Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Clubbin'

One of my dreams as a librarian was to start up a teen book club. One that was just high schoolers who could handle heavy issue books and where we could get into some meaty (but fun) discussions of the topics presented.

Color me thrilled when I not only got to start it but got the group of kids I got.

It all started with book talking -- I presented the idea to the kids and got a few bites that way. I talked to my regular teen volunteer who, at first, thought it would be a boring thing. Then as I told her more and more my goals and vision and the fact that I wanted to leave most of it up to them, the teens, she was hooked. I set up a planning meeting and invited all interested parties on one of the local high school's early release dates.

I had five kids show up. Five is huge! It was an excellent mix of guys and girls, and it ranged the entire school grade wise. We enjoyed cookies (which they would have been totally happy without, honestly), creating a name for our club, and coming up with some of the things we'd like to try. I'm a completely open and flexible person, and I'm extremely lucky in my job because my boss lets me try anything I want to. So when my kids say they want to do something, I'm going to make it happen if I can. At this meeting, I also got the kids to give me boat loads of contact information, including their phone number, email, English teacher, favorite books/authors, and preferred means of being reached. This last part is key to keeping in contact with them; mine want Facebook notices and texts, which I'm working on. At the end of our planning meeting, we'd picked our first book club book, a date to meet (and let me note -- I suggested meeting once a month but they insisted on meeting every other week!), a place to meet, and then my favorite part: I pulled out about 50 advanced reader copies of books I had at home and let them at it.

Those were some happy kids.

To facilitate picking a common book, I pulled about 10 different books sitting in our teen area that caught my eye or that I'd read about and gave some impromptu talks about. My kids picked to meet for the first time at Starbucks and their book of choice was Julia Karr's XVI, which came out in January. I had a slight panic about this since we had a copy but I didn't think I could grab up 6 copies of it by the time we'd meet. I ended up deciding to spend programming money on a copy for each member (they were paperbacks around $5 each copy) and numbered each one. I told the kids that I'd need the books back since they were library copies and I'm thrilled to share all came back in excellent condition. Those'll be used for a floating collection I've got in the works and for summer reading prizes. I took the books to the high school when they came in a few days later and got them to their English teachers to distribute.

When I dropped off the books, I included a note saying I'd cover the cost of one drink (~$3.50) and my biggest caveat: if you're not feeling the book, stop at page 50 and read something else. Give it a shot but move on if it's not your thing. I realize what a statement this is, but remember, my goal here is to encourage the love of reading and if you're not loving what you're reading, why keep going if it's meant to be for fun?

In the week and a half mean time between getting the books to the teens and the meeting, I did a few things. First, I got in touch with the author and set up a short chat for the end of book club meeting. Then I did a little thinking about activities we could do at the meeting and scoured the class2k11 website to find TWO fun activities. I passed off the cover redesign activity ahead of time via facebook and email to the kids so they could get a jump on it early if they wanted. Then I did my reading and wrote out some questions to discuss. I did not plan a single question for the kids to ask the author, though, and honestly, I left my discussion questions pretty minimal because, ahem, I did not finish the book myself. The other thing I did was pull together a list of possible next reads and grab a pile of galleys to distribute.

I showed up to Starbucks early and took one of our library netbooks with me to get the chat all set up. Then the kids came and we got to talking! Of our 6 members, only one person finished the book. And whereas most book clubs this could be problematic, this ended up being a huge opportunity to talk. We talked about why we did or didn't finish the book. But more than that, we talked about the huge topics at play in the book, simply because everyone who read it GOT THOSE. It was a fantastic discussion of media influence, government, and feminism/sexism, and we had a great time talking about the different things in the book that we did enjoy. So this is to say, even though finishing the book proved challenging, we had a lot of good things to talk about. We talked for about 30 minutes about the book before diving into taking a "hands on" photo from the class2k11 website and developed a small list of questions to ask the author.

While the kids prepped their photo, I got our chat rolling. We decided to use facebook to chat, since my library's facebook presence is actually a normal profile, rather than a page you can "like." This gives us chatting privileges. I hopped on and said hi to Julia, then took my kids photo, before getting back to the chat and our questions.

This chat was fantastic. The answers my kids got to the questions were so good, and not only that, but Julia offered US questions, too, which really got the kids rolling. We talked about who would play Nina in a movie, as well as whether we thought our world was moving toward the one depicted in XVI. We kept the chat to 20 minutes -- enough for 6 questions or so -- because that is about the attention span of me typing and reading answers to them. But here's the big heart warming moment: this was one of the coolest things these kids have done. Every one of them said this was the first time they got to talk to an author about her book and some were excited to be talking to someone "famous." This was what made it ALL worthwhile.

After chatting, we picked our next book and meeting location. Folks, even though I covered their drinks and food at Starbucks, they were begging to meet in the library next time so they could have a book swap. I don't think you need to go fancy or buy your kids to come. If you have fun and follow their interests, they will show up.

Picking our next book was a bit of a challenge, since I apparently drafted a good list of next choices. We had 9 of the 12 books starred as next possibilities, and we ended up throwing the titles all in a hat and drawing. I asked if they wanted to talk with the author (if possible) and it was a resounding YES! from all around. And I cannot wait to post about the next meeting because I have a discussion medium cooking up I doubt has ever been done before. . .and it was actually all their idea. I just facilitate.

So if you're looking to get a book club started, my advice is this:

- Get in with your local teachers. They know who their readers are. They know who'd be interested. Get those students' names and send them individual invites. This thrills them.

- Know your current teens and talk about your idea with them. Tell them to bring their friends. Word of mouth is key.

- Let the kids do the deciding. I have some parameters, but I keep them loose. I let the kids pick the club name. I let them draw a mascot. I let them decide what books to pick -- with my input simply to keep the choices manageable. I let them decide what things they want to do during the book club. Guess what? Good book discussions aren't necessarily vocal. Sometimes, it's through art. Sometimes it's by connecting to something in the book and making that meaningful. Let them express themselves as they want to.

- I realize not everyone has the flexibility I do in terms of where to meet. But try if you can to see where kids have the best chance of getting to. Let them pick times and dates to meet. The more ownership they have, the better.

- Keep your patrons informed. We post our book club info on our blog and website. I plan on making a bulletin board in the teen department showcasing the awesome stuff these kids are doing. It lets others know what you're doing and invites others to join. It also gives those core kids excitement. They MATTER.

- Have fun but be proactive. I am a very hands-off person in management, and this is good for most teens in a group this size. But there are quiet kids who are afraid to jump into discussion. Sometimes, you gotta call them out (nicely, of course) through easy questions. Ask them what they thought about specific things. Ask them to be the one to pick the book for next time. Ask them to talk about their favorite things. It works. But if it doesn't, remember this: they wouldn't come if they weren't getting something out of it, even if it's simply companionship from other teens.

I'll be back to talking about the book club again in a couple weeks to talk about other lessons learned. But in the mean time, what is your book club advice? What's worked and not worked? Share with me so I can learn more, too.

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