Kids' Book Clubs Boom

Twelve-year-old Joanna Krupp loves her monthly book-club meetings. She and her fellow bookworms tackle titles like Gloria Whelan's National Book Award winner “Homeless Bird,” about a 13-year-old girl in India whose parents arrange a marriage to a boy who is gravely ill. To go with the stories, they eat matching snacks, such as Indian food. Joanna's brother, Ben, 13, likes his father-son group, too. “It's just good to talk about the books, and I really understand them better,” he says.

A generation ago, there were few, if any, organized reading groups for kids. Today, hundreds of thousands of kids belong to them, says Vicki Levy Krupp, coauthor of “The Kids' Book Club Book” (and Joanna and Ben's mom). Popular authors like Lisa Yee and Tamora Pierce include book-club information on their Web sites and even solicit e-mail exchanges with kids. And publishers like Scholastic are offering online discussion groups such as Flashlight Readers ( Last month, Al Roker started Al's Book Club for Kids on the “Today” show, with Brian Selznick's “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” And authors are churning out how-to books such as “The Kids' Book Club Book: Reading Ideas, Recipes, Activities, and Smart Tips for Organizing Terrific Kids' Book Clubs” and “Book Crush: For Kids and Teens—Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Interest.” “It's been the best-kept secret in publishing for so long—that children's books are good literature,” says Laura Tillotson, editor of the American Library Association's Book Links.

The growing number of book groups is helping authors and librarians get out that message. “The more cool reading is, the better,” says Gail Carson Levine, author of “Ella Enchanted.” “Reading starts to fall off in middle school and in high school. If you can find a means to keep those kids reading, to rope them back in, to make reading part of their social world, then a book club has really done something fabulous.”

It helps that chosen titles tend to be fun. “We do have to read it, but it's not like any school work,” says Henry McGrath, 9, who belongs to a New York City book club. He enthusiastically recalls a Lou Gehrig biography discussion with hot dogs and popcorn.

The groups help kids keep reading in their free time. That's especially important after age 8, when kids' pleasure reading drops dramatically. In a Yankelovich survey for Scholastic last year, kids said their main reason for not reading more was “trouble finding books I like.” (The other reasons, in order: “would rather do other things,” “too much schoolwork/homework,” “don't have time to read” and “too tired to spend time reading.”)

“A book is not an exam. It's an experience. You should enjoy it,” says Avi, author of the Newbery-winning “True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.” He also notes that book clubs are ideal for kids, who are “so intensely social.” Indeed, many book club organizers create a partylike atmosphere. Author Lisa Yee recently attended a boys' club discussing “Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time,” about a basketball-obsessed kid. Book-club members wore L.A. Lakers jerseys, ate basketball-decorated cupcakes and listened to a basketball coach talk at the end of their meeting. They even presented Yee with a signed basketball as a thank you.

Like many authors today, Yee likes meeting her young readers and interacting with kids on her Web site. She even posts book-club discussion questions, including some for “Millicent Min, Girl Genius” from a mothers-and-daughters group called the Mad Hatters. (Among the questions: “If you were a genius, would you tell your first 'real' friend immediately, or would you wait a while?”)

And where videogames and electronics “bring on social isolation for kids,” says Judy Gelman, coauthor of “The Kids' Book Club Book,” “book groups are a place to connect. It's a place to find other kids who love reading.” Ann Martin, who won a Newbery Honor for “A Corner of the Universe,” agrees. "It's a great thing to be able to bond over.” Book groups also help kids “develop critical thinking” and “critical points of view,” she says. Many teen groups choose Laurie Halse Anderson's “Speak,” which leads to talk about date rape. Another popular choice: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which crosses over generations and raises discussions about racism and tolerance, says Gelman. Many mother-daughter book groups choose Avi's “The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle,” which leads to discussions about independence and relationships.

Getting a list of school questions about a book “takes some of the fun out of the reading,” says Heidi Stemple, who writes books like “Dear Mother, Dear Daughter” with her mother, the highly respected children’s book author Jane Yolen. In school, kids tend to read a chapter at a time and answer questions. Yolen remembers her granddaughter, Maddison, now 12, saying she wanted to just read the book rather than put it down and discuss it after each chapter. “Sometimes in school discussions, they want to stop you at the word level, talk about the grammar, talk about the alliteration,” says Yolen. “The child is saying, 'I just want to read the next chapter'.”

Kids' book groups are getting a boost from the “Today” show’s Al Roker, who will announce four new titles on his new kids’ book club this summer. A month after he tells viewers about his next choice, he will invite the author to discuss the book with him and some kids. Of course, parents are more likely than their kids to watch that show. “I don't know who Al Roker is,” says McGrath, the 9-year-old. But many kids do know Selznick, Roker's first author, who will appear on “Today” on May 18 to answer questions from kids. Like other children's authors, Selznick, 40, wishes book groups for kids existed when he was younger. “Oh, my God, that would have been really wonderful,” he says. He would have loved to discuss his favorites, like “The Borrowers.” He recalls “being really obsessed with the book and thinking it was a true story and there really were little people living under the floorboards of the house.”

Some well-known authors now visit with kids' book groups—in homes or schools, over the phone or over the Internet. For the past five years, Kimberly Willis Holt, author of “When Zachary Beaver Comes to Town” and “My Louisiana Sky,” has dialed in to book groups for a half-hour discussion. She curls up in her pajamas while the kids put her on speakerphone and ask questions about the inspiration for her tales and about certain plot points. Some kids love online book groups, though they're “less intimate than an actual book club,” notes Newbery Honor author Martin, who also writes “The Baby-Sitters Club” and “Main Street” series. (And online book groups don't include food!) Still, Martin likes book groups so much that she is making them the centerpiece of the fifth book in her new “Main Street” series. Tentatively titled “The Secret Book Club” (with a 2008 publishing date), it will deal with four friends who anonymously receive packages containing the same two books—“The Saturdays” and “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH,” two of her own favorites.

Book groups come in many shapes and sizes. Some use adult facilitators; others are for moms and daughters or dads and sons. Some meet in temples, others at Brownie troop meetings and bookstores. Many gather in homes at night or in school at the end of the day.  Book groups are also popular with home-schooled kids. Teen librarian Elise Sheppard runs the Friday Classic Book Club for Homeschooled Teens in Cypress, Texas, once a month on Fridays at the Harris County Public Library. On Sunday afternoons, she serves as the moderator for the Contemporary Book Club for Teens for ages 12 to 18. “They feel comfortable sitting with strangers, without their parents, discussing all these issues, not having to agree, not getting a grade, not getting judged,” says Sheppard.

“They learn how to communicate, how to analyze, who to express themselves,” Sheppard says, “even the kids who come in for two years and don't say a word.” The kids tackle everything from Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge” to Art Spiegelman’s “Maus.” “It really helps them think,” she says. “That is the most important thing.” To draw in as many kids as possible, she goes around the room and asks her group to rate a book. “Is it horrible? Do you want to bury it?” she says. “The best part of the book club is not whether they like or hate the book, but they've been able to discuss their ideas with other people. It's taught them how to think and how to analyze while having fun.”

Even the tiniest kids come up with surprising insights. Author Yolen remembers hearing about a child in a very young book group that was discussing “Peter Rabbit.” “She thought it was a very sad story because Farmer McGregor lost all his cabbages,” says Yolen. “Goodness, who ever gave a thought to Farmer McGregor?!”