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Bonding through books

Published on: October 01, 2008

Father and sonThose sweet, tender years of reading to your toddler may be long past, but you don’t have to give up on bonding with your kid through books. Parent-and-teen book clubs are a great way for parents to reconnect with older kids, discuss difficult issues, share values and connect to other families with teens.

Queen Anne residents Debbie Pearson, a school librarian, and her 13-year-old daughter, Rachel, have been in a parent-and-child book club for four years. Rachel really enjoys the experience because “you have those conversations you don’t normally have. We share our feelings and it isn’t an academic discussion.”

Why books?

Nancy Pearl is the former executive director of the Washington Center of the Book and a regular commentator on National Public Radio. She is also the author of several books, including Book Crush for Kids and Teens. Pearl says book clubs “are world-changing and important. In book clubs, you can get to universal truths and ask would you have made the same choices as the characters did. Book clubs connect you to your village and to your child.” Teen-and-parent book clubs can be a powerful, says Pearl, because they provide the “last chance to infuse your child with a love of reading.”

What do teens want from the experience of a parent/teen book club? Pearl says it’s a validation of their choices. When starting a parent-and-teen book club, she advises “make it clear that this is not school. There are no right or wrong answers, and just because an adult says it, doesn’t necessarily make it true.”

Getting started

Pearl suggests you use your local library as a place to meet and connect with potential members. At the first meeting, have members bring two suggestions each of new books, give a brief synopsis of the books and then have members pick the books for the next six months (one book a month). To do this, Pearl suggests using “proportional voting”: each child gets 15 beads to allocate as “ballots.” If someone really wants to read a particular book, she says, they can place all of their beads next to that one book, or they spread their vote over several favorites. Whichever six books get the most beads are the winners.

Picking books that both teens and parents will read can be tricky. Teens may pick books that challenge their parent’s values and tastes. Pearl says that can be a good thing. “A lot of teen books can be disturbing to parents because the values portrayed are not their own. But remember that you are joining a book club to expand your world and get closer to your teen.”

She advises parents who are forming a book club to limit membership to no more than a dozen participants. Each meeting should have a leader who can encourage the teens to speak up and discourage parents from “lecturing” when a teen makes an observation about a big issue, such as substance abuse, that is scary to them. Set your initial expectations low, she advises. Forty-five minutes is enough time for a good discussion of the book.

Good discussions often begin by asking the question “What is the significance of the book’s title?” Pearl suggests then moving into a discussion of the author’s choices and point of view, and how the book would have been different from a different character’s perspective. (How would To Kill a Mockingbird be changed if Boo Radley was the narrator rather than Scout Finch?) Then ask if there was a character in the book whom members identified with or admired. Everyone should come to the meeting with a question that broadens the discussion, says Pearl. At the first meeting, the ground rules should be established and both teens and parents reminded that there should be no interruptions of either a parent or teen; that members should engage in active listening and mutual respect.

Kathleen F. Miller is Sammamish-based freelance writer and a member of a book club for moms, which is currently reading The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn.

Great titles for teen/parent book clubs

Feed by M.T. Anderson

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Luna by Julie Anne Peters

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Sue Nevins, bookseller for the new children’s bookstore Mockingbird Books in the Green Lake neighborhood, recommends:

Before, After, and Somebody In Between by Jeannine Garsee

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion and other graphic novels by Tamora Pierce

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and other short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

For parents who find it difficult to read about the tough issues facing teens and parents today, Nevins recommends starting with historical fiction, which provides an easier way to talk about challenging topics, such as the book
I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter
by Lynn Cullen.


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