Boys' and Girls' Summer Book Groups: A Success Story and What We Learned
This article is meant to give ideas about how a book group for kids might work at your library, and also to share things we learned in the process of running our groups, and some mistakes we made, to help others who might be thinking about starting, or in the planning stages of, a new book club program. We have two summers experience with a boy's book club, and one summer with a girl's club, not all that much you might think, but it's amazing what you'll learn in just one season!
At our library these programs were half book groups and half activity clubs. Boys and girls had their own groups. Each group met once per week for eight weeks in the summer. We alternated with book discussion nights and planned activity nights, beginning with a book discussion on the first meeting to set the tone (and convey the idea that our primary focus was books and reading.) By only having a book discussion every other meeting, kids had two weeks to read each new book, an important point for including weaker readers. Ages of participants were 9-12 for the girl's group and 10 to 14 for the boys. Our primary goal with both groups was to encourage involvement with books, and secondarily (but also importantly) to bring kids together in a group where they could make new friends and socialize at the library. We put a high value on building community in our library. We hoped by meeting eight times, rather than just four for the book discussions, that the kids would have enough time together to develop a group identity, a small community if you will, a club feel. We had good participation for both the boy's and girl's groups, and good feedback from parents and kids. We also made some mistakes, and heard about it, as you'll see below.
We received many benefits from running the summer book clubs. First, we got to know many new kids and parents and strengthened bonds with those we already knew. This was a "feel good" and easily visible benefit, with us coming away from the experience feeling that the time we had spent was well worth the effort. Secondly, we heard from some parents that their kids did much more reading over the summer as a result of the clubs, and that the books they read in the clubs stretched their reading and thinking skills. We felt great about that and realized that we had met our primary goal. Third, we sent a strong message to the community that we value and support reading for kids (especially for boys, in an area where reading is still seen by many residents as unmanly.) You might think this is obvious for libraries, but we sent the message with these programs that we cared enough to do something about it. Fourth, we built visibility and branding for the library with this program. We had publicity and great pictures in the local newspaper, an email praising our program to the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors (thanking him for supporting the library's funding), and lot's of "word of mouth" publicity about the library from families involved. Fifth, we raised good will with appreciative families and provided summertime fun for kids in our community. Lastly, staff and volunteers also read new children's books as a result of being involved with the programs and got a better feel for what books work for what ages.
Here are some tips based on what we learned:
- Pick a catchy name that will "stick" for your club
- Kitschy, funny, or retro, are good. If you pick a creature or person name, the kids can become known individually and collectively by that name and that encourages a group identity. Picking something that can at least be reduced to a one word name makes it easier to refer to the group and encourages use of the name. If your club catches on, the name can actually become a form of "branding" for your library, and this is good!, plus it will help to advertise the program. Our boy's group name is "The Book Sharks of Greene County Library", which instantly became reduced to just the "Sharks", and has been a hit. Our girl's group name is simply "The Rapunzels", which has also worked really well. Every little girl likes to picture herself as a lovely maiden with a long braid sequestered in a tower, about to be rescued by a handsome prince. But, in a twist on the tale, in the advertising flyer for the group (and in the wiki that we started as a group project JMRL Reads ) Rapunzel in her tower is busy reading, and has no time for the prince below. The girls loved that, and being known as a "Rapunzel" caught right on. Funnily enough, by complete serendipity, nearly every book we read had a girl with either very long hair, or a long braid, with the hair somehow figuring in the story. On one of the activity nights (we were doing a hemp string knotting project and I mentioned that the way you needed to hold your fingers was kind of like when you're french braiding hair) I ended up french braiding nearly every girl's hair in the group. Much merriment ensued as the girls realized they really were "Rapunzels" indeed.
- Consider having separate groups for boys and girls
- There are, of course, books that are good for boys and girls both. Still, we felt that the reading interests of boys and girls are pretty different, that discussion styles would be different for boys and girls, and that the activities each would be interested in would be different too. We also felt that the kids could be themselves more easily in a single sex group, without the tension of competing with each other, and without the distraction of pre-adolescent sexual interest as well. Bonding and group identity are helped at this age by having separate sex groups in my opinion. Since we don't have any males on staff at my library we found two adult men who were willing to lead the boy's group. This has worked out great, with the same two guys leading the boy's group for two summers now, and already agreeing to continue on next summer. Need I say that it is greatly preferable that boy's groups be led by men? Our message was that "guys read" and we couldn't convey that without male leaders.
- Have more than one leader and don't hesitate to use volunteers
- We had a staff person leave less than a month before our girl's group was to start, and of course, that staff person was one of two leaders and planners of the girl's book club. We have a small staff at my branch, so I found a volunteer in our community that I knew well (and who had a daughter signed up for the group) to be my new partner (I was the other leader/planner). When it turned out that due to vacation plans (and other exigencies of life) she would be forced to miss several meetings, I found yet another volunteer (a reading teacher in the local elementary school that I also knew well) to include as a leader for the group. That turned out to be a very happy development, since the second volunteer turned out to be perfect for the job, and had a wonderful time doing it. If you can manage it, having multiple leader/planners is a really good idea. If someone gets sick, or needs to be gone, you still have someone to lead the group, and having multiple adults takes the pressure of planning and leading activities and book discussions off the shoulders of just one person. In book discussions, it's very helpful to have more than one adult to keep the discussion going; if there's a dead spot, and one leader is momentarily at a loss, the other can step in. In an adult book group attendees will take up a book discussion and run with it; kid's in a book group need more prodding from discussion leaders. Multiple heads are very useful when picking books for the group as well, and with activities you'll have more ideas, more talent, and more help on activity nights. Plus, it's a lot more fun for the leaders to have adult partners. Using volunteers also builds relationships between adults in your community and library staff--always a good thing. Our book group volunteers have become library "super-friends" and indispensable to our programs.
- Including a wide age range is ok
- We had originally intended our boy's group to be a young adult program, but when we got our first volunteer leader on board, it turned out that his son was nine, and a very good reader. Then we had a lot of interest from parents with ten-year-old boys, so gradually the age of the group crept downwards. The first summer we also had a couple of fourteen-year-old boys who were also advanced readers for their age. That's a very wide range, socially and in reading skill, but it worked just fine! The older boys were tolerant of the immaturity of the younger ones, and the younger ones probably enjoyed the cachet of being in a group with (wooo) teenagers! And though some of the books in the pool the boys would choose from (we ordered copies in advance) were a little advanced for the younger members that turned out to really be ok too. The younger members were more stretched in their reading, and didn't always finish the longer books, but everyone still seemed to enjoy the process and many of the younger boys came back the second year. Some of the parents also employed techniques to help their younger readers, like reading books aloud together at home (often with siblings too--and that's another benefit of these groups--we heard that many siblings also read the books we gave out, including sisters of Sharks!) or using audio versions of the books. In the Rapunzels we also had a wide age range, 9-12, and even allowed an eight year old to join, because her mother was so set on it, and she is a good friend of the library. That turned out to be fine too. Socially the girls all got along well together, and though the books the Rapunzels read were definitely too hard for the eight-year-old (and she didn't get them all read) it wasn't a problem to have her in the group. What we noticed in the girl's group (and I'm sure it was true in the boy's as well) is that there was a wide range in reading ability, and that the level of reading skill did not necessarily correspond to age. We did notice a difference in the ability of the older girls to latch on to deeper meanings and themes in the books, or at least to be able to articulate them. But again, we saw the need for weaker or younger readers to stretch in their reading as a good thing (and heard from one parent that she really valued this aspect for her daughter) and felt that the wide age range we had worked remarkably well. It allowed us to include more kids in both the boy's and girl's groups and that was important to us. We wouldn't have the staff or volunteers to run more groups (of narrow age ranges) anyway, since this is a pretty labor intensive project, so we were glad that wide age ranges worked so well.
- Read every book before including it in your program and consider appropriateness of content for the youngest participants
- This sounds like obvious advice but did we always follow it? Well, no. And we paid the price during the second summer of the Sharks. Why didn't we read every book? We were in a time crunch basically. Since the two Sharks leaders were both volunteers, I helped them with planning, logistics, and publicity for the program. But the second summer of the Sharks, I was also getting ready for the first summer of the Rapunzels, and my partner in this program had just left the library so I was on my own. It's pretty easy to get over-committed with programs in a small library. The Sharks leaders were in similar straits, with brand new babies and moving to new houses and taking too many course hours at the community college. With the Sharks, our approach to picking books for the group was to do research on appropriate books, and then to read as many of them as we could. We'd talk about them by email as we read. Then we'd meet just before the deadline for ordering the books, and pick the ones we'd go with. (Note: Both groups read a total of four books over the summer. We picked the first book to be read for the first meeting, and the kids themselves choose the other three from a pool of five choices we provided them with. We ordered enough of all six books for kids to have their own copy, which was theirs to keep, and gave them the copies of the books not chosen at the end of the program.) The second year nobody had done as much work in getting ready to choose books as in the first year. We ended up choosing two books that upset several parents quite a bit and also found that we had scheduled a movie that had scenes we had to skip because of adult content. You'd like to to know now what these books were, right? Well, the first one was "The Education of Robert Nifkin" by Daniel Pinkwater. I had actually read the Pinkwater book, but ignored the little warnings that briefly flitted into my mind as I read. The Shark leader who'd suggested this book is a great parent who happens to be very careful about what his kids read. His son had read several Pinkwater books for younger readers, but as it turned out, they had not read this one, which is a young adult novel. Here's the caution: When you have little time, and you've read a potential book all the way through, you're pre-disposed to choosing it, because you've done the work, you read the book, right? Beware of this impulse if you're new to choosing books. So, what's in this book that might be a problem? Well, multiple things. It is a 1950's cold war period comedic novel, with a lot of poking fun at the anti-communism of the age, and lots of rebellious teenage behavior, like bad language and smoking (which seemed sort of quaint to me given today's teen culture). The teenager narrating the book makes a lot of fun of the tropes of the older generation and the inanities of school. I worried that parents would be offended by the political viewpoint of the narrator. What actually bothered them was the language, smoking and disrespectful attitude of the teens in the book. The boys liked the book, of course, for the same reasons some of their parents didn't like it, though they didn't have the background at their age to really get the historical period. And they loved the humor in it. But, we admit that this was a better book for older boys, and we had many nine to twelve-years-old in this group. The other bad choice we made, which also ended up being chosen by the boys, was "The Great Train Robbery" by Michael Crichton. We picked this book very quickly without much consideration, after some other possible books we had actually read had been thrown out for one reason or another, mainly because we planned to play the board game "Ticket to Ride" (which involves collecting cross-country train routes) on one of the activity nights, and we wanted a book that would tie in with the game. Silly us, you don't really have to pair activities and books--kids don't care about that kind of symmetry. We thought it would be a good historical novel, an obvious "boy" pick, and that our boys were good enough readers to handle it. But, here was our mistake--no one had read the book. As it turned out, the book was just too adult for our boys, and it had a lot of sexual innuendo that had our leaders quaking in their boots after the Pinkwater episode. Then, I discovered--the night before!-- the planned showing of the movie (how naive we were) ,as I previewed the film, that there were several scenes that were quite inappropriate for showing to this age group. An anxious late night phone conversation ensued, and we did end up showing the movie, just skipping the offending scenes. Though no parents complained about this one (they were probably all tired out from the Pinkwater book) and though we guessed that the sexual innuendo went right over the heads of our boys, they didn't love the book, because it just wasn't right for them, and many, perhaps most, didn't finish it. So, we learned some good lessons in book selection with these experiences. If you're still reading, you can see how we handled the problems with unhappy parents in the next section (to be continued.)