Books have always been my refuge. I remember escaping from a cacophonous house and four loud siblings with back-to-back-to-back Nancy Drew mysteries—just nine-year-old me, the couch, and a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies. Twenty-some years later, Nelson DeMille kept me sane as my first born's due date sailed by without so much as a labor twinge; more recently, the death of my dad had me buried in The Goldfinch while Thanksgiving preparations swirled around my mother-in-law's kitchen.
I've always wanted to inspire my daughter, who eventually agreed to be born, and my son, to love to read. I believe it is learned; one must be taught the power held in the written word and the ability of a story to envelop and consume you as the rest of the world carries on as a faint distraction. It was my mission, I knew, to raise little bookworms.
I began in a common enough way by modeling during bedtime, nap-time and games in which we told each other stories. However, it was a fellow elementary-school mom who delivered an irresistible tool. What if, she suggested, we start a book club? Not just any book club, though. This one would be for us and our first-grade daughters. The rules were simple: five mom-daughter pairs. Once a month, each daughter (unless she had a particularly—ahem—opinionated mother) would choose a book. The mother and daughter would read the book. Then we'd gather as a group to discuss it.
That was six years and almost 40 books ago! The moms have grilled librarians and polled reading teachers for inspired choices. The girls have kept things current and relatively “cool” with their suggestions. We began with The Hundred Dresses, which let us discuss how girls bully each other and what the consequences can be. We learned about the courage of Amelia Earhart in Amelia And Eleanor Go For A Ride. We talked about how fun it is to just be your unique self as we read Pippi Longstocking. As the girls have grown, the themes have gotten a little weightier. Hatchet showed us a great example of survival; Red Kayak taught us about responsibility, Wonder had us thinking about kindness. Out of My Mind, our current selection, is sure to spark a conversation about the disabled children we know.
The pages these girls have read have educated them, made them laugh, cry, and be just uncomfortable enough to have to think about their responses to bullying, accepting responsibility, teasing, loss, and growing up. They’ve had a safe forum in which to talk about times they’ve felt picked on, blamed or anxious. They’ve received instant peer support and maternal guidance when tricky subjects have come up. They’ve grown into confident, strong, happy middle schoolers who swap titles and lend books as often as they talk about weekend plans or soccer wins. Genetics, of course, play a role in who they are. Parenting, of course, plays a role in who they will become. But maybe, just maybe, the gentle glimpses through pages into other lives, situations, decisions and outcomes, might have allowed them to safely explore the world around them and shape the way they choose to experience it.
Leah Lesser of Barefoot Books, an independent publisher of children's books, suggests a few tips if you’re looking to start your own book club. “Start small,” she advises, “and choose books that come with discussion guides or ones that pair well with crafts or activities. If you read The Little Red Hen, let the kids bake bread together.” We’ve had great success with her idea: Little Women was discussed over tea. When You Reach Me took us to a children’s production of A Wrinkle in Time. The Chocolate Touch came with—you guessed it—a chocolate fountain (and hyper kids).
Selfishly, I have treasured these extra hours with my daughter, who is hurtling toward the teen years faster than I can blink. I love the look in her eye when she promises I’m going to adore a book or the way she’ll still ask me to read a chapter to her as I scratch her back. The book club will eventually end and her desire to spend Saturday afternoons with her mom might end. But I believe I’ve sparked a love of reading at the same time she’s learned that books truly are a place of comfort and delight. Those are things I hope she’ll never outgrow.