Libraries, Literacy & Positive Youth Development

Statement of Need: The Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention estimates that  the reading level of incarcerated youth nationally is fourth grade. According to the national nonprofit group America’s Promise, determining how many beds will be needed for prison facilities is obtained by examining the reading scores of 3rd graders. We also know that free and independent reading has been identified as the number one factor in increasing literacy levels. Jennifer Sweeney in her book Literacy: A Way Out for At-Risk Youth (2012) further identifies that reading assists at-risk youth in:

  • developing and improving consequential thinking/decision making
  • preparing for success
  • increasing life skills
  • exercising freedom of choice



The ability for young people to improve their literacy skills by having easy access to a collection of appropriate and relevant reading materials that addresses their 7 informational needs  -social self, emotional self, reflective self, physical self, creative self, cognitive self, sexual self (Hughes-Hassell & Agosto, 2006) and 3 core needs of ownership, respect (positive reflection of self and culture) and immediacy (Cheney, 2007) is a cornerstone of positive youth development. This is a fundamental way for youth to engage daily in independent learning,  positive social development, positive room time and participation in democracy within the  detention setting.

Recommended Response: 

Amy Cheney, along with directing the national award winning library and literacy program Write to Read at Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, is an independent consultant. She has served the underserved for over 25 years including adults in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users and people of color. In 2008 she was awarded the National I Love My Librarian! award from the New York Times/Carnegie Corporation. The program under her direction was honored by the White House Arts and Humanities award for at-risk youth in 2006. She is the Co-founder of Libraries Services for Youth in Custody website and the founder: in the Margins Book Selection Committee which assists librarians across the country in finding relevant, positive books for reluctant readers and youth of color.


Before library services and programming began in the  Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center a survey was taken of the youth. Within one year, the same survey was done. The results:


2001 68% of the students said there were not any good books to read at the Center.

2002 This figure dropped to 5%.


2001 33% said they did not like to read.

2002  Only 3% made this claim.


2001 87.5% said it was not easy to get books to read at the Center. 

2002 Only 6% report this.


2001  81% had never heard a published author speak before incarceration.

2002 After an author visit, a full 60% wanted to read more books by the authors they had seen, and 63% said they learned something from the visit. 


In order to assist each site with this fundamental of positive youth development – providing the best services and books for students in the detention setting –  Amy Cheney is able to conduct site visits, assess current services and book collections based on national standards and best practices, provide recommendations for areas of implementation or improvement, training, sustainability plan and evaluation. Services include and are not limited to:


• Best practices for libraries/books in Juvenile Detention facilities

  • Best books for reluctant readers

(95% of youth in detention are fundamentally reluctant readers)

  • Collection Development assistance for libraries already in existence, measuring if 7 informational needs are being met
  • Opening day collections for facilities without current library in place
  • Library improvements or library implementation plan, measuring if 3 core needs of youth are being met
  • Recommendations for community partnerships around books, reading and literacy
  • Training opportunities for administration and staff around books and literacy
  • Outcome measures and evaluation
  • Planning for sustainability

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