Program-a-riffic: Kids Book Club

Preschool storytime has been one of the core services of public libraries for decades. However, programs for school age kids often begin and end with summer reading programs. What about the rest of the year? We started a book club for grades one to six about two years ago, and it’s turned into a great part of our monthly line-up.

Kids Book Club With a Twist is a to-do that involves a dozen or so elementary school kids of various ages, cookies and hot chocolate. The twist is… everyone reads different books! This one is my pet program, and well worth giving up a Saturday afternoon a month.

This is the program in which we blatantly encouraging a) reading for fun, not school, b) being able to tell other people what the book is about and why it’s good or bad. (Was it a funny book? Was it boring? Do you think other kids will like it?) and c) the ability to pick a book to read when offered a choice.

Last meeting, we will have handed out the list for next time and passed out the books. The list and the books on the list are on display in the Kids department throughout the month, so the kids can pick them up at any time. I do two months at a time (our library newsletter comes out every two months), ten books for each month on a theme (mysteries, animal stories, winter celebrations, scary stories, all-Canadian authors….) and then ten books on no theme that can be read for either month (so if you don’t like the kind of books that are thematic, you can still pick something–also, so I don’t go too nuts trying to fit things into the theme.)

The books range in reading and interest level from picture books and beginning readers to even the occasional teen book that falls into middle school territory for the grade fives and sixes. I always try to make at least a quarter of the books nonfiction, too. Putting together the list is the most labour-intensive part.

You could pare it down and only have three or four books per month, but one of my favorite things about the program is the variety. (Also, it means that we don’t need to have many, many copies of the same book, because we just don’t.) The kids will almost always find something they’re interested in, and often will pick up something that they wouldn’t have otherwise tried, because someone else read it last time and said it was great. Sometimes, the really hard part of making the list is keeping it to ten books per section. Sometimes, I cheat and make it twelve or fifteen books.

Then, it usually goes something like this: Hi guys! Let’s get everyone a nametag and hot chocolate and a cookie! (Chaos and various spills always ensue. So what? The kids department carpet has seen much worse.)

Let’s share a book together! (It usually takes something funny to capture the attention of both the big kids and the little kids. Fractured fairy tales are always a good bet, but at Christmas, the grade five and sixes were even more emphatic than the little guys that I should read them The Grinch.)

Let’s stretch and play a game! (Lightening-round of Pictionary or Outburst, a memory game, or the kinds of quick things used as icebreakers…)

Quick, two groups! Grades one to three over here, and grades four to six over here! What books did everyone read? (If we have less than a dozen, we usually stay on one group, but we’ve found that given the chance to talk about what they’ve read, the smaller groups are less intimidating and the big kids usually have more to say. I take the big kids and my book club buddy S. take the little kids and after they’ve all rattled off their books, will read them a short picture book while we’re still talking.)

Here is a basket of twenty to thirty books for varying ages! Let me show them to you and tell you about them….

S., that one’s pretty short. Are you sure you want it? (Translation: you read way above grade level, and I think you’d read it in ten minutes and get bored, even if the cover is sparkly.) C., do you know that book doesn’t have any pictures? Look inside and see if you want to swap it for another one, or maybe you could read it together with your dad at home. (Translation: yes, it sounded exciting, but you’re only seven and it’s a wilderness survival novel closer to a grade five reading level.) H., that one’s pretty sad and scary in parts. Are you okay with that? (Translation: I’m not sure if you’re mature enough for that brilliant but obviously heavy story about the holocaust, but we’ll let you and your mom decide that.)

I always let them decide for themselves, and I never tell a kid they can’t have a book. If it’s too much for them, they usually get bored partway in and stop. If it’s too simplistic, they’ll either get bored, or whip through it and move on to something else. The beauty of a library book is that you can bring it back and get something else at any time. And I know that the fear is that this unrewarding experience will turn them off reading. But you know what? There are plenty of times and places for insisting on The Perfect Book. These kids are at the public library on a Saturday afternoon, mostly of their own free will. This is not their first contact with finding a book to read, nor will it be their last. I think it’s far more valuable to give them their autonomy and let them pick.

Then comes the most exciting part–the PRIZE BASKET! It is full of, what else, books! We buy some of the books, but the prize basket is heavily supplemented by donated books. We sort through donated books before they go to the Friends of the Library for their book sale, and some of the shinier paperbacks always end up in the prize basket.

Over time, this has evolved in a ritual that takes up about a quarter of the hour-long program. Everyone puts their nametags into the bucket, and the order we draw them is the order you get to pick your prizes. Everyone leaves with a book prize. When your name is drawn, you then draw the next name. Of course, each kid has to flip through every single book in the basket and agonize over the decision. We tried enforcing a time limit once, but I think it’s more important that the kids leave with a book that they really want.Clearly, from the time they’ll take picking, it’s important to them.

Then, it’s all over but the clean-up!

This program started off slow for us. For the first six months, we never knew if anyone was going to show up at all. Usual attendance was about half a dozen kids, and it was inevitable that some of them were preschoolers who mostly just stayed for the story. But we kept trying, and now we have regulars. And they bring their friends. And we have random drop-ins. And the homeschool community has discovered the program. And a number of people pick up the lists of books for the program just for reading recommendations. I think for a regularily recurring program like this, if you’re getting any kind of response at all, stick it out for one full school year, and then see what happens in year two. It takes some time for it to register with people as part of the regular line-up of what’s going on. It takes some time for word of mouth to spread.

The bit that takes the most time and expertise is putting together the list of books. I am a giant geek and I love making booklists. But there are a lot of places you can find preprepared lists, whether it’s in print bibliographies, resources like Novelist, or through strategic googling. Knowing what’s in your library collection helps, and so does knowing what kids are reading in your community. Don’t be afraid of mixing award winners with schlocky series paperbacks with long-time favourites and the latest and greatest hot new titles.

The keys to this program are a bit of time (both to get the program established, and each month to put a list together) and enthusiasm (if you don’t think kids’ books are cool, how can you convince the kids at your program?) The book prizes and the hot chocolate and cookies are great if you have the resources, but not essential to what the program’s all about.

Because really, kids’ books are cool.

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