A couple of years ago, I was disappointed by the selections in the book fair fliers my daughter was bringing home from school, and I wanted to feed her nascent love of reading with high-quality, memorable writing. So I suggested starting a book club for her and some of her friends. My proposal was met with overwhelming enthusiasm from both the children and their parents.
Respectful of people's busy schedules, I took responsibility for all aspects of the club, which the children named The Page Flippers: hosting and running meetings, researching book selections, ordering copies, distributing them among members, and reminding parents of meeting dates and times. After 18 months of fabulous meetings, I can in all confidence declare the book club a resounding success, and I'm having even more fun than I anticipated. I've also learned some important do's and don'ts for running a children's book club, which I'd like to share with you:
Do: Limit the number of participants.
A group of eight to 10 children is best. More than that, and things can either get chaotic or require a classroom-like structure very quickly. Our club was made up entirely of third-graders, all from the same school, each of whom was good friends with at least one other member when the club started. They're all now in fifth grade.
Do: Allow the children some choice.
Every month, I select three or four books based on a specific theme, genre or region of the world. Then I let the children vote on the next month's pick. Once a year, I ask them to bring in nominations to add to the overall list. The one prerequisite is that the books they nominate must be approved by their parents.
Do: Establish some ground rules.
Ours are simple:
- Respect each other. Never make fun of anyone for his or her opinion.
- Raise your hand to speak, and don't talk over each other.
- It's not necessary to finish a book you don't enjoy, but it's necessary to give it a good try (at least 50 pages) and come to the meeting ready to discuss why you didn't like it.
- Treat the host and his or her home with respect.
Do: Maintain your authority.
I love getting to know the children and being chummy with them. But don't forget that you're the adult—similar to a teacher but even cooler. The children should accept your authority and respect your decision-making in terms of running the meetings.
Do: Make the meetings fun.
After the 30- to 45-minute discussion, we have a snack that usually features food items that are mentioned in the book and an activity that is related to the story. This is an opportunity for the members to chat freely while still engaging with the content of the book.
Do: Mix up the genres.
Start out with fiction because children find that most approachable, but then branch out to historical fiction, biographies, memoirs and poetry. Present them with books set in different parts of the world. In some categories, it's a challenge to find age-appropriate books that will pique and hold the children's interest, but you should still try.
Don't: Make it too much like homework.
I hand out a sheet on which the kids can write comments, rate the book and make notes on the plot and characters, but it's completely optional.
Don't: Underestimate the children's maturity level.
Keep everything age-appropriate, but push the limits a bit in terms of the book topics. You'll be surprised at the depth of thought and the level of discussion that arises. In third and fourth grades, here are some of the topics we discussed: the power of imagination, oppression, the Black Panther movement, autism, loneliness, what makes a book a "classic," unwritten rules, the meaning of "civilization," and literary and storytelling techniques.
Don't: Direct the discussion too much.
It's a good idea to have some discussion questions ready in case conversation hits a lull, but I've found that this rarely happens. Instead, my role tends to be to ask a few probing questions, push the kids to talk about why they thought or reacted a certain way, generally moderate the conversation, and draw out the more shy kids.
Here's a starter list of books for children age 8 and up:
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
- The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
- From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
- Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
- Rules by Cynthia Lord
- Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
- Island's End by Padma Venkatraman
- The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull
- Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
- The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
- Libraries are great resources, in person or online. Here's a list of books from the New York Public Library: http://www.nypl.org/childrens100.
- Some libraries have bags already set up for book clubs: several copies of a single book and discussion questions that can be checked out together.
- This is one of my favorite sources of book ideas: fromthemixedupfiles.com.
- Amazon has lists of award-winning books, bestsellers, books for specific ages and grades, and more.
Anjali Mitter Duva is an Indian-American writer raised in France. She is the author of "Faint Promise of Rain" (She Writes Press, October 2014) and a cofounder of Chhandika, a non-profit organization dedicated to the Indian classical dance form called kathak. Educated at Brown University and MIT, she lives near Boston with her husband and two daughters. Click here to read more about her book club.