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Books

How (and Why) I Started Book Clubs for My Kids

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Like many parents, I was anxious at the start of the pandemic about how my children’s learning would be negatively impacted by all the lockdowns and school closures. However,  we tried to keep in mind the important lesson we have learned from having a differently-abled child –  that “it is more important to keep learning than to just keep up”. Learning happens in many different ways – and we discovered that it was better (and less overwhelming!) to focus on the mastery of a few core skills, instead of just fixating on the coverage of syllabus.

In our family, the core skill that my husband and I chose to focus on for our children during the pandemic was reading, and in particular, critical reading. This was because at the start of the first lockdown, our daughter, a child with Down’s syndrome, could not read yet, whilst her twin brother, our neurotypical child, was just a newly minted independent reader.

Cultivating a love for reading

Looking back, I am glad we chose to focus on reading, as it has had a big ripple effect on other aspects of their schooling and home life. A whole new world has opened up for them, simply from the acquisition of this one singular skill – from responding better to comprehension questions and following written instructions, to expressing themselves well, enjoying more diverse books and movies, and sourcing relevant written material for topics and themes they are interested in.

There is much more to reading however, than just learning phonics and deciphering words. Reading requires children to make meaning out of print. A school-time reader does not automatically become a lifetime reader who has a genuine love of books, even within a household  of avid readers. Children do need a bit of scaffolding and support to take that leap into the realm of reading for pure enjoyment and enrichment.

Our online book club experiment

As my regular work was put on hold during the pandemic, I found myself with a little bit of free time. So, in July 2021, on a whim and in a bid to inject a little bit of fun into the process of helping our 8-year-old twins become better readers, I decided to start online book clubs on Zoom for my children, their classmates and friends. It turned out to be one of the best things we have ever embarked on and I would like to share our experience.

Here are some points and tips you might like to keep in mind, if you would like to start book clubs for your own kids and their friends:

1. Most children do want to read, if given the right books

Many parents often lament that their children are reluctant readers. However, based on my experience as a mum and as a facilitator of children’s programmes that have included book readings and discussions, I have found that most children actually do want to read if they are given the right books. However, it is not always easy finding the right books, especially if you did not grow up in a reading household or are not exposed to good children’s books. Most parents tend to buy books that help children learn how to read (like the Peter and Jane series, or graded phonics-style readers), and not good fiction books with rich storylines and themes that inspire a love of reading.

When in doubt, you should go with evergreen classics by children’s authors like Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, E.B. Nesbitt, Judy Blume and Diana Wynne Jones, to name a few. There are also good contemporary writers such as Jacqueline Woodson, Grace Lin, David Walliams, Dave Pilkey and Andy Griffiths. You can also get recommendations from authoritative sources on children’s books like The Horn Book that regularly publish reviews and lists featuring award-winning titles.

There are also many good articles and blogs written by mainstream media (like The Guardian), book bloggers, knowledgeable parents, teachers, librarians, book publishers (like Harper Collins, Penguin and Penguin Random House) and book retailers, as well as reviews on sites such as Amazon, Book Depository and GoodReads. Alternatively, you can simply ask another parent who is well-versed in this area!

2. Encourage children to explore different genres

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For my daughter’s book club group that has younger kids aged 6 to 8 years, we have done the first book in the Dory Fantasmagory series for emerging readers that features lively pictures, alongside fantasy-style text, a comic book entitled Mr. Wolf’s Class (that allowed us to discuss the elements of a comic), a short book called  A Bargain for Frances, and are now doing The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton.

My son’s group, with kids aged 8 to 9 years, started with The Enchanted Wood, went on to do The One and Only Ivan and are now enjoying Matilda by Roald Dahl. We may try some historical fiction or a graphic novel next. Reading across genres helps children realise that stories can take many forms and more importantly, encourages them to find their personal preferences. Go wide before you go deep.

3. Books can help children learn language, but also many things about the world

Our book club meetings are held once a week on Zoom, for an hour each time. My approach has been to get children to read two chapters a week (one, if the chapter is more complex or longer) before they come. During the meetings, I use questions from related worksheets and discussion guides sourced from online sites like TeachersPayTeachers.com, Twinkl.com and other sites to gauge the group’s understanding of the material. I also sometimes create online quizzes on the chapters, using platforms like Quizizz.com. Typically, these tend to focus on the language, vocabulary and comprehension aspects of the story.

However, I have also found the stories and themes in books we read to be useful springboards for showing children interesting things about the world around them, and to encourage children to think more deeply about current issues. For example, through The Enchanted Wood, children learned about the flowers, fruits and nuts found in the English countryside. They also learned about how to write an apology letter, compare brown bears and polar bears using a Venn diagram, create a cautionary list of do’s and don’t’s, and write a nonsense song.

Their understanding of literary devices have also been enhanced, as I have tapped on great YouTube videos that explain things like onomatopoeia, homophones, metaphors, similes, personification and palindromes. The One and Only Ivan, a book about a real life gorilla who was taken from the wild and raised in a mall zoo, invited children to think about the problems of keeping wild animals in captivity for tourism and human entertainment. Through Matilda, the children and I reflected about the qualities of a good parent, and how one can travel from your armchair across the seven continents through books. When engaged in this way, children become genuinely excited, and begin to see books as fascinating windows to worlds.

4. Incorporate activities and excursions to bring books to life

Art is also a great way to help children bring a book’s characters and settings to life. Drawing a Silverback Gorilla together in one book club session by following a video online helped the children to learn about its various features (for example, how a gorilla has large nostrils, a big forehead, larger forearms and also walks on its knuckles). When the children drew out their interpretations of The Enchanted Wood characters, they were able to see that even though everyone is reading the same story, each person can have unique perspectives on a given subject – a great lesson in diversity of expression and imagination. Sometimes, when there is a movie or animated version of the book, we watch clips, compare the scenes and discuss why the movie or animation presented it differently.

A book club also exposes its members to different points-of-view. The friendly and fun environment of a good book club also provides children with a safe space to exchange ideas enthusiastically, allowing them to grow as individuals who can confidently share their thoughts and opinions.

We recently organised a book club excursion to  Zoo Negara for kids to observe what a zoo actually looks like. There, the kids had a little debate to talk about the arguments for and against the establishment of zoos. We also organised a picnic at the Lake Gardens under a big tree akin to The Faraway Tree, did a scavenger hunt, nature face collages and enjoyed snacks like Silky’s Pop Cakes and Moon-Face’s Toffee made using the recipes from a special cookbook inspired by the stories of Enid Blyton.

5. Emphasise the importance of finishing, but also, understanding over skimming

Many children today tend to lose interest and give up on things easily. Reading together often means finishing together, and being part of a supportive book club inspires children to finish reading the current book being read by its members. The excitement of finishing chapters (and eventually, a whole book) in order to share what you think of it with other book club friends is a great motivator for kids to keep on reading. When children are rewarded with a deep sense of satisfaction that comes with finishing something they start well, they are more likely to continue the good habit. The friendly competition and subtle camaraderie born from sharing the same private journey of reading the same book can also lead to great friendships.

Sometimes, children also tend to skim through text without understanding it well. Reading at a slower pace and more purposefully as a group also allows children to notice the details and nuances relating to the story. We also emphasise the importance of looking up the meanings of words we don’t understand and things we are not aware of, to increase our vocabulary and general knowledge. 

Almost a year after we started our book club experiment, we have seen really encouraging results. Children in the book clubs have evolved from emerging readers to very enthusiastic ones who read ahead, and seek out books to read independently in their spare time. The very supportive parents in the group have also noticed positive changes in their reading habits and book choices, as well as some positive spillovers into related core skills at school. The benefits are probably more far-reaching than we realise, as book clubs accomplish even bigger purposes for most readers. The book club discussions promote deeper thinking about a book and may change the way children see the world – and themselves.

What our book club families think

Book club mum, Azlin shares that her child, Ryan, enjoys the book club (and reading) immensely. “It’s helped him analyse what he’s read better and to understand what he’s read, as opposed to reading for just reading’s sake. Being a part of a book club has also helped his progress in English comprehension.”

Another book club mum, Nina, adds, “The book club has helped us to build deeper parent-child connections. It has brought out Ariana’s creative side, as she draws characters and participates in the activities. She is clearly more interested in books since joining the club, and now picks up a book to read on her own without much nudging. It’s also made her more aware of her values and preferences, as she reflects on the paragraphs read. In today’s fast paced world, reflection is undervalued.”

A similar sentiment is echoed by dad, Vejian, who shares that the book club has encouraged his daughter, Jananee to “uncover great books, share new stories, understand values, and explore information”, whilst mum, Ennie, says that her child, Mikaela now “thinks more about the characters and scenes in the story, as well as the meaning of words”.

Li Ling applauds the addition of the social and deeper engagement elements to regular reading that the book club provides. “Doing it week after week gives children a sense of continuity and community. We are glad to be a part of this village that aims to raise children who enjoy reading,” she reflects.

I hope this piece will encourage other parents to start book clubs for their children. I would be more than happy to provide suggestions on book titles, discussion guides and other materials for anyone who needs. You can get in touch with me at lihsian@gmail.com. Let’s create a book club wave, and raise a new army of critical readers!

Li-Hsian left a career in corporate communications to become a full-time mum to twins. She is learning new things daily as she tries to balance the romance of motherhood with the messy realities of her latest role. She is also currently the co-facilitator of the Art Discovery Tours for Kids and coordinator of children's programmes at the ILHAM Gallery in KL.