How to Have a Children’s Book Club

Children’s literature could save the world. I believe that. Stories and books are the primary means of passing culture on to children and have been for countless generations. If we claim to want authority over our children’s education we should refuse to relinquish the privilege of educating them to technology in our homes, cars, and schools.

Think about the typical experience of reading a story with a child. Importantly, it is human and interpersonal. Distractions are removed, a cozy spot is selected, and content is deliberately chosen. There’s delight in  sharing—not just a story, but a space, a hug, a snack. Reading together means being passengers together on a journey that offers adventures, challenges, laughter. Together, the same characters are encountered, the same scenes are revealed, and the same resolutions land on our hearts.

Now contrast this with the experience a child commonly has with technology. It is usually isolating— the child sits in front of a screen, alone or in another room. Perhaps there are headphones to further remove the child from his environment. Physically, technology does not just discourage interaction, it refuses it. The medium dictates everything—the pace, the senses, the story. Even if the parent fully approves of the content (difficult, even with effort), commentary cannot be added that supports or rejects what is happening sentence by sentence or scene by scene. There is no chance to analyze characters or decisions. Values and beliefs are  certainly being transmitted, but which ones? Whose?

Saving the world through our children must include engaging with books contemplatively and in community. So, may I suggest starting a children’s book club—our lives just might depend on it.

Most of us have been involved in adult book clubs, but the most enjoyable and profitable book groups I have been a part of have focused on my children and their age-appropriate books. The important thing about a book club for children is that it is not school. But, that does not mean that the books cannot be enjoyed and engaged with in meaningful, memorable ways.

I have hosted book clubs with my children for the last decade. There is really nothing special about the way I do it, but I happily and humbly offer suggestions and caveats if you are interested in starting your own.

First, find like-minded families. By this, I mean find people who will want to read a book and focus the gathering on it. Choosing reading companions is a little like choosing a spouse. One must be discerning. I have been invited to wonderful book groups with charming, intelligent people whom I thoroughly enjoy, but if literary interests do not align, the point is lost. This does not mean everyone must agree about everything—the best part of the conversation often comes from dissension. Good reading-fellows simply share values about the goal of the gathering, which is exaltation of a worthwhile book. This seems so basic. But I cannot tell you how many “book club ruses” I have belonged to. Keeping a children’s book club on track requires commitment and at least one parent who can rein in sidebar conversations.

The next crucial point: Set expectations. Decide at the beginning what kind of books you will read, at what frequency, and under whose facilitation. We all know leisure time is limited; a purposeful book club must be
conscientious about its goals. The parent facilitator position can rotate, but consider to what extent you expect the leader to prepare (reading the entire book, leading discussions, preparing questions, planning activities). Then, commit!

May I also suggest: Be genuinely thoughtful and detailed about your selections. Broad topics can prove problematic because the berths are too wide. Perhaps make the first three selections so it is clear where your stream lies. I have found that once a group is well established, collaborative or rotating book selection responsibility can work. But trust and comfort must be established first.

Next: Decide on your format. I have always called my children’s book clubs “parties” which happen to be themed around a book. I invite guests about a month in advance so there is ample time to read. My children and I hosted a New York! New York! party with pizza and cheesecake for The Cricket in Times Square, we had a proper British Tea with scones and marmalade when we read Paddington, and I hosted a fun princes and princesses party to talk about fairy tales. We usually talk about the book for about an hour first, perhaps enjoy a related craft or activity, then the kids enjoy themed foods and play while the parents visit. We host our book club parties about once a month during summers, but we often add one during Christmas break too. If self motivation wanes, my kids know they are accountable to their friends and that a fun party is ahead of them when they read well.

So, how will you get the conversation started? Be prepared and be intentional about discussion.
• I like to encourage book marking while reading (for unfamiliar words, literary devices, questions, or ideas that need teasing out, etc.). This involves the readers and relieves the facilitator of all the responsibility. I suggest this when the invitation is sent, about a month before the party.
• To build a habit of appreciation around books, you might also ask every student to come up with an example of something Beautiful (a turn of phrase, an illustration, a behavior or decision), or Good, or True (not just factually, but metaphysically).
• Go back to basics. Who is the author? The illustrator? What is the copyright date? Are you familiar with this author’s other work? This puts the book in context and invites the readers to seek out related books by period, author, or style.
• Resist the urge to only ask easy, shallow questions like, “Did you like the book?” Teach students to pay attention to details and draw meaning from the author’s choices. This approach prioritizes contemplation as opposed to completion when reading. Ask students to find a sentence that is funny, a situation that bothered them, or a moment when they felt suspense or delight. Help students notice literary devices like repetition or alliteration or rhyme. Find symbols. Discuss similes and metaphors—why would the author compare these two things? Why do you think a character is so named? Why do you think a title was given?
• Consider broader ideas once the details have been covered. This encourages a “Great Conversation” perspective. What is the main theme? What does this book teach us? Does it make you think of other books, either for similarity or contrast? Does the book itself allude to other authors or books? What ideas does it leave you contemplating? Would you recommend it to a friend? Why or why not?
• Use available resources to draw out discussion, like Memoria Press literature guides. Rather than using them comprehensively as you would for school, pick out a few interesting reading notes, comprehension  questions, or discussion questions as launching points. Many publishers include discussion questions at the end of the book as well.

Finally, have faith! When we as parents prioritize reading and put in the time and attention necessary to make it positive, enjoyable, and formative, I believe we actually have a shot at competing with everything else that is trying to steal our children’s attention. We should not underestimate the power of children and their books. We’re counting on both to save the world.

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