Tagged as: reading

Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Enrich Reading and Relationships

Years ago, as the working mother of a young daughter, I sometimes struggled to achieve that elusive work/home “balance” women often speak of wistfully 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 more or less share my daughter’s academic calendar and routine, keeping similar hours as her, 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. The Concord 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!”

Thus began the club. Over time, 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.

And here is what my daughter, Charlotte, wrote for her monthly newspaper column on our book club:

     When I was in third grade, my mother 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. This club has served as an outlet for my passion for literature, and has provided me with both emotional support and the company of good friends for six years. I hope it will continue to do so for many more. I have realized lately that my feelings of dedication and gratitude towards the club come not only from  reading enjoyable books, but as much from the members themselves, and it pleases me to know that in return, I am helping to contribute to the experiences of everyone else.

     One of my friends in the book club has two cats, just as I do.  For Christmas one year I gave her a t-shirt that said “Books…Cats…Life is Good,” and got one for myself as well.  I do not know what life has in store for me, but hopefully there will be plenty of books and cats and good friends, and if I ever have a daughter of my own, a mother-daughter book club for the next generation.

Here is the book list, by grade:

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
The Family Under the Bridge Bud, Not Buddy
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
Avi Blue Balliett
Ashes of Roses Whale Rider
Mary Auch Witi Ihimaera
Fair Weather Shadow Spinner
Richard Peck Susan Fletcher

Since writing this page back in 2011, I have written a new book entitled Her Next Chapter, co-written with my daughter Charlottte Kugler, published by Chicago Review Press.  Her Next Chapter is about our own mother daughter book club experience focusing on how you can use mother daughter book clubs to help in raising strong women.   Available through bookstores nationally on May 1, 2014, you can check out my website www.motherdaughterbookclubs.com, Amazon or your favorite bookseller to get a copy today.

Reading Captain Underpants

Once upon a time, when I was a little girl, I was obsessed with Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  I recall Sendak’s haunting depiction of Max. He had a wild streak, like lots of little boys, and he entered the book and my imagination dressed in a wolf suit, tormenting the family dog, and hammering things to the wall. At Max’s age, I was distinctly afraid of monsters in my closet at night. This book both fed those anxieties and assuaged them, for Max did become the king of the wild things, gaining dominion over his fears and nightmares in what was a groundbreaking book, psychologically speaking.

Knowing I wanted to write a column about early reading, I called my mother in Atlanta to ask her what she remembers about my learning to read, what books I liked and didn’t like, and what she feels has changed in the last 50 years in how parents guide their children in selecting books. Interestingly, she had no memory of Where the Wild Things Are or my approach/avoidance behavior towards that book, but told me I was not the kind of child to go running to my parents saying I was afraid of things in books, and I wasn’t. I might have pulled the covers up over my head a few times, but I kept that to myself.

The conversation then took an unexpected turn. My mother told me that some of my favorite books are ones that are either frowned upon today, or are appropriately out of print. Grimm’s Fairy Tales were very popular in the day, but too dark and frightening in the eyes of many of today’s parents. That never bothered my mom. There was no collective feeling among parents back then that these stories could be harmful to children because, after all, they taught necessary lessons about good and evil, and apparently I loved them. Another book I enjoyed as a child—because I didn’t know any better as a young girl growing up in civil-rights-era Georgia—was Little Black Sambo. It could not be more racist. My mother had no perspective on it at the time either, but acknowledges a certain shame and sadness about it now.

The discussion continued. I heard a story about my nine-year-old nephew absolutely loving any books containing bathroom humor…and how funny my mom thought this was, especially when she first heard him use the term “bottom burp.” Suddenly I had my angle for this column.  Bear with me.

How do parents help their children become better readers? Well, I must first state that I have a problem with the term “better”…better in what way? Better grades in reading at school? More voracious? More fluent? More likely to develop a lifelong love of reading? Able to write a better book report? I think you have to look at how one becomes a good reader in developmental stages. In elementary school, kids need to love to read and to do it very, very often. Kids become “better” readers in the ways mentioned by practicing. If they are reluctant readers, how can parents help them become engaged in reading so that they will invest lots of time doing it?

A friend from Connecticut was staying with me as I began to write this column. He mentioned his eight-year-old son, who struggles with reading, and who acquired his first dog-eared favorite in The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. Ahhhh…that most hated of potty-mouth humor books, at best tolerated and at worst banned by a fair percentage of parents and teachers everywhere.  I asked my friend if it bothered him that his son could not get enough of this series, and he smiled and said, “Of course not. It’s funny! You couldn’t even say the word ‘underpants’ in our house for, like, a year. But, it’s just a phase. He’s reading a children’s biography now.” Isn’t everything a phase during childhood, more or less? I’m pretty sure my friend was never worried that his son would still be reading Captain Underpants in high school.

I used to hear a lot about Captain Underpants during lunch in the schools where I worked. You learn a lot about the lives of your students at lunch table duty! But I have not read Captain Underpants myself in years, so I stopped by the Concord Bookshop the other day and picked up a copy of the first book in the series and sat down and read it. Can I just say that I was laughing out loud? None of this ubiquitously hollow LOL stuff that peppers the internet. I mean, I was truly guffawing.  If I were in 3rd or 4th grade, especially if I were a boy, I would not be able to stop turning the pages. As a 47-year-old woman, I could not stop turning the pages!

For children who avoid picking up books, or drop them easily to run outside or go boot up the computer, Captain Underpants and similar books could be the ticket that turns your “I’d rather play my Game Boy” kid into one who soon reads Harry Potter. For parents concerned about the distasteful language of the “It’s snot funny” variety, I’d guess that what your children see on television and in the theaters is of somewhat greater concern. I’d rather have my child laughing at doo-doo jokes in a comic book and developing a thirst for reading than watching today’s kid movies that are full of violence, sexual innuendo and adult banter between voice-over celebrities like Danny DeVito and Robin Williams, all aimed at entertaining the parents in the audience. At least Super Diaper Baby reaches kids on their own level.

I’m all for helping kids find their passions in books, whether that be Captain Underpants, illustration-rich nonfiction books about rocket ships or butterflies, or books that are technically below a child’s uppermost tested reading level. It’s about what gets your child to not hear you when you announce that dinner is ready. It’s not about title-dropping. When adults become vocally competitive with each other about what their children are reading, children get pressured to read books that are too difficult, “boring,” or in other ways backfire by turning them off to reading. There will be plenty of time for emerging readers to get to the classics. Job One is getting them to voluntarily bring books into the car, even if they are not great literature, which the likes of Captain Underpants most certainly is not.

Reading Captain Underpants is not for the adult faint of heart, but can be a great vehicle for the reluctant reader and his or her parents to share a love of reading and more than a few belly laughs.

Wicked Wedgie Woman signing off now…and remember, Never underestimate the power of underwear!

Reprinted with permission of The Concord Journal.

 

Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Enrich Reading and Relationships

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
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
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 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
Avi Blue Balliett
Ashes of Roses Whale Rider
Mary Auch Witi Ihimaera
Fair Weather Shadow Spinner
Richard Peck Susan Fletcher