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Home Education Magazine

November-December 2004 - Articles and Columns

Kids' Classic Book Club - Kathy Ceceri

If you asked me to name the best thing about our homeschool group's Kids' Classic Book Club, I'd have a hard time choosing just one. Every month, I love to watch heated discussions (Was Mary Poppins really mean or was it an act? Why did Bilbo keep the ring a secret in The Hobbit?) where the youngest kids more than hold their own with their older siblings. And it's really cool how the boys will read a "girl's" book like The Secret Garden, and the girls dive into Treasure Island, without thinking about it twice. Then there are the activities. We've visited a candy-maker's shop to talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, picked wild strawberries for lunch after discussing the city boy who wants to see if he can survive in the wild in My Side of the Mountain, and once I even got everyone to paint my back fence for (what else?) Tom Sawyer. Oh yes, and the books themselves--what a great way to catch up with The Railway Children, The Phantom Tollbooth and other time-honored stories I missed reading when I was a kid, revisit old favorites like A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and discover great new books like The Thief Lord and Holes.

But the best part of belonging to a homeschoolers' book club may be knowing that, in amongst all the Star Wars novelizations and Garfield comic books my kids strew around the house, they're going to read at least one good, meaty, thought-provoking book every month--all without any nagging by me!

The Kids' Classic Book Club got its start more than two years ago when a couple of moms sent a notice out to the local homeschool network saying they wanted to start a monthly reading group for kids seven and up. About a dozen families came at first, but eventually that number whittled itself down to a hardcore group of around eight families, who each take turns hosting meetings, planning activities and providing a snack or lunch. The adults choose the books with the kids' input (Sorry, but they're just going to have to read Captain Underpants or The Baby-sitter's Club on their own.) from sources that include personal or family favorites, books we've heard about or always wanted to read and lists of recommended children's literature (see sidebar). Because of the range of ages, we tend to stay away from the gloomy kind of young adult novel some "experts" push on preteen readers. But that doesn't mean we stay away from difficult issues--just that we look for classic treatments of serious themes that have served children well over the years. We try to vary action stories with animal tales, older classics with more current bestsellers and books that are demanding with quick reads. And we check to make sure there are multiple copies available through the library system, or that it's out in paperback. (The big exception being the latest Harry Potter. Everyone in the group ended up at The midnight release parties at the local bookstore, carting home their own spanking-new hardcover version) Once the next choice is agreed upon, it seems like our hardcore group of readers can't wait to get their hands on the book to talk about it.

Some members of our club, especially families with younger children, make each month's selection their bedtime read-aloud. (I often see my older son cocking an ear over the top bunk when I'm reading to his little brother, even if he's already several chapters ahead of us reading it on his own.) Listening to the book on tape or CD has also worked well, especially when a book has hard-to-read-aloud dialects. But whether you're reading or listening, it helps to have everyone using the same version. Families that tried reading simplified adaptations, listening to abridged audio books, or watching the movie missed out some of the flavor and flow of the book and had trouble following the discussion. (Of course, there are some excellent movie versions of children's books around, but we wait until after book club meets to watch them, to avoid getting the two mixed up.)

We've found the key to good discussions (besides reading the book) is research. It's easy to go online and find the author's biography, how she came to write the book, and what effect, if any, it had on society. When we read Black Beauty, Barb, that month's host, told us how author Anna Sewell wrote that very British story while living in America, and about the part the book played in improving the treatment of horses and other animals in Victorian society. Then she got the kids involved by asking them to name the human and equine characters and say which ones they liked and disliked and why. She had them talk about what happened in the book and think about what the author's intentions might have been. Now that they're old pros at this, the kids'll often come with their own questions and issues they're bursting to discuss. And if things go slow, there are often online sources for discussion questions as well. For the two meetings I hosted (Mr. Popper's Penguins and I, Robot), I dug up fun facts, jokes and trivia questions not about the books themselves, but on the books' subjects, and used our computer to show the kids live images of penguins at a zoo in Montreal and clips of actual robots in action.

While some of the activities at our meetings have gotten pretty elaborate, most of the time it's just a simple craft, like bookmarks or paper flowers. For The Hobbit there was pin the tail on the dragon, and for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the host family designed their own board game. The kids made snow cones for Mr. Popper's Penguins and designed their own shields for Don Quixote. And although we didn't try it, I always thought it would have been fun to practice being a pickpocket, like the game Fagin's boys played in Oliver Twist.

Our Kids' Classic Book Club has worked so well that last month The moms suggested we read a separate, related book to discuss when the kids are done and have run off to play. So far, the kids' books have outclassed the adult books by a mile. But we'll try again next month. Because that's the other best thing about book club: showing the kids that reading is a pleasure you can enjoy your whole life through.

2004 Kathy Ceceri

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November-December 2004 - Articles and Columns

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