NYPL After School is a free drop-in program for kids aged 6-12 that takes place after regular school hours, Monday through Thursday, from October-June, when school is in session. Teen Reading Ambassadors are employed in our After School program, acting as leaders and role models to younger kids, ambassadors for the Library’s mission to inspire a lifelong love of reading and learning, and writers and editors of their very own magazine. Rachel Roseberry is the Manager of Young Adult Literacy Programs at The New York Public Library and I caught up with her to learn more about the magazine project and how it came to be.
Hi Rachel! Can you tell us more about Portal Magazine and how you got the idea to do this with your Ambassadors?
We launched Teen Reading Ambassadors as a remote program in January 2021, before NYPL had resumed in-person programming. We wanted the teens to have a project that would allow them to act as advocates for reading without being able to step foot into one of our branches. We also know how creative teens are and how powerful it can be to give them a platform for their ideas. Also, I’m personally a huge fan of magazines and have a lot of fond memories of reading magazines like Highlights as a kid!
After we landed on the idea — a teen-created magazine for younger kids — we spent an entire semester working with 52 teens to make it happen. The teens came up with the name for the magazine, Portal, to reflect the role books and libraries play as portals to exciting new worlds. They also chose the theme for our first issue — celebrating New York City and our diverse communities. The teens then created content including short stories, comics, craft projects, activity pages, interviews, non-fiction explainers, and more all centered on that theme! We led workshops with them on kid appeal, child development, the publishing industry, graphic design, and a lot more to help them put it all together.
In August 2021, we distributed physical copies of the magazine to branches across the system for young patrons to read! We’ve had an incredibly positive response so far from readers, but my favorite moment was seeing our teens hold the magazine, containing their published art and writing, in their own hands.
Was there anything about the project that really surprised you?
We knew that the teens in our program were talented, but we were honestly blown away by what they put together — from the concepts they came up with (a time travel bus tour through Staten Island! an investigation of marine life in the waterways of NYC!) to the execution (just take a look at the gorgeous original painting on the cover).
We care a lot about teen voice in the Young Adult Services department at NYPL and this project has inspired us to think even more creatively about how to continue to give teens an opportunity to share their work with a broad audience — something that we found so empowering through this project.
You are now working on your second issue of the magazine- what changes did you make based on lessons learned the first time?
This isn’t necessarily a change we made, but the biggest difference for the second issue is that the teens in the current cohort are working with kids on a daily basis at branches across the system. The first issue was produced entirely remotely before the library restarted indoor programming. The teens in that original cohort didn’t have the opportunity to regularly interact with children, but our current group will have the chance to pre-test magazine concepts with the children at their branch!
Also, the first time around we learned just how difficult it can be to do graphic design in a clear, engaging, and cohesive way for children. We’re definitely going to spend even more time this year learning about the basics of graphic design and studying appealing design for children.
This blog is read by library staff around the world who serve children in all kinds of different library settings- do you have advice for readers in a small town library or school library who would like to develop a similar project for teens with a children’s audience?
First, we were really lucky that we were able to print and distribute a magazine at this scale, but there are plenty of ways to bring teens into your work with younger children. Think about what avenues of publication you already have aimed at school-age kids and their families. Do you publish staff book recommendations or booklists? If so, maybe you could consider running a program where you introduce teens to the world of children’s literature and then have them contribute to your staff picks. Similarly, teens are great at creating displays or supporting children’s programs!
Second, this project took a village! We asked NYPL staff to volunteer to serve as mentors to the teens so that they could get small-group connections and feedback. One of our Young Adult librarians in the system had a lot of expertise in graphic design, and she ran our workshops on that topic. We brought in Children’s librarians to talk about children’s literature and members of our Communications team to talk about editing and revising written work. I would strongly recommend tapping into the talent already on your team to help tackle a project like this.
Anything else you would like to share about how you help your teens to help children in the library?
I think it’s important to recognize just how much of a win-win this type of near-peer connection can be! Younger children are instinctively drawn towards the “cool” teens, and it brings out the best in teens when they are asked to be leaders for kids who are younger than them. Of course, many teens already have younger siblings or cousins that they help care for regularly and a program like this allows them to bring the expertise they already have to the table.
Also, we think really intentionally about how to build the architecture that will allow teens to produce their best work. It’s not an open-ended prompt. We provide focused workshops, structured timelines, checklists, examples, regular feedback, and more to set up a supportive and comfortable space that we believe gives teens the ability to be creative.
Finally, we do our best to model for teens that this is really joyful work! Kids are fascinating, unique, hilarious, and we have the opportunity to get them excited about books, reading, and the library — what’s better than that? (Other than working with a group of really talented and passionate teens, that is!)
This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of II. Reference and User Services and III. Programming Skills
Emily Nichols is the Associate Director of Children’s Services at The New York Public Library. She’s a member of the School-Age Programs and Services Committee of ALSC. Emily has been creatively and collaboratively supporting children’s learning in public libraries since 2003. Her recreational interests include bird watching, mycology, and fiber arts. Reach her at email@example.com