Teen Book Club - If You Make Cookies, They Will Come
Last fall, my son was a freshman at our local high school. We’re not a wealthy district – we’re very diverse both racially and socioeconomically, and we’re very proud of doing what we can with what we have. At open house that first week, I found myself in the hallway with the principal, talking about volunteer opportunities – she suggested I monitor the hall doors at lunchtime, which honestly sounded helpful but not all that fun, so I countered with starting a book club. The principal paired me with Ms. Campbell, an awesome English teacher at the school, and we put together the first meeting of our lunchtime book club.
We had almost no expectations – we hoped to get a few kids who loved to read and turn them on to some great new YA books. On the advice of the Balboa High School librarian, I made chocolate chip cookies and we put a few posters up around the school. That first lunchtime we had almost twenty kids (including four boys) and basically sat around and talked about the books we liked (and some of the books we didn’t – teens are nothing if not honest about their literature), what kinds of things they wanted to read that year and authors they’d love to meet. We decided on the first three books we wanted to read and by the next class meeting had acquired twenty copies of the books, which we passed out to the kids to take home. We met every Thursday at lunchtime and the kids ate their lunch (and their cookies) while talking books and watching book trailers online. Because the crowd sometimes swelled to almost thirty, we often broke into smaller groups with the kids who wanted to talk about the books we’d read, passing out new titles about once every three weeks or so. Over the course of the year we read ten books – everything from Holly Black’s Red Glove to Gone by Michael Grant.
One of the most popular things we did was ARC day, and it came about totally by accident. I was on Twitter one night when Maggie from Not Your Mother’s Book Club tweeted that she had a ton of ARCs and did anyone want them? I messaged her that they would be perfect for my book club and I arranged to go to their warehouse and pick up some boxes – the kids were beyond thrilled when I spread them out and let them pick whatever they wanted. Several of them looked up at me in disbelief – these were their books to take home? We did this every six weeks or so and it was a real treat when Maggie came and brought ARCs in person!
As we talked about reading, I realized that none of these kids had ever met a real author before (except me, and trust me, the novelty of me being a writer wears off before the first meeting is over) or been to a booksigning. Ms. Campbell and I got permission to do an after-school field trip and brought about fifteen of the kids to a signing with Barry Lyga and Robin LeFevers. They got to attend one of the fabulous NYMBC parties, listen to the authors speak and get autographs on bookmarks and copies of their own signed books. It was a magical night and more than one came up with tears in their eyes, telling me that it was one of the best nights they’d ever had
If you have a little bit of time and a lot of passion, you can easily start a book club of your own, either at your local high school or library. Here are a few pointers I’ve learned from this past year:
· Keep it casual. We set the same time every week, but didn’t take attendance or monitor who came and went. We wanted it to be fun, not ‘school’.
· Pick books that they’ll want to read. We tried to keep it to newer books and things that interested them. We’d often look at trailers or read synopsis to introduce the kids to an author.
· Partner with a teacher or librarian. By working with someone in the school we were able to have a place to meet where the kids could eat lunch every week. Having a teacher as part of the club also helped with fundraising…which is my next point.
· Getting class sets of books can be difficult (and expensive). We relied on private donations and used Donor’s Choose(which has to be done by a teacher) to buy class sets of 20 of each book we chose to read. Hardbacks are best because they stand up to repeated readings– we hope to use many of the same books for several years. We used an easy ‘check out list’ to keep track of who had which books.
· As much as you want to let the kids choose the books, don’t - it can get crazy. We’d let them ‘booktalk’ books they loved and see what kind of books each kid liked and then chose the books ourselves to keep it pretty diverse – we’d alternate a fantasy title with a contemporary and made sure we had titles that sparked the boy’s interest. Nobody was required to read any of the books, but many kids found they liked something in a genre they thought they hated. One of my girls told me she refused to read any book that had a girl in a dress on the cover. After losing a casual bet with me, I got her to read Matched by Allie Condie – she loved it so much she got the sequel Crossed out of the library before the next meeting.
· Mix it up with some fun things – Skype visits by an author, watching book trailers, ARC days or fieldtrips to see an author’s visit.
· Don’t be afraid – all of the kids in my club were absolutely wonderful. Nobody comes who doesn’t truly want to be there, and they’re all grateful that you come and help.
Make cookies. Seriously – that’s the best way to spark interest in the club and bring the kids in at first. But be warned, once you start, you need to make cookies every week or you won’t be able to stand the disappointment on their faces.
The last meeting of the year was bittersweet – in our district, the tenth graders to on to the main high school campus and I’ve decided to stay behind with the new crop of ninth graders. The kids surprised me with a wonderful handmade card and a cake to thank me for spending time with them - but I was the real winner. I got to spend an hour every week talking to a group of teens who are passionate about reading and introduce them to some books and authors they may not have heard of otherwise. They told me what they loved and what they didn’t and every minute I spent with them made me a better writer. I can’t wait for this fall to start all over again!