By Wendy M. McDonald
In 2010, as my daughters finished first grade, I realized there was a huge difference in their reading abilities. Hermione was a voracious, confident reader, but Luna clung to her Step-one readers. Witnessing her twin zip through the Geronimo Stilton series and anything else she could find, Luna felt jealous and more than a little hopeless. She had a collection of books she wanted to read, but was too afraid to try. The letters were too tiny. There were few—or no—illustrations. The long blocks of text may as well have been Mt. Everest.
I decided that not being able to read at grade level—yet—was no reason for Luna to not enjoy the stories that interested her. I would read to her, and she could read ahead whenever she wanted. But wouldn’t it be even better if a bunch of Luna’s friends read (or heard) the same book and I got the kids together to talk about it, just like a regular book club?
If you’d like to start your own kids’ or teen’s book club, I offer these tips based on what I’ve learned during my seven years leading a successful group.
How to get started
Two books gave me the courage to move forward:
Their models were more complex than what I had in mind, but my daughters were immediately on board. They chose Guardians of Ga’Hoole: The Capture as the first book, and I emailed all their friends, inviting them to join us for a monthly book discussion. Though I did my best to keep potential members’ schedules in mind, ultimately I chose the day and time that fit my schedule best.
Some of our members, like Luna, have learning disabilities or special needs. It doesn’t matter to me if kids read the book, listen to the audiobook, or have a parent read it aloud. I just want them to invest themselves in the story and come prepared to tell me what they think. Look for books available in alternative formats and let your members know how to find them. Also consider library availability: extremely popular books may have long wait lists, but niche books or undiscovered gems may not be available at your local branch.
A little control is a good thing
Our first year was rocky. I set the age range too wide and made the mistake of giving the kids full control over book selection. Most books were meaty enough for discussion, but one had a bland inciting incident, weak tension, and a lackluster climax. (Even if a book falls flat, the discussion can be salvaged: have readers talk about why they didn’t connect with the book.)
Now I keep a running list of recommended books and recent age-appropriate Newbery and National Book Award contenders and winners. Each spring, I type those titles into a search engine and see what else comes up with similar themes. I pull together a list of 40 to 50 titles, provide a synopsis for each (usually the back cover blurb), and have the members rank their top ten books. Then I work some magic to ensure everyone gets at least one book they voted for, and fill in the holes with other high-ranked or topical titles. But I cater my list to the diverse interests of our members. Go easy on yourself: consider how many meetings you’ll have in a given year (our group has 10), and make certain your list of suggested books is at least twice that.
Preparing discussion questions
You could request each child come prepared to ask a question about the book, though I found those questions tended to be fact-based and did not prompt substantive discussion. Be prepared to write the weightier questions yourself. At the end of this post is a simple chart to help you design questions that will spur thought-provoking discussion. The chart is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, a developmental tool teachers use to grow children’s critical thinking skills.
When writing questions for your book club discussion, start by making certain the kids understand the book on a factual level (like character relationships and major plot points). Questions should then move toward more complex thought processes (drawing conclusions based on evidence in the story, analyzing plot pacing, or comparing and contrasting characters from different books) and eventually to judgment and creative output (agreeing or disagreeing with a character, or offering alternative solutions for the character’s dilemma).
Older teens can be responsible for writing their own questions with the help of the same chart. The majority of their discussion questions should be similar to the “open response” type of prompts their teachers assign in order to give students practice backing up their opinions with facts and examples. Remember, the goal is to spark discussion, which means inviting members to share differing opinions.
Keep it fun...and flexible
Our meetings have a loose structure. When the kids were younger, I would guide the discussion for 20 to 30 minutes, then break for snacks and social time. Early on, I also took special care to match the snack to the book. For Pippi Longstocking, we baked pepparkakaor (Swedish spice cookies). For Mr. Popper’s Penguins, we brought in a tray of fresh sushi. Now that I’ve got a gaggle of teenagers, snacks are usually chips and cookies. They take turns reading discussion questions and talking about the book without my interference, then play card games while they nosh and hang out.
Our book club is now in its seventh year and still going strong. We regularly incorporate graphic novels into our reading list, as well as a horror or high-tension selection every October and at least one banned or challenged book each year. But that’s our group, and those choices have come about based on the interests of our members. In today’s busy world full of technological distractions, the one thing my kids never want to drop is book club. It’s become a low-stress, low-tech chance to connect with their friends that they count on every month.
I hope it can be for your kids, too.
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Wendy M. McDonald
In the fourth grade, Wendy once got in trouble for reading in class. She spent her childhood wishing she could be Meg Murry, Lucy Pevensie, Harriet M. Welsch, or Turtle Wexler. Since that wasn’t feasible, she made up bizarre stories with her spelling words and wrote horrendously clunky poetry, instead.
Currently penning darkish stories in the garret of her New England home, Wendy is an active member of SCBWI and The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn. When not writing (or reading!), she watches science fiction and fantasy shows with her geeky husband and daughters, argues with her beagle, and knits socks. Her short stories appear in two anthologies: Chaosium’s ONCE UPON AN APOCALYPSE (“Mary Had a Little Limb” under the pseudonym Wendy Dabrowski) and FIRSTS: The Writers’ Loft Anthology (“First Comes Love”).