Photo: Jennifer Kendall, Lead Librarian, Youth Services at Prescott Public Library
Prescott Public Library Librarian Jennifer Kendall has become a familiar face at the Yavapai County Juvenile Justice School (YCJJS). Each month for the last eight years Kendall has visited the YCJJS to share her love of teen literature with residents. In the past year these visits have been virtual, using Zoom, but even in 2020, Kendall’s impact is felt.
School principal Marvy McNeese has been instrumental in making this partnership a success for students and reflected, “Jennifer has made readers out of both teens and adults in our facility.” Students also commented about the visits, “I like getting to know about different books,” and “I never read before coming to Juvie; Ms. J has helped me discover good books to read.”
Kendall says that a typical visit always consists of getting to know the teens with ice breakers like “If your life were a movie what genre would it be (comedy, horror, mystery)?” She says, “We’ve also talked about bucket lists and contemplated some silly and some serious “Would you rather” questions. Then we talk about reading and books.”
Teens who were neither raised with books in the home nor had adults who read to them as children, find it hard to enjoy reading. However, going to the juvenile detention school is a golden opportunity for a librarian to find that one book that might open the door and make a difference: to start reading with confidence, to learn empathy for characters like you and not like you, to find a way to escape from difficult issues into a fantasy world.
According to teacher Lori Stuckman, “The students always ask for any books dealing with teens/adults in juvie/jail/incarcerated, fiction or nonfiction, that show getting out and making it in society or at least surviving the ordeal. They like to relate with a character, and it gives them hope to see an ex-con become successful in life without crime, drugs, and gangs.”
Bringing authors to the YCJJS is yet another way that Kendall works to get teens excited about reading. Award-winning authors who write for young adults have Skyped or Zoomed with the YCJJS classes, including noted author Jack Gantos, who himself spent years in prison. In December, an author with an avid base of fans at the YCJJS, Alexander Gordon-Smith, Zoomed with the class from his home in London. The response was enthusiastic among students, “His belief of “just do it” helps me to get going on my goals.” All of these visits are funded through the Friends of the Prescott Public Library.
In 2019 the juvenile probation program Life Skills Enrichment Academic Program (LEAP) received clearance to bring small, supervised groups of youth who are on probation to the library to volunteer service hours. With a hiatus during the last year of the pandemic, LEAP visits the library once a month to help in the process of withdrawing books, cleaning the Rock Garden, and a variety of other services to help the library.
What’s the end goal for teachers and librarians? To foster a love of reading among incarcerated youth and to ensure they feel welcome at the library after they return to the community. “Over the years,” says Kendall, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised when a former YCJJS student says hi to me in the library.
Kendall and teacher Darlene Johnson met 11 years ago, talking at the library about how to reach incarcerated teens with books. “Who knew that one small conversation in the back stacks would lead to such a journey of satisfaction and change, for me personally and hopefully to the many juveniles who’ve passed through the doors of the Yavapai County Juvenile Justice School?” said Kendall. “As a librarian, there is no higher hallmark in my career as to know the books we are sharing are truly making a difference in a school or in a young person’s life.”