Mother-daughter book clubs: The idea has an almost magical ring. It conjures images of girl power and female bonding, all fostered by fun discussions and frank give-and-take. Now for the reality check: Book clubs can be all that, but they're a lot of work. More than anything, they require commitment and discipline--and sometimes the strong arm of an enforcer to get everybody, including the moms, to read the books.
I learned those lessons when I helped organize a club a few years ago for my daughter Ariel, then 9, and eight other third-graders and their mothers. We had rosy expectations that the books would provide an opening for us to talk about such topics as family tensions, body image, and peer pressure. No one imagined that some mothers would commandeer the discussions (to the disgust of their daughters), that members would stop reading the books altogether, and that the club would degenerate into a venue for munching brownies. Last September, after almost two years--and some very lame discussions--the group fell apart.
The experience, though, did leave me with some hard-won strategies for sidestepping those pitfalls. And they would apply to any father-son book clubs out there as well.
-- MAKE RULES--AND STICK WITH THEM. We failed miserably at this. We eventually laid down the law that those who haven't read the book shouldn't bother showing up. Well, some would go to the meetings anyway. Another rule was that a mother must attend, or her child shouldn't. This, we thought, would keep the club from becoming a babysitting drop-off. Yet one mom rarely showed up--and none of us had the heart to banish the daughter. Needless to say, these practices fostered resentment, which we failed to defuse.
In such situations, you should enforce the rules, even if it means playing the heavy and possibly embarrassing your own child, says Shireen Dodson, author of The Mother-Daughter Book Club and 100 Books for Girls to Grow On (HarperPerennial, $12.95 and $14). You or other members should take up the matter with the wayward mother. If you feel awkward singling out a friend, Dodson suggests writing a general letter, reiterating the rules you've agreed on and suggesting the need to reassess the group's commitment to the club. Another approach is for the de facto leader to suggest, without pointing a finger, that some members might want to take a leave of absence if they are hard-pressed to read the books. "This gives them a way to save face," says Dodson.
-- WORK ON YOUR CRITERIA FOR PICKING BOOKS. Our benchmark was simple: No series books, such as Goosebumps or The Baby-Sitters Club, and no biographies of Leonardo DiCaprio. That guideline was too simple, it turned out. We slogged through some titles our daughters picked out that turned out to be agonizingly dull.
The kids should pick the books to be discussed, but it's important to give them good, meaty choices. The moms needn't do all the pre-selecting. Kids can help with the process by asking their school librarian or the local bookstore for recommendations. Books such as Dodson's and Kathleen Odean's Great Books for Boys (Ballantine, $12.95) are good resources. So are Web sites, such as www.amazon.com, which provide brief summaries and reviews.
In our case, we finally hit upon a gold standard. A title had to be a winner of the Newberry Medal, awarded by the American Library Assn., or at least a nominee. That worked for us. But some experts argue that, by sticking to just the Newberry list, we closed ourselves off from many other excellent children's books.
-- LEAVE THE GIRLS IN CHARGE. After the rules and the selection criteria have been set, moms should get out of the way. "The club is for the girls, and they have to take ownership of it--from picking the other members to coming up with the discussion questions," says Dodson. Each child should get a turn being the hostess, picking a book, and being responsible for the discussion questions.
This admonition proved particularly tough for some of us Type-A moms to put into practice. The mothers, not the girls, prepared the questions when it was their turn to host. The mothers made, bought, and served the snacks. And the mothers attempted to "facilitate" the discussion to keep the girls on track. For instance, when the club took up Yolanda's Genius by Carol Fenner, in which the heroine is teased for being larger than her classmates, we tried again and again to give our daughters cues to talk about body image. Our daughters ignored us. The girls had their own message they wanted to communicate: They focused, instead, on how Yolanda's mother put too much responsibility on her to care for her brother and clean the house. Let it be, says Dodson, even when the discussion veers into topics that aren't in the book.
-- SIZE MATTERS. Dodson says the ideal size for a club is between four and ten mother-daughter pairs. We had nine, and six always showed up, which made a critical mass for discussions.
-- STICK TO A SCHEDULE. From the start, agree on a standard meeting time--say, the third Sunday of each month at three. We met on Fridays at four, but we didn't fix the week. As a result, we would have a Battle of the Filofaxes at the end of each meeting.
-- NO PLACE LIKE HOME. We tried holding one meeting at the cafe of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. It was a disaster. Surrounded by distractions, our daughters couldn't sit still; they were even more interested in the escalator than in the book. After awhile, they departed en masse for the children's department. We found them quietly clustered, absorbed in reading a tome on DiCaprio.
-- FOOD BEFORE THOUGHT. After weeks of the girls getting up in the middle of our conversation to get more chips or juice, we set down a snack policy. We limited eating to 15 minutes before we started and however long anyone wanted to stay after the discussion. But food needn't always be a distraction. Some clubs use food as a tie-in to the discussion--for instance, preparing and serving Vietnamese food if the book is set in Vietnam.
-- ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. "First say what you liked about the book," advises Jewell Stoddard, director of the children's section at Washington (D.C.) bookstore Politics & Prose. Once you get going on the negatives, it's harder to change course. And that can poison the mood and end any discussion.
Despite all the difficulties, the book club did give me glimpses of how thoughtful and perceptive Ariel and her friends could be, even a few whom I had prejudged as Valley Girls. That alone was worth the effort. So now I'm helping to organize a club for my younger daughter Lily, 9, and some other fourth-graders and their mothers. This time, I'm better prepared.