Hooking tweens with D&D

Library fantasy game sessions and other offerings —after-hours laser tag, anyone? — are a hit

  • Since the program’s launch last year, attendance at Lilly Library’s weekly sessions has grown from a handful to as many as 24 players, like (from left) John McVey, 13, Holden Davidson, 12, Reid McVey, 13, Grace O'Day, 12 and Ada Griffin, 13. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John McVey, 13, left, and Holden Davidson, 12, play Dungeons and Dragons at Lilly Library in Florence. “More than anything, we want kids to feel ownership over the space,” explains Sarah Hertel-Fernandez, Lilly’s young adult assistant, who notes that the club meets when the library is closed to the public, allowing the kids private access to the entire second floor. “All of our current programming has come out of conversations with the kids themselves.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stefani Laflamme, who works as a dungeon master for Dungeons and Dragons at Lilly Library in Florence, talks to Sam Robbins, 11, during a game, Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

  • Stefani Laflamme, who works as the so-called Dungeon Master, prompts players as they collaborate on their imaginative adventure. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stefani Laflamme, top right, who works as a dungeon master for Dungeons and Dragons at Lilly Library in Florence, talks to Ivan Harder, 10, from left, Astra Stathis-Lowe, 9, Stuart Hawley, 12, and Sam Robbins, 11, during a game, Wednesday, June 19, 2019.

  • Stuart Hawley, 12, plays Dungeons and Dragons. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dutcher Kimball, front, and Sebastian Miller, both 12, play Dungeons and Dragons. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Holden Davidson, 12, left, and John McVey, 13, play Dungeons and Dragons, Wednesday, June 19, 2019 at Lilly Library in Florence.

  • Reid McVey, 13, from left, Grace O'Day, 12, and Ada Griffin, 13, play Dungeons and Dragons, Wednesday, June 19, 2019 at Lilly Library in Florence.

  • Mia Cabana, who is the head of youth services at Jones Library in Amherst, talks to Sam Kalman, 13, from left, Matthew Owen, 14, James Owen, 14, and others at the start of laser tag, Friday, June 21, 2019 at the library. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • James Owen, 13, tries out his laser tag gun while resting his arms on a table before the start of a game at Jones Library in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Joanna Galman, 13, plays after-hours laser tag at Jones Library in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Josephine Rasche, 12, from left, Sam Kalman, 13, Matthew Owen, 14, and James Owen, 14, get ready for a laser tag game, Friday, June 21, 2019 at Jones Library in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Matthew Owen, 14, plays laser tag, Friday, June 21, 2019 at Jones Library in Amherst. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 6/25/2019 3:13:45 PM

How can today’s libraries engage a generation of kids that has grown up surrounded by the relentless stimulation of digital media? At Florence’s Lilly Library, one route to success has come not through more technology but with the help of a relic from the days of rotary phones, rabbit-ear TV antennas and handwritten letters: the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, the very same Dungeons and Dragons that helped introduce nerd culture in the late 1970s and 80s is now winning new enthusiasts among the library’s 8-to-13-year-old demographic. Since the program’s launch last year after the closing of Modern Myths, which hosted games, attendance at the two-hour weekly sessions, held Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., has grown from a handful of kids and one adult facilitator — the so-called Dungeon Master — to as many as 24 players.

The cost — $75 for six weeks — pays for the facilitators. The program’s success reflects the continuing popularity of the fantasy genre (thank you, J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin) but also spotlights what libraries are discovering as a key to reaching teens and tweens, namely providing space and programming that connects to kids’ creative interests.

“More than anything, we want kids to feel ownership over the space,” explains Sarah Hertel-Fernandez, Lilly’s young adult assistant, who notes that the Dungeon and Dragons club meets when the library is closed to the public, allowing the kids private access to the entire second floor.

“Public libraries are community spaces for all ages, but they can sometimes seem daunting or stuffy. So all of our current programming has come out of conversations with the kids themselves. We want it to be a space where kids feel safe having fun — the particular kind of fun that works best for them.”

To that end, Lilly also hosts sessions of the fantasy-inspired card game Magic: The Gathering and plans to soon launch a fantasy book club. And to keep the ideas coming, the library has created a young adult advisory board. “It’s an opportunity for kids who are interested in the library to become leaders and decide what types of materials we buy for young adults, what events we host, and how the library can best reach the community,” Hertel-Fernandez explains. “And, again, it comes back to having the kids think of the library as their space.”

At the Jones Library in Amherst, the weekly Teen Lounges, held during the school year on Friday afternoons and early-release days, serve a similar purpose. The Jones — which gets consistent student foot traffic thanks to its proximity to the middle and high schools — sets aside a large meeting room for teens and tweens, offering a movie to watch, tables for doing homework, phone chargers, and snacks (courtesy of the Friends of the Library group). With its low-key, no-expectations vibe, the Lounge attracts two dozen to as many as fifty kids each week. In addition to providing a safe space, “it’s a good springboard for us to introduce other library services that kids may not know about,” explains Mia Cabana, head of youth services.

Those other services at the Jones include teen-focused programming such as comic-drawing workshops, after-hours basement laser tag, and, yes, occasional sessions of fantasy role-playing games, though not Dungeons and Dragons. One that was a hit recently is called Goat Crashers, Cabana recalls. “You go through this role-playing scenario as a goat that’s trying to get into a party. It takes about two hours to play, as opposed to a more involved D&D campaign, and while it still involves character creation and role-playing, it’s a more streamlined experience. It sounded hilarious and there was a lot of uproarious laughter.”

For Cabana, the appeal of creative and collaborative social programming among her teen patrons speaks to the changing nature of storytelling today, and what libraries can do to tap into that. “What I’ve learned from the kids is that their lives of reading and storytelling certainly involve books, but also so much more,” she explains. “It’s about fan worlds that are created online, it’s about games like Dungeons and Dragons where they get to be their own storytellers and really participate in a narrative and get really passionate about characters that they create. The Teen Lounge has really been a nice place to see kids coming together to have those conversations or to share that type of enthusiasm.”

Lilly’s Hertel-Fernandez agrees, noting that she has seen how Dungeons and Dragons can be a gateway experience that opens up new literary worlds for kids. “I find there’s a big overlap between the kids who, say, play Dungeons and Dragons or are interested in Magic: The Gathering, and those who are really devouring fantasy of all kinds,” she says. “There’s also been a renewed interest in mythology. During D&D, kids will run up and ask to check out books. I’ll find them literally sprawled on the floor, nose buried in the graphic novel ‘Nimona’ or the manga ‘Fullmetal Alchemist.’ ”

All of which suggests fantasy as a genre and Dungeons and Dragons in particular have come a long way from the game’s early days, when fundamentalist groups claimed the game celebrated the occult and newcomers were often perplexed by the extensive rules, improvisational gameplay, and 20-sided die (newer editions, sold by Wizards of the Coast, are much simpler, and last year the game sold more units than ever before). “This renaissance of D & D has opened it up to everyone,” says Hertel-Fernandez. “It’s not as intimidating as it once was. Once you actually witness the game, especially among kids, you realize that it’s about storytelling, about developing characters and relationships and collaborating on a story together. I can’t think of a more wholesome activity.”

Jonathan Adolph of Amherst is the former editor of FamilyFun magazine and author of “Mason Jar Science” (Storey Publishing).




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