I wrote previously about books that hit and miss with boys book groups, but books are only a part of what makes a book club successful, and not even the most important aspect.
What’s most important? The kids. I mean quantity kids. What makes or breaks the club on the first day is the presence of other kids. Seriously, I’ve seen the light flicker out in the eyes of an excited boy when he realized nobody else was coming. It doesn’t matter if the weather is terrible, or too lovely to compete with, or if it’s a weekend everybody ends up going out of town on vacation. Your fault or not, that book club is a bust if you don’t have a room full of squirming, shouting young readers.
Getting kids in the room is the toughest part. I’ve always had the help of librarians in that regard, but it’s still a lottery. Days and times are important but hard to figure out. And you really need to remind kids to come (and their parents to bring them). Make calls, fire off emails or even send postcards as reminders. When you send your message, remind the kids that finishing the book isn’t a requirement for participating. Tell them they can come even if they haven’t read the book.
Having kids show up is a great start, but if you’re not ready with questions and prompts, they sure won’t be. I recommend having a white board and markers around. I start off by asking kids to name all the characters they can think of, and the key scenes in the book, writing them down as I go. It’s a good way to get kids talking and it puts everything out in front of them so they can remember what to say when you ask questions like, “which character do you want to hang out with,” or “did any of the scenes seem fake to you,” or whatever the book compels you to ask.
Write your own questions in advance, and make them good ones. “What part did you like?” is a fine place to start, but from there you can make it more personal to the kids. “The hero of the book did something really brave but maybe a little stupid. Did you ever do anything like that?” Kids like to talk about themselves, and finding connections to the book still counts as book talk. Furthermore, the participants forge connections to one another, which what it’s all about.
Of course you might have other activities inspired by the book. For example, if the hero of the book has to tie knots, you might demo some knot tying. I also make crosswords and word search puzzles (you can find free and low-cost software to help), but I just have those available for kids who show up early and are waiting, or for kids to do during the conversation. Kids like having something to do with their hands while they talk. I never do complicated demos or activities, but you might be more intrepid than me and make that clay volcano erupt.
Finally, you must have the all-important treats. Treats are the difference between a classroom atmosphere and a party atmosphere. Most book clubs have them. I always gave them out at the beginning, but recently was a guest at a book club that took a “treat break” in the middle. That’s a simple enough idea, but I thought it was a good one. It gave us all a little break in the middle of the discussion and re-energized the group. It also kept the crackling of wrappers and crunching of chips to a minimum during the first part of the meeting, when the more focused discussion occurs (usually all book club discussions derail towards the end, whatever the age of its participants). I would do that from now on: take a treat break instead of just doling out treats before we start. Incidentally, I don’t think it works to give treats as ‘rewards’ for asking questions or making comments. Let genuine curiosity and interest drive the discussion.
So to recap, obviously the book club selection matters, but only if you have kids, some good questions that help the kids forge connections to the book and each other, some activities to break up the monotony, and a bowl of “fun-sized” candy bars. If you have all of those things, the time will be fun for everyone no matter what they all thought of the book.