Years ago, as the working mother of a young daughter, I sometimes struggled to achieve that elusive work/home “balance” women often speak of and hold up as the ultimate validation of their success within the frameworks of modern feminism. I looked for ways to spend “quality time” with my child when I felt I did not spend enough actual time with her. For the most part, working in schools allowed me to be more or less on my daughter’s schedule, although I always brought home a lot of work.
One of the best and most memorable undertakings of those years was the formation of a mother-daughter book club, a collaboration with my daughter and four other mother-daughter pairs that would last for six years. I remember noticing how few of my daughter’s books had female protagonists, and of the ones that did, how few of those portrayed women and girls in strong roles. I noticed that girls did not seem to mind reading books about boys, but that boys had no interest in—and in fact avoided—reading books about girls. I started talking to other mothers, teachers, and colleagues about this, and found that they all observed the same behavior, and all felt frustrated by it.
Research supported my observation. For example, in 1996, a wonderful movie came out: the film version of Matilda by Roald Dahl. Great book, great movie. But the movie bombed at the box office, and its production company went on record saying they would produce no more movies starring girls, because they were money losers. Girls went to see the movie but boys stayed home, and thus the potential market was cut in half. This was the same dynamic that happened with books about girls. I recall a lot of mothers talking about this and feeling sad and outraged. Everyone wondered whether the Harry Potter series, which had just begun at the time our book club formed, would be receiving the same voracious following if it were about a Harriet rather than a Harry.
Around the same time, a woman named Shireen Dodson wrote a book called The Mother-Daughter Book Club, and another called 100 Books for Girls to Grow On. My local bookshop devoted its storefront window to a display of Dodson’s books, as well as some of the books Dodson recommended girls read, all of which focused on strong female role models. As my daughter and I walked past the bookshop, the display in the window beckoned to us and we went inside. My daughter said, “I want to do that!” We bought Dodson’s books, and the story of our club is best explained by my daughter. She gave me permission to post a local newspaper column she wrote during our last year as a club. I thought about writing this blog post to extol the virtues of mother-daughter book clubs from my professional perch, but sometimes a personal approach is just as good or better.
Below is the newspaper column, followed by a spreadsheet of the books we chose to read each year. As the girls got older, the mothers handed over the reigns to the girls, who chose the books we would read together each year. At that point we did not focus exclusively on female protagonists, but simply on good literature that was not being covered in school. I can say without a doubt that the mother-daughter book club was the most extraordinary formative experience in my relationship with my daughter, and I cannot recommend it highly enough to any mothers looking for ways to expose their young daughters to female-centric literature, and to enrich their emotional bonds with their daughters.
By my daughter, then in the eighth grade:
When my I was in the third grade, my mom and I helped found a mother-daughter book club, which has endured to this day. My mom joined with the four mothers of my best friends at the time, and together we created the club. The mothers agreed that their camaraderie with each other was as important as the social relationships between the girls because this would keep the club stable, and would provide a framework of support for my friends and I as we matured into young women. They felt it best to start early so we could develop these feelings of trust and dedication to the club and each other over time. Since I was an only child with no extended family nearby, my mom wanted to find another way to implement the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” She felt she and the other chosen mothers could raise us together in a special and meaningful way, with the good values and confidence necessary for us to become strong young women.
Part of the reason she wanted to start this club was because it would always be a place where my friends and I, as teenagers, would feel comfortable sharing our thoughts and lives in the presence of other caring, experienced women. We wanted to form a book club, specifically, because we all had a passion for reading, and we agreed that for my friends and I, the reading we did in the club would be additional enrichment to what we got in school. When we were all students at Alcott, we read “kid books,” but now in middle school, we feel comfortable moving on to more abstract, higher-level reading. We have reached a point currently, as eighth graders, where we are transitioning to reading adult novels in the club. The discussions we engage in during the meetings often begin as conversations about problems in the text that the protagonist encounters and overcomes, and inevitably shift seamlessly to conversations about similar problems we have experienced and dealt with while growing up.
I have always loved this aspect of our meetings, as it allows for everyone to empathize with each other and create a common thread of understanding related to the books and our experiences and daughters and mothers. Our book club still maintains the same structure as it has for almost six years, with few exceptions. We meet on the first Friday of every month for dinner and book discussion, and we take turns hosting at our houses. The hosting daughter makes up questions and leads the discussion. We used to keep a scrapbook with a page devoted to each book as a memento of our meetings, but as homework steadily increased in middle school, we had to let this go.
My favorite tradition is going to a B & B for the first meeting of the year in October. It gives us a chance to reconnect after the summer, share our favorite summer reads, and plan the list of books and rotation of houses for the upcoming year. When we first started the club, the mothers created the reading list, choosing books that portrayed females as strong protagonists in a variety of genres. Now that the girls are teenagers, we all work together to give input into forming the list. When we pick books, we don’t choose anything covered in school or anything that many members have read before. We also integrate multicultural books, modern and classic novels, and short stories into our range of material. We are now in our sixth year together, and our meetings have always been, and will remain, a highlight of my month. Regardless of how hectic our lives are or how many times we have to reschedule the meeting date, we try never to miss a month.
In the fall of 2000 we began as five mother-daughter pairs, but busy lives and divergent interests did not allow the original group to continue. However, the remaining three pairs are now carrying on with a renewed sense of connection and devotion to our club, which I believe will take us far in the years to come. In the time since the club was founded, other mothers and daughters in Concord have been inspired by us to start their own book clubs as well. I feel happy to know that there are other people who love to read, and who also care about the importance of companionship, nurturance, and values gained through being part of a mother-daughter book club. These are the books I can remember us reading from each year:
|3rd Grade Books||4th Grade Books||5th Grade Books|
|The School Mouse||Caddie Woodlawn||The Time Bike|
|Dick King Smith||Carol Ryrie Brink||Jane Langton|
|Charlotte’s Web||Goodbye, Vietnam||The Gypsy Game|
|E.B. White||Gloria Whelan||Zilpha Keatley Snyder|
|Sarah Plain and Tall||Ella Enchanted||Island of the Blue Dolphins|
|Patricia Maclachlan||Gail Carson Levine||Scott O’Dell|
|Toliver’s Secret||Matilda||Julie of the Wolves|
|Esther Wood Brady||Roald Dahl||Jean Graighead George|
|Harriet the Spy||The Fledgling||A Single Shard|
|Louise Fitzhugh||Jane Langton||Linda Sue Park|
|Laura Ingalls Wilder(biography)||The Egypt Game||Where the Ground Meets the Sky|
|William Anderson||Zilpha Keatley Snyder||Jacqueline Davies|
|Little House on the Prairie||The Family Under the Bridge||Bud, Not Buddy|
Laura Ingalls Wilder
|Natalie Savage Carlson||Christopher Paul Curtis|
|Seven Daughters and Seven Sons||Flip-Flop Girl|
|Barbara Cohen & Bahija Lovejoy||Katherine Paterson|
|6th Grade Books||7th Grade Books||8th Grade Books|
|Jacob, Have I Loved||A Separate Peace||an Agatha Christie book|
|Katherine Patterson||John Knowles||of your choice|
|When My Name Was Keoko||Chu Ju’s House||Life of Pi|
|Linda Sue Park||Gloria Whelan||Yann Martel|
|Hannah, Divided||The Invisible Thread||A High Wind in Jamaica|
|Adele Griffin||Yoshiko Uchida||Richard Hughes|
|The Incredible Journey||The Red Pony||E. B. White essays|
|Sheila Burnford||John Steinbeck|
|Seedfolks||a selection of short stories||The Secret Life of Bees|
|Paul Fleishman||Guy de Maupasant, etc.||Sue Monk Kidd|
|Crispin: The Cross of Lead||Chasing Vermeer|
|Ashes of Roses||Whale Rider|
|Mary Auch||Witi Ihimaera|
|Fair Weather||Shadow Spinner|
|Richard Peck||Susan Fletcher|