Fall is a fantastic time of year to be an educator; it’s the season to try out new ideas and refine old favorites. What fun it is bringing out all of the new books and craft supplies—oh how my little ones love those bags bursting with googly eyes and colorful feathers! The unveiling of recently purchased science materials makes my youngest scientist clap his hands. Scotch tape comes out as my middle guy hangs up our new map of China. Our homeschool room is transformed with its new wall hangings and shelves that burst with project ideas and materials.
With all this excitement and everything that it entails, it’s been a while since I’ve posted here. It sure feels good to be back!
In the spirit of this season, I’m exploring new activities to stimulate lively literary discussion in our home. As my boys become more sophisticated readers, increasingly they embrace opportunities to talk about their most beloved and reviled storybook characters.
Meaningful engagement with literature is a vital skill that develops students’ capacity to look critically and creatively at the world in which they live. These skills must be a touchstone in STEAM education. As technology continues to evolve at an exciting, but almost dizzying pace, literature grounds our thinking and reminds us to constantly examine and assess our ever-changing world.
I see child/parent book groups as a fun and logical starting point for those wishing to inspire critical thinking among young people. My former neighbor, the Great Becky Linafelt, has long been an inspiration to me both as a mother and as a music educator in the Washington, DC area. My first exposure to child/parent book groups was through Becky. I’m grateful for this opportunity to chat with her about books and young people.
Becky, for years I have loved hearing stories about your mother/daughter book group. How old was your daughter when you decided to begin this group?
Eleanor was at the end of her kindergarten year. She would have just turned 6.
Eleanor is 16 now and the group is still getting together regularly after all this time. Do I have that correct?
Yes, we just recently celebrated our 10-year anniversary. We meet every 6 weeks or so and just finished our 70th book!
That is amazing! When you began meeting, what was your vision for this group?
The style has, of course, evolved over time. When we started, the moms chose the books and we would take turns hosting. The hosts would come up with the questions to be discussed. All of us were expected to raise our hands when we wanted to add something, as we didn’t want everyone talking at once. That worked surprisingly well. Our first book was The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, which has remained an absolute favorite of the whole group.
You gave a copy of that book to our family. It is a great read! What sort of challenges did you face starting out? How did you go about creating a comfortable space for everyone?
What is interesting is that all of the challenges that we thought we would face, like reluctant speakers, didn’t seem to emerge. We were BLOWN AWAY by how much the girls were able to absorb. They remembered details, which the moms would have no memory of. They brought fresh, new, interesting perspectives, which differed from ours.
At the beginning, one of the greatest pleasures was that we were reading the books out loud to the girls. That, of course, made for such a special time. Later on, as the girls became strong readers, they would choose to read the books separately. There was a point where some of us were still reading out loud and some of us were reading the books on our own. Now we are all reading on our own. We miss snuggling up and reading together!
One of the ways in which we made the space comfortable was by setting “book group etiquette rules” such as raising hands, listening well and not interrupting. Also, taking turns hosting allows each mother/daughter pair to come up with the questions and lead the discussion. Some who were more hesitant to talk became chatty when they were able to lead. The book group setting also needs to be one in which all members feel safe and comfortable talking, but also safe and comfortable not talking. We all have our days when we don’t have the energy to bring words to the discussion, but we still benefit from just being present.
What does your group look for in a book when making its reading selections?
The advice I would give to other book groups starting up is to have some guidelines at the beginning. How will you choose your book? How will you come up with questions? Do you have any guidelines for group etiquette? Keep in mind that all of these things will change a bit as the children grow.
At the start of our group, the moms chose what books we would read. We wanted to make sure that we always stuck with books that all the moms were comfortable with and that we didn’t introduce any themes that someone may not want to tackle yet. Later on, the girls became involved in the choosing of the books. At this point in time, mom/daughter pairs suggest three books, which they bring to our meeting. They present them and then we vote on a title as a group. Majority wins and that is our next read. That mother/daughter pair hosts the next meeting and comes up with the questions, which are written on strips of paper and passed around to the group at the meeting. The questions are numbered in a way which makes the conversation flow. The girl/mom with a question is responsible for calling on people during the discussion, so we all have a turn and we are all discussion leaders. For the most part, this has worked really well. We got into the habit of raising our hands during discussion time so we wouldn’t talk over each other or interrupt and also so no one would dominate the discussion. Some members are, of course, quieter than others, but this is a natural outcome.
Over the years, did you notice certain themes were especially popular among the girls?
Yes, adventure stories. From the crazy adventures of Huck Finn and Swallows and Amazon, to our most recent read, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, adventure tales have been a popular theme since the beginning.
So much of children’s literature involves a dead mother, non-existent parents or some sort of parental drama. This has been interesting as all of our families are intact. We have discussed this theme and I remember early on that among our children one of the most frequent play themes was “orphan girl.” Ha! I think this is a healthy way of thinking about and playing out independence and also exploring the possibility of how they would survive, if indeed they did lose a parent. That is certainly such a conscious/sub-conscious fear when we are young.
How do external factors such as current events or school issues impact your discussions?
In terms of current events, we have talked and read a bit about being gay and two of our members have come out in the last few years. We also talk about race. Our best discussion on this subject came through reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. After reading the book, we watched the movie together.
Isn’t it amazing how many generations will be deeply affected by that book? Overall, we don’t have an “agenda” when choosing books. We just really aim to pick something that will be a good read, that works within our school year schedule and which will offer up a good discussion.
I imagine that watching the girls grow and find their voices within this group is an amazing thing to witness. How did the group change most as the girls got older? How did the roles of the moms in the group evolve as well?
This book group has offered all of us continuity through change. Over the years, we have supported one another. As I mentioned, two of the girls came out and they have been fully supported by both the moms and the other girls in the group. One of our book group moms, who has been battling a rare, aggressive cancer for over a year, is such a source of strength and inspiration to all of us. Several of the moms are caring for their elderly mothers and dealing with very difficult transitions. As the girls have all gone through puberty, the moms have entered or passed through menopause.
So, hormonal changes, life changes, health changes; we have seen it all! But somehow, we have managed to still get together once a month or once every two months to talk about something we have all either seen with our eyes or heard with our ears. And we come with all sorts of different perspectives. It is a gift to hear the views of a different generation. It is a free place for moms and daughters to talk and respect one another. It doesn’t hold any social awkwardness because we have known each other for so long.
What, in your opinion, were the most valuable outcomes of this book group?
I realize that we just have a small amount of time left for this wonderful book group. What a great gift it has been. One of our members goes off to college next year. Maybe we can Skype her in for group discussions! We have wanted to take a group trip forever and I think we really need to make that happen this year. Perhaps up to NYC together. We could go to the Met and pretend to be in the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Or maybe we could go to the shore and pretend to be back in Swallows and Amazons (though really we need to go to England for that!) Maybe a mountain retreat and we could pretend we were in Heidi. There are so many possibilities. Gosh – we have really been the luckiest mamas in the world to have had these past ten years of reading with our girls and to share in this journey of motherhood together as well.
Thank you Becky!
I’m inspired and would love to give something like this a try in my own community. What about you? What are your experiences with child/parent book groups? Has anyone tried this with boys or multi-age groups? What do you do to engage in literary discussions with your children?
Enjoy this list of wonderful reads used in Becky’s book group:
The Wheel on the School, Meindert Dejong
Winnie Dancing on Her Own, Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Understood Betsy, Dorothy Canfield
The Borrowers, Mary Norton
Thimble Summer, Elizabeth Enright
The Railway Children, E. Nesbit
The Moffats, Eleanor Estes
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L. Konigsburg
James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
A Stitch in Time, Penelope Lively
The Fledgling, Jane Langton
Half Magic, Edward Eager
Gone Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats Of NIMH, Robert C. O’Brien
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, Jeanne Birdsall
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink
The Hundred Dresses, Eleanor Estes
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Doll People, Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin
The Great Brain, John D. Fitzgerald
The Cricket in Times Square, George Selden
Miracles on Maple Hill, Virginia Sorensen
The Secret of the Andes, Ann Nolan Clark
Moominland Midwinter, Tove Jansson
Meet the Austins, Madeleine L’Engle
The House of Dies Drear, Virginia Hamilton
Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson
The Long Secret (Harriet the Spy), Louise Fitzhugh
Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Spear
The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
The Giver, Lois Lowry
The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place, E.L. Konisburg
Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Cheaper by the Dozen, Frank Gilbreth, Jr.
The London Eye Mystery, Siobhan Dowd
Return to Sender, Julia Alvarez
When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
Invisible Lines, Mary Amato
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
A Body in the Library, Agatha Christie
Distant Waves, Suzanne Weyn
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly
Nation, Terry Pratchett
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Sherman Alexie
Out of my Mind, Sharon Draper
Peeled, Joan Bauer
Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson
Moon Over Manifest, Clare Vanderpool
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
Dracula, Bram Stocker
To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer
An Abundance of Katherines, John Greene
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier
Run, Ann Patchett
Jump, Elisa Carbone
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
Clover, Dori Sanders
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin
In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez
Enders Game, Orson Scott Card
Weetzie Bat, Francesca Lia Block
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
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