April 7, 2012

Hosting a successful book club

Poke around this website long or simply walk through my actual home once and it quickly becomes evident we are avid readers here.  Reading is a part of every day life for each member of this house.  To some it came naturally, to others it has been developed and for others it has at times simply been required :)  Still readers we all are.  

To encourage more reading in my kids and some of their peers I host monthly book clubs in my home.  My kids tried a variety of book clubs before I started hosting.  We found that many book clubs were simply social time with many of the kids having not actually read the book and fewer wanting to actually discuss it with any depth.   These traditional book clubs also tended to be very gender divided both in attendees and book topics. This really bothered Maria who loves fantasy and science fiction books and has good friends of both genders.  She could not find a girls fantasy book club or any book club with peers who also really wanted to dig down and discuss ideas and topics in the books.  So we started one here.

I have led a book club for Maria and several of her friends for over three years now.  I have read so many good books with great kids and have truly enjoyed our conversations and the way we learn together.  Through the years we have had between six and twelve attendees. The age span of our group is four years, when we started the kids ranged in age from 10 to 13 and now they are 11 through 15. Currently we have 12 kids who meet regularly evenly divided between boys and girls. Through the years there have been meetings with one boy and four girls or one girl and five boys.

I also lead a book club for Ciaran and some of his friends.  His group is made up of 6 boys ages 10-12. He just started last summer but the group seems to have developed nicely.  He tried for a co-ed group too but they only found one brave girl to join in the mix and eventually she moved on to other things.  For my son I think the all boy piece works nicely at this age for him, I may try to encourage more co-ed options later as he and his friends get older.  For now though they need the comfort of being just with each other and developing into readers together in a safe place with both they enjoy.

These two book clubs have many similarities.  Both groups meet once a month.  The kids pick the books each month and the older kids actually vote on which books to read and in what order.  Both groups tend to live in the fantasy and science fiction genre. I read the books along with them each month and I lead discussion with both groups.  Both have to have an hour of discussion before they get their hour of social time.

I never realized how easy leading book club was for me until I recently needed to ask some other people to help out and take over a month or two.  When I wrote out some discussion questions or found materials to help support the leaders I discovered how natural this process was for me and how unnatural it can be for others.  It is easy for me because I have done it so long and I know the kids and the patterns of what works and what does not work.  It is easy for me to lead because I am an avid reader and I love talking about books.  It is easy for me because I love teaching literature and I often do it in different ways like through the kids understanding of movies.   So I have decided to share some of my strategies.  There really is no secret formula for a successful book club other than enthusiasm but there are some tips that may make it easier for you.

Find Kids With Similar Reading Interests
This is important, perhaps the most important.  More important than age and gender is the reading habits and interest of the kids involved.  Maria needed to find avid readers, she wanted people who loved fantasy and would not be scared off by the size of the books she enjoys.  She needed to find peers who actually liked reading just for fun and would read series of books over the course of a single month.  In order to do this we sat down together and figured out what she wanted the group to look like and then we wrote a very detailed description of what our book club would look like so people joining us knew what they were getting into.  Then we sent that description out via email to groups and forums we were a part of and to her friends with similar interests.  We found a fairly diverse group of kids who all had the same interest in joining a fantasy book club that would read and discuss big books.  The first book we read was Eragon by Christopher Paolina.  The size and topic was a pretty good filter :)

When Ciaran started he knew he wanted a smaller group.  He wanted action and adventure with some fantasy and science fiction.  He knew Percy Jackson and the Olympians series was his baseline book.  If someone would enjoy that book they would probably have a lot of reading in common and enjoy a book club together.  We wrote up his description that way and reached out to his friends.  They would not be the same book club as Maria and they would read smaller books and only one per month.  Some in his group go on to read the series but we only read and discuss book one together.

So we started with the kids interest and built the book club around it.  We followed "If you build it they will come" and they have and it is quite harmonious.  The kids like reading the same sorts of books and trust each other to pick good selections.  They find new books and they also find new friends.

Let The Kids Pick
Discussion will always be deeper and better if the book came from the kids themselves.  Let them rotate choices between members or have all members suggest a book and then vote on them.  In all the time I have led discussions only once have I picked a book for them to read.  That book went over very well but it was years into our discussions and the kids trusted me by that point to pick something they would all love. Let them pick and be ready to read some diverse things yourself.

Have One Discussion Leader 
We have been to book clubs where the leading responsibility rotates and there are benefits to this as well.  However, I believe our book clubs have lasted so long and been successful because we always meet at the same place and have the same discussion leader.  I read the books alongside the kids.  I do not just read a summary of plot and find discussion questions on the internet, I read it and create my own discussion questions.  There has been one exception to this and the older kids had a grand time making up characters and plot lines to pull one over on me when they realized I had not read the book.  They were creative and cooperating which was fun but I don't think I will skip another book :) 

Having a single leader has the benefit of truly getting to know the kids and the way they discuss and approach books.  Having one leader lets you carry lessons from one book to the next and to build on discussion topics and understanding of literature from session to session.  Having one leader provides insight into the group dynamics and the best discussion strategies for the group. Of course the kids have to like the leader and the leader has to like the kids for it to work  It is similar to having one teacher over the course of a school year, much better than continual substitutes. 

Have Great Discussion Questions
Kids rise to the occasion.  If you ask great questions they will give you great answers.  I have had some of my most recent intellectual discussions with teenagers on the book The Hunger Games.  We have talked about politics, government, children used as soldiers, desensitizing violence, what love really is, and how we could survive ourselves if thrown into life or death situations.  When we discussed the book Ender's Game we talked about governments using children, being forced to grow up too quickly, carrying burdens of the world, deciding who gets to live and who gets to die, and the reality of war games.

Kids are capable of so much more than they are often given credit for.   Ask them tough questions, expect great answers, keep pushing them past their easy first off the cuff answers and you will be rewarded with great discussion.  In addition to the serious questions be sure to ask the fun ones.  Kids reveal so much about themselves answering questions like "What one piece of technology would you bring out of the book into your world?"  or "What character would you want as a best friend?" or even "Which piece of candy would you choose in the Candy Shop Wars?"  Some of the light questions, lead to great discussion as well and help the kids in the group get to know one another. 

Skip the Crafts
Perhaps this is biased because I am sort of the anti-crafter so have little talent in this area.  Still I have found the kids enjoy the discussion much more than doing a craft or hand project along side book discussion.  Crafts and book activities are a lot of prep work for the group leader and I have rarely found they add more to the book or a kids understanding of it past about second grade.  They also tend to be a distraction from group discussion time and I find the kids would rather have unstructured time or organized games for their social time then be forced to work on an activity or craft structured around the book they read.  Often these activities can feel forced and kids are fairly diverse and do not enjoy the same types of crafts or activities.  I gave up on crafts and structured book activities and think the clubs have been rewarded for it.

The one exception to this is if you are doing a book club for younger kids.  When I did our American Girl Doll, Little House or If You Lived Groups those succeeded because they had specific crafts, music, food, clothing and activity that brought those books to life.  Of course all of those had real historical roots as well and lent themselves quite naturally to book specific activities and crafts.  I think this type of book club works best with first through fourth grade and past that good discussion and social time has been a better format for us. 

Combine Serious and Fun
I get really good discussion out of the kids for an hour.  They know there is an end to our discussion and that they will have an hour of social time.  They have clear expectations.  One hour of discussion and then one hour of play.  The combination works well.  The kids who are there to socialize still know they have to discuss first and they all come prepared.  Some may come just for the fun but they do the work required to get to the fun, read the book and participate in discussion.  The social time has really bonded them together as friends and has benefited the discussion time as well. As they have grown from a collection of kids with similar reading habits into friends who laugh and work together.  I believe the combination of the two serious and fun has allowed the kids to grow closer, the book club to grow stronger and our discussion to have much more depth.  The social also build trust which is important in a good book club.

We always have a snack after our discussion time.  Kids can go two hours without eating but something about sharing a snack together bring them together.  Food brings adults together and it brings kids together as well.  Root beer floats, Orange Creamsicles, Girl scout Cookies, Homemade Hand painted Hunger Game Cookies, Chips and Candy, all the usual kid suspects.  They enjoy having food and parents are quick to chip in and rotate bringing snacks which helps relieve that from me and lets the kids all take turns sharing their favorite foods.

This post has gotten far longer than I expected.  Thanks for reading and good luck starting your own book club if that is your intention!  

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