Sounds like a great idea but do they work?
Last spring, our Principal decided to do create a book club. She attended a training, which demonstrated book clubs produce improved reading skills. She wanted to implement one at our school. Being an avid reader and a children’s book author, I jumped on the bandwagon and said, “I can help you set it up.”
I gave her my stash of books. We had to find a book that fit a mid-range reading level and would be welcomed by a wide range of readers; we could only pull off one club school-wide. Excluding a child wasn’t an option. We had several young readers whose reading level were several grades ahead so we didn’t want to say no to them because they were simply in a lower elementary grade. Nor did we want an older reader to feel the book was too “babyish” for them to read either.
So, she began reading all the choices I gave her. Among them were notable books like The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, The Cat that Could Spell Mississippi by Laura Hawkins, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, Justin Case by Rachel Vail, and The Beef Princess of Practical County by Michelle Houts.
“I think I like this one,” my Principal told me one afternoon late in February. It turned out to be The Beef Princess.
“I happen to know the author of this book. I bet we could get her to sign the copies for the kids and maybe do a Skype visit at the end of the book club sessions,” I said. I was so excited, ideas began racing through my mind.
We began to plan. Within two weeks, we had a reading schedule and we launched the title at our very first grass roots International Book Expo.
The Family Reading Night during our International Book Expo was a hit!
Our principal was even taped live by a news station as she read an excerpt from the book. The kids were so excited to participate in a book club with the Principal that 30 books were sold on the spot. By the time everyone was contacted in the school, over 100 books were sold. Everyone wanted to read with the Principal. And who wouldn’t? It doesn’t get more special than having a meeting with the Principal and not because you were misbehaving.
I kept calling Michelle Houts, the author of The Beef Princess. “I have to change the total. I have more books sold.” I said to her. “I’m up to 90.”
“Holy crap Hilde, I should have made you my marketing agent long ago,” she replied.
We chuckled, but her local bookstore stocked the books, she signed them all, and then sent them to us via the good old post office.
Every member of our Book Club signed a code of conduct and promised not to ruin it for anyone else. Many read it ahead of schedule and it was hard to keep the end of the story a secret, but they did it!
When the loud speaker blared out, “Time for Book Club” during lunch recess, kids ran to the library. It was inspiring to see Kindergartners and 1st graders running with their books, even though they had an adult reading the book to them. It was even neater to see how much they knew about the story and how they could pick out their favorite part. The discussions were age appropriate and we used Michelle’s classroom guide to help give it some structure.
Our hallways were lined with illustrations from many of our club members. They all received pencils that said ABC- Atikian Book Club (named for our principal). They were given bookmarkers and the author even sent a special treat, COW TALES CANDY, which made everyone chuckle, and postcards, which the kids filled out and sent to her. The kids were so excited about meeting Michelle via Skype, that one night, I got this wild and crazy idea.
Forget Skype. How about we meet her in person?
Why not? I mean, our PTA needed another assembly to round out our year so there were some funds available… my mind was racing so fast, I couldn’t sleep. No one else had any ideas they could pull off in a short amount of time, maybe I can make this happen.
I emailed Michelle.
“Forget Skyping… how about popping over here for an in person meeting?"
“Yeah?” Remember, she lives in Ohio and we were located in LA.
“Yeah, I just have to convince the PTA,” I said.
My Principal loved the idea and I, of course, forgot to follow some PTA protocol, but in the end, it was approved and three weeks later, she arrived in LA. We set up school-wide assemblies about writing, but held a very special “members only” meeting with only the book club.
And if you thought you couldn’t get kids interested in school on the last week, especially about writing, well then you haven’t met Michelle, her cow tales, nor the magic of a Creative Writing Packet.
Michelle and I spent an evening packing Writing Survival kits. Each child a got a packet that included a “How To Write” Guide, a suggested reading list for the summer, a blank book from Oriental Trading, for that story that was burning to come out of their heads, a magic pencil, rough draft paper- every good writer knows you have to revise - a postcard so kids could correspond with Michelle, and suggested writing tips, all in a handy dandy zip lock bag with the student's name on it.
It was absolutely transforming. Every child felt special and many began writing their stories that week. It wasn’t that the items were so special, but the presentation gave them power and power is an amazing thing for a child.
Even though everyone went ape over Michelle and her presentation, those 100 kids from the Book Club were the most memorable. They loved speaking to Michelle and asked her extremely deep questions about the characters and their actions. Michelle had said that it was a unique experience being with a group that knew the book inside and out. Right down to the Kindergartners. And when Michelle let them in on a secret for another story about Practical County, you could hear the gasps back in Ohio. That was my favorite moment! All these kids had collectively gone on this ride with our Principal and didn’t want to end. They wanted more.
Well that was in the Spring. Now, it’s Fall and a new school year has begun. All the students now, whether they were in the club or not last year, are asking if they can be in it this year and we haven’t even chosen the title yet.
It will be revealed during our 2nd annual Family Reading Night the week of our International Book Expo. I don’t know if we will be as lucky as to have the author again in person, but this year’s worry is, what if we have too many kids?
Well, there are never too many kids! Not when you have them excited about reading. I think that was the key element. The interaction with our Principal and other adults, the meeting of the author, reading a fresh new book in a group, really made the experience extraordinary, and kids that might not have even thought about doing this, did it because their pals did it and then they loved it.
And don’t think the word princess detoured the boys. We had over 25 boys of all ages embrace a pink spine and the word “Princess” in the title. They were truly trailblazers.
Our school newspaper interviewed Michelle on the phone. When they were able to meet her in person, they did a follow up. As a result, several articles were written about the event, which ended with punch and cookies in our auditorium and a very special book signing.
My friend’s accommodations were very posh. She stayed at chez Hilde’s in her own private garage studio with pasta and hamburger meals. She was carted around to baseball games and cheer practice. It’s a good thing Michelle is a mom and totally understood just how crazy a regular week with kids can be.
We are looking forward to when her next book launches. Reading is powerful, but the interaction between a child and an adult about a book can be transforming. Our school learned how engaging it could be to meet a storyteller. Every child at our school realized that they are storytellers too, because after all, only they can tell their own story, no one else.
I leave you with this thought: have you read with a child lately? If not, consider the bond that can come from it and read on. Everyday. Everywhere.
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