By Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil and Deborah Vriend Van Duinen
Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world.
Recently, the Writers Who Care blog has discussed college readiness, alternative forms of literacy, a teacher-as-writer model, the concept of providing real audiences for writers, and advocacy related to standardized testing and teacher preparation. We haven’t yet discussed, however, what reading can bring to writing. Writers learn best by example, and research has consistently shown that our writing improves when we are exposed to good books. Rebecca Olness shares that even younger writers “can learn what good writing is all about by hearing and loving the work of others.” When we read, we not only revel in a good plot, but marvel at the turning of phrases, the clever vocabulary, the way that imagery can bring us inside a text. In Image Grammar, Harry Noden suggests that we can read good writing (i.e. good books), notice what makes that writing good–what makes it a work of art–and then challenge ourselves to try similar approaches in our own writing. This approach is supported by a wide body of scholarship (Kelly Gallagher and Ralph Fletcher, for example) affirming that students will most likely experiment with and improve their writing when exposed to quality mentor texts.
A community-based version of the writing-reading connection is the book club–a place where all types of people gather to discuss books. With book clubs, we create space to discuss what we’ve discovered in books, enjoy food and drink, and consider what we’d like to read next, knowing that in these very spaces we are encouraging others to become better readers, better writers, better people.
Deb started a mother-daughter book club two years ago, knowing that it would likely benefit all those involved, and Gretchen was happy to help in this effort. Our experiences with this book club have reminded us of the powerful ways that book clubs can impact our reading and writing. These include:
Community. C.S. Lewis is credited as saying that “we read to know we are not alone.” Some book clubs are formed out of love for a profession (like book clubs for teachers). Book clubs can also form over a love for a particular genre, a desire to read works by a specific author, a commitment to exploring important life questions, or a shared religious faith. At each book club’s core, though, is the belief that members achieve their reading goals by working together. The community that a book club provides affirms our reading choices and encourages us to keep asking important questions about the book. Participating in a mother-daughter book club places us in good company: we witness mothers and daughters choosing, reading and passionately discussing good books, experiencing meaningful cross-generational literacy with each gathering. Given this experience, we’re not surprised that Alanna Rochelle Dail and colleagues found that “book clubs have the potential to promote increased enjoyment of books among teachers, families, and the broader community as well as to expand personal and home literacy practices” (54).
Accountability. When we are part of a book club, we know that our discussions will likely depend on our having read the book. Thus, we commit to reading regularly and preparing responses ahead of time. Reading alone can help us consider the text’s significance to our own lives or why we find that particular text enjoyable; however, knowing that we are part of an ongoing conversation about books can help us to read differently, thinking ahead to what questions and discoveries we can share. We know that we should bring our own interpretations, questions and discoveries to the table. Penny Kittle reminds us that good readers have a plan. Book club is a place where all of us think about and execute this plan: what kinds of readers are we? what have we read so far? how/what are we doing with what we’re reading now? what are we reading next, and when will we gather again? For our pre-teen daughters Nola and Claire, there was nothing like a group of girls their own age, wanting to read and gather to discuss books, to motivate them to read well and often. And, for us as moms, there’s nothing like persistent daughters asking how far in the book we are to hold us accountable in our reading for pleasure. Such accountability has brought a fringe benefit: it has helped us discover more about what kind of readers our daughters are, learning their preferences, strengths, challenges. And reading the same book for the club has been a gateway for each of us to discuss other books that our daughters have enjoyed. Gretchen, for example, learned in one of our book club meetings that Nola likes Palacio’s Wonder and Anderson’s Chains. It’s also become a standing joke that Nola continues to remind Gretchen that she simply must read Fever 1793.
Modeling. It is in community and accountability where we find one of the most compelling benefits of the book club: forming a reader identity, and modeling this identity for others. Having a reader identity means that our sons, daughters, students, partners, friends, and colleagues witness for themselves the pleasure that we find in reading. They see us setting aside time regularly to enjoy reading with other people. They see us frequenting bookstores and libraries, building our relationships, our habits, our waking and our rising, our very lives around books. They see us reading a variety of books written by diverse people. They hear us discussing books at the water cooler or in the hall between classes. They watch us writing book reviews for GoodReads. In modeling a well-connected, life-giving reader identity, we hope that others will, in turn, take this identity as their own.
Holistic literacy. Teachers work tirelessly to help their students become better readers and writers. A book club can broaden and fortify classroom discoveries or experiences at home, helping children love reading at school and at home. We desire for our children to not just discuss books as homework, but to see texts as lived, shared experiences, trading books with their classmates as well as neighbors. We want them to play imaginatively with their friends, acting out what they’ve encountered as readers, and experience for themselves how books can help them identify, speak about, and solve present and future problems. We hope that they see the natural connections between reading and writing, experiencing in authentic ways how reading and writing can inform, encourage, and strengthen each other.
Practically speaking: Starting and Running a Book Club
There are multiple possibilities beyond the mother-daughter niche of our group: father/son, mentor/mentee, a grandparent/grandchild dynamic or faculty/student. For those separated by distance, it’s even possible for group members to Skype in or use Google Hangout for the discussion portion. For our particular group, Deb assembled us using a simple principle: identify a variety of people who might be interested, contact them, and commit to gathering regularly. The ages of our daughters vary, but range from 9 to 11; our group includes some siblings. Some of us know each other quite well; some of us work or study together; some of us exercise together; some of us worship together. The one thing we all have in common, though, is our love for books and our desire to spend time with our daughters in a book club context.
While our group varies in size each time depending on who can make it, we aim to meet every six weeks throughout the year. We’ve read and discussed multiple titles (for a list, see here), sometimes chosen for specific reasons (for example, poetry collection May B for National Poetry Month). We take turns hosting and organizing the book club; for the most part, the mother and daughter hosting make the decisions about the discussion questions, food, and activities.
Our book clubs follow a predictable format usually lasting around an hour and a half:
- as people arrive, facilitate some initial, low-risk response activities, such as the ones found here;
- transition into a more involved discussion about the book, perhaps asking questions based on these tips, but allowing for the discussion to develop naturally out of everyone’s interests;
- a craft or other activity relevant to the book, paired with a related snack–and tea/coffee–enjoyed by everyone.
As with any activity involving energetic young people, this format has been delightfully flexible every time we meet, and we work to accommodate everyone’s interests and activity levels. We pitch in and help with hosting, choosing activities, and cleaning up.
If you are interested in starting a book club, resources can be found here, here, and here, and your local library can be a tremendous help with locating and reserving book copies, planning questions and activities, or even suggesting future book possibilities. Aside from scheduling our get-togethers, we have avoided rigid planning for the meetings themselves, realizing that we mustn’t answer every question or complete every activity. Given the social nature of literacy and how this book club is a way to invite girls and their moms into a discourse about books, sometimes the best comments about what we’ve read come at unexpected times, as we eat food or do an activity.
As English educators and parents, we have participated in book clubs intentionally, knowing that good readers make good writers. Throughout these rich experiences, we desire to position our daughters in a community that values genuine connections with the written word, with the hope that such engagement will strengthen and deepen well beyond the teen years.
Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Zeeland, Michigan with her husband and four young children. She is an associate professor of English and writing program administrator at Aquinas College, where she teaches literature, writing, and secondary English methods.
Deborah Vriend Van Duinen (email@example.com) is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Hope College. Her research and teaching focus on adolescent literacy and young adult literature. She lives in Holland, Michigan with her husband and children.