Why This Librarian Loves It When Teens Geek Out
Q: What do Harry Potter, Wonder Woman, and Steven Universe all have in common?
A: Hordes of teenage fans eager to share the love.
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And those characters are just a teeny tiny sample. The number of books, TV shows, manga series, YouTube channels, bands, etc. that command the attention of young eyes and ears is staggering. Lucky for them, there are also more ways than ever before to shout their feelings from the rooftops.
As a teen librarian, part of my job entails stoking these fandom fires by actively listening, asking questions, and making connections between teens’ current faves and what comes next. Outside of the library, I’ve found this also makes for a generally solid strategy when it comes to talking to tweens and teens in a way that makes them feel heard.
When I see a teen geek out, or become ever-so-slightly obsessed with certain characters or celebrities, I see an invitation to learn more about them through what they love. With that in mind, here are some basic tips for parents, teachers, or other adults interested in wading through the fandom waters with a teen in search of something deeper.
First off, what is a fandom?
For those unfamiliar, let’s cover some basics.
Fandom describes the community that surrounds certain books, TV shows, YouTubers, etc. Sometimes these enthusiasts go by special names like Whovians for Doctor Who, Potterheads for Harry Potter, or BeyHive for Beyoncé. But not every fan considers themselves part of the fandom. Like every other cultural subgroup that came before, there are many degrees of self-definition.
Fandom takes many forms (sharing quotes, sporting merchandise, general gushing), but among the most common for teens is shipping. Shipping is a recently-invented verb that refers to the hope that two characters will end up together in a romantic relationship (get it?). Back when Twilight was the rage, you would hear fans align themselves with Team Edward or Team Jacob. This is to say they shipped Edward and Bella or they shipped Bella and Jacob. But shipping does not have to be limited to relationships that are canon, i.e., stated explicitly in the text. There is a stalwart segment of Harry Potter fans that ship Harry and his Hogwarts rival Draco Malfoy. One YA author was even moved to create a fanfiction-inspired world where Harry and Draco’s counterparts actually do fall in love. For those interested, it’s Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On and it’s well worth a read.
With more and more outlets for teens and other fans to share their work, fanfiction or fanfic and fan art are an increasingly popular way to show love through creative expression. Sometimes these stories or art feature shipped pairings, sometimes they provide alternate endings, and sometimes they completely bend the original genre into something new. Some fans share their work with fellow community members by posting on Tumblr or sites like FanFiction.net, Livejournal, and Wattpad, which boast millions of users. Others may “lurk” or simply check out the work of other fans while not posting much themselves.
How do I talk fandoms?
If you get the sense that fandom has its own language, you’re not far off. But the good news is that most teens are willing to translate. A few tips for getting started:
When it comes to talking fandom, genuine interest is much more important than expertise. While I love to connect with teens over mutual interests, there are plenty of areas where my knowledge is shallow at best. After all, it’s impossible to keep up with everything.
The other day a teen told me she was getting into Skam, a Norweigan teen drama set in the wealthy borough of Frogner in West End Oslo. Had I ever heard of it before? Not at all. Was I very curious to know what made it awesome? Yes, please. So I asked and she answered. I learned that she loved the fact that there was a prominent Muslim character, gender diversity, and realistic (if exaggerated) issues reflected onscreen.
Asking specific questions can be helpful. For example, you might inquire about a character’s origin story, the backstory of a rivalry, or why certain characters belong together. Also, whenever possible, let teens show you why they love it. Letting them share a favorite scene, song, or YouTube clip can be a great way to be introduced and get a sense of the tone. You may even find yourself getting sucked in. Of course, this isn’t to say that the humor will always hit or the dialogue will always sparkle, but giving it your full attention matters. It sends a clear message that you respect the thing they love. If your teen dabbles in fanfic or fan art themselves, allowing them to share something they’ve made with you can be an even more meaningful gesture.
How can I use this newfound knowledge?
Knowing more about the fandoms that make your teen tick can help you stay attuned to opportunities for them to tap into these interests and connect with others. Along with annual events that may take place in your community like Free Comic Book Day (which happens on the first Saturday of May at comic book stores across the country), more and more libraries have events that celebrate fandoms through art, games, and activities. Some even host mini Comic Cons aimed specifically at teens and families! These forums not only celebrate and validate teen interests, but also give your local librarians a chance to better stock our collections. This increases the chance that the next graphic novels or series we suggest to them will spark a new passion.
And who knows? Perhaps the tables may turn and you will find your teen expressing interest in your own pop culture past. Sure enough, tapping into your inner fan/former teen self may inspire questions your teen never thought to ask you and stories you never thought to tell.