“Feeling like a dandelion”: A COVID-19 online book club adventure by Deborah Van Duinen

Author Katherine Paterson tells the story about how, a few days after 9/11, when she did not know what had become of her son John’s brother-in-law and close friend who worked in the South Tower, she realized she was scheduled to speak at a middle school in a neighboring town. “What in the world does one say to 10 and 11-year-olds at a time like that?” she remembers thinking. Instead of coming up with platitudes, possible explanations, or trying to avoid talking about it, Katherine decided to read aloud a passage from Bridge to Terabithia where, at the end, the main character Jess Aarons says that sometimes his life feels “as delicate as a dandelion. One puff from any direction, and it was blown to bits.” (p 76-77). She recalls that she took a long pause after reading the passage and then said: “I don’t know about you, but today I’m feeling pretty much like a dandelion”. She remembers that the students responded so wonderfully. In her words, “it was though there was a big sigh of relief – a grownup who told the truth about how all of us were feeling that day so they too could talk openly about their fears.”


From her cozy living room in Vermont and with a guest appearance from her dog, Katherine shared this story to the almost 300 4th-6th graders who participated in Week 5 of our COVID-19 online National Book Club for Kids. Though 9/11 occurred well before these students were born, the uncertainties of our current pandemic outbreak meant that they could relate to feeling “pretty much like a dandelion.” 


After sharing this story, Katherine read aloud the same passage from Bridge to Terabithia that she did in 2001, took a long pause, and then talked about how uncertain she felt during this COVID-19 outbreak. Katherine’s calming presence and willingness to talk honestly and openly made space for our book club participants to have a “big sigh of relief” and talk about their own fears.


Using middle-grade books to speak into our current COVID-19 experience was one of the reasons our group of educators started the online National Book Club for Kids. Dr. Kristine Gritter (Seattle Pacific University) came up with the original idea and then emailed several of us to see if we would be interested in collaborating with her. Together we brainstormed and explored possibilities. We wanted an online space where kids across the country and world could connect with each other during this time of school closings and social distancing. We wanted to model strategies for interacting with and dialoguing about books. We wanted to encourage kids to read a variety of books that they might not otherwise choose to read. We wanted kids to interact with famous authors and we wanted time each week for them to meet in breakout groups, led by a facilitator, in a variety of different languages (English, Spanish, Mandarin) in order to share their questions and reactions to the week’s chosen book. 


And, we needed to do this without a budget.


Now, these financial constraints and our group’s lack of experience in organizing an online national book club make our initial goals seem lofty and unrealistic. However, at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, our goals didn’t seem crazy at all. To our group of teacher educators, librarians, and K-12 teachers, it just felt like an obvious way to use our love for and expertise in reading to help bring about some good in a time of great uncertainty. The authors we contacted felt similarly. Each of them graciously volunteered their time and delighted us with stories about their lives, their writing processes, and the stories behind their books. 


10 weeks and 10 books later, we’re happy to report that we had over 900 registrants from around the United States and the world. Below is the list of books we read, books we would encourage anyone to read during this time of COVID-19 and beyond. The characters and their various storylines showed strength and resilience during difficult situations and experiences. We’re grateful for what we learned from them and from our book club participants. To see photos from our weekly book club meetings, check out our social media posts. 


Next Year by Ruth VanderZee (illustrated by Gary Kelley)

This picture book takes place during the Dust Bowl Era. Calvin and his family cling to the hope that next year will be better. 


El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo is a graphic novel that is an autobiographical account of Bell’s childhood.


Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears tells the story of Mercedes Suarez’s sixth-grade year and the many changes she experiences both in school and at home.


Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

Topher, Brand, and Steve go on a quest to give their favorite teacher, Ms. Bixby, a memorable last day and in the meantime learn a lot about themselves and each other.


Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Bridge to Terabithia is the story about the friendship between Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke and an unexpected tragedy that changes Jess’ life.


Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Based on the author’s real-life experiences, the book follows 5th grader Mia Tang and her work at the front desk of the hotel that her parents manage.


Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang (illustrated by Gurihiru)

Based on the 1940s Superman radio serial, Yang retells the adventures of the Lee family and how they work with Superman to smash the Klan.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Though time and geography separate Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud, they each go on journeys looking for refuge and hopeful for what lies ahead.


Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Donovan Curtis, a fun-loving troublemaker, pulls a prank at his middle school and ends up in a program for gifted and talented students.


Mañanaland by Pam Munoz Ryan

Maximiliano Córdoba loves stories. When he uncovers a family secret, he goes on a quest to find answers.


Deborah Vriend Van Duinen, Ph.D is an associate professor of English Education at Hope College in Holland, MI. She was thrilled to collaborate with an amazing group of educators to organize and run the online National Book Club for Kids (4th-6th graders) during Spring 2020. For the list of team members, please go here: https://sites.google.com/hope.edu/nationalbookclubforkids