When I originally offered to help with my daughter's first book club, it was as a simple show of support for my 7-year-old bookworm. Flash forward four years and nearly 50 books later, the club has become one of the most valuable volunteer gigs of my parenting career.
Our group was started in 2nd grade by a friend whose daughter devours books as quickly as mine. We had 15 or so girls, a wide range of reading levels, and an abundance of little-girl energy. We experimented with a few formats and settled on a simple model that continues today: Monthly meetings last 90 minutes and include, in this order, book talk, snacks and outside play. Over the years, as the basic model holds steady, our discussions keep growing and changing along with the maturing girls.
In 2nd grade we read classics like The Secret Garden and Matilda alongside Judy Moody and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Third grade introduced us to authors Wendy Mass and E.L. Koningsburg. By 4th grade, the girls were eager for more complex, coming-of-age stories and we found those in books such as Escape Under the Forever Sky and Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters. The Book Moms got to vote too, and because we had all grown up with Judy Blumes on our nightstands, we insisted on Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. That book led to our longest and liveliest meeting to date. We started by encouraging the girls to get all their giggles out (Because c'mon "We must, we must, we must increase our bust!" is still hilarious.) By the time we all finished talking we had covered friendship dynamics, religion and the tricky business of growing up.
This year, the 5th graders read hefty and adventurous novels like Wildwood and books by repeat authors so we could compare and contrast the stories. Through the magic of old-fashioned networking, we paired up with In This Together, a girl-focused publisher, and were given advance copies of a book, plus the chance to skype with its author. Katherine Rue, author of the new Carly Keene Literary Detective series, spent 30 minutes with us discussing her mystery book, and it was as if we had a rockstar in our midst. During the author Q & A, my favorite question came from an astute 10-year-old: "Is Carly Keene a nod to Caroline Keene, author of Nancy Drew?" These smart girls don't miss a thing.
Over the years, we've tried to teach them how to fairly discuss a literary work and how to appreciate a story's features even if you didn't adore the whole book. But our main goal has always been much simpler: to give them a safe space to talk about books. No multiple choice questions, no right or wrong answers, no grades. The other moms and I have become pros at the Curious Nod and the Noncommittal Hmmm. "Good point! Why do you think the author wrote it that way?"
Though our membership has shifted a little over the four years, the consistency of the group has been a solid thread throughout their elementary school years, which I now realize was so critical and grounding considering the size of our large public school. And if I ever doubt whether the girls enjoy book club, I will remember this: When the 5th graders were assigned in class to write their own obituary, one girl described how, after becoming an artist, surgeon and best-selling author, she retired and "spent time painting and attending book club with her childhood friends." Is there any better testament than that?
As for me, it's always been about more than just great books. The books, and the book club talks, have become launchpads for continued conversations at home. I've found that it's nice to know who Katniss is, but it's even better to know Cornelia, Prue and Calpurnia, and why these characters made such an impression on my daughter.
The success of the book club also reminds me to be the kind of mother I want to be: the kind who follows her child's lead and lets her child's passions dictate how she spends extracurricular time. The kind of mother who happily handles the logistics and structure required to make things like book club happen, knowing that it always takes some legwork to support any kind of valuable experience. The kind of mother who, after all that active doing, is then able to sit back and just listen. The kind of mother who isn't intimidated by letting the girls, and their conversations, unfold organically from there.
I will need these reminders for the teen years ahead. If the 5th grade chattering is any indication, we are nearing uncharted territory as the girls find increasingly complex books to fill their growing minds and insatiable appetites.
I don't know what the coming years hold for my daughter and I, but I do believe that books will help us survive it. I've promised to be there, as long as she will have me, reading along beside her.