“Growing up, my sister and I were massive bookworms.” Anna Gabriella Casalme founded Novelly to combine a personal love of reading with a desire to create a safe place for youth to have meaningful conversations.
Novelly is a civic-minded book club for youth centered on a mobile reading app. The Novelly team curates a collection of stories centered on a social issue, embedding learning and interactivity in the stories to spark critical thinking and empathy. Youth read and discuss the stories, and journal their thoughts and impressions in the app.
In this case study, we’ll share the story of how Novelly was started and developed, and describe how it exemplifies the four guiding principles of the Spaces of Refuge series of case studies: meet youth where they are, tailor to diverse groups and ages, build connections between existing assets, and tap youth agency and peer-to-peer support.
The Spaces of Refuge series highlights organizations, technologies, and programs that leverage social and digital media to support mental health and wellbeing for vulnerable youth, and embody the following guiding principles:
1. Meet Youth Where They Are: Too often, experts and adults have designed technologies and programs only to struggle to have youth, particularly minoritized youth, engage with them. Youth populations that innovators are seeking to serve should be involved from the start, with their interests, practices, and lived experience informing and driving the development and deployment of new efforts.
2. Tailor to Diverse Groups and Ages: Youth are often described as a monolithic group, even though we know that young people’s backgrounds and interests are just as diverse as we see in the adult world. Approaches must be tailored to and draw from the needs and assets of specific populations and communities in order to arrive at equitable solutions.
3. Build Connections Between Existing Assets: Despite an explosion of apps and online content for mental health, wellbeing, and self-care, the evidence is clear that vulnerable youth are not connecting to these assets. The critical gap in the ecosystem is the connection, translation, and tailoring of expert content and wellbeing resources for vulnerable youth, where and when they need them.
4. Tap Youth Agency and Peer-to-Peer Support: Youth leadership, knowledge, and lived experience in supporting each other in times of distress, amplifying positive practices, and working against toxicity online, are generally not considered in the design of wellbeing apps and interventions, even when they are intended for youth. Tapping youth agency and expertise is critical, particularly with technology-intensive interventions that require youth buy-in and engagement.
Reflecting on the path that led to the design of Novelly, Casalme said, “It’s hard to be a teenage girl! I remember that talking about books with my friends gave us a way to talk about mental health without really talking about it. Bullying, racism, sexism, healthy relationships—we covered it all as we discussed our favorite books.”
While Casalme was an undergrad at Stanford, she woke up one Sunday morning to learn that fellow student Brock Turner had been arrested for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman close to where she lived. She started having conversations with fellow students about consent for the first time. When she sat down with her younger sister and her classmates, they openly wondered if they would be sexually assaulted after they left for college.
Casalme says, “I realized that the seemingly intractable issues of our time would stay intractable if we cannot even bear to talk about them with young people.”
She centered her Education Honors Thesis on a middle school class that read Wonder by R. J. Palacio. She asked: How can we create inclusive classrooms? Can a children’s book create a space where middle school students can talk about disability in a thoughtful and inclusive way? She found that youth connected with the character and relatable plot, and that discussing the emotions and universal experiences in the book gave youth the language to talk about topics that would otherwise be very intimidating.
Casalme continued on a path of leveraging reading for connection among young people. She started a local in-person book club at school; she started a Facebook group. “I knew that there was a certain young person who cares about books and can really grow from this environment. It’s a small group, but they need it.”
While Casalme was in grad school, she responded to an open call from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They asked for proposals that would completely reimagine civic education and social-emotional learning for young people, and her application was selected. She notes that as she began moving through the funding process, the evaluation committee was very supportive of her as a person, and were excited by an idea that was coming from the affected community.
In 2020 Calsame and Novelly were selected for the Headstream Accelerator, which focuses on digital solutions for young people in the social tech, ed-tech, and digital health sectors. Like Calsame and Novelly, Headstream seeks to integrate youth voices as they build social technologies that allow youth to connect meaningfully, mobilize, find support, learn, and play.
Headstream Director David Ball says, “A young person has many experiences in digital places: they’re making friendships, growing up, developing social skills. Key moments of life are happening in these spaces, and the infrastructure doesn’t seem to have been built to meet those needs or wants of young people themselves. Through the Headstream Accelerator, we have an opportunity to support entrepreneurs and innovations like Anna and Novelly who are building those types of digital places and experiences.”
Meet Youth Where They Are
Casalme says she sees some downsides in the prevalence of technology for young people: they feel chaos; there’s pressure because they have access to an enormous amount of information; they’re dismayed because negative or inflammatory information is what gets circulated the most. “Ignorance is bliss,” she says. “For example, I didn’t know what was happening in Syria when I was in high school. Now, kids have information overload because they know so much about everything.” Kids are also feeling isolated. “Online social interaction could lead to deep connection, but for many it doesn’t.”
Novelly begins with a recognition of these youth experiences online, as well as their love of literature, and it creates a unique space of refuge for recovery and healing. Novelly intentionally focuses on stories as a way to process information. Students start that processing online, but the goal is to have them consider ideas, start a conversation, connect with people, and have in-person, meaningful discussions.
Throughout the development of Novelly, Calsame continually sought input from middle and high schoolers in her target audience. “When you’re building something for someone, that someone should be heavily involved in the process,” she says. She put out a recruitment call to high school students through Americorps, as well as friends and colleagues with connections to other organizations that work closely with youth. Her team took six months for research and evolution of the idea before they even started the app. They talked to “tons of kids,” conducting interviews and focus groups and brainstorming to understand their needs and the issues they were facing.
“Novelly is one of the most user-centered innovations we’ve seen,” says Ball. “They excel at utilizing young people to inform both the content that’s created and the way that the content is delivered. The way that the community is built around that content provides an outlet for conversation, discovery and agency in a space where information is often only flowing in one direction.”
Tailor to Diverse Groups and Ages
Casalme’s core inspiration was the 15-year-old version of herself: thoughtful, sensitive, caring, and introverted—but still with a strong desire to connect, listen, and empathize with other people’s stories. Even though she was close in age and mindset to the students, she acknowledges that she was still a bit removed. She says, ”Sometimes the things you personally love do not resonate with the potential users.” In order to tailor the experience to the needs of teens, she continues to seek input from young people.
Casalme’s first proposal was based on herself and her own experience, but she leaned on the students completely to shape Novelly, and she says that’s the absolute best thing she could have done:
It helped me understand my blind spots; I realized that I’m reflective of that type of person, but it’s insane how much has changed in a short amount of time…Social media when I was young was you and your friends…Kids today use social media to get informed, share themselves and their expression; they’re making money as influencers…Digital life bleeds into day to day so much more now. Young people read differently too. They generally aren’t just reading books, they’re on Wattpad, Tumblr, and Medium.
Staying true to her vision of supporting bookish, sensitive teens has meant staying informed about a changing landscape of technology and teen experience.
Build Connections Between Existing Assets
The unique vision of Novelly hinges on connecting different assets and interests in young people’s lives in order to foster well-being, learning, and social awareness. Novelly connects platforms and content that young people engage in for fun with educational settings and social-emotional learning. Casalme describes Novelly as “education-adjacent” and exploring learning broadly as a holistic journey. This means staying continuously connected and responsive to what is happening across varied settings in young people’s lives.
The social awakening happening in the country throughout 2020 offered an opportunity to connect to youth leadership and activism. In addition to the app, Novelly runs two youth leadership programs: the Speak! Leadership Academy and the Rising Voices Collective. Students chosen for the Leadership Academy are trained to use the app to start conversations locally, ultimately connecting with others to plan events in schools or local communities, and using the stories they publish as a way to spark social change.
Students are selected for the Rising Voices Collective by submitting poems and other writing. They receive mentorship from authors, have their work published in the app, win prizes, and go on a press tour. When asked about the success of the program and the students involved, Casalme said it makes her “incredibly proud, impatient, and wanting to do more.”
Before launching a community feature within the app, Novelly is testing community with youth on other platforms. A Discord channel provides another mechanism for youth discussion and interaction. There, students are discussing everything from new books and movies to a controversial ad that plays into gender stereotypes. The channel is moderated by Novelly staff; that process is evolving carefully. “There’s a lot that comes up that we didn’t anticipate,” says Casalme. “How do you handle conflict when people post things that aren’t relevant or things that are overt? There’s a lot of gray area that doesn’t violate community guidelines, but makes everyone uneasy. That’s where a lot of our growth and learning is happening, as we determine when to shut it down, and when to let it run its course.”
Good new ideas come 50-50 from participating youth and the staff. Casalme acknowledges, “We’re young, but there are newer platforms and the kids help with things like that. Discord, Tik Tok—the students know we’re listening so they just send ideas, saying ‘You guys should do this, or we really need that’—and they’re good ideas!”
Tap Youth Agency and Peer-to-Peer Support
The initial plan was for librarians, English teachers, Girl Scout troop leaders, and other adult leaders to use Novelly to integrate civics and social-emotional learning into their day-to-day programming. Moving through the pandemic brought some clarity to that vision. Casalme previously staked a lot of growth on educators and adults, but suddenly a lot of adults were dealing with too much confusion and change in their standard programming, so they had to hold off on implementing Novelly.
The organization shifted and started to connect with middle and high school students themselves. Casalme says, “We’ve found our love in those direct connections.” Now, they plan to hone in on that way of connecting with students. They are now also bringing college students into the mix, which provides pathways for older students to be involved and lead conversations on social issues. They now recognize that a youth-driven pathway is the best path moving forward.
Students exceed Casalme’s high expectations constantly. “It’s so inspiring. They’re starting initiatives and running campaigns, coming along from quiet, shy, and introverted to making a difference. It’s exciting to see students come into their own, to see that they are motivated and have power and are important, at the same time being curious and kind. It’s lovely to see a new type of leader emerge.”
– Katie* organized a walkout among girls in her school to protest the dress code.
– Chanel* was first a student participant, went to college, then came back as an intern and coach to help others.
– Kara* was recognized by the U.N. for her work with girl refugees.
– Cathy* is being flown to Washington DC to talk about her work with foster youth.
*Names changed to protect student privacy.
“And there are many more!” Casalme exclaims. “This is what happens when you tell people that what they care about matters and that they have the power to do something great.”
Next Steps and Lessons Learned
Casalme hopes to build more geographic diversity and have Novelly students in middle and high schools all over the country. They’re working to engage students who aren’t already at a high baseline and who might be less aggressive about getting engaged.
In addition, sustainability is key. Novelly is diversifying to ensure that they’re not only reliant on grants. They have brought on some well-aligned corporate sponsors who are very excited about engaging with students who are writing, creating, and leading important discussions. And instead of trying to scale through partnerships or influencers, they’ve invested in their students and are taking a grassroots approach to growth.
Some of Casalme’s obstacles to growth and sustainability are common, such as trying to do a lot with very few resources. She says that fundraising can be hard because this isn’t a traditional program. “It’s a very digitally-driven, youth-driven effort, so the system is difficult. The system favors having the organization choose topics the kids talk about, not the other way around. It’s hard to be truly youth-driven and to focus on digital efforts when that’s not what they’re used to. But it’s the right thing to do.”
She encourages others trying to make a difference with youth to do the same: talk to them. “They know more about how young people are using the internet than we do. They know more about digital community, cancel culture, and what current challenges with the internet look like. Before you hire anyone, pursue funding, anything; work with the group of youth you want to support throughout your process.”
Casalme says, “I want to be at the intersection and bringing together lots of disciplines. Young people are whole people. They interact with complex systems and ecosystems: social, environmental, interpersonal; all these relationships matter to their wellbeing. At Novelly, we think about how students interact with each other and how those discussions can change their hearts and minds or affect their development.”