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.



This past weekend I was canoeing.  Not a real revelation to those who know me, but all the same, there I was paddling away when the flies started biting.  This part was unusual.  Normally the insects don’t really bother us and hence neither my paddling partner nor I thought to bring bug spray.  Soon it was J-stroke, slap, C-stoke, slap, as we headed up the river.  A mile or so later a storm blew in and we found ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Standing on the muddy shore, only slightly better equipped for the weather than the insects, I couldn’t help but think of all those questing heroes I’ve read about over the years – Bilbo Baggins, Maia (Journey to the River Sea), Katsa (Graceling), and (my most recent read) The Tapestry series.  Sure, the weather and temperature are always mentioned in the likes of these tales but never the insects.  And anyone who has tried to picnic, garden or walk through the forest preserve knows that are ALWAYS insects.

So, why is the buzz of the most prolific creature on earth left out of these stories?  I don’t know.  More readers can relate to being dinner for mosquitos than being tasked with a quest.  And what brings home the misery of a trip more than the long painful sting of a wasp?  That reminds me!  Bud (of Bud, Not Buddy) had an encounter with wasps that didn’t seem to have any lingering effect.  There, I remember thinking as I listened to the audiobook, is an author who has never been stung by a bee and suffered without medical attention.  Bud’s multiple wasp stings certainly would have swelled, provided distracting pain, and could likely have caused even more serious side effects.

A truly good book touches all our senses.  Sight, sound and smell are easy.  Taste is usually evoked with a sense of satisfaction or decadence. Touch however is underused.  I want to know more about the soft pillow our hero finally puts her head down on, or the way the tree bark snags on her dry skin as she hides in a tree, and most certainly about the nagging bug bit that makes her squirm as she is trying to stare down her foe.  Now, that has the ring of truth.

An act of citizenship

Listening to the radio on the way to work the other day an NPR story on musicals reminded me that I’d never seen the whole of West Side Story.  Perfect, I thought, something to watch tonight.  Half way through the day I actually remembered to find the DVD and check it out.

Back home I slipped the DVD into the machine just as a Netflix commercial was playing.  “Hah!”, I said to the TV, “I got my movie for free.”  Yet in twenty short minutes I was singing a different tune.

The disc began freezing and then jumping a scene or two ahead.  I played with the remote for quite a while before giving up and just watching what it deemed to show me.  “Hmm, I bet Netflix users don’t have this problem.”, I had to admit.

I found myself upset, not with the situation, but with the patron who had the movie before me.  Why hadn’t they mentioned this problem when they returned the DVD?  The library cleans, repairs and replaces DVDs all the time.

It’s the obvious thing to do in my mind:  mention your unsatisfactory experience, look out for the next guy, suggest a better way.  The more I stewed (and waited for the movie to pick up again) the more I thought, “It’s not about doing the obvious thing.  Libraries are participatory.  In fact, dang it, reporting a broken DVD is an act of citizenship!”

It may sound like righteous indignation but think about it.  Public libraries are tax based – your money at work within the community.  Something as small as reporting broken material is participating in the common experience and looking out for your purchase.

A fresh perceptive in my back pocket and some resolve to tell patrons they need to speak up, I finished watching the movie.  Days later Netflix rose their rates too much outcry.  Smug stratification.

Hi, my name is . . .

Kerry.  I also go by “Rangatira”, a nickname my staff gave me a few years ago when our summer reading program borrowed from the Maori.  It means “chief”.

I’ve worked in public libraries for over 20 years.  I started in my college library, and, after graduating, came back to my parent’s home in northern Illinois.  Since then I’ve earned my library degree, worked in in three different public libraries – all in the children’s department, and found my way up the administrative ladder.  And, I’ve seen a great deal of change.  When I started in my first children’s department, we did not have VHS tapes.  Last year I withdrew our entire collection of VHS tapes to make room for the Blu-Rays.

As I become better acquainted with the blogging world and those blogs specifically aimed at children’s literature, I find a gap that I believe I can help fill.

I’d like to offer the real world of a working librarian – a world that is a few months behind the newest releases (at best), a world where I’m actually a library user discovering what’s on my shelves just like my community, and a world where I struggle to keep up with the theory and make it practical.

I hope to meet you at the intersection of life and the library.  I think it’s going to be an interesting spot to consider the view.