Teen Spaces: Modifying an All-Too-Solid Room

Chalkboard Table in the Teen Section

You know the problem: you want to create the most epic of teen spaces, but you’re locked into an architectural space that just wasn’t designed for it. All the walls are covered in shelving, there’s almost no plugs, bookshelf islands occupy most of the rest of the space, and everything feels very… stuck.

There’s gotta be ways around this.

And I’ll admit, since my library is in a new building, I don’t have as much trouble as others. The first library I worked at has one tiny corner dedicated to teen collection, with no seating and no space to add any. Here, we have an entire dedicated room complete with a TV, XBOX, and a study table. But the setup of the room still left it feeling like the teens and their creative drives were afterthoughts.

When I started, first thing I bought for the space was a giant beanbag. Our room is divided into teen and middle grade, and all the seating was in the teen area. Tucking that little beanbag into the middle grade nook was a small improvement, but I constantly find kids and teens curled up back there, reading just out of sight. Because it’s not actually in the teen space, I think we’ve dodged the bullet of potential… uncomfortable situations.

Middle Grade Section with return cart and bean bag

We added more shelves after that to accommodate audiobooks and graphic novels, which compartmentalized the space even more. Worse, the study table had been picked up cheap at Ikea, but was pink with the word Love scrawled across it in different languages. No one really wanted to sit at that table.

So we covered it in chalkboard contact paper.

Chalkboard Table in the Teen Section

It didn’t take the teens long to pick up the chalk markers we left out and decorate it. We added cleaning it up to the weekly list of volunteer tasks, and now it’s covered in new designs every week. We also added a bunch of charger cables for devices of all sorts.

The front of my desk is a chalkboard too, and we post upcoming programs there. They used to get overshadowed by the teens’ drawings, so I changed it up – I print small posters for each event I want to highlight and post those to the chalkboard, leaving lots of space around them for the teens to still customize it.

I’ve had more interaction changes from just these 3 changes than almost anything else I’ve done. We’re still tweaking the space, and I can’t wait to see what we come up with to make the space more teen-friendly.

Book Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

A drawing of the three main characters of the book Nimona

Nimona is a girl who can shapeshift into a monster. Or a monster who can shapeshift into a girl. Or something more complicated than that. In any case, she shows up unannounced at supervillain extraordinaire Ballister Blackheart’s lair and declares herself his sidekick. He is… not amused. “I can’t have a kid following me around all day,” he complains, to which she gleefully responds (and shapeshifts): “I’m a shark!”

Nimona’s persistence and her incredible powers make Blackheart accept her as an ally and together they set to work discrediting the powerful Insitute of Law Enforcement and Heroics. It’s Nimona’s dream come true – though it might take some getting used to for the both of them.

Nimona, it seems, has more of a taste for the violence of a traditional supervillain – she wants to kill the King and take over or kill Ballister’s archnemesis and be unequaled! But Ballister loathes the mess and waste of death and violence. Still, during their first evil plot together, Ballister runs into said archnemesis, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. It’s complicated. They had been friends once, back when Ballister was another hopeful hero recruit at the Institute. And then Ambrosius has shot his arm off, and Ballister was forced to become a villain (because what Champion of Law Enforcement and Heroics only has one arm?)

Nimona doesn’t know any of this though, and seeing their plan on the brink of collapse, she takes off to “contain” the situation in her own special way. Ballister is not amused.

But then the Institute decides that Nimona might be too dangerous, that she doesn’t fit into their carefully scripted role for the villain, that perhaps she is too powerful (a thought that the Director of the Institute doesn’t much like).

Meanwhile, Ballister stumbles upon a way to limit Nimona’s powers, something that terrifies Nimona. She’s never been unable to shift, never been out of control of her powers. But none of the stories she’s told Ballister about where she came from made sense, and as a man of science, Ballister is more than a little nervous about her seemingly unlimited magical abilities.

Still, the Institute is up to something terrible, and Nimona and Ballister are the only ones who can stop it. If only each could trust the other to really have their back.

A graphic novel with simple art style for first-time graphic novel readers, but plenty of details for those who are into the genre, Nimona blurs a lot of lines. Good and evil, power and corruption, monster and human, friend and enemy. Context matters here, and the twists of the story – written over a long span during its webcomic days – show that our smallest choices can affect which side we stand on.

Complicated and tense relationships between fangirl-ish and insecure (yet super powerful) Nimona; scientific, conflicted pacifist Ballister; and the melodramatic, changeable, yet good-hearted Sir Ambrosius fill in what could be a simplistic story. The almost-familiar plot gives a lot of solid pegs to hang questions on – is violence ever ok? Is revenge? Are good intentions enough?

Nimona is a quick-read, perfect for teens that are increasingly busy with homework and extracurriculars.

Pair With:

  • The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett – Both books have a bent toward the surprising, and a healthy dose of the magical to balance out the mundane. A traditional text novel, The Wee Free Men is a humorous take on a young girl’s growing up – and finding out she’s a witch. The Elf Queen has stolen Tiffany’s baby brother, and may also be plotting to overthrow the mortal realm. She teams up with the tiny, blue Scottish fairyland creatures the Wee Free Men – the only clan to cast of the Elf Queen’s influence. Another story about a young girl and her magic, this story fleshes out many of the questions that Nimona raises.
  • Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson – Can’t get enough shapeshifting? Really loved Stevenson’s artwork? Then I am happy to let you know that you can get both fixes with the Lumberjanes series. The first comic finds a group of five young women at a summer camp for “hardcore lady types,” and these girls certainly fit the bill (even Ripley’s love for adorable animals. But after they witness a woman turn into a bear, they start to search the woods for clues as to what’s really happening.

See if your library has it here.

STEAM Three Ways: Silly Putty

Neon Slime

Cover Image via PaperPolaroid.

Library staff are often crunched for time, particularly in the youth services department (although I may be biased here). To that end, getting the supplies and planning for a single science activity that can be used in multiple age groups has a real, measurable time and budget savings. It’s important that these activities not only be adaptable in practice, but also in interest level. So to kick off this new occasional blog feature, I thought I should start with something everyone loves: silly putty.

I have a love of making silly putty. It’s fun, it’s easy, and you can change it up to suit the lesson you’re trying to convey. I tend to use the very simple glue/Borax mix. (I know, I know, it’s not actually silly putty. I’ll address the chemical difference in the “Teen Program” section.)

Basic recipe:

– 1 8 oz bottle of Elmer’s glue (brand is weirdly important here)

– 1/2 cup warm water, supersaturated with Borax (just mix in Borax until it starts to settle out of the solution)

– a plastic bag

NOTE: I don’t ever measure it out as they do here. I tend to put some glue and some supersaturated Borax solution into a Dixie cup and stir. If it’s too hard, add more glue, if it’s too soft and sticky, add more Borax solution.

Preschool Program:

I used this silly putty for part of my color mixing curriculum. This recipe creates a white silly putty, but with a few quick drops of food coloring into the glue before adding the Borax, the kids saw how adding a bit of yellow to the red completely changed the color of their silly putty. After mixing it up initially, children can take their finished silly putty and mix it together. Create a batch of blue and a batch of yellow? Try to play with them together until you get some green putty. I’ve used homemade playdough for the same exercise, but this BOUNCES!

School Age Program:

My school age programs run grades 2-4 and 5-7. There’s a huge range of science knowledge here, so I tend to keep my explanations pretty basic to allow for differences in school curriculum.

So let’s talk simple science. The FAQs on the Elmer’s Glue site and this excerpt from Steve Spangler Science both use the spaghetti model of polymers:

In simplest terms, a polymer is a long chain of molecules. You can use the example of cooking spaghetti to better understand why this polymer behaves in the way it does. When a pile of freshly cooked spaghetti comes out of the hot water and into the bowl, the strands flow like a liquid from the pan to the bowl. This is because the spaghetti strands are slippery and slide over one another. After awhile, the water drains off of the pasta and the strands start to stick together. The spaghetti takes on a rubbery texture. Wait a little while longer for all of the water to evaporate and the pile of spaghetti turns into a solid mass — drop it on the floor and watch it bounce.

Polyvinyl Acetate and Borax reaction
An illustration of the PVA (glue) and Borax reaction. © The University of Edinburgh

I haven’t ever actually used spaghetti to illustrate this point, but depending on the program, you may want to. The reason why Elmer’s glue is sticky are the polymer chains it contains, and this illustration really clearly demonstrates how these polymer chains behave when they are lubricated (the wet glue in the bottle) and when they are dry (the solid, bouncy lump of spaghetti).

It may take students a bit to understand this, depending on their grade level. Words like “molecule” and “element” might be beyond some of the younger students, so creating a glossary can be helpful.

For this age group, I often have them try to see if they can make a batch of “gak” – really stringy, liquidy putty, and a bouncy ball. Students can experiment with different ratios of glue to Borax solution, and might discover a few more tricks about how to make the solution more solid. For instance, the more you mix a batch of silly putty, the harder it will get. Want to know why, or have curious school age kids who do? Check out the teen program below.
Teen Program:

Silly putty is great for a low-key program or a planned science class. Low key allows them to just work out their over-scheduled lives with a toy they probably had as kids. It feeds into the maker mentality because they made the thing they used to have to buy, as well as reinforcing the engineering design process as they try to make the silly putty just the right consistency. If you want hard science though, here’s what makes our Elmer’s/Borax silly putty tick.

Louisiana State University has a great explanation (with graphics!) of what’s happening:

Elmer’s Glue is made up of polyvinyl acetate, which reacts with water to some extent to replace some of the acetate groups with OH (alcohol) groups. The B-OH groups on the borax molecules react with the acetate groups on the glue molecules (relatively long polymer chains) to eliminate acetic acid and form new bonds between the borax and two glue molecules. The linking of two glue molecules via one borax molecule is called polymer cross-linking and it makes a bigger polymer molecule, which is now less liquid-like and more solid.

A model of polyvinyl acetate, the reactive ingredient in the Elmer’s glue.           Copyright © Azim Laiwalla, UCLA SEE-LA GK-12 Program, University of California, Los Angeles

…Many of these borax cross-links occur to “glom” together many polymer molecules turning them into a pliable solid “silly putty”. This really isn’t the silly putty you buy in the store, since it will dry out. Real silly putty is an organosiloxane polymer that doesn’t have any water in it so it doesn’t dry out.

Polyvinyl Acetate crosslinking  with Borax
Illustration and structural formula for the crosslinked Borax/Polyvinayl Acetate result. Copyright © CSACNAS Student Chapter at Texas State University

Get all that? If not, don’t worry – this explanation is about on par with my high school organic chemistry class (and required a lot of refresher before I understood it myself. Essentially, the strings of PVA “spaghetti” get held together by the Boron molecule, holding them in place. The more places that the Boron connects PVA chains, the sturdier the structure and the more solid the silly putty.

Try this activity to give teens (and school age groups, if they’re advanced enough) a clearer picture of how the Borax binds the PVA, also from LSU:

Have about 6 groups of 4 students hold hands and form glue chains. Have them walk around the room. These are your PVA chains.

Then send out 6 individual students to act as borax molecules to grab onto two glue chains – one with each hand. Tell the glue chains that once they are grabbed onto by the borax students that they shouldn’t try to break free. This should result in all the glue chains being linked together by the borax molecules (students). Now that all the students are linked together they represent the more solid “silly putty” that was formed in the experiment. This is a rather good physical analogy to the chemistry going on.

Quick note: while I’ve used the term Polyvinyl acetate, the reaction with water in glue creates polyvinyl alcohol. Dr. Richard Barrans from the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at the Argonne National Laboratory put the difference between the two like this: “Poly(vinyl alcohol) is a polymer with the repeating unit (CH2-CHOH). Polyvinyl acetate is similar, except that it has an acetic acid ester in the place of the alcohol group: (CH2-CHOCOCH3). Polyvinyl alcohol is actually made from polyvinyl acetate, by cleaving the acetate ester.”  Down to brass tacks, both PVAs make our silly putty.

Interesting to note that the side effect of this reaction is the creation of acetic acid, which, when diluted, is better known as white vinegar. This can lead to further experimentation with acids/bases in your silly putty. For instance, what happens if you mix baking soda into it? Will it bubble and fizz like a baking soda/vinegar volcano?

Wrap up

Have other ideas for making this silly putty recipe appeal to various ages? Let me know. My library does class structures for a lot of the STEAM programs, so explanations and iterative experimentation are important. How do you do STEAM at your library? Any STEAM activities you wish you had better explanation for, or knew how to use with other age groups?

Audiobook Review: Museum of Thieves

Museum of Thieves Book Cover

I can’t be alone in searching IMDB to find out who starred in my favorite things. I recently did this for Dragon Age. One of the voice actor’s in that series – Claudia Black, who voices Morrigan – branched into recording children’s audiobooks. Her first voiced series is The Keepers by Lian Tanner. Conveniently, my library owned the first book, The Museum of Thieves, and I have a long enough commute to crank through it. I’m guilty of sitting in my car longer than necessary, just to squeeze in a few more minutes.

Museum of Thieves is a great middle grade pick in the line of The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman or The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone – magic and mystery abound at quite a fast pace. The cast of characters is vast but memorable, and made more memorable by the distinctive voices used by Claudia Black. We are introduced to the city of Jewel, and to Goldie, a 12-year-old girl who wants nothing more than to finally be Separated. Children in Jewel are vastly overprotected, literally always attached to an adult or their bed via a chain tied to their wrists.

Jewel is a city that has resolutely pushed every dangerous thing away. Dogs might bite. Standing water might carry the plague. Children alone might get carried off by pirates. Little by little, Jewel has conquered their little corner of the world. But wildness will not be tossed aside so easily. In the tiny Museum of Dunt live all the wild forces that Jewel refuses to believe still exist. Most of all, inside the Museum is magic.

As Goldie learns about the Museum and the uses of wildness, she also learns of a truly terrible plan to destroy Jewel. Only the Keepers of the Museum can save the city – but only if the terrified citizens of Jewel will let them.

A very compelling book to listen to, with characters that leap out of the speakers. Black draws out characters both lovable and despicable – keep an ear out for Guardian Hope and Sinew, whose tones are unmistakable.

If my library didn’t already own this, we would soon.

UPDATE: Random House has a site for The Keepers Trilogy with games, character bios, and even lessons from the Keepers! Well worth a look at this companion site.