Tuesday, May 01, 2012

How to start a book club with your kids

I have been thinking about confessing something to you all. Lots of those books I have been reviewing down there, I didn't just read for the blog. I read them for the mother daughter book club I am in with Claire Helen. Ours is quite strong, a year after we started, and I've heard of several people who were in them but they faded away or disbanded. Here are some tips and questions you should ask yourself to organize yours so it sticks and is fun for everyone.

1) How big should my club be?
This requires more finesse than you would think! Since it's parent and child, the numbers can get out of control very quickly. If you have too few people, everybody thinks they have to come to every single one, and they feel too much pressure and decide not to do it. If you have too many, the meetings are chaos, nobody wants to host, and it's hard to get discussion really going. We have 6 girls and their moms. I think we could handle 2 more pairs, but not more. This way everyone feels obliged to read the book and participate; meetings are not too chaotic, and you don't dread your turn to host. I don't think we should ever dip below 5, to avoid it just being a mandatory book themed playdate.

2) Who should I invite?
I didn't think about this one too much when I started ours. I just picked some moms I liked and some girls who seemed like they liked to read. But upon reflection we lucked into a few things. The kids do not all need to be the same reading level, but they do all need to be interested in the same level books. It doesn't matter if everyone can read Wrinkle in Time  by themselves(some of our girls have their moms read parts of the books to them), but they should all be interested in having it read to them. Our club has a variety of different tastes, but everybody is willing to at least try different genres. The discussions are much more interesting if the girls want to be there and don't dread reading the books(even if they don't always like them).

It's nice but not at all necessary for the girls to know each other ahead of time- the girls in our club all go to school together, though they weren't in the same class at the founding. It's better if it's not just one or two cliques at school. Book clubs can be such a wonderful break from the social morass of elementary school, and I'd hate to see a book club just be an extension of the playground. It could be anything- swim team, dance class, old preschool friends. If the girls don't know each other well, be sure to give it a few meetings before deciding they don't click. Our girls took awhile to get in the groove of being a group, but now you wouldn't know who knew each other from before or not.

3) How often should we meet?
As often as you want, of course! We meet about every 7 weeks. If you stretch it out too much, the kids don't think of it as a "thing" they really do and will have to reacquaint themselves with what book discussion means each time. If you meet too often, some of them are going to freak out and feel pressured(not to mention the parents might want to read something besides young adult literature in their free time!). I think meeting every 5-6 weeks is ideal, but of course we all get busy, and the real key here is to be flexible.

4) Where should we meet?
We rotate houses, so each pair hosts once or twice a year. If you live in a less drizzly climate you might be able to go to a park, or maybe you have a community gathering spot that is perfect for these sorts of things. Personally I like the rotating homes thing because the girls just love seeing each other's houses, and we're not restricted by food or scheduling rules, but it does mean someone has to take on the job of hostessing each time. I originally proposed the the hostess gets to decide what day and time the book club will be, but in practice we have ended up using doodle polls. The hostess suggests 3 or 4 dates, and we go with the one with the most votes.

5) How much structure do we need?
I think this is really the most important part, and it's determined by the make-up of your group. At our meetings, the kid hostess is supposed to have a question or two to start discussion. Mostly they do, sometimes they do not. The grown-ups definitely have to help the discussion along. Some of them have been pretty halting, and some of them just take off, which is wonderful to see. We usually try starting a discussion for about 15 minutes, and if it hasn't taken off by then, let it go for a while. Usually it does, and they talk about the book for a half hour or so before going off to play (usually the play is about the book- for Swordbird this time, they were all pretending to be...wait for it...birds.).

Sometimes the hostess gets really into hostessing- for A Cricket in Times Square our hostess recreated the newsstand from cardboard and household objects. Sometimes the hostess does nothing, and the tenor of our book club is that that's ok too. Maybe you have a group of uber crafty friends who would enjoy egging each other on; you know your people. Our group works well for our members because expression about the book is celebrated- Claire Helen dresses in costume for each meeting and beams to the approving comments from the moms and kids- but not required. I know of another book club that has an hour of discussion/free play, and then a couple moms take the girls off to do a craft or activity related to the book they read that month for the second hour.

6) Should we have food?
I'm going to break form and just answer yes or no- YES. Have food. Remember- half the point is to keep the kids excited about reading and books, and hungry kids are grumpy kids. But make it easy. Nobody wants to host the equivalent of a Christmas party every couple months. We order pizza from the same place every time, and then the hostess does or does not add to it. I made a waffle bar for Polly Horvath's Everything on a Waffle which went over well, but is about as much effort as is necessarily a good idea for these things.

7) How old do the kids need to be?
I started ours when the girls were late 6- early 7, and I think that is about as early as you could really get a book discussion going and have at least some of the girls read the books by themselves. But if you are chomping at the bit with preschoolers, by all means form a book-themed playgroup, and watch it blossom into a strong book club as the kids get older.

8) Hey, why is yours all girls? Do you think it needs to be just one gender?
I dunno. Maybe. Up to you. I will tell you that whenever Simon is ready for one, I will probably go all boys for him. There are phases when boy and girl literary tastes often diverge quite a bit, particularly in early elementary school. Maybe you will see that as an opportunity to broaden your child's horizons, and to you I say good on you! You have to decide if you want to take on that challenge as well as whatever other challenges your particular book club presents.

9) How do we pick the books?
Why, visit beanlet.blogspot.com, of course! Other, less superior ways- there are a squadrillion lists out there. Look up Fountas and Pinnell lists for the zone you're interested in. Have the kids bring suggestions. Try three different mystery series in a row(may I suggest Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and Hannah West?). Read Newbery medal winners from the 70's and the 2000's. Ask your school librarian. Ours is wonderful, and I bet yours is too. Sky's the limit here. I would suggest involving the kids somehow. We tend to discuss as mothers a few choices, and then bring them to the girls for a final decision. We also pick a few in a row, so the girls can get ahead if they want to, and so we don't have to spend half an hour of every meeting talking about what book to read next. I know several successful book clubs who pick once a year the twelve books for the year. I think a whole year might be hard with young children, since their taste and ability can change so fast. But 4 is a safe bet.

That's it, I think. Have a wonderful time! Any other questions? Leave them in the comments!

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