Home Education Magazine
September-October 1999 - Columns
Book Clubs for Parents and Kids - Becky Rupp
Book clubs all of a sudden have become hot stuff - which makes perfect sense, since The joys of reading a great (or even not-so-great) book is the opportunity to hash it over with interested friends afterwards. Articles about book clubs have been featured recently in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal; local bookstores often now sponsor not only one club, but many, for all ages and interests; and I have a dedicated and very social friend (Carole) who presently belongs to four: one feminist, one classically literary, one that includes gourmet dinners (with wine and fancy desserts), and one a "Mother/Daughter Book Club" for 12- to 14-year-old girls and their mothers. The aim of this last is to share books with strong positive female role models: choices so far, says Carole, have included L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon, Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy, and Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Book clubs vary widely in character and activity, depending on the goals, ages, and reading choices of the participants. If the range of available choices doesn't suit you (mother/daughter clubs, for example, don't do much for our three-boy household), the obvious solution is to start one of your own.
There are a large number of books on just this topic for book-club beginners. What to Read: The Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers by Mickey Pearlman (Harper Resource, 1999) includes not only blueprints for organizing a successful book club, but multiple annotated bibliographies for readers of all ages. The Mother Daughter Book Club by Shireen Dodson (HarperCollins, 1997) contains detailed descriptions of one woman's rewarding experiences with a mother-daughter monthly reading group, along with instructions for starting such a group, many suggestions for group activities, and reading lists. The Reading Group Book by David Laskin and Holly Hughes (Plume, 1995) is aimed at adults, but includes useful information for all book-club organizers; similarly The New York Public Library Guide to Reading Groups by Rollene Saal (Crown, 1995) covers all the start-up basics, with sample reading lists.
The basics, most club experts agree, are these: (1) how to recruit congenial group members, (2) how to determine the optimal size and meeting schedule for a group, (3) how to choose (or why not to choose) a group leader, (4) how to select good books, and (5) how to promote interesting and meaningful discussions. In my (and Carole's) personal experience, no two book clubs agree on any of these. Carole - she's social, remember? - claims that her most successful reading groups have at least 20 members: this protects the group from the inroads of inevitable absenteeism (that is, if two families don't show up, the whole thing doesn't fall apart) and ensures that there will still be enough voices for discussion even if several members have failed to read the featured book. Josh and I - also enthusiastic (but somewhat shy) book club participants - prefer groups of 10 to 12; this number, we feel, is enough to provide multiple viewpoints in discussion, but not so many that interaction becomes difficult. Carole's preferred meeting schedule is once a month - more than that, she warns, and nobody will have time to read the book; Josh and I like every other week, which we feel maintains a nice literary momentum. Carole's favored book clubs are leaderless; Josh and I have found that a book club without a leader tends to disintegrate, degenerate, and drift rapidly into unrelated conversational tangents, heavy in personal gossip. (On the other hand, group leadership can be tricky: we also at one point belonged to a book club with a leader so domineering that each session felt like a final exam. The group disbanded, citing irreconciliable differences, after a particularly uncomfortable debate over Othello.) Reading groups of elementary-aged kids generally need an a leader, not only to provide gentle direction, but to help out when (1) nobody is talking at all, or (2) everybody is talking at once.
The bottom line here - again - is that book clubs vary greatly depending on the ages, personalities, and preferences of the participants; just like homeschooling itself, there's no one right way to do it. Experiment and find out what suits you. Younger children may prefer a reading club which involves shared books paired with book-related hands-on projects and activities. An excellent source for organizers of such get-togethers is Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s by Shirley C. Raines and Robert J. Canady (Gryphon House, 1989), a collection of 450 different activities to accompany 90 favorite storybooks - among them Charlotte Zolotow's William's Doll, Barbara Berger's Grandfather Twilight, Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Ruth Heller's Chickens Aren't the Only Ones, and Judi Barrett's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. For each book, the authors include a few simple reading-group-style discussion suggestions along with assorted art, music, science, math, and cooking projects. There are several sequels, covering many more books and many more projects, among them More Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s, Even More Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s, and 450 More Story S-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-r-s.
Older (and less twitchy) readers may prefer a club that simply sits around on the living room floor and discusses. Straightforward as this sounds, it doesn't always come naturally: just what to read and how best to talk about it after you've read it are sticking points for many book clubs. Some helpful hints are found in Talking About Books by Marcia Fineman (Talking About Books, 1997), a step-by-step guide for promoting rewarding in-depth book discussions. (Included is a long list of general-purpose questions intended to lead club members into analyses of plots and subplots, characters, themes, settings, and the like.)
Another excellent source for the discussion-minded is the Great Books Foundation, which provides creatively designed reading programs for persons of all ages, from kindergarteners to high-school students to adults. Great Books participants read a featured story or literary selection (or, depending, have it read to them) and then join in a "shared inquiry discussion," directed by a group leader. Readings are chosen with their discussion potential in mind; accompanying questions are thought-provoking, attention-catching, and bound to elicit curiosity and debate.
We began this program when Josh, our oldest, was (more or less) in fourth grade, with a five-member family discussion group, which often met at the dinner table. Sample reading selections included Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes, Natalie Babbitt's The Imp in the Basket, Rudyard Kipling's The Elephant's Child, and A.A. Milne's Prince Rabbit. We read and loudly argued about them all ("Why did the courtiers at the end of the Emperor's story continue to carry the train that wasn't there??) - and Josh, at 16, firmly hooked, eventually joined an adult Great Books club at our local public library.
Single copies of all Great Books texts and Leader's Guides (with the alluring discussion questions) can be purchased by the general public; multiple copies can only be ordered by persons who have completed the Foundation's leader-training course. (Don't let this stop you; if you're interested in giving this a try, have each group member order their own materials separately.) For a catalog of materials or to obtain more information, contact the Great Books Foundation, 35 E. Wacker Dr., Suite 2300, Chicago, IL 60601-2298; (800) 222-5870; web site: http://www.greatbooks.org.
While the Great Books Foundation provides a nicely packaged reading-and-discussion program, many book groups prefer to choose their reading selections themselves. If you're looking for ideas, you might try The many annotated book list collections available. Good examples include The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children by Eden Ross Lipson (Times Books, 1991), a 500+-page collection of detailed book descriptions, grouped by age; The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin, 1995), a stirring defense of all things reading, plus many reading suggestions for kids of all ages; Great Books for Girls by Kathleen Odean (Ballantine, 1997), descriptions of over 600 books to "encourage and challenge" girls aged 2 to 14; and the accompanying Great Books for Boys (Kathleen Odean; Ballantine, 1998).
There are a also many terrific book review periodicals for those in search of reading material. Chief among these may be The Horn Book (check your local library, which almost certainly subscribes), a 100+-page bimonthly publication stuffed with reviews of new children's books, categorized by age and genre. A subscription of your own costs $36 annually; contact Horn Book, Inc., 11 Beacon St., Suite 1000, Boston, MA 02108; (617) 227-1555 or (800) 325-1170; web site: http://www.hbook.com. Book Links, a bimonthly publication of the American Library Association, is a superb source of reading ideas for kids in preschool through grade 8: each issue reviews large numbers of children's books creatively grouped together by theme. Readers discover the best in children's literature on such wide-ranging topics as Mozart, Russia, chemistry, World War I, Mexican art, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and dinosaurs. The magazine also includes articles on prominent children's authors and illustrators and extensive supplementary bibliographies. An annual subscription (6 issues) costs $24.95; contact Book Links, 434 W. Downer Pl., Aurora IL 60506; (630) 892-7465 or (800) 545-2433; web site: http://www.ala.org/BookLinks. Children's Literature is a monthly book review newsletter, filled with pithy reviews of kid's fiction and non-fiction books. An annual subscription (12 issues) costs $24; contact Children's Literature, 7513 Shadywood Rd., Bethesda, MD 20817; (301) 469-2070 or (800) 469-2070; web site: http://www.childrenslit.com.
For those who prefer to do their research by computer, there are many (many) on-line book review sources. Just to get you started:
A to Zebra (http://www.atozebra.com) is a searchable database of kid's book reviews, grouped by age or genre (poetry, history, science, multicultural books, and so on). There's also a print version, published twice a year.
The Children's Literature Web Guide (http://www.acs.ucalgary.ca/~dkbrown) is a superb and enormous literary site for kids, with links to book reviews, book discussion groups, literary organizations, on-line books and stories, and much more.
Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site (http://www.carolhurst.com) includes a large number of book reviews categorized by appropriate age group (pre-K to grade 9), or listed by author, title, or genre.
The Scoop (http://www.Friend.ly.Net/scoop/) includes book reviews, book-related activities for kids, educational resources, and news from the world of children's publishing.
Children's Literature (http://www.hollins.edu/html/library/child_lit.htm) includes kid's book reviews, learning activities, links to children's literature magazines, and a lot of interesting information on banned children's books (which just might be a good book club discussion topic in the making).
In some reading groups, the leader chooses the books to be read and discussed; in others, reading selections are picked democratically, by group consensus. If your group, however, is at a loss - or has hit a contentious stalemate - you might consider presenting members with an introductory "booktalk." In booktalks - a popular technique among librarians - a speaker briefly presents a range of books (often books on a related theme or in a similar genre) to an audience in such a way that all present are inspired to run right out and read. Hints for how to do this - plus many sample ready-to-deliver booktalks for kids of all ages - can be found in Joni Bodart-Talbot's Booktalk! 3 (Wilson, 1988); Mary Ann Paulin's Creative Uses of Children's Literature (Library Professional Publications, 1982) and More Creative Uses of Children's Literature (Library Professional Publications, 1992); and Carol Littlejohn's Talk That Book! (Linworth Publishing, 1999). Paulin, for example, shows how to introduce young readers to a wide variety of books on such topics as time travel, the Holocaust, and survival literature.
The only problem post-booktalk, of course, is trying to pick just one... but then when it comes to book clubs, members make their own rules. Why not encourage each kid to read a different book on a similar topic, then share and compare? Try a book club for science lovers, with an accompanying book-related experiment; an animal book club, with fiction and nonfiction selections about a different animal featured at each meeting; a geography book club, in which kids read their way around the world or across the U.S.A.
Go for it.
All those books!
And socialization too.
A "Mice" Way to Learn About Government
Basic information about American government - in rhyme - with an assortment of very political mice. There are three books in this series to date, with more in the works: the first, Woodrow, the White House Mouse, describes the office of the presidency, beginning with the inauguration of Woodrow G. Washingtail who arrives at his Inaugural Ball with First Lady Bess and the eight Washingtail children, Truman, Franklin, Quentin, Kermit, Dolley, Millie, George, and Art. House Mouse, Senate Mouse describes the workings of Congress and the process by which a bill becomes a law. In this case, under the guidance of the Squeaker of the House and the Mouse-jority Leader, Congress declares a National Cheese (American, despite factions in favor of cheddar, Roquefort, and Parmesan). Marshall, the Courthouse Mouse explains the functions and operations of the Supreme Court, under the wise direction of Chief Justice Marshall J. Mouse. ("The court now in session is nine special mice -/They're all very smart and they're all very nice!/They are called "justices," and their great contribution/Is to guard and protect the Mouse Constitution!")
Each book - for teacher/parent reference - includes pages of (mouseless) "Historical Notes." A complete curriculum guide to the books, A "Mice" Way to Learn About Government, is also available, with teaching suggestions, activities and projects, useful web addresses, letterwriting information for young activists, and supplementary bibliographies. And young cooks may enjoy Capital Cooking With Woodrow and Friends, a collection of simple recipes interspersed with governmental "Fun Facts" (and pictures of mice). Kids make "Political Party Popcorn," "Pentagon Punch," and "Veto Veggie Dip" (and learn that Abe Lincoln once had a pet pig).
The books are written and illustrated by Peter and Cheryl Barnes and published by VSP Books. Picture books cost $15.95 each; the curriculum guide, $9.95. Available from VSP Books, P.O. Box 17011, Alexandria, VA 22302; (703) 684-8142 or (800) 441-1949; web site: http://www.VSPBooks.com.
Home Training Tools
A 50+-page catalog of "Science Equipment & Materials for Home Schools." Many of the materials are clearly targeted at fundamentalist Christians - there's a section of "Creation Science" resources, for example - but all are nicely described such that parents of varying beliefs and backgrounds can pick and choose. (When a geology text subscribes to Biblical chonology, for example, the catalog says so; when it doesn't, ditto.) Several different science curricula (all Christian) are offered, for students of all ages; as well as a wide range of individual resources categorized under "Microscopes & Accessories," "Life Sciences," "Earth Sciences," "Physical Sciences," and "General Science." A source for chemicals and dissection specimens - which can be difficult for homeschoolers to lay their paws on - as well as experiment kits, laboratory glassware, measuring apparatus, and supplies for raising your own butterflies, earthworms, frogs, ants, and sea monkeys.
For a catalog, contact Home Training Tools, 2827 Buffalo Horn Dr., Laurel, MT 59044-8325; (800) 860-6272; fax (888) 860-2344; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: http://www.HomeTrainingTools.com.
Meet the Great Composers (and more)
Meet the Great Composers by June Montgomery and Maurice Hinson (Alfred Publishing Company) is an informational activity book and CD set covering the lives, times, and music of 17 famous composers. For each "composer-unit" is included a (big, black-and-white) picture and a fact box about each musician, a short illustrated biography, information about the composer's music or that of his/her historical time period, and a game or puzzle activity sheet. The accompanying CD contains samples of each composer's works; each study unit includes instructions for appropriate suggested listening.
A complete classroom kit (book, CD, and set of reproducible activity sheets) costs $29.95; the book only, $8.95. Available from music dealers or from Alfred Publishing Co., Inc., 16380 Roscoe Blvd. P.O. Box 10003, Van Nuys, CA 91410-0003; (818) 891-5999; web site: http://www.alfredpub.com.
Alfred publishes an immense and varied range of music materials for instrumental students of all skill levels, from preschool beginners on up. The company is an excellent source for music theory workbooks, flash cards, lesson books, "Teach Yourself" programs, and musical computer software.
A colorful and vocabulary-enhancing game of "word racing" in which players hop their pawns around a playing board as they compete to come up with the proper word to fit a definition - or rather, according to the playing instructions, a "De(fun)ition." There are 1200 included on the red-and-blue "Blurt" cards. Examples include: "An airship that resembles a large balloon and can be steered and can carry things" (BLIMP); "A ball with a map of the world on it" (GLOBE); and "The daughter of a king or queen" (PRINCESS).
Everybody in "Blurt!" plays at once, which is where the blurting comes in: players take turns acting as readers, each reading a definition from a selected card out loud, while the other players all rush to come up with the correct one-word answer. Whoever says the right word first gets to advance his or her pawn toward the finish line.
"Blurt!" is recommended for 3 to 12 players, aged 10 and up; instructions are included for a junior version.
"Blurt!" costs about $25; available from toy and game stores, or contact Patch Products, Inc., P.O. Box 268, Beloit, WI 53512-0268; (608) 362-6896 or (800) 524-4263; e-mail: email@example.com; web site: http://www.patchproducts.com.
The Big Idea
A new series of science biographies for high-school-aged students and adults. The Big Idea series, states the publisher, "introduces the finest scientific minds in history - focusing on each scientist's one defining discovery or invention that permanently changed the way we live and view the world." Volumes in the series are short - each about 100 pages long - and printed in large-sized type; they're almost right on for science-minded middle-school students. The personal information about each scientist, however, is definitely slanted toward older readers: speculations (or revelations) about sexual behavior or orientation, marital (and extramarital) catastrophes, suggestive jokes, and the like. The Big Idea is an excellent idea; if your kids are mature enough to cope - for example - with stories about Albert Einstein's possible illegitimate daughter and Alan Turing's homosexuality, the books contain well-done overviews of major scientific principles, briefly and clearly presented.
Fine for savvy teenagers.
The books are written by Paul Strathern and published by Anchor Books. Titles in the series include Newton and Gravity, Einstein and Relativity, Turing and the Computer, Hawking and Black Holes, and - in press - Crick, Watson, and DNA and Curie and Radioactivity.
Assorted useful learning tools for kids aged 3 and up. Among the selections are colorful number "Tile Puzzles" for preschoolers, one for each number 1-10: the 8 puzzle, for example, includes a big black number eight, the word "eight," an eight-sided STOP sign, an eight-petaled sunflower, and an eight-tentacled octopus.
For older kids, the company sells dry-erase multiplication practice boards in sets of four, covering the times tables from 1 to 12; on one side of the board, kids fill in the tables in order; on the other, they hone their skills on random problems, shown in both horizontal and vertical formats. "Building Sentences" sets encourage kids to practice grammar skills. Each set contains about 500 color-coded word tiles - on perforated heavy cardboard; you tear them apart yourself - with which kids are challenged to assemble correct sentences. There are definite correct answers here - "Building Sentences" tiles are not supposed to be thrown together any which way, but properly ordered to accomodate capital letters and included punctuation marks. Each set covers a different theme: kids can concentrate on building scientific or literary sentences, or sentences about famous people or fairy tale characters. From the science set: "Wind, water, and volcanoes are always changing the earth." "Seaweed and algae are two examples of water plants." "Did you know that no two snow crystals are alike?"
"Precision Thinking Activity Cards" - packs of 7 x 9-inch heavy-duty illustrated question cards, suitable for education on the go, in the back seat of the family car - present kids with a thought-provoking problem or challenge, plus a series of ten questions. A picture of a cube, cylinder, and pyramid, for example, is followed by such questions as "Which figure has the most faces?" "Which figure has six sides?" "Which figure can roll?"
Tile puzzles cost $4.50 each; multiplication practice boards (set of four), $19.95; "Building Sentences" sets, $14.95 each; and "Precision Thinking Activity Cards," $9.95 per set.
To order or for more information, contact SA Productions, 1941 Friendship Dr., Suite A, El Cajon, CA 92020-1144; (619) 449-5696; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web site: http://www.sapro.com.
© 1999, Becky Rupp
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