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. We’ve been running our family book club since 2012 — our first book was Lloyd Alexander’s Time Cat; right now, we’re reading Hilda and the Troll, my son’s pick for January — and it’s become a much-loved part of our homeschool life.
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,” explains Jan LaBonty, a professor in the School of Education at the University of Montana. 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 14-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 authority. 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, you may need to track down an audiobook or 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 the conversation — though after a book or two, you’ll probably be good at coming up with your own questions and talking points. Set a different family member as moderator for each meeting — you may want to go first to model moderator behavior, but everyone should get a turn. Some kids may want a list of questions ready to go for their turn as moderator; for other kids, part of the fun will be coming up with their own discussion points. Chat with your moderator in advance so you can come up with a plan together. The moderator may have ideas about what food and drink to serve (veggie dogs for The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! pancakes for Pippi Longstocking) or an activity to go with the book, or it may work better in your family to have the moderator focus on the discussion and someone else take over the food and activities. (An activity may seem silly, but having something to do with your hands while you’re talking can actually make it easier to keep the conversation going. We had a particularly great conversation building Lego Roman villas while discussing The Thieves of Ostia.) There’s really no wrong way to do it, so experiment until you find a plan that works for you.
The key to a successful family 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? Sometimes, the moderator might ask everyone to bring in a song or a poem that reminds them of the reading. Sometimes, you might want to watch a movie adaptation of a book you’re reading.
Books with historical settings can make great book club reads, but don’t treat them like an additional 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. (There’s nothing wrong with doing research if you get excited about something, but it shouldn’t be a requirement for participating in book club.)
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 of a book club read, you’re a better person than I am.) Kids can stop halfway through a book — but they have to do it in a meaningful way that respects the spirit of book club. Kids should be prepared to discuss why a book ended up in their DNF file: If the book was “boring,” what specifically made it boring? Were the plot or the characters too predictable? Were there lots of long descriptions that got in the way of the plot? Talking about why a book isn’t appealing, why you didn’t care about what happens next, can be as meaningful as analyzing what you liked about a book.
Finally, be wary of making book club an extension of structured school time. You don’t want it to feel like homework. At its best, book club is a fun family project — like movie night or Lego Friday, it’s something you should look forward to having on your to-do list. That means that instead of nagging — “Shouldn’t you be reading your book club book?” — you show the rest of the family that book club is worth doing by reading the book yourself. Invite the kids to snuggle up with you and read, too; post your questions about the book on the fridge; mention what you’re curious about from your reading as you’re running errands. If you’re interested, you’ll spark their interest, too.
5 Tips for a Great Family Book Club
After seven years of family book clubs, I can attest that these strategies will help keep things running smoothly.
Give everyone a voice. Everyone should take a turn choosing the book and leading the conversation. It’s not going to kill you to read Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants any more than it’s going to kill your 12-year-old to tackle Emma. And if you want your kids to read your books seriously and give them a fair shot, you have to be willing to do the same thing with their picks.
Don’t only pick books you like. Talking about books you don’t like—and why you don’t like them—can lead your conversation to some pretty interesting places. Along those same lines, don’t choose a book that you absolutely love. Hearing the rest of your family grumble about something you adore can be surprisingly difficult.
Make it a party. Making a whole production out of book club — even if this means doing it quarterly rather than monthly — gives this project sticking power. Serve book-themed snacks and encourage the kids to decorate your discussion area. We kept an excitement chart on our dining room wall for years where we plotted every book we read in comparison to previous reads.
Invite special guests. Grandparents, neighbors, and friends can be a great addition to your family book club now and again. We mostly keep book club for the four of us, but my philosopher friend Skyped in when we read The Book of Chuang-Tzu and my daughter’s friend, who recommended The Red Pyramid to us, was excited to join us for our discussion of it.
Use a talking stick. One of the challenges of any book club is making sure that everyone gets a chance to talk. To prevent your club from talking over each other or to keep one excited speaker from monopolizing the conversation, use a talking stick (or, if you’re us, a talking Perry the Platypus plushie). Whoever’s holding the stick should be the only one talking.