Every time my oldest comes home with a book club flyer from school, my heart sinks. I understand and fully support the motto of “building confidence in young readers,” but does that have to mean that each flyer must be a compendium of mostly the following:
- Books pertaining to underwear and bodily functions;
- Endless series of vapid characters in interchangeable stories;
- Books packaged with items such as zombie glasses, glow-in-the-dark slime or Ninjago figurines;
- History and science presented in terribly uninspiring and reeks-of-school titles;
- Books derived from cartoons or other TV characters?
Lost among all these are a few gems: Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, Eleanor Este’s Ginger Pye, Charlotte’s Web. But those are not the ones the child clamors to buy (but look, Mom, it’s only $3.99 and it comes with a cupcake charm!)
For a while, I went with the whatever-she-reads-is-great attitude, because I just wanted her to discover the joy of reading. But now that she’ll happily curl up on the couch with a book, I find myself very discouraged with the books she’s exposed to through the library at school, or the book fair, or the abovementioned flyers. Sure, she can read all the Captain Underpants books and giggle with her friends about how often the word “fart” shows up in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (I’ll hand it to those authors that they’ve nailed their audience on the head), but I feel compelled to help her dip her toes into the vast, rich, magical world of wonderful children’s literature – the kind that transports you, haunts you, affects your very soul and stays in your memory forever – that exists out there. The one that sustained me, nourished me, when I was a young child.
And thus is born our book club, for her and up to seven of her friends from school. We held our first, organizational meeting this past weekend. There were snacks, coffee and tea for the parents, several girls piled onto each arm chair, and lots of pink-and-purple-socked feet waving around. We discussed ground rules, respecting opinions, what to do if you don’t like the book (read at least 25 pages and come prepared to explain why you didn’t like it), what the name of the club should be (there were evocations of bookworms, pandas, panda worms – ew – without any consensus), and of course what the selections would be. I handed each girl a booklet with a list of titles and authors, a picture of each cover, and a description, and asked each one to nominate three from among the 22 or so on the list.
The first vote was almost unanimous for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Remember that one? I thought so. I can’t wait to see what the discussion of the book will yield. The book was written one hundred years ago (I don’t think the girls know this yet), takes place for the most part in Yorkshire, England (after Mary’s parents die of cholera in India) and is quite unlike anything these girls have read yet. It’s a far cry from the school-based series revolving around someone’s best friend moving out of state, or a weird substitute bringing the class on an adventure, or a band of classmates solving the mystery of the disappearing lunchboxes. I wonder how much of their decision was based on my use of this particular cover? (On a very abridged, Scholastic version from 1993.)
I’ve written before about the drastic variation in covers on editions of old classics, and how that predisposes today’ children to shy away from some of these gems. What if I had used this cover image instead? (Simon & Brown, Dec 2012)
Or this one? (Random House abridged version from 1987)
And here’s the list of book options that I have compiled so far. Other suggestions welcome!
- Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
- From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by e. l. konigsburg
- The Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
- A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
- The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, by Edward Lear
- Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
- The Story of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
- Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar and Julie Brinkloe
- Rickshaw Girl, by Mitali Perkins
- The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
- The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
- My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brian
- Frindle, by Andrew Clements
- Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
- Poetry for Young People: William Carlos Williams
- Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
- The Double Life of Pocahontas, by Jean Fritz