A Children’s Book Council forum drew a sizeable crowd to Scholastic’s downtown Manhattan headquarters on Tuesday, May 14, for a discussion called Engaging Relationships: How Kids & Teens Discover, Connect With, and Share Their Passions. One glance at the stage made it clear that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill panel. Two of the speakers were just a few years younger than the other participants: they were two sisters, both YA bloggers from the Reading Teen blog – 12-year-old Reagan and 18-year-old Kit, who helped provide a multigenerational perspective on reading and writing within the context of social media.
Joining the bloggers were Rachel Fershleiser representing Tumblr, Ed Meagher of DOGO Books, Ashleigh Gardner from Wattpad, and Carol Fitzgerald from the Book Report Network. Charlie Schroder of Charlie & Co. moderated.
Schroder initiated the discussion by citing the “increasingly personal and pervasive” use of technology among teens and asking the panelists to speak about the specific ways that “different kinds of content are providing kids with opportunities to engage.”
TeenReads, a thriving component of the Book Report Network, serves as an online resource for kids to seek out books curated to their tastes, according to Fitzgerald. Readers can write book reviews while also connecting with other readers over their shared interests. Additionally, TeenReads is increasingly involved with outreach programs, providing internship opportunities for teens, offering marketing research services, and creating Early Look Focus Groups. Fitzgerald described one such upcoming focus group for TeenReads called He Said/She Said. Volunteer readers are each provided with a galley that has no title, no cover, and no author name. The job for the focus group is to read the book and report back whether they think the book is intended for a female or male audience.
Meagher explained that DOGO Books is a site devoted to book reviews written by and for kids. DOGO, he shared, means “small” in Swahili. “We allow kids to act big on the site [by] sharing what they think is exciting about books.” Another Web site, DOGO News, provides a forum for young readers to discover relevant news stories. DOGO is frequently utilized as a tool for teachers, and Meagher said he can always tell when a teacher has assigned a specific book, because “very detailed reviews” of that book will appear all at once on the site.
The Reading Teen blog represents a community of like-minded young readers, providing an opportunity to review, discuss, and share books. Kit noted that, as bloggers, she and her sister also link to author interviews and share news about authors and books through a This Week in YA section of the site. One of the most popular components of the blog are the Vlogs that readers can link to on YouTube. In the Vlogs, bloggers like Reagan and Kit will post book review videos and readers can freely comment on them – and they certainly do. On the blog, the comments tend to be calmer than they are on YouTube. As Reagan put it, “[On YouTube] people aren’t afraid to tell you you suck.”
With 15 million active readers, half under the age of 25, Wattpad is increasingly being used by readers in the 13-18 age bracket, Gardner reported. She also pointed out that 80% of the traffic is through mobile devices, which are clearly a mainstay for many of today’s teens. The site serves as a “feedback loop,” providing readers with a platform for talking about a book’s content, as well as providing them with the opportunity to create their own content. Gardner mentioned how The Kissing Booth, a novel by 17-year-old Beth Reekles, began as a serialized posting on Wattpad. Interest among Reekles’s online peers led the publishing world to take notice, and Reekles’s novel is being released this month from Random House. Another auspicious project that evolved from social networking: a U.K. teen’s fan fiction about the band One Direction (she posted her work on the site Movellas) led to a book deal with Penguin.
Fershleiser described Tumblr, a network of 106 million blogs, as a “passion network” that isn’t just about books but “about everything.” Unlike a social networking site like Facebook, Tumblr is more about specific interests and about forming communities based around those interests (“what are you into and what are people into that also into?”). One of Fershleiser’s favorite characteristics of Tumblr is its equalizing nature; there’s no established hierarchy among users. You’ll find fans of Rainbow Rowell blogging “fan art” for Eleanor & Park, Rowell reposting the fan art and, in turn, blogging about books she loves and her affection for Dr. Who, all in one fell swoop. It’s a powerful resource for authors, enabling them to directly engage with fans.
Questions from the audience led the panelists to talk about tracking teens’ usage, censorship, and the roles that the sites serve in their reading lives.
For the guardians of content on these social networking sites, questions of censorship frequently arise. In general, the panelists want to avoid having a Big Brother presence, preferring to allow the communities that teens are building through their sites to grow organically. Gardner reported that Wattpad uses an “algorithm” for detecting objectionable words, but that they are mostly concerned with being on the lookout for “more extreme” content. Meagher shared that DOGO uses a similar algorithm, but they are most cautious when it comes to preventing “direct communication” between users of the site. And while bad language and the majority of content gets the green light in Tumblr land, they do draw the line at any “pro self-harm” posts.
Content on the sites shifts throughout the year, and the panelists often shape that content based upon school schedules. Naturally, there’s a burst of activity on the sites after the school day ends (depending on time zone, of course), but networks like DOGO are increasingly being used in conjunction with school projects. According to Meagher, roughly 12,000 teachers are actively using the site and part of his role is to help “curate the best content” for educational purposes to keep that traffic going during school days.
Teen blogger Kit observed that her friends aren’t reading books during finals, but that just as school is ending for the summer, that’s when they are really starting to think about what they’re going to read in their free time. An FYI to publishers looking to get their books into readers’ hands: “If you launch [a marketing campaign] the last day of finals, you’ll be gold,” she said.
Fitzgerald shared the findings of a TeenReads survey that asked people of three age categories (under 18, 18-30, and over 30) to share information about how and why they read YA books. The results for all age groups indicated that speaking in person with others about books is the primary means of communicating about them. Texting was the second most popular form of communication among teens, followed by online resources.
Kit agreed with the survey findings about readers still connecting with one another face-to-face. Among her group of peers, she observed that they sometimes struggle with finding reading choices. Many of the boys she knows are also reluctant readers – something that she actively tries to change, even if it means taking the covers off books that might look more feminine, so the boys will give them a chance. Too often, Kit believes, readers “give up because a book doesn’t bring up what they are interested in.” She seed her role, both on the blog and in person, as a kind of literary matchmaker, connecting readers to the novels she thinks they’ll love.
Fershleiser echoed the sentiment that creating personalized experiences for readers is essential. In a sense, she said, sites like Wattpad, Tumblr, the Reading Teen blog, and the Book Report Network are all “replicating what your local bookstore used to do.”