Staff Spotlight: Becky Keen on Tournament of Books 2021

HCPL’s yearly competitive teen book club Tournament of Books wrapped up last month, and like everything that has happened in the last year or so, it was definitely different than what we are used to. But as we have been navigating how to serve our community during COVID, we have seen incredible creativity and ingenuity from our HCPL staff. Becky Keen, the young adult librarian here at the Lone Star College-Tomball Community Library, did a fantastic job in making the first fully virtual iteration of Tournament of Books a massive success, so I wanted to interview her and share some of her insights into how HCPL is still making a difference even with our doors closed. I’ve edited her responses a bit for length and clarity.

What was your role in Tournament of Books 2021?

Becky: My role was to find participants aged 14 and up who would then form our branch teams…I contacted the Principal and English Chair at a high school in Spring ISD (Independent School District) - they were very interested, and we ended up with over 30 of their freshman students participating!

What were the challenges of doing Tournament of Books virtually?

Becky: Getting participants was incredibly difficult for all the HCPL branches, including ours. Many of our YA patrons here at Tomball have a strong interest in other YA [events], such as anime and gaming, but not necessarily reading. Also, many students are already facing unique challenges this past year without the additional responsibilities of the Tournament and reading list. We had almost no signups as the December book party date drew closer, so I extended my reach far and wide and found a school who was interested!

Several virtual author talks were held with writers whose works were on the Tournament of Books 2021 reading list, and you got to host one of them. Can you tell us what that was like?

Becky: I was honored, excited, and nervous to host the second author livestream event with Tobly McSmith and Leah Johnson! The event was a fantastic experience - one that I will never forget and a definite highlight of my time working for HCPL so far.  I had read both of their books early on in the Tournament and couldn't say enough positive things about them. Leah and Tobly were warm and funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed the hour-long discussion and Q&A. Many of the audience questions were from the students participating in Tournament of Books, and some even based their final answers in the championships on Leah and Tobly's books!

What are you most proud of from Tournament of Books 2021?

Becky: One of the things I am most proud of on a personal level is my determination to find participants and my success in this area. As I have mentioned earlier, this was a significant challenge during this year's virtual Tournament for all branches. The knowledge that so many students benefitted from this experience and would participate again in the future is wonderful. I am also thrilled that the students - and their teachers - have a positive connection to HCPL and are connected to our virtual library and other resources!

(Cont.): I am also incredibly proud of all the student participants - their dedication, teamwork, and insightful answers during the final championship are a testament to their character. I am glad they found points of resonance in the books that spoke to their identities, lives, and issues they faced. They were able to use their voices and articulate themselves in a way that showed incredibly maturity and depth of character.

Many thanks to Becky, Anjela Martinez, the Tournament of Books 2021 authors, and everyone who participated in the competition for making this year’s Tournament of Books a success despite the challenges! Be sure to check it out and keep an eye open for next year’s Tournament of Books!

This blog was written by Elizabeth B. and first appeared April 2021.