Fan Art, Pokéman Yoga Poses: Library Works to Stay Connected to Teens, Tweens

With much of her world slowed or shut down and what looked to be a dull, socially distanced summer ahead, 15-year-old Guadalupe Pacheco found solace and purpose in pens, paper and a creative bent that the pandemic couldn’t quash.

The Northeast High School sophomore loved to draw, was good at it and dreamed of someday making it her life’s work. When, in June, her sister and a friend came across a fan art contest for teens offered by the Kansas City Public Library, they urged her to enter.

Guadalupe did, and her spot-on, black-and-white rendering of Japanese manga character Hanako-kun took second place. It came with a $50 gift card.

More welcome than any winnings, perhaps, was the opportunity to engage in something — anything — in a COVID-curtailed time. “It was fun to join in and get my mind off things,” Guadalupe says.

It was testament to the efforts of libraries local and nationwide as they continue to adapt many of their services and programs to online formats amid the pandemic. At the same time, the budding young artist from KC’s historic Northeast neighborhood represented a COVID-era challenge. While tech-savvy teens and tweens are fully at home in a virtual world, it has become more difficult in some respects to get their attention.

“So much is word of mouth with them,” says Kelsey Bates, the Kansas City Public Library’s senior teen librarian. “Normally, a lot of our teens are talking with one another (in person). Or we’d run into them at our branches and be able to ask, ‘Have you heard about this program?’”

Then, in mid-March, the Library closed its physical locations in an attempt to mitigate the pandemic. They were only beginning to reopen, offering limited onsite services, by the time schools started fall classes.

“Social media became our only way to contact them,” Bates says of the teens and near-teens, “and right now — all ages — we’re inundated with an insane amount of social media. A lot of it gets pushed to the background.”

The Library now can reach out to students through their schools, particularly where it’s lending assistance with curriculum-based activities.

But online innovation remains a primary tool.

KCPL’s fan art contest had plenty of creative, steeped-in-geek programming company over the summer. It coincided with a cosplay art competition, similarly for metro-area youth ages 12-18 who submitted their works in digital form. (Cosplay, for the uninitiated, is exactly what the mashup of “costume” and “play” suggests, a performance art in which participants not only don costumes but also play their characters’ parts.)

There were 35 art entries in all, everything from self-sewn felt creatures to computer creations and works of clay, and fellow teens did the judging online. They cast nearly 600 votes.

It was part of a seven-week menu of virtual activities leading up to the first virtual edition of the Library’s annual Cosplay Ball at the end of July. Bates and her team enlisted 13 teens — the Library’s Teen Leaders of Today — to assist in planning and implementing.

One day each week, KCPL’s youth YouTube channel offered how-to-cosplay videos created in collaboration with a local cosplay organization, Another Castle Creations. Other nights featured trivia, geek-book lists and fandom yoga led by youth librarian Alli Bernskoetter. (Pikachu lightning bolt and Jigglypuff poses, anyone?) The Library distributed 1,100 cosplay-themed activity kits at various branches and at its Pop in at the Park booths set up in city parks.

“I think, for having to turn on a dime, it worked really well,” Bates says. “We got buy-in from our teen leaders and other teens. We pulled in some who maybe had never seen us before.”

Meanwhile, Samantha Edwards, a youth and family services librarian who does illustrating in her free time, posted a series of 13 videos offering basic techniques for drawing comics, graphic novels and other illustrations. They had drawn more than 800 YouTube views by the end of summer. Colleagues Kiesha Collins and Jamie Mayo put together videos on do-it-yourself STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) experiments and the basics of storytelling, respectively.

The instructional offerings were part of the Library’s Make. Do. Tell. initiative.

Fall brought a ghost stories and urban myths writing contest. KCPL also partnered with four other local public library systems — Mid-Continent, Johnson County, Olathe and Kansas City, Kansas — on Talk Book to Me, a daylong program with various online workshops and a closing discussion of the writing and publishing experience by a panel of young adult authors.

Not all was virtual. Six youths in the Library-run Kansas City Digital Media Lab’s Team Digital summer program were able to gather at KCPL’s Southeast Branch to work on self-conceived projects. Two participants made their own stacked jeans (multiple pairs layered and sewn together to create a bunched-up look). A brother and sister modified nerf guns to give them more oomph.

“It was a respite that a lot of them needed,” says Marcus Brown, the Digital Media Lab’s lead facilitator.

By the end of the summer, at least one school had expressed interest in using the lab to create instructional content. There also were discussions about providing school credit for work done there.

“When we’re putting young people into a one- or two-dimensional classroom, we forget the three-dimensional, hands-on component that they are really excited about,” Brown says. “We want to be that gap filler . . . to inform and support what takes place in the classroom.”

Bates, too, is looking forward. The Library’s summer programming for teens is underwritten by an annual Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) Grant that was used, in part, to beef up video production. She sees potential for maintaining elements of virtual programs and activities after the pandemic, she says.

Edwards, who produced the comics illustration videos, envisions more instruction on content creation through Make. Do. Tell., including in-person classes when they are safe again.

“It has been a hard adjustment, not seeing our teens all the time. I think a lot of us worry about how they’re doing out there, both with the stress and COVID in general,” Bates says.

“Finding new ways to create programming, new ways to interact with them . . . and helping them however we can in this crazy time is something we’re seeing a lot of value in.”

–Steve Wieberg, all photos courtesy Kansas City Public Library

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