Santa Monica’s Teen Readers Society is busy building the next generation of bookworms

By Julia Escobar

Founder Judit Langh and TRS’s teen ambassadors use social media, contests and book giveaways to engage teens in reading

Since the late 1970s, the percentage of 12th graders who said they read a book or magazine almost every day for pleasure has dropped from 60% to 16%, according to a study published by the American Psychology Association.

With online schooling becoming the norm and COVID-19 creating an even larger socioeconomic gap between books and teens, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Teen Readers Society, a new Santa Monica-based nonprofit, is passionate about changing young adults’ reading habits. The nonprofit group has created the space and initiatives to get teenagers to fall back in love with reading through engaging programs and marketing.

Judit Langh, a mother of two teenagers, founded Teen Readers Society after she began to notice this lack of engagement with books for fun within her own household. Her daughters weren’t reading books for pleasure the way they used to when they were young children, even though they’re very bright and politically engaged individuals.

This prompted Langh to begin her endeavor to learn about this concerning decline, and eventually be a part of the change.

“I feel that there is a lot of emphasis on reading for younger children,” Langh says. “And there’s also numerous book clubs for middle-aged women, but really no emphasis on teenagers. Somehow this age group has been neglected.”

Langh explains that while adolescent students are expected to read mandatory books in school, they are also asked to take an analytical approach to the stories, making it almost impossible to get “lost in a book,” which is one of the joys of reading for pleasure. Lili Ignon, a teen herself and TRS’s Social Media and Campaign Manager, saw this decline among her own peers.

“I knew that it wasn’t just ‘a me’ problem,” Ignon says. “Especially my peers and my friends going to high school and being in classes such as AP Literature. People would have a hard time finding motivation to read.”

Reading isn’t seen as “trendy” nowadays, but there is no doubt that reading can have benefits beyond leisurely or escapist pleasure for one’s self. According to a research report published by the National Endowment for the Arts, 84% of proficient readers voted in the 2000 presidential election while only 53% of “below basic” readers voted.

With seven million Americans turning 18 every two years, Teen Readers Society’s initiative to reverse the decline in reading rates is relevant now more than ever, especially amidst a contentious election year. The sad reality of it is that the culture of reading books is disappearing; with the prominent growth of the internet and social media, books have a lot of competition.

“We want to bring reading into the new norm,” Ignon says. “There’s this stereotype that kids who read a lot of books nowadays, they’re the outsiders, loners or so-called ‘nerds’ because, unfortunately, teens have a big problem with image. We would like to change the narrative of reading and change the image of reading into something that is more positive for every other teen.”

And TRS is doing just that. Their most popular and successful campaign so far that directly brings books to teens is “Blind Date with a Book,” intended to introduce teens to a whole new world of literature through a mystery book. Teens fill out a Google form telling TRS about a book genre that interests them, and a book that fits that genre will be sent to the teen. With close to 200 requests for “Blind Date with a Book,” it brings hope and solace to the nonprofit that they can and are changing the narrative of reading for young adults.

“We always thought this idea would be popular, but the positive reactions and excitement evident in direct messages have exceeded our expectations,” Langh says. “We think this supports our idea that it is indeed entirely possible to get teens excited about books when this is done in a compelling way, here with an element of playfulness and mystery. It also tells us that there are many teens who do not have easy access to the books they want to read.”

TRS recognizes that being able to even purchase a book is a privilege, especially during the current financial insecurities caused by the coronavirus pandemic across the nation. “Wish to Read” is their second initiative to bring books to those who may not have the means to buy one. By partnering with independent bookstores, TRS will donate books to teenagers in any part of the country who reach out to them via their website asking for a book that they do not have access to free of charge.

Teen Readers Society is rooted in working to combat the negative narrative of reading for young adults by providing a multitude of ways to get them back into reading and using means to which teens are receptive.

TRS’s rapidly growing community on Instagram is reaching teens from all over the world at the click of a button. The account @teenreaderssociety (run by Ignon) is a haven for teens to explore all aspects and subjects through books. As you swipe through TRS’s feed, you’ll see a plethora of book recommendations on topics about which teens are passionate — from LGBTQ+ issues to black empowerment to sex, climate change and graphic novels. TRS even has teen ambassadors who share their favorite books and give brief descriptions about them.

Along with providing teens book recommendations, the group has created collaborative ways for teens to engage in conversations about books. Earlier this year, the group held an “Art through Literature” contest to which young visual artists could submit artwork inspired by books they had read. TRS’ IGTV series “Teen Book Chats” is also a space for anyone to talk about a book they absolutely love or maybe aren’t a big fan of to spark exciting conversations within the online teen community.

“It’s really important for other teens to read about other teens’ recommendations because ultimately if your friend recommends something to you, you’re going to take that a lot more to heart than if your mom or your dad did,” Ignon says.

TRS is also very globally aware of the books they recommend and the people they showcase. Their Instagram series of “What the World Reads” gives teens a glimpse of what other young adults are reading from around the world. Their global teen ambassadors from Brazil and France have recommended books that are typically read by teens from the literary canon of their home countries.

“We are trying to be very global,” Langh says. “We feel that it is such a global world and teenagers don’t really look at the world within countries anymore. We are embracing everyone from any country.”

More recently, TRS has focused its efforts closer to home, refocusing its book donation efforts to help teens who have lost or are losing their homes in California or Oregon wildfires. Through the help of a generous global publisher, Langh says, the organization “will be able to give out a large number (in the thousands) of books in these areas most affected by the fires.”

A writing contest for aspiring authors and a magazine for teens and young people interested in books, arts, culture, literature and travel are also in the works, along with initiatives focused on the mental health benefits of books and helping teens in less affluent areas whose education has been disrupted in 2020. TRS hopes in the future to partner with larger companies and brands with teenage demographics to embed books and reading into mainstream culture to reach more teens with their programs and campaigns. The primary goal is to make reading an empowering and expressive pursuit for teens.

“During these historic and turbulent times and with schools operating online, teens are hungry for engagement and opportunities to create and share their art,” says Langh. “We believe that teenagers do have the power, and it really works best if they take things in their hands. … So we’re trying to give them everything they need to create conversations to help themselves become better readers and drive others who are not readers and turn them into readers.”

Visit teenreadersociety.org to learn more or make a donation to the group’s fire relief book donation efforts. Follow @teenreaderssociety on Instagram to join the online community.

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