Category Archives: Book Discussions

Hanging Chads

The big question was, how do I keep the kids engaged with the reading choice and not plunge into squabbling over every title?

When I first started my book discussion Novel Thoughts (oh! those many years ago), I just couldn’t imagine spending time every month debating with the kids about what book we should read next.  It would be self indulgent to suggest only books that I liked or thought were good.  Meanwhile, if I left it solely up to the kids they could only offer suggestions of titles they have already read.  (I shudder to imagine how many times we would have “discussed” Harry Potter.)

I no long remember the eureka moment, but trust me, it was a stroke of genius.

Use democracy, dear Watson!  Every four months I create a ballot and they vote.  I get to decide what’s on the ballot – they decide what we read.  Perfect!

Except now, after more than seven years, I dread this part of the process.  I spend the better part of a day (or two) configuring a new ballot.

Here’s how it works:  each ballot is divided into four genre categories.  These change from ballot to ballot.  This time the categories are Historical Fiction, Mystery, Contemporary, and Science Fiction.  For each genre I include three titles: one with a female narrator, one a male, and then a novel that includes a mixed group of protagonists.  Each contending title includes a summary straight from our online catalog.

The kids read the summaries and vote on one title from each of the genres.

Easier said then done.  While the premise is fairly simple, finding three science fiction titles, for example, with a range of narrators that would make for good discussions can be darn right difficult.  And there’s another element I haven’t mentioned yet – page count.

In order to have a decent discussion the majority of the participants need to be able to finish the book.  And let’s face it, schoolwork needs to come first, so the book cannot be overwhelmingly long.  Publishers just don’t seem to consider this.  Nearly every science fiction title that seemed to fit all the other perimeters ended up being well over 300 pages!  I’m not alone in this struggle; see blogger Jonathan Hunt”s rant Is This Absolutely Necessary  over at the School Library Journal.

After seven years the Novel Thoughts group has discussed 88 titles!  Finding new and fresh titles, fewer than 300 pages, with enough copies to borrow from area libraries; across a range of gender interests is really a remarkable challenge.  I’m relieved that say that it only took me about 4 hours to accomplish today.  I can relax for another four months.

And the real beauty of the whole thing – no discussion!  It’s a silent ballot, a drumroll revelation and then sweet acceptance of the decision.

Novel Thoughts – a book discussion group

I host a monthly book discussion for readers 4th -6th grade.  At least that’s how it’s advertised.  I actually have a few kids who still attend faithfully even though they are in 8th grade, and one or two 3rd graders who are reading at the level of a 5th grader.

I’ve never actually participated in an “adult” book group so I’m not sure how my group compares.  We spend the first half hour looking at the story through its conventional literature parts: which of the five universal plots does it have, who are the protagonist and antagonist, what is the action of the story, and to which genre does it belong.  But first and foremost each of us gets to grade the story.

We go around the table and everyone gives it the typical A, B, C or F.  (I don’t remember anyone ever giving a book a D – if it’s bad they go straight to F.)  I figure out the average letter grade, and then call on the kids to defend the more extreme grades.  For the most part their explanations are basic: “I didn’t like it”, “it didn’t have enough action”, or “I really liked it because it had a lot of action”.

As we continue on through the rest of the exercises their opinions always seem to become stronger, and then, at some point, they begin to change their minds and argue the exact opposite opinion.  It’s rather entertaining to watch them try to name the same character as both the protagonist and the antagonist.

When we’re through, it’s time for the snacks and the colored index cards.  I figured out early on that most of the kids were unable to come up with their own questions so I typed up some universal questions on colored index cards and lay them out in the center of the table (it gives the room a nice pop of color).  I usually add a few cards with questions that are specific to the novel we are discussing too.

The rules of the cards are pretty simple:  the cards are face down on the table, pick a card randomly, read the question and IF you don’t care for it put the card back, pick a second card and that’s it.  You are stuck with the second card.  Some of the kids like to push the rules by choosing a card early while I’m not looking, or choosing a third card after reading the questions but it’s all in fun.  This method saves the group from awkward silence as we wait for someone to come up with an observation or question, saves me from having to produce a dozen questions for each novel, saves the group from an overly talkative participant, and forces the timid ones to speak up at least this once.  The only drawback is that the kids tend to talk with their mouths full of snacks.

July’s book of discussion was Changeling by Delia Sherman.  It is a high fantasy involving fairies, godparents, the mid-summer solstice, and a myriad of other characters.  Our narrator is Neef, a human girl who was exchanged at birth.  Neef now lives in Grand Central Park with her godmother taking lessons in all things Fairy.  When Neef breaks her geas of dancing at solstice she is exiled.  To regain her past life, Neef bargains with the Lady of Central Park and agrees to a quest.

I wasn’t sure how the kids would like it.  The boys are usually pretty open to female protagonists, however those books don’t generally have enough action for their tastes.  Much to my delight nearly everyone loved the book and it earned a rare “A” grading.  A few battled over taking the sequel home to read.

During the early stages of her quest Neef meets her counterpart – the fairy living her human.  What I found very interesting was that this character’s actions and thoughts were akin to those of a child with autism.  The author never states as much but when I lay out my observations for the book discussion the kids were able to put the name to it too!  Aside from being a great example of fantasy, a female character that boys will enjoy, I’ll remember this book for including a character with autism without needing to be about the condition.