Ypsi District Library wins ALA grant to offer Great Stories book club to underserved teens

As part of the Great Stories Club, YDL staff will work with a small group of teens to read and discuss stories that explore questions of race, identity, and more.
Teen patrons of the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) will have a chance to explore a diverse range of characters through a book club program funded by a competitive "Great Stories" grant from the American Library Association (ALA), with additional support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"Great Stories" is a reading and discussion program for underserved teens, with books specially chosen by the ALA. As part of the Great Stories Club, YDL staff will work with a small group of teens to read and discuss stories that explore questions of race, identity, and more. 

The program will take place from October to May, covering a total of eight different books. There are two themes for the book clubs: "Finding Your Voice: Speaking Truth to Power" and "Deeper Than Our Skins: The Present Is a Conversation With the Past." YDL received two $500 programming stipends, one per theme, and 11 copies of each of the selected books, which will be gifted to the book club participants. YDL Teen Librarian Kelly Scott says YDL has a bit more money set aside so the library can potentially buy more copies of the books if there is high demand for the club.

Book discussions will be led by YDL librarians in cooperation with staff from Ozone House. YDL has worked with Ozone House, a nonprofit serving at-risk and runaway youth, in the past on programs like PrideZone (Ozone's LGBTQ+ support group) and the Noise Permit arts celebration. 

"We really wanted to focus on underserved teens, and that's why we partnered with Ozone House," Scott says.
Ypsilanti District Library Teen Librarian Kelly Scott.
Ozone House and YDL were community partners for "quite a while before I joined the organization," says Brie Nikora, PrideZone coordinator for Ozone House. 

"They really wanted to partner with Ozone for this book club, because we're already working right in downtown Ypsi with a lot of youth, both at-risk and those already experiencing homelessness," Nikora says.

With school and homework taking up a lot of time, Nikora says it's fine if all participants might not be caught up on the reading for each meeting.

"We're hoping that the discussions will inspire them to pick up those books later or find other titles of interest," Nikora says.

The book club selections include both fiction and nonfiction titles. The books curated for the theme “Deeper Than Our Skins: The Present Is a Conversation with the Past” include "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates; "Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices," edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale; "Mother of the Sea" by Zetta Elliott; and "Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A." by Luis J. Rodriguez.
Ozone House PrideZone Coordinator Brie Nikora.
Books curated for the “Finding Your Voice" theme include "The Poet X" by Elizabeth Acevedo, "I Am Alfonso Jones" by Tony Medina, "American Street" by Ibi Zoboi, and "Anger Is a Gift" by Mark Oshiro. 

The titles were chosen to inspire young people facing difficult circumstances to consider "big questions." Scott says that the "Deeper Than Our Skins" theme addresses racism past and present, while "Finding Your Voice" is about "speaking out, and the need to address wrongs." Scott says the chosen titles showcase "a whole range of experience."

"We're hoping the teens will not only be able to relate their lives to these stories but also gain empathy for people in this world that experience different types of diversity," Scott says.

Seventeen-year-old River Brown-Danovi, a Teen Advisory Group (TAG) member at YDL's Whittaker Road Library, thinks a teen book club focused on diversity could be a strong draw.

"I feel like some teens aren't really motivated to read outside of school, so this might motivate them, especially if the themes speak to them," Brown-Danovi says. "Anyone trying to learn more about injustices in our society is a good thing — especially if you aren't aware of the injustices. Or if you do experience injustices, it's nice to be seen and heard."
YDL Teen Advisory Group member River Brown-Danovi.
Long-time YDL teen volunteer and former communications intern Samantha Huck, 18, says she may pursue a graduate degree in Library Information Science based on her experiences volunteering at YDL. She says diversity is important both in staffing at the library and in the books available.

"It's important to see yourself presented in multiple careers, and that leads to more diversity as more people see themselves represented," Huck says. "It's just as important In terms of seeing themselves represented in books. They need to feel their experiences are valid, that somebody else had these struggles or experiences, that they're not alone."

Nikora says they are especially excited for a book the youth will read toward the end of the program, "American Street."

"It's about a girl, an immigrant, living in Detroit," Nikora says. "It's great to have a story set so close to home as part of the 'Finding Your Voice' theme."

Scott says that, in addition to providing the theme and copies of each book, the ALA provided training and guidance on recruiting teens and running the book club.
Brie Nikora, Rivers Brown-Danovi, and Kelly Scott at the Ypsilanti District Library-Whittaker.
"One of the priorities in that training was letting teens have the mic and not inserting our own opinions and stories into discussions," Scott says. "We're focusing on teen voices and their experience."

While adults will facilitate discussion with pre-determined questions, teens will lead the sessions overall and can set guidelines or "go free-range," Scott says. 

Scott says teens will receive a journal, and they can share artwork or poems they record there during the book club. She also says YDL hopes to connect with other youth-serving organizations to hold a community event for the book club teens and other youth in the community, inviting young people to share stories, spoken word pieces, song, or other talents at an open mic. 

Nikora says it's valuable to give low-income or at-risk kids "something to bond over that's not just their trauma or socioeconomic status."

"But rather, they're bonding around stories. That's a beautiful way to feel a part of a community, and that's the power of storytelling," Nikora says.

Gatherings of the Great Stories Club at YDL begin Oct. 3. More information, including how to register and participate, will be available at YDL's website or by contacting (734) 482-4110 x 1329. Watch the YDL's website and social media for updates about an end-of-program event for all community teens.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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