For homeschoolers, reading is a way of life. So the idea of a family book club—a regular reading discussion group around your family’s kitchen table—can either sound like the most brilliant idea ever or like literary overkill. In fact, it’s just logical.
A family book club helps you navigate that magical middle ground between the books you read to learn something and the books you read for fun—the place where real literary criticism and analysis happens. Book clubs don’t just encourage us to read—they encourage us to form opinions about what we read and to express and support those opinions. Kids who’ve spent evenings arguing about whether it matters why the Pigeon wants to drive the bus or how the Sisters Grimm series changes traditional fairy tale characters and what those changes might mean, won’t be fazed when someone asks them to talk about symbolism in Hemingway’s short stories or to discuss narrative reliability in The Catcher in the Rye.
We tend to save that kind of literary analysis for high school, but starting early can have big benefits. For one thing, it makes reading a much more interactive and exciting experience. For another, this kind of critical thinking naturally lends itself to conversations about big ideas—those things you really want to talk about with your kids but that can feel kind of awkward when you bring them up without context. Reading a book like Catherine, Called Birdy—about a fourteen-year-old girl trying to resist an arranged marriage in medieval Europe—lets you talk about the challenges of growing up and the importance of balancing what your parents want with what you think you need. When you talk about a book like Holes, you have the opportunity to really think about bullies and adults who abuse their responsibilities. Because you’re talking about fictional characters and situations, sensitive topics aren’t as emotionally charged.
“Parents who participate in a book club with their kids send the message that they think their children’s opinions and ideas are worth the time it takes them to read, listen, and respond,” says Eric Meadows, a reading specialist for the New York City public school system. “Book clubs build trust and communication skills between children and their parents.”
Starting a family book club is as easy as choosing your first book—which, for some of us, isn’t all that easy. Balancing a range of ages, interests, and time commitments can be a challenge. If you have non-readers, someone has to make time for readalouds in order for everyone to participate. Finding books that appeal to a teenager and a preschooler may be a challenge. Like any homeschool project, you’ll want to tweak and adjust your book club to make it work for your particular family.
If you’re new to literary analysis, downloading a reading guide for the book you’re reading can help you steer your conversation—though after a book club or two, you’ll probably be pretty good at coming up with your own questions. Set a different family member up as moderator for each meeting—everybody should get a turn. Kids may like to have a list of questions to work from or they may want to come up with their own list, so chat with your moderator in advance and come up with a plan together. The moderator may have ideas about what kind of food or drink to serve or about an activity to go with the book, or you may want to ask someone else to come up with the food and activity ideas. (An activity can be a great way to keep the conversation going because sometimes people just find it easier to talk when their hands are busy.) There’s really no wrong way to do it.
The key to a successful book club is to keep pushing each other. “Did you like the book?” is an interesting question, but “What did you like about this book?” is a much more interesting one. Read passages you like aloud to each other. Say “This part just didn’t make sense to me. What did you think about it?” Talk about the plot: What happens in the book? Is it logical? Where it’s not logical, are you willing to cut the author some slack? Talk about the characters. Do any of them change over the course of the story? Does your perception of them change? Which characters are the most interesting? Which characters are likable? Which aren’t? Does their likability correspond with whether the characters are good or bad? Talk about the language the author uses. Why does she use one word to describe something and not another word? What does she include that you think is unnecessary? What does she leave out that you really want to know? Read the first paragraph together out loud. Did the book end up where you thought it would after reading that first paragraph?
Books with historical settings can make great book club reads, but don’t turn them into extensions of history class. Focus on the merits of the book itself, and consider the role that history plays in the book. Treat books about different cultures or different countries the same way—if you have information to share, that’s great, but the goal is to talk about the book itself, not to research the history/culture in the book. You don’t want to turn every book into a major research undertaking, or your book club can burn out fast.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there will be times when kids just plain don’t like a book or can’t get into it, and it’s important to be respectful of that. (Come on, do you really always finish the book for your own grown-up book club? If you’ve never skimmed the last hundred pages, you’re a better person than I am.) Kids can stop halfway through a book, but they should be prepared to talk about what made them stop. If the book was boring, what made it boring? Were the characters’ actions too predictable? Did they get turned off by pages of descriptions when they wanted to know what was happening with the story? Talking about why a book isn’t appealing can be just as meaningful as analyzing what you did like about a book.
And be wary of making a book club an extension of your child’s school. You don’t want it to feel like homework. Ideally, family book club should be a fun activity that you all actively participate in, so fight the urge to say “Shouldn’t you be reading your book club book?” Instead, show your kids that you’re engaged in book club—read a chapter of your book in the evening and invite your kids to snuggle up with you for their own reading. Make it clear by your actions that family book club is something worth making time for, and your fellow readers will quickly follow suit.