Kicking Off the Fall Book Club Season

Cynthia Compton - August 29, 2018

Summer has (sadly) ended for our school-aged crowd, and summer reading prizes are packed away in the stock room. Waldo has been found, sand toys are banished to the secondary storage unit (otherwise known as my garage), and we’re hearing more about school assigned reading in the aisles at the store. As sad as all this loss of “our” kids’ free time makes our staff, there is much excitement about the start of book club season at the shop, and preparations are underway to host both familiar friends and some new groups this fall.
Our store book clubs vary in frequency, length, and commitment. Mostly, we just post the schedule and invite kids (and parents) to jump in any time. Some of our customers have been “clubbing” with us for years, and kids move up through early chapter, middle grade, and young adult groups. We have one mother/daughter group that started when the girls were in kindergarten, and have met (mostly) monthly ever since. When they graduated from 8th grade, I attended their school convocation, and plan to be a blubbering mess at their high school baccalaureate in two years. We have made our way through a lot of chapters together, both in our pages and in our lives.

Our “standard” book clubs meet monthly. Our staff selects the first three books, post the titles and dates of the meetings, and offer our store party room space for meetings, and some type of snack. Our local pizza restaurant frequently gives us gift cards which we redeem for these meetings, and our cupcake bakery is very kind about clearing out the bakery case when they know we are hosting a group. After the first couple of meetings, the group begins to gel, and we entertain their suggestions for future titles. Typically, we also lead the discussion at those first few meetings, but find that after a while, group members are interested in volunteering to lead, or to at least contribute a list of discussion questions for someone else to pose.
At the entry level, we offer a “Chapter 4 Kids” club, which is meant for young readers tackling beginning chapter books – Magic Tree House, Princess in Black, and lately, a lot of Who Was biographies. This group is strictly KIDS ONLY – no adults. Meetings last one hour, are held on two different times (one after school and one on Sunday afternoon) with the same book discussed twice – that way, kids who have soccer practice on Wednesdays in the fall can come to the weekend version, and kids who play tball in the spring can come during the week. Our meetings for this age group offer some type of activity – either a craft or hands-on materials related to the book, which help ease the members into the group, and give us all something to do together while we talk. We’ve done murals (donated after the meeting to a nursing home), painted on silk with ink, modeled with clay, and made collage posters about the environment which were kindly posted by our coffee shop.
Our middle grade readers are the biggest book club fans, and we have several groups that move in and out of the store schedule throughout the year. Some of these were started by parents, and are parent/child events, often held here at the store, and sometimes hosted in living rooms and at the library. We offer to select books, lead a meeting or two, host the event or simply attend and jump in if the conversation begins to lag. Some groups rotate the monthly leadership among the adult/child pair from each family, and we simply provide some guidance on new titles to consider. We also offer just a monthly instore book club event for this age group, typically attracting 9-11 year olds for an hour-long meeting. All of these groups combine an activity with the conversation, and last year we adopted a more service-oriented approach to programming, so we ask community organizations for clerical or organizational tasks to complete while we talk about books. We have stuffed adoption folders for the Humane Society, attached safety pins to runners’ tags for a local charity 10K run and collated registration packets, and sorted donations for a book drive. I find that giving the group something to “do” together makes the experience less formal, more conversational and fun, and often raises awareness of a community need to kids who are very interested in getting involved.
Our young adult reading groups are much less organized, and seem to spring rather organically from interest in a particular title or because we feel strongly about an issue and want to talk about it with young people in our community,  (13 Reasons Why We Read, and Why We Must Talk About It Most of the time, we just plan a discussion about a title, post the event, and see who shows up. Middle school and high school students have incredibly busy schedules, and we rely more on the book to draw attendance than membership in any formal program, so these events draw a much more varied audience. We find the most successful YA bookclub nights are held at the local coffee shop, have one staffer in attendance with a list of suggested questions printed, but “seed the crowd” with one or two teen readers who are willing to get the conversational ball rolling. Our role, I believe, is to gather readers together, endorse their choices, and largely remain silent.
Every couple of months, we offer an evening for “Adults Who Read YA,” but these feel more like store-led book talks than actual book clubs. I usually prepare 10-12 titles to briefly highlight, and then just offer beverages and snacks. This events are more like private shopping nights than book clubs, but are a welcome “parent night out” for some of our regular customers, and I love to listen to the handselling of titles that goes on between adults as they sip a glass of wine without having to keep an eye on the activity at the train table. Some parents attend these events to read alongside their kids, some just because they enjoy the literature for their own pleasure. One dad, at a recent evening for young adult books, told me that he relies on us to tell him what to read so that his expectations of his son’s experiences in junior high are realistic. “You guys are keeping me a ‘cool dad’ – and I’m holding on to that as long as I can.”
So are we, friend. So are we.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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