Book Talks: Get Them Interested in a Book in Two Minutes or Less

          One of the most important skills a teen librarian can learn is the ability to talk to patrons about books in an engaging and knowledgable way.  Often called booktalking, this process relies upon several key factors, most notably familiarity with the collection, an enthralling style, and a genuine comfort interacting with teen.  It can take many forms, from impromptu discussions or prearranged classroom visits.  The major skills remain the same:  be passionate, be brief, and be honest.
      There are many ways to go about this, but actually reading the book is very very helpful.  Seriously.  Teens can smell fear, but they are experts at bs.  Don’t say you have read it if you have not.  In general, most young adults don’t mind and they will probably appreciate your honesty.  If you have not read the book in question, consult reviews from trusted sources, read the summary or dustflap, and make it your own.  Do not, however, insult their intelligence by raving about a book that even you think sounds lame.  There has to be a reason you chose to tell them about it.  Go with that.  Working in book retail, customers constantly asked about the newest Oprah book or bestseller and I clearly couldn’t be up on all of them.  Instead, it was important to acknowledge that I hadn’t gotten to it yet, but that I had heard this or that about it, I had read this review, I had talked to a customer who had, etc.  If it honestly was not the best thing you ever read, do not say it was.  Book talks are often about relationships and the most important element of that is trust.  If I recommended a book to a customer and they enjoyed it, they would often seek me out to find something similar.  If I missed the mark, I encouraged them to let me know so I could point them in the right direction, even if that was to another bookseller who had a better grasp of that area.
         Most importantly, make it interesting.  No one is going to read a book that you droned on and on about.  Be brief, be descriptive, and embrace the mystery.  Compare it to something you know they are familiar with (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Twilight, Cliche, anyone?)and focus on what makes it special.  Is it a thriller?  Set it up for them, make it exciting, and then leave them hanging so they are eager to see what it is all about.  Perhaps you could describe an interesting romance by focusing on it’s unconventional setting or premise.  Don’t be afraid to say something negative.  It makes you real and reinforces that you are individual and that every book isn’t for every person.  During one booktalk, I told the class that I have never been a fan of historical fiction.  Each class responded with a degree of surprise because who tells them it is okay not to like a particular style or genre?  Then I made it work by saying how this title really changed my mind about that because it was so exceptional.  Then I went on to tell them what I loved about it.  Several of the classes I talked to seemed dubious about graphic novels, so I made it a point to show them a variety of styles and genres of graphic novels, and I candidly told them that I had been unsure at first too but then I found ones I really liked.  I would also be careful not to generalize genres.  Graphic novels are not just for boys or relunctant readers, science fiction isn’t just for nerds or geniuses, and a good drama isn’t just for girls or weeping people.
Choose interesting reads.  It seems like a no brainer, but kids are overloaded with information as it is so you  need to stand out.  Mix it up and select a variety of formats, topics, and genres.  It is hard to accept, but every single book talk will not be a homerun with every audience, nor should it be.  Keep it fresh, diverse, and under the radar.  If they’ve already heard of it, they will check out while you talk, so be aware of your collection.  You may be primarily interested in one genre, but you have a responsibility to your patrons to be cognizant of the entire world of young adult (and sometimes even adult) literature.  Keep current, not only with your collection but also the industry in general so you are on top of hot new titles and fads.  It is okay to admit that you are not supremely familiar with one area of the collection, but do not ignore it.  I personally have a hard time with heavy science fiction and chick lit, so I have to make a concerted effort to be aware of these titles.  This has, naturally, led me to several really interesting and fun titles I never would have picked up, so it is a complete win-win.
        Do not, however, neglect older titles.  If there is a real gem in your collection that is not receiving the attention it deserves, check the circulation numbers and then make it clear why not reading this book is a mistake.  I would caution, however, about referring to any book as “an oldie but a goodie” or “my favorite when I was your ages”.  My very first “solo” booktalk was entirely focused upon books with which I felt very very comfortable.  I called it “Great Reads You Might Have Missed” and it was a great way to get my feet wet because I could adlib if necessary and I honestly loved the books so it was a cinch to speak passionately.  This might be a good theme to use once a year or so on school visits, particularly toward the end of the year when you are more familiar with what kinds of books the teens have responded favorably to in the past.
     So in brief:
  • keep it interesting
  • be passionate
  • be honest
  • stay in the know

And it can’t hurt to read what other people are doing in terms of book talks.  It will give you ideas, help you identify your own style, and it can lead you to some great reads you might have missed as well.  There are many books on the subject, a few of which are listed below.  Keep an eye on the web as well.  Many librarians share their book talks on their blogs, through industry channels, and elsewhere.  I have included mine in this section.  I am a beginner and I have a lot to learn, but we have to start somewhere. 😉

Suggested reading:

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Gotcha!: Nonfiction Booktalks to Get Kids Excited About Reading
by Kathleen A. Baxter & Marcia Agness Kochel 1999
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Booktalks and Beyond: Promoting Great Genre Reads to Teens
by Lucy Schall 2007
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Value-Packed Booktalks: Genre Talks and More for Teen Readers
by Lucy Schall 2011
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Booktalks Plus: Motivating Teens to Read
by Lucy Schall 2001
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Booktalks and More: Motivating Teens to Read
by Lucy Schall 2003
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Tantalizing Tidbits for Teens 2: More Quick Booktalks for the Busy High School Library Media Specialist
by Ruth E. Cox Clark 2007
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Cooler Than Fiction: A Planning Guide for Teen Nonfiction Booktalks
by Jill S. Jarrell and Tara C. Cannon 2010
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The Newbery Companion: Booktalk and Related Materials for Newbery Medal and Honor Books
by John T. Gillespie and Corinne J. Naden 2001
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Gotcha Covered!: More Nonfiction Booktalks to Get Kids Excited about Reading
by Kathleen A. Baxter and Michael S. Dahl 2005
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Teenplots: A Booktalk Guide to Use with Readers Ages 12-18
by John Thomas Gillespie 2003
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Gotcha Again!: More Nonfiction Booktalks to Get Kids Excited About Reading
by Kathleen A. Baxter and Marcia Agness Kochel 2002
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Genre Talks for Teens: Booktalks and More for Every Teen Reading Interest
by Lucy Schall 2009
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