Bringing Families Together with Books by Carol Kaner
I’ve been lucky with my career. It has allowed me to do what I like best, sharing my love of good books and their authors with children and parents. In order to do this, I’ve been leading a parent/child book discussion at my library in Lincolnshire, Illinois four times a year, one book each season since 2001. I’ve led discussions on sixty books so far and am looking forward to more.
So, what has made this book discussion group special through the years? For one thing, my group began with fourth through sixth graders and their parents, but many of the kids expressed interest in continuing on. So, I expanded it to include fourth through eighth graders. Does that make it difficult to pick a book? Definitely. But I find that it is worth it because as the participants get older, their younger siblings can join them. I try to be careful to choose a book with wide appeal for both boys and girls at this age range. I’ve been grateful that these older kids still seem to enjoy coming to the discussions with their parents. I can usually count on having two discussions of twenty families each on consecutive evenings. What I’m looking for when I choose a book, no matter what genre or format it falls into, is what the author, Jason Reynolds calls “it’s emotional truth.” We all relate to love, joy, or pain whatever age we are or culture we’re from. It’s these shared emotions that allow children and parents to enjoy the same books and to be able to discuss them with each other.
I believe another key to the program’s success has been the time I invest in it. There is usually something in each book that sets me off to find out more. When we read Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer Holm, I learned all about Key West and found a great travel video on Youtube that made us all wish we were in Florida, instead of Illinois, for that January book discussion. When I chose Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, I became really interested in talking devices and the way technology has helped nonverbal children communicate. With my first nonfiction selection, Temple Grandin, How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World by Sy Montgomery, I learned about the treatment of animals as well as autism. And I became fascinated with Sy Montgomery’s adventurous life. With El Deafo by Cece Bell, I learned so much about the experience of deafness and the use of the graphic novel format. Each book I’ve done has enriched my life, and my goal is to share each new enthusiasm with the participants of my discussions. Not only do we share the content of the books, but also the decisions that go into making them, from the covers to the titles to the author notes.
I prepare lots of questions to discuss, but I am dependent on the families who attend to give life to the discussions. Having enthusiastic talkers makes my job easier, but I do appreciate the families who are quieter too. I’ve had children that hardly say a word during the discussions and yet they keep coming back year after year. Having been a shy child myself, I understand the importance of letting children participate at their own comfort levels. And I have been fortunate that my families have always been respectful to one another and to me. By listening to each other, we realize that an author’s words can affect each of us in many ways, enriching our own experience with the book.
The use of the website Blendspace has helped me to organize my resources as I work. All of the author interviews, websites, reviews, and background information I find can go on this site. I can also include a recommended book list of related titles. This is a good way to stay organized while planning, but the site can also be projected onto a screen to be used during the discussion. The information can also be shared by giving the link to the participants after the discussion for those who want to read more on their own.
Each year, we try to coordinate one or two author visits with my book discussions. On those nights, I have one discussion with up to 35 families registered. While this is not a cozy, intimate discussion, it is still successful. The discussion starts with a pizza dinner at 5:45pm. In the middle of the program, the author makes about a ten minute appearance to answer some questions about the chosen book. At 6:45pm, the discussion winds down with an announcement of the next discussion book. We then lead the discussion participants into a separate room where the author visit is to be held at 7:00pm. Each family already has a complimentary paperback book to be signed by the author and name tags with priority numbers for the signing line. By having the programs back to back on the same night, the author is ensured a minimum audience of 60 – 75 children and adults who have read at least one of their books. There is a separate registration for the author presentation, so more people can join us at this point. A local independent bookstore provides additional books for purchase.
I appreciate that my library has the resources to make it easy for me to provide these wonderful programs. But even if I didn’t have the pizza dinners, the free paperback books, or the author visits, I think I still could make these discussions a success. What it really takes is a genuine love of the books, respect and awe for the people who make them, some preparation time, and families who value spending time together. I get to share what I love with people who choose to be there. I really have been lucky with my career.
Carol Kaner is a librarian at the Vernon Area Public Library in Lincolnshire, Illinois. In addition to leading book discussions, she shares her love of books with preschoolers at storytimes and school visits, provides kindergarten tours at the library, and gives booktalks in second grade classrooms. Carol especially loves introducing good books to her two year old granddaughter and listening to authors speak about their books. She can be found enjoying the kidlit community on Twitter @clkaner.