February marks a full year of what started out as a 3rd grade book club, and is clearly on its way to becoming a 5th grade one. I began this out of frustration and dismay at some of the books K was bringing home, sometimes at the suggestion (insistence?) of the school librarian, endless series of books about school life where “weird” and “gross” make appearances on nearly every page, where teachers exist merely as objects of derision, where all the characters are white and usually suburban. I knew from having seen K and her friends reading more substantial books, if they happened upon them and the mood struck them, that they were capable of much deeper thought, that in fact their brains were hungry for a greater challenge, for being expanded. I knew, and they knew, that they could handle and enjoy much, much more. (One girl was hesitant to join, saying she only liked to read books with mice that wore clothes. We managed to change that.)
We began with The Secret Garden, the classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first meeting left me giddy with delight, as I recount here. I went all out, decorated with vases of roses, served cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. A minute before the eight girls arrived, I panicked. What if they thought this was silly? What if they wanted to make fun of me like some of their books made fun of teachers? My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced.
Over the past year, with a break in July/August, we tackled:
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blue
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 O’Brien
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Garcia Williams (which gave K’s father an excuse to put together a fantastic soundtrack from 1968)
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (which made for the most animated discussion)
Rules, by Cynthia Lord (“too easy,” the girls said)
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson
Every meeting starts with ten minutes of chatter while everyone arrives and gets settled, a 30-45 minute discussion, a snack related to the book in question, a related activity, and a vote on the book for the meeting after next (so that I have time to order it, distribute it, read it and plan the meeting). The children have been surprisingly enthusiastic about how the snack matches the book. They pounced on the corn kernels and shredded cheese I put out for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with squeals of delight. Their parents shook their heads in a mix of wonder and amusement when they came to retrieve their children.
I’ve been very impressed with the depth of thinking and the level of analysis these girls have demonstrated, and the caliber of the discussions we’ve had.
The topics we’ve discussed include:
Oppression, the Black Panther movement, the power of imagination, self-consciousness, the death of a parent, sibling relationships, autism, story arc, character arc, running away from home, storytelling techniques, what defines a “classic,” the ethics of scientific research with animals, loneliness, finding happiness, the meaning of “civilization,” sacrifice, civil disobedience, peer pressure, prejudice, unwritten rules, sadness, point of view, film adaptations, responsibility, cerebral palsy, book cover design, devotion to art, pacing, what made a book “good” a century ago versus today versus what makes a book just plain “good” all the time.
I’m planning out the selections for the next year. Now that I have the girls’ attention, now that they are invested, I’m going to mix it up a bit more, and designate a category for each month: poetry, biography, mystery, fantasy, adventure, Africa, Asia (not enough months to break down into smaller categories, but there’s always the following year), Europe, Latin America, Pacific Islands/Australia, Middle East, and probably different regions/historical periods in North America. I could get lost for hours in noodling around the various options.