Grants: Ideals vs. Reality

If you’ve noticed a pattern in my posts, it’s definitely “how the thing didn’t turn out the way I planned but that’s okay.” That sums up practically every program I do, and it’s part of working with teens. So don’t feel bad if your program isn’t “perfect” (psst: nobody is perfect!).

About a year and a half ago, I applied for the ALA Great Stories Club grant–specifically the books focusing on racial healing. I chose the topic “What Makes A Hero?” primarily because of the use of graphic novels and Binti.

This was the first grant I ever wrote, and my supervisor was extremely supportive and helpful in hitting all the points that the grant wanted me to address. One component of this grant asks for a partner organization. At my library, we are strongly encouraged to work with other departments within the County, so I contacted Community Justice Services and asked if anyone would like to partner with me. One great benefit of this grant was that I formed an amazing partnership with one of the coordinators of their youth program, and I learned so much about what he and his colleagues do.

I was able to attend the training program for grant coordinators in Chicago, and it did give me more confidence regarding moderating group discussions on racial inequality and how this is addressed in the selected titles. I was particularly concerned that teens would see me, a white librarian, as someone swooping in to lecture them about racism. However, the activities we did and the instructors we had made me feel a lot better about moderating these discussions.

I set up the program so that we would meet every week for about three months and discuss four books: Maus II, BintiBlack Panther Vol. 1, and Code Talker. The group was projected to be fairly small–never bigger than ten teens. All of them were performing community service and meeting together at the library as prescribed by juvenile court. Because of this, I don’t have any photographs of the events.

The biggest issue I had was that the books selected and the accompanying discussion questions felt aimed around the level of an AP English class at a prep school, but grant applicants were encouraged to work with underserved youth. In my area, the school district is on the state gerrymandering theme and the schools are heavily segregated by race due to redrawn district lines. Schools with a majority white student population receive better press and more resources than schools with a majority Black or Latinx student body. The teens who attended my sessions weren’t used to reading something as philosophical as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take on Black Panther (in fact, I wasn’t, either, and still wonder about its inclusion in this reading list). None of them had ever read a comic or graphic novel before, so I explained to them how that works. And they were all frustrated that school wasn’t teaching them about things they needed to know to understand the context of these novels. For example, World War II.

I spent several sessions giving a crash-course in WWII, Nazism, and the Pacific Theater because teachers hadn’t covered it in school. Evidently they’re very strong on the Civil War but anything after that is a total crapshoot. The teens tried to understand Maus and Code Talker, but with little to no background in the setting of these books, the emotional impact simply wasn’t there. I had to wonder if those selecting books for these grants considered that the underserved teens they wanted to target might not be comfortable discussing college seminar-style questions about books set during a time period about which they had learned nothing in school.

Binti was definitely a hit with my group, though. I did half of it as a read-aloud and when I got to the line where people make snide comments about the main character’s hair, the girls totally got into it. She was the most relatable main character for them.

Overall, I’m grateful for the experience to have worked with these teens and with another county department, but I think that the books offered to librarians could have been more diverse when it came to the difficulty level. The discussion questions proceeded from the assumption that the teens participating had a basic understanding of history, which they might not. And that’s completely not their fault!

I would love to do more book discussions with this group, but with titles more suited to their interests.

No-Budget Blues: When You Have to Ask for Money

Just the title of this makes me cringe. Some people are amazing at asking for money. I am not one of those people. If you are lucky enough to work in a public library that has a line item in the budget for programming, then I am very jealous of you and you probably don’t need to read the rest of this post.

However, if you have to beg, borrow and steal (only in the legal sense, of course) to have programs at your library, then you might be able to relate. Many libraries have hardly any budgets to speak of when it comes to trying to cover operating costs and salaries, never mind supplies for programs, or paying for outside performers.  If you are brand new to this concept of having a job that requires you to plan and implements programs for teens, but doesn’t give you any money to do it, then this post is for you!


Your Friends Group. Every Friends group is different and some may be more active than others, but they do raise money specifically for the library so this is a great place to go first. Each group also has their own way of portioning out funds so make sure you know exactly what you need and why before asking. At one point, I had to fill out a request form with all of the information. Our Friends group is down to 2 active members, though they still have a good amount of revenue coming in. We asked awhile back for a specific amount of money each month to pick up programming supplies so we didn’t have to keep asking for each little thing. We, of course, keep all of our receipts to prove we didn’t just go out for lunch.

State Aid. Depending on how much your library relies on their State Aid money to supplement their operating budget, or if they get any at all, you might be able to use some of it to supplement your program budget as well.

Local Banks and Corporations: We don’t have many outside performers come to the library during the school year, but we tend to have pretty good crowds for events over the summer, especially when tied into the Summer Reading Program. These can cost anywhere from $200 – $700, depending on what the program is and how far the vendor has to travel. This summer, I contracted out for 5 programs and the total cost was around $14,000. I was able to get 3 banks to pay for programs, plus I had a grant from our Local Cultural Council. Our Friends group paid for one program that was only in the $250 range. Most of your local banks have places on their websites to apply for small, one-time grants. They usually have a certain amount to spend on these, so I always try for one each year. They just want to see that the program will benefit as many people in the area and surrounding areas as possible – and they want to see their logo on the flyers and social media posts. Without our local banks, I don’t know what we would do! Banks also do lots of free outreach programs for all ages, so ask them if they have some programs for teens! We also get some donations from large companies in the area. google the ones in your area and see if they have any local grants to hand out. Check out car dealerships, medical equipment, oil companies, etc.

LCC Grants. As I mentioned above, I had a Local Cultural Council grant this summer for a program. we are lucky enough that we pretty much get one whenever we apply. Last year I had one to purchase ukuleles for the library, and the year before that, I asked for money to host a series of programs for teens to let them experience a variety of art (music, visual, cooking, etc.) as well as some career and “Adulting 101” type programs. Deadlines for next year’s grants are coming up soon in early October for Massachusetts – not sure about other states – so check out your local council to see if you can apply!

Local Small Businesses. While they may not have tons of money to dole out, they might be willing to provide a free program or a coupon as a summer reading prize, in exchange for the extra advertising from the library. It doesn’t hurt to ask! (Though honestly, I am not a fan of having to ask for money.) Check out photographers, realtors, restaurants, gyms, dance studios, music studios, salons, etc.

Local Non-Profit Groups. There are lots of local non-profit groups who might be happy to help collaborate with the library on programming. Our local Mom’s Club group does fund-raising but will give the money to other local organizations at the end of their fiscal year. They are very generous and typically give us the money when we are planning our summer reading program and we can use the money for reading incentives for kids and teens. We have also collaborated with our local Lions Club, Elks, and Scout Troops.

LSTA Grants. Ah, yes. This is big time. I have only done one of these so far and I am planning to apply for one during the next round. Several years ago I did a Teen Services grant and had a whole $20,000 to spend! While I am eternally grateful for this, it was definitely not an easy thing to do. It was a 2-year grant with multiple reports that included measuring leadership. Grants are not exactly my forte, but once you understand the formula and what they want to see, it gets easier. I won’t win any awards for my grant writing, but it got the job done and we did some really cool stuff!

There are obviously more ways to find money, but these are my main sources. It’s probably my least favorite thing to do and I would love to actually know in advance how much money I have to spend. But usually, when it comes to outside programs, I book first and beg for money later! Many places like to know what they are spending the money on and having the program already booked with an invoice to submit is very helpful in moving the grant application along (this is mostly for the banks I work with.) I typically make flyers with their logo on it when I submit the application. Please leave suggestions for other ways to procure program funds in the comments!! And oddly enough, this will post on my birthday! Hoping for some extra free money today!! Haha.

Game of Thrones Readalikes for Teens

Since the TV series ended this year, there has been a major increase in interest in the Game of Thrones series at my library among younger teens. I work in a very liberal community, but when it comes to selecting books for their middle school and early high school aged teens, some parents are wary of the excessive violence and graphic sexual situations depicted on the show and in George R.R. Martin’s books. I often get asked for alternative titles. Here’s a list of some YA readalikes for these budding GoT fans (most of which have better endings than the TV series!)

*Note—many of these books do contain sexual situations and violence, but to a far lesser degree than GoT, or in many cases, these situations occur offscreen. I wanted to include a wide range of content levels to appeal to a wide variety of readers. Encourage parents and teens to use their best judgement when selecting one of these titles.

Alanna: The First Adventure – Tamora Pierce

Alanna has so much in common with Arya Stark.

And I Darken – Kiersten White

A very interesting exploration of ambitious women in powerful families like Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister.

Damsel – Elana K. Arnold

Dragons plus feminism plus revenge!

The Female of the Species – Mindy McGinnis

While this is a work of realistic fiction rather than fantasy, the feminist vengeance plot elements will appeal to those interested in Game of Thrones.

Grave Mercy – Robin Lafevers

Bad ass lady assassins, courtly intrigue, and romance. Excellent choice for those interested in GoT.

I, Claudia – Mary McCoy

The political intrigue and the savage, ambitious natures of the characters in this novel rival only Martin’s.

Seraphina – Rachel Hartman

Dragons, excellent world-building, and courtly intrigue make this a perfect choice for GoT fans.

Six of Crows – Leigh Bardugo

An amazing cast of lovable rogues, intrigue and crime, crossing and double crossing, an action-packed plot, and stellar world-building make this a top pick.

The Thief – Megan Whalen Turner

Strong storytelling and mythology in this tale of a thief with a mysterious identity and a secret mission make this series opener a great pick for young fantasy fans.

Three Dark Crowns – Kendare Blake

Powerful siblings trying to kill each other? The three rival queens are reminiscent of the Lannisters (you know, minus the incest and stuff!)

The Traitor’s Game – Jennifer Nielsen

Nielsen is perenially popular among the younger teen crowd. This novel features political intrigue, hidden motives, kidnapping, and power-hungry characters.

Teen-led Programming

I’m a firm believer in teens having as much ownership and power in the library as possible. I want my Teen Advisory Group to feel that they really have a say in teen services, and that they are an important part of teen programming.

This past summer, I was finally able to achieve one of my long-time goals: teen-led programming! One of my Teen Advisory Group members is an avid fan of modern calligraphy and is always asking for extra ways to help out at the library. I guided her to host a Learn to Calligraphy workshop for other teens, which ended up being one of our highest attended programs of the summer.

Here’s some tips I learned through this process:

  • Be realistic! Remember that teens are still developing skills & learning, so be realistic about what they can and cannot do. Scale down your ideas to create a program that your teens can realistically do and will feel comfortable with.
  • Be as clear as possible in all directions & expectations! Teens often need very specific instructions, and be willing to clarify as much as possible; so many teens are afraid to ask questions when they’re confused.
  • Check in often! I planned this teen-led program over the course of a month, and checked in weekly leading up to it to make sure my teen volunteer was on track with preparing materials, see how she was feeling about the program, and ask how I could support her.
  • Be willing to make executive decisions. Remember that at the end of the day, you’ll still need to make major decisions. Teens may go back and forth on ideas, and it’s also important to remember that a lot of teens are still learning about project & time management. Give your teens ownership & power when possible, but be willing to step in to make executive decisions when needed.
  • Support your teens. Remember that teens may not have access to the same resources & tools that you do. Be willing to use your resources to troubleshoot or assist them as much as they need.
  • Be flexible. Your teen volunteer may get nervous and stuck, so be flexible about your role in the program. You may need to step in to help move the program along, or act as a co-facilitator. My teen volunteer was nervous and at times during the calligraphy workshop, got a bit stuck, so I asked guiding questions to help her move forward when she needed it.
  • Hype your teen-led program! Nothing is more of a bummer than putting tons of work into a program and having a low turnout. Hype your teen-led programs as much as you can, whether that’s through email, social media, school outreach, or word of mouth. You want your teen-led programs to be as successful as possible, so that your teen volunteers will feel that it was a positive and worthwhile experience.

Have you hosted teen-led programming at your library? What tips would you add to this list?

Adding Things Other Than Books to a School Library

One of the best parts of my school library job is getting to pick out books for the collection. For a long time, books and magazines were the only items in the library’s collection, but that’s changed in recent years. Libraries are always evolving, and I think that’s a great thing. To inspire you as you work on your collection, today I want to share a few of the other items available for checkout in some of the schools where I’ve worked.


Owning audiobooks and DVDs are obvious choices for a public library, but not so much for a school library, at least in my district. The audiovisual items my former school collected were titles that are taught in classrooms, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and The Crucible. Teachers liked having easy access to the DVDs and students who struggled with reading appreciated the audiobooks.


Students ask for markers and pencils all the time, and I’m always happy to loan them out. I’m not as happy, however, when they don’t come back. Circulating packs of markers and pencils still allow students to have access to the supplies they need, but now it makes it so that they’re returned.


My current school offers two drawing tablets for students to check out. We also have specific computers set up with Adobe software so kids can create comics and other art. Libraries are known for promoting literacy, but I’m proud when we can encourage creativity too.


A former school of mine offered chess sets to students, and they loved them. We had kids in the library during lunch each day who would always ask for a set. Offering games is something I want to do in my current school if the budget allows. I’d love for students to see the library as a place that isn’t just about learning, but also about fun.

What items other than books do you offer in your library? There are so many possibilities, and I’m always happy to see libraries being creative to meet the needs of their patrons.