7 ways to set up and run a children’s book group

posted in: Books in the community | 14

casestudiesOnce a month I run (as a volunteer) a children’s reading group at our local public library. It’s targeted at 8-12 year olds and we’ve been going about 7 months now. It brings me enormous pleasure!

I thought it would be a fun idea to bring together lots of mini case studies about how different people have set up book groups for children in the hope that it might encourage some of you to consider setting up one in your community or your child’s school. You’ll find lots of tips and practical advice in these case studies and just maybe you’ll also find yourself thinking that you too could run something similar.

Case Study 1: Gita @storyvilled

“I’m writing this post after the Chatterbooks group I run weekly at our local primary school. I am not a teacher or librarian but a parent. Armed with an MA in Creative Writing and Children’s Literature I decided it would be fun to set up a children’s book group. As all who work with children know, the reality is both harder and MUCH more rewarding than I’d imagined.

Today, in forty minutes we:

1) Returned last week’s books and gave feedback. Lovely comment from a girl re SF Said’s Phoenix that it was ‘surprising and sad.’ Couldn’t have said it better myself.

phoenix

2) Designed our own planets, thinking about distance from the sun, number of moons, gravity, atmosphere and planetary life (this month’s theme is Science Fiction).

gitaall

3) Chose from a selection of new books and issued them.

4) Talked about ‘Why I can’t live without books’ in preparation for a World Book Day event. This led to a discussion with a child about his family history involving an exciting tale of how his grandfather escaped Nazi Germany! I promised to find ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ by Judith Kerr for him next time.

5) Discussed how amazing ‘El Deafo’ by Cece Bell was with a girl who’s borrowed it THREE times, and whether her friend could borrow it though it didn’t fit our theme of Science Fiction (Yes!)

eldeafo

However much you’ve planned (and I do!) the best and most surprising moments are child-led.

I couldn’t have done it without:

1) Support from the school (in my case a keen Year 6 teacher.)
2) Joining Chatterbooks (this is free) and in my case going on a training day (this is not.) They provide a great monthly newsletter with suggestions for themes and activities. Link here: http://readingagency.org.uk/children/quick-guides/chatterbooks/
3) The AMAZING online community of book bloggers and tweeters who have helped me find books to attract young readers.

TOP TIPS!

1) All the children LOVED graphic novels (reviews here: http://specsisters.wordpress.com/2014/11/04/highbrow-lowbrow-nobrowdoes-it-matter)
2) A display board helps to promote the club and the children enjoy seeing their ‘mini-reviews’ posted.
3) Bring BISCUITS!”

Photo: Mike Licht
Photo: Mike Licht

Case Study 2: Carmen from Rhino Reads

“Last year I ran an informal book group for 13 year six children (10/11yrs) We met every Wednesday in the school library during their lunch break. And I learnt just as much as the children did!

Running a book group can be a hugely rewarding experience. The satisfaction of watching a child find *that* book – the one that chimes with them and becomes the beginning of a special journey- is a truly wonderful feeling. Sharing books and ideas with children is a real privilege. You become part teacher, part librarian, part mentor and part friend. It is immensely fun! But it can be tricky, too. Here’s what I have learned over the last year…

Structure is helpful… But don’t be afraid to go wherever the kids take you.
The book group was set up as part of the East Sussex Children’s Book Award -for the children to read the shortlist and vote for their favourites – so we had a ready made starting point and structure which was very helpful in the initial ‘getting to know each other’ stage. We had six books to read through, review, and write about creatively. It only took us a couple of weeks before we were flying wildly off tangent and reading all sorts of brilliant books alongside the shortlisted six, but that initial structure helped us immensely. You could shadow a book award, have a different theme every week, or a new author each week. Whatever you choose, don’t be afraid to change and follow what catches the interest of the kids.

Keep it informal
These kids were giving up their lunch break to come and talk books with me. I tried to keep it as informal and fun as possible. We sat on the tables or on beanbags, we chatted, we shared, we took turns and we laughed. Sometimes I brought sweets. That went down well! I made mistakes in front of them and let them make mistakes too. We trusted each other and we became friends.

What do they like? What do they want?
I found it really helpful to find out why they’d signed up for the book group – what they hoped to get out of it. Mostly they wanted to find new books and authors, improve their reading or their creative or critical writing, and to meet authors. As I didn’t know the children I also asked them what they liked reading and for some of their favourite books. All this information really helped me tailor the book group sessions to suit the kids and helped me find new books for them to read. I read their favourite books and then gave them new suggestions. I forwarded their reviews to authors and publishers and set them up with their own website where they could show off their writing. Some of the best moments came from having that initial info – their faces when Matt Haig tweeted their work, their excitement about having a tweet-chat with Anne Booth after reading Girl With A White Dog, their joy at reading a book I’d recommended that was just the kind of story they wanted. The more you know the children and what they want, the more you can give them.

Know what’s out there
Last year I read A LOT of books for their age group so that I could recommend the best ones. It really helps to know what’s out there and what’s good. Ask around, do your research, READ!

Mix it up a bit
Because of the shortlisted books we were focusing on, we read mainly fiction for the 8-12 market. But we mixed it up a bit too. I brought in a few picture books that made them think and reassess what – and who – picture books are for. I used The Yes by Sarah Bee, but Shaun Tan books are great for this too. One girl dreamed of becoming a journalist so I brought in some non-fiction books. What about comics or graphic novels? I’d have loved to use them if we’d had more time.

Kids love Free Stuff
I found that bringing in a few new books each week for the children to pounce on really kept up their enthusiasm. I would raid the school library shelves in advance and bring in my copies from home. They started doing the same and through their recommendations I ended up finding new books and authors too! I also brought them a load of bookmarks (picked up at my local Indy bookshop) and I always had post its and pens out so they could write down mini reviews and ideas. It’s amazing what a glitter gel pen can inspire! This worked out really well for the shortlisted books and we ended up making a display of all our post-it’s around a photocopy of the book cover.

And lastly…
Don’t run your book group at the same time as football
I lost 2 of my group when football club started in the new term. Learn from my mistake.”

Photo: Enokson
Photo: Enokson

Case study 3: Liz

“I taught English at Secondary level for 25 years and after giving up full time work ran a kids reading group held at our very small local library. The library is really more like someone’s sitting room with sofas, bean bags, etc. so its ot at all intimidating. We meet once a month between 5 and 6p.m. It has been going for about 5 years but obviously the members change over time. We advertised in local schools, libraries and youth clubs.

The group isn’t running at the moment as winter nights are a bit tricky in a rural ill lit village! The group is for 8-12 year olds but in reality tended to be mainly 8-10 year olds. I very much let the group lead, as far as activities were concerned and we mainly started with” My Favourite Book” and how to persuade others to read it. They brought along their own copy. I didn’t want to make it too much like school but I did try to steer them away from just re telling the story and to talk about character and setting a bit. Inevitably this got others talking about what they liked about books too. We always have a drink and nibble break when the books are put in the middle for everyone to look at.

We have looked at different genres and ordered books from the library that we thought might be good. I found that hearing about other’s choice of books often meant they would try something new. It is a good idea to use the library facility because a) It encourages the use of libraries (Use it or lose it) and b) they can try a book without shelling out money. Most libraries let kids take out 20 books. They can order on line from the whole county stock for free and have it delivered to their local library and return it there too.

I often took along a selection of books and we would look at beginnings and endings and talk about what makes a good story. One group wrote some beginnings and endings and we all shared them…..some demand for them to finish the story was quite amusing! There are fun things relating to characters you could do too.

I would suggest limiting the age range and the size of the group. Ours tends to be a maximum of about 8. You need to change tack quite often…your instincts should tell you when its time to move on to something else!

We gave our book group a name based on where our group is located and designed a badge which we had printed.

Our sessions were an hour with a break for squash and biscuits half way. This is quite a long time for some and we often had some sort of activity for example, designing book covers, looking up authors on the internet, producing a comic style book about their favourite books and seasonal activities like Spooky Stories, Christmas Stories or Holiday Stories. Once or twice I read to them for part of the session which has been surprisingly successful on occasions! Be prepared for activities not to get finished to any satisfactory conclusion but it isn’t school and as long as they have fun it doesn’t matter! I’d advise avoiding too many writing activities as that seems too much like school to them!

There are organisations which produce magazines for book groups and you could band together with some other local groups and approach locally based authors who will sometimes come along for free as long as you promote their book!

I found looking at one set book as a group wasn’t very successful as they are often unwilling to move out of their comfort zone and so won’t read it beforehand.

I did find that the kids who wanted to join were already keen readers; it is an ongoing problem to attract in the unwilling readers. About equal numbers of boys and girls take part thought the girls are generally much more likely to read the boy’s choices of books than the other way round. They tend to meet in the Fantasy genre!”

Photo: Sweet Jessie
Photo: Sweet Jessie

Case Study 4: Katie at Storytellers, Inc, @storytellersinc

“We have three book groups for children at the moment here at Storytellers, Inc., separated by age group. The 8-9 group, 10-12 group and 13+. Each group meets once a month to discuss a single book they have all read in advance of the meetings. The sessions are usually fuelled by an abundance of biscuits, crisps and hot chocolate (although my sophisticated teens love the Mocha in our coffee machine!).

I lead the discussions to try and keep us on topic but we invariably end up talking about One Direction and Doctor Who – which is fine if that’s where the conversation goes. Book club isn’t a school lesson, the children are there in their own free time and I think it’s important that it’s run in a way that means they want to attend. I always select the books myself and in most cases I’ve read the whole book myself before I’ve selected it; what I’m looking for is great, standalone stories that the children might not have come across on their own. I won’t ever pick Wimpy Kid or the latest David Walliams, I’m trying to nudge them outside of their comfort zone to read as widely as possible. Vocabulary, spelling, grammar and grasp of English in their own writing is all vastly improved by reading for pleasure so I avoid putting anyone on the spot with test-like questions or insisting anyone writes up a formal review -so long as they give the book a go, I’m happy. If they didn’t like the book, I expect the discussion to be about what exactly they didn’t like, how it could be improved, what they would have preferred etc., and if we’re really stuck I like to hear about what else they’ve been reading since I saw them last.

The children in the group become friends quite quickly, most of them attend on their own and because of the range of schools nearby they rarely know each other before joining book club, so they have the added bonus of making new friends outside of their school circles. It’s confidence building. Some members drop in and out but you can usually tell which ones are just here for the sweets, the true book lovers stick with it and are willing to try anything in order to discover a new potential favourite read- some of my members have been coming since the groups were created – nearly three years ago now. I know they love it because they keep coming back and I’m delighted when parents tell me that they’ve had a sneaky read of their children’s book too – great stories know no boundaries!

My top tips for starting a children’s book group would be:

  • Pick unexpected books! – as well as novels try short stories, non-fiction or poetry, it will generate great discussions.
  • Don’t make it too school-like! – reading for pleasure is exactly that.
  • Don’t forget the snacks! – book chat is thirsty work. It’s also biscuity work.”
  • Photo: Salem (MA) Public Library
    Photo: Salem (MA) Public Library

    Case Study 5: Centre for Literacy in Primary Education

    In 2013 CLPE was funded by the Siobhan Dowd Trust to set up book groups in Southwark schools. This free downladable guide sets out what was learnt during the project and gives guidance to schools hoping to set up their own book groups. Full details can be found at https://www.clpe.org.uk/page/68

    Photo: San Jose Library
    Photo: San Jose Library

    Case Study 6: Laura Sheldon

    “I’ve been running a school book club for 3 years now. I’m a teacher at the school and also the literacy coordinator and I also have responsibility for provision for more able pupils. The book club initially started as an opportunity for more able pupils to read and discuss more challenging books. It has evolved slightly and although this is still partly the aim, all pupils are encouraged to join and we have a mix of reading abilities in the group now. (The group was always open to anyone who wished to join of course!). Two members of staff are in the group and it’s entirely voluntary. We meet every week for half an hour at a lunchtime and either discuss an aspect of the book we are reading (theme, character development etc) or respond to the book in some way. For example, our last book was Rooftoppers by Kathryn Rundell and I asked the pupils to write an early memory on a piece of paper. We collected them in a scrapbook and shared with each other.

    We all read the same book (which the pupils have to source for themselves – they usually share copies, visit the library, download onto kindles etc) and we close a different book at least once a half term. We choose books in a bit of a haphazard way. I ask the children for their ideas but also suggest one or two myself. The children vote for their choice and we usually end up reading something that stretches them a little. Past favourites have included Holes by Louis Sachar, Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Varjak Paw by SF Said.

    I used to have cake at every meeting (sometimes provided by me, sometimes the children but that stopped when we increased the frequency of the meetings). We now have cake on special occasions and celebrate the end of the year with a poetry picnic in which every member has to come prepared with some food and a poem to recite/read.

    I would say to someone looking to start a school based club that regular meetings are key. I used to hold them once a half term and found that only half the pupils had read the book. For this age group you need to keep on top of them and encourage book sharing etc.

    Last year the book club entered the book slam run by the Wales Book Council which was an excellent motivator. They had to read two books from a list, discuss one and do a presentation on the other. They made it to the final in Brecon and we had a brilliant day out. This year we will be entering again and have just started reading the first book on our list.

    I was asked by a local exhibition space to create a storytelling shed for their interactive children’s exhibition (in my role as children’s author) and so I’ve asked the book club to respond artistically to their favourite stories and decorate the shed. We’ll see how that turns out…

    There’s so much I’d love to do with no money or time restraints… Visits to book shops, libraries, exhibitions, authors workshops etc, more detailed analysis of each book, time for high quality feedback/artistic responses, blogging, vlogging, the list is endless.”

    Photo: Christchurch City Libraries
    Photo: Christchurch City Libraries

    Case Study 7: Zoe from Playing by the book

    “The book group I run meets once a month in the local public library. We don’t have a set text each month, but rather we have themes. Past thenese have included comics and graphic novels, poetry, war stories, children’s magazines, diaries. Each month, with the help of the paid librarians, I order up a trolley load of books on the given theme (an advantage of being based in a public library) and we “speed taste” them (like speed dating, but the children don’t like the term ‘dating’). Speed tasting goes down incredibly well. It’s quite physical and frantic, but I’ve found it a really successful way of getting members to choose new books which they might not have discovered otherwise to take home with them.

    We’re not able to do activities which make mess (so no crafting, for example) and can’t bring food into the library (so no biscuits!). However, one activity which has worked well is using Twitter to interview authors during our book group meetings. We’ve done this a few times now and it’s been very successful. We start such sessions by brain storming questions we’d like to ask, and then spend 10-15 minutes on Twitter (we have our own account as a book group, which we also use for publicity) in a quick fire conversation with the author or illustrator. If you’d like to do this with your group, you’ll need to think about your policy on e-safety (for example we get parents’ permission, we only use first names, and if a child doesn’t want to be named they can still ask questions), and also how you’ll recompense the author for their time (don’t assume they’ll do the interview for free).

    When a new child joins the group I give them a quick questionnaire to fill out about their interests. I do this because each meeting I come up with a personalised book recommendation for each child (not necessarily to do with the theme of that month). If the library has the book in stock, I order it up, so it is ready for them to take away, otherwise I give the the title and author and a brief description on a piece of paper so that they can take it home or look for it in the bookshop. At the end of each session I also ask the children to find me at least one book in the library that they would recommend to me, and I commit to reading that book by the time of the next meeting. This reciprocity has created a really great atmosphere in the group. The children are always really excited to choose a book for me and then to find out what I thought of it.

    Photo: Pratham Books
    Photo: Pratham Books

    Huge thanks to everyone who contributed to this post. I hope it’s given you a flavour of different ways children’s book groups can be run by people just like you! If you’re tempted to set up a children’s book group I’m of course happy to share more ideas or be a sounding board – just get in touch!

    14 Responses

    1. Sam

      Zoe – this is so incredibly useful and well timed. I have just started running book clubs in school, for years 2 and 4, year and year 6 – so three lunchtimes a week. The years 3-4 one is going well but it’s lovely to have ideas about what can be achieved in these sessions. Next week we’re making a doughbot based on the Monster and Chips books!

    2. Zoe

      Wow Sam, that’s great to hear. Will you be blogging about what’s worked well and what you would do differently? If so, do share the links when they go live!

    3. Claire Potter

      I think the idea of interviewing authors by Twitter is brilliant.

      I watched a travel programme recently where a ‘Library boat’ visited a remote island once a week (I think it was Vietnam) and the children were so, so excited when it arrived and rushed to grab a book and then immediately found themselves a rock on the shore to sit on and lose themselves in it. We are so lucky that in Britain, (most) children can take books for granted – and it is a little tiny bit sad that biscuits and sweets are needed to entice them!!!
      Claire Potter recently posted..Quirky World: Warsaw, the cheapest foreign family trip ever (and yes, cheerful too!)

    4. Melanie

      Lovely to see so many book groups. Little M set up a teen book group 2 years ago. It started off in the library but the opening times weren’t suitable enough so she moved it to our house: it’s tricky finding a time that suits everyone. It’s on a Friday night from 7pm and lasts about 2 -3 hours. There is no adult involvement, it’s very informal and involves lots of snacks and noise. Usually they read the same book and discuss it. It’s probably more of a social event than a strict book group. They’ve run 2 x 24 hour readathons which are gruelling but fun; received reading group copies from The Reading Agency for which they post feedback on our blog; and they get invited to events by literary festivals and libraries. The age range is currently quite limited: there are about 8 of them in total and they’re all about 14 or 15 now and in their GCSE years – so now the reading pace has slowed dramatically with mock exams and things like that taking preference.

      Seeing it from the sidelines, my top tip would be to let the group evolve.
      Melanie recently posted..The Children Act – Ian McEwan

      • Zoe

        Thanks for sharing this Melanie – another model, another set of ideas. I love that it is young person led.

    5. ngozi egbigwe

      I have always considered your site as a very useful resource for my budding career in child literacy advocacy. I have bookmarked this for quick reference. Thank you.

    6. Fiona Evans

      Fabulous and inspiring ideas from all these case studies. We’re so glad that the Chatterbooks training and resources have been so useful, Gita.

    7. Cathy Atkinson

      Thanks for sharing! We are just starting a book club at our school and it certainly helps to read about what has worked well for others!

      • Zoe

        That’s great to hear Cathy. When your group is up and running, do feel free to pop back and leave your top tips for others to benefit from 🙂

    8. Melanie

      I found this page very useful as I am beginning a book club with years 5/6 after easter and was looking for ideas for the club and this page has helped a lot. I work within a local primary school already and know the children quite well, I have been volunteering to read with them for a few weeks and thought they would enjoy a after school club aso quite a few are very strong readers and enjoy reading out of school and in school. I do like the idea of having the children write to the author of there favourite books, but how would you go about that and would they all receive replies? Also liked the idea of getting someone in to talk to them but unsure how to go about this too, who to ask to come in to the school and do a talk that will interest them and would it cost? Thank you for your help.

      • Zoe

        Writing to authors can be done via their publisher (look at the book spine to find the publisher and then google their website), or you can see if the author has a website with contact details. Whether authors write back or not depends a lot from author to author. As to getting authors to visit schools, Booktrust has a useful guide http://www.booktrust.org.uk/programmes/arranging-an-author-visit/ Good luck!

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