the Youth Services and Programs department, our teen materials selector, and our Author Events staff—have two meetings a year where we sit down and talk about books we’ve loved that we think will resonate with our students. We then compile list of authors we’d love to host, and see who says yes to us!
PL: Are authors familiar with the program when they are contacted? (if that is how the process works). If not, what is their reaction when they discover the program’s mission? Is finding willing authors difficult?
JP: Our Author Events office handles booking our authors and arranging their travel. I’m not sure how it was in the beginning, but we haven’t had trouble finding willing authors since I’ve been here. The authors we’ve hosted over the last 15 years are incredible: John Lewis (twice!), Laurie Halse Anderson, Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, Matthew Quick, Sharon Flake, Linda Sue Park, Kwame Alexander, the late Walter Dean Meyers, and many, many others.
PL: Are all schools in Philadelphia eligible to participate? How are schools chosen?
JP: Teachers and administrators who work with 7th-12th graders in public, private, charter, diocesan, and magnet schools located within the city limits of Philadelphia can join our mailing list by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once they’re on my mailing list, they’re automatically invited to our upcoming season. We generally send out two registration emails per year – once in the fall, and once in the spring, as soon as our lineups are finalized. Registration is first-come, first-serve, and our events fill up quickly. Our event with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, for their book Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, filled up within 18 hours!
PL: What kind of responses do you get from students and teachers?
JP: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, I think it’s best to hear from the students and teachers themselves. Here are some responses collected from our surveys:
- Teacher, on the event with Angie Thomas for The Hate U Give – “It brought to light aspects of our society that are hushed and finally gave my students a character they can relate to. Angie was REAL. She spoke to my students as humans and was personable. I would love to be friends with her! I thought it was great all around. I hope to teach this book!”
- “I now know that it is okay to stand up for what is right-peacefully. And I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.” -12th grade student, after meeting John Lewis at the event for March, Book 1
- “This book portrayed the saying ‘there’s beauty in the struggle’ very well.” -10th grade student, on Dimeby E.R. Frank.
- “Thank you for having us. I love to go get books signed and talk to the author, and I hope we come here again for another event.” -10th grade student, after the event for Becky Albertalli’s Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien’s Agenda
- “It was amazing to hear about the book and meet an author who is a grown-up LGBT person. I’m in seventh grade and LGBT, too.” – 7th grade student, on meeting Alex Gino at the event for George
PL: What do you consider the most beneficial product of the Teen Author Series?
JP: Oh, I have a few. It’s so hard to pick just one thing!
First and foremost, I think the kids really benefit from the books themselves. There’s a lot of economic inequality in Philadelphia, and so many kids don’t come from homes that can afford things like books. So it’s really special to be able to give every single participant a book, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or what school they go to or what they can afford.
It’s really incredible to be able to enable this connection between author and reader. Hopefully, this will inspire some of our students to go on a write themselves—a lot of them already do, and I think it’s important for them to meet someone who can provide an example of how to build a creative life.
It’s also special to be able to geek out with the kids over the books, and build a relationship with some of them. It’s gotten to the point where I’ll walk into a school and I’ll hear, “Hey, do we get new books today?” or I can’t leave the classroom without being asked about other books they might like. But I think the best moment so far happened a few months ago: After a visit, a senior boy was helping me find my way back to the office. He said, “I’m going to be real with you miss, I don’t really like to read, but that book sounds pretty good.” He promised to give it a chance, and when I saw him at the actual event (for Randy Ribay’s An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes), he came up to me and said, “Miss, you were right. That book was dope.” We high-fived and I gave him a list of a few more books he might like. And when I saw him the time after that, he’d read them all and asked for more suggestions, and just like that, he was a reader.
PL: What advice would you give to libraries interested in implementing a similar program?
JP: I realize that our endowment makes us a pretty unique program, and we’re so fortunate to have the support from the Field Family that enables us to host this incredible program and provide every one of our students with free books. But I think the heart of the Teen Author Series comes from the connections it enables—both the connection between students and authors and the connection between the public library and local schools.
Start small. Talk to the teens, teachers, and booksellers in your community and see what they’re reading and who they’d like to meet. Sometimes schools host authors on their own – see if there’s an opportunity for your library to get involved. Approach a local bookstore that hosts authors and see if there’s a way to collaborate. Reach out to local authors, or see if you can host a virtual visit via Skype, and see if your school contacts would be interested bringing a classroom of students to participate.
Jenny can be reached at email@example.com.