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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Reading A Year Without Autumn For a School Book Club

During February and March I was part of a team of 3 moms who led a weekly, lunchtime school book discussion for 5th grade girls (a group that included my own daughter).  Our book was A Year Without Autumn by Liz Kessler.  Like all my book discussion reports, I will begin with the publisher's summary:

The author of the best-selling Emily Windsnap series spins a gripping tale about a girl who stumbles into the future--and must change its course to save a friendship. 
Jenni Green's family vacation has finally arrived! Even though she has to deal with her annoying little brother, her slightly overbearing dad, and her very pregnant mom, she gets to spend a week with her bestest friend in the world, Autumn. But twelve-year-old Jenni's world turns upside down when she takes an old elevator to visit Autumn and discovers that everything has changed: not only is her friend in a different condo, but tragedy has struck Autumn's family, Jenni's mother has had her baby, and everyone is a year older. When Jenni realizes that the elevator caused her to skip a whole year, she tries to go back, but soon finds that fixing things won't be as easy as pressing a button. How can she alter the past and keep her family and Autumn's from falling apart? With honesty and insight, Liz Kessler explores how the bonds of family and friendship can endure through time.
I initially agreed to help lead this club because they were having trouble finding people to help and they knew I was a librarian, so they reached out to me.  Due to my work schedule though, I could not commit to more than 2 meetings, but as it turned out, that was enough.

The group ran 8 weeks, during which the girls were asked to read 2 chapters a week. The discussion would be about those 2 chapters specifically, and, as the discussion went on, we could relate the current chapters to what we had already read.  Also, we were asked to make sure the girls made predictions at the end of each meeting as to what would happen next in the story.  So it was very important for people not to read ahead.  This was no easy request however, as the book was very compelling, but overall the girls honored this rule.

I led a middle discussion and the final discussion. I chose to do the last one on purpose, as this is where I knew my skills would be the most useful, although as you will see in #3 below, I am now okay leading a discussion of part of a book.

Since I only led 2 of the meetings, and we read bits of the book at a time, I am not going to walk you through our discussions in detail as I do for my monthly discussions, rather, I am going to use this post to share with you 3 important things I learned by being a part of this book club.  These 3 things are concepts and skills I can now take to improve my own book group.

  1. It recharged my batteries.  While I was in working with the girls, I was also creating a brand new "Re-Charge Your Book Club" webinar for a library system in the Kansas City Metro Area.  So while I was methodically going through my strategies for reinvigorating an adult book group in the doldrums, I was experiencing these 10 and 11 year old girls pure joy at getting to discuss this book.  There were times girls were literally jumping out of their chairs to have the chance to talk.  They were invested in characters and situations with all of their hearts.  I would ask them pretty detailed questions about characters' motivations and they would jump at the chance to share their thoughts.  One other thing I loved about them was that they were quick to make a judgement but then after listening to their classmates, they were also easily willing to rethink that initial opinion.  They were open minded and curious, a perfect combination for a fruitful book discussion.  For me, it was so great to see a group so eager to discuss, so eager to share ideas with each other, and so eager to learn from one and other.  I now saw that the key that re-charging any long time adult group, or long time adult book club leader, is to recapture that pure joy in the discussion itself; the discovery of new ideas, the joy of the story, and the sharing of the book and how it makes us feel.  It is that simple.  Get the group back to the "why" they got together in the first place and you improve the entire experience for everyone.  This became the heart of my brand new webinar, and now I can share this with a larger audience.
  2. It got me to rethink what questions need to be asked.  When you can only ask questions about part of a book, you really need to think about what needs to be discussed much more closely.  I created questions that were much more focused and pointed for this club.  For example, we spent a lot of time talking about the characters in detail. Not just if we liked them or not, but how they were portrayed, why they were in the story, etc...  I asked about specific phrasing, plot devices, and smaller events.  This allowed us to focus on why the author created the story and what her intentions were in much more detail than when I am discussing an entire book at once.  The girls were really drawn to these questions and considered them in the weeks that followed too.  I then took this experience with me when I led my March book club at the BPL.  I think you can even see the benefits in my report here.  We really focused in more than usual and people responded well to it.
  3. It got me to consider taking a book in pieces.  This was a strange experience for me.  I had never discussed a book in pieces.  Now, I would never be able to meet weekly with my group and discuss only a few chapters at a time, but we do have a hard and fast 400 page limit rule in the BPL book club.  We never waiver from it.  But there have been times when people have wanted to discuss a longer book, most notable with John Adams. I said no outright without considering an alternative.  Well, do I feel stupid now because we easily could have broken it up into 2 larger chunks and had a great discussion.  So now when someone asks for a longer book, I will consider offering it as a 2 month option.  And I think doing that will allow my group to reap some of the benefits in numbers 1 and 2 as well.
As a final note, during the last meeting all 3 parents were there and I saw how wonderfully this book could work for a mother-daughter book discussion.  There is enough here for adults-- such as the nature of friendships and whether or not you would go to the future to see yourself and your life if you could-- and these topics are especially ripe for a multi-generational discussion.

But what I am most happy about with this experience is that I can say in all honesty that I learned from the girls as much as they learned from me.

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