Giving Readers a Voice: Book Discussion Groups

Book Links: February/March 2002 (v.11, no.4)

by Anna Healy

Literature circles. Literary societies. Book clubs. Book discussion groups. Reading groups. Whatever the current buzzword for these groups, they have been around since the early nineteenth century but appear to be the new American phenomenon. What are they? Why are they so popular? Why do we need more of them in libraries? How do you plan, prepare, and present them?

A book discussion group is a forum where readers can come together and talk about books and the reading experience. These groups can be organized in a variety of ways. There are adult groups, student-led groups, mother-daughter groups, father-son groups, and parent-child groups, to name just a few. At my library we have a parent-child book discussion group, but the guidelines found in this article can apply to any group with children as participants.

Group Sharing with Books

Children can be motivated to read if they are given the opportunity to share books with peers. When they have a discussion their enthusiasm for reading grows and their comprehension improves. Children need a place where they can voice their different interpretations of a text. Parent-child book discussion groups are a time for parents and children to come together and share their enthusiasm for a book without the pressure of being ridiculed or the worry of receiving a grade. Book discussions encourage communication and interaction between generations. They provide an opportunity for parents and children to discuss issues and controversial topics that are otherwise hard to talk about. Under the guise of discussing characters in a book, parents and children are able to express their true feelings. In a book discussion group children have an opportunity to be listened to.

Why do we need more book discussion groups in libraries? In my library, parents express an array of reasons for why they attend book discussion groups with children. Among them are the chance to see children develop skills in an open discussion forum, the opportunity to enhance learning and education through discussion, and the potential to encourage reading. Children express different reasons for attending, primarily noting the snacks and chats. But they also enjoy the opportunity to socialize outside of school. Children think it's cool that one of their evenings spent with mom or dad may also be spent with peers. The most important reason that both parents and children have in common for coming to a group is to share a love of reading.

Planning, Preparing, and Presenting

How do you plan, prepare, and present book discussion groups at your library? A networking group for book discussion leaders is a great place to start. In my case, the North Suburban Library System of Illinois has a network group that meets to talk about what is happening with their discussion groups. These professionals exchange ideas and are generally happy to offer newcomers advice on what has and hasn't worked for them. Our network group is available to both public and school librarians, as are most groups. Check in your area for a similar network group; if one is not available, try contacting facilitators of online book discussion groups for support.

To start a book discussion group of any kind, you first need to recruit group members. I focused on avid young readers in the library. After assessing the level of interest, I held an organizational meeting with other library staff to decide when, where, and how the book discussion group was going to happen. To publicize the start of the group, I put up fliers and posters around the library and sent home fliers with children. If your library has a public newsletter or a schedule of programs, post the information there. And don't forget to talk about it--word of mouth works wonders.

To plan, the facilitator of the book discussion group should establish meeting goals. What do you want to accomplish with your particular group? How big should your group be? How often do you want to meet? You can set these goals yourself, or you may want to wait until an initial meeting with your group. At that meeting ask the members of the group what they hope to gain by attending. The goals you set can be social or educational, or both. Social goals might include having fun with books and providing children with similar interests a chance to meet and interact with one another. Educational goals can include introducing children to genres they don't usually read as well as introducing adults to great children's literature.

As part of preparation, a facilitator needs to select a book. It should be a title that fits within the goals that you have set or are setting for your group. It should also be a title that you as facilitator can get plenty of copies of. Next, you'll need to find or create a set of discussion questions. The general perception is that this step can be time consuming, and because time constraints are always an issue, some librarians and teachers may opt not to lead book discussion groups as a result. That's unfortunate, because there are many places to find prepared questions. Publishers have made sources available both in print and online. For example, Random House, Penguin Putnam, and Scholastic produce excellent literature guides for educators. Most publishers make available biographies of many authors, and some may offer a treasure trove of free accessories for book group members--check their Web sites for more information.

To present a book, you have to facilitate the discussion. Provide some background information on the author and work through the list of prepared discussion questions, remembering to give all participants a chance to share. Starting with positive comments about a book and then moving on to criticisms can be an effective way to start discussion. Serving a snack or a drink that relates to the story is always a plus. When the meeting comes to a close, give brief book talks on other books by the author you have just discussed, or on books to be discussed in future meetings.

Book discussion groups are a place for readers to come together to talk about books. There is no better way to share a love of reading.

Anna Healy is a children's literature specialist and librarian at Skokie Public Library in Illinois.