Last month at our mother-daughter book group (my youngest and I are in a group with three other 11-year-olds and their moms), we had quite a lively conversation about my favorite MG novel, WALK TWO MOONS. We’re an opinionated bunch and it’s not unusual for all eight of us to talk at once. But inevitably someone will rein us in and we’ll quiet and listen to one person. But something different happened that day.
We were all sitting close in a circle, but the moms were having a conversation separate from the girls. The four of us were focused, wanting to get to the heart of what we were saying. We tried to pull the girls in but they wanted no part of it. It wasn’t until one of the moms pointed out that perhaps the subject matter was too intense for them that I realized what was happening.
Sal’s “journey” to her mom was so subtle, yet so painful, so powerful, that the moms wanted to find the clues Sharon Creech gave us, to piece it all together. The girls, who were a bit confused at the beginning (“Wait, did she know or NOT know that her mom was dead?”), didn’t want to keep exploring this. They wanted to talk about the funny parts of the book, such as when Phoebe kept talking about the lunatic or when she thought Mrs. Cadaver had murdered her husband and buried him in the backyard.
Eventually we got back on track and talked as a big group. We discussed the funny parts as well as the sad parts about Sal’s mom. Everyone loved the book.
But it’s left me wondering about our parallel conversations and the idea of introducing painful subjects in middle grade fiction. Do kids want to read about death and other awful family tragedies? Should kids read about this?
Middle grade fiction can be a wonderful place to introduce difficult topics – if they’re written about in responsible and psychologically accurate ways.
And mom-daughter book groups are wonderful places to talk about these books. I think the key is to: a.) Read books first and/or scan reviews to make sure you feel comfortable with the subject matter. b.) Remember that kids will often focus on many aspects of a sad or “problem” book while parents tend to focus on THE sadness or THE problem. c.) Let the kids guide the conversation as much as possible. As a parent you might want to beat the crap out of the issue (as we did!). But it might be just enough for kids to touch on the subject and then leave it.
This has led to me to ruminate on other mother-daughter book group issues/questions. And so as a veteran of one mother-son group and two mother-daughter groups, plus a guest author at many mother-daughter groups in the Boston metro area, I have these ideas for those of you thinking about forming a group or wanting to give a jolt to your current group.
1.) How do you decide on what book to read? We bring out four or five potential books at the end of our current book meeting and let the girls decide which one they’d like to read next. Make it a group effort. They’ll be more invested if they feel as if they’re choosing.
2.) Stay away from books that are heavy on plot and weak on character development. We all absolutely LOVE the Percy Jackson series. But after we talked about the parts we loved, we didn’t have much else to talk about.
3.) Try reading two books (in a row) from the same author. Then compare/contrast when you meet to talk about the second book. Were the girls able to find common themes in the two books? It’s a great way to get them thinking about themes.
4.) The mom and daughter who host the meeting should come up with 10 questions about the book. That will keep the conversation moving. If you are stumped for questions, look up the author’s website. Many times authors will provide study guides, for free, that you can download and use.
5.) Try serving snacks that have something to do with the book. We’ve come up with some wacky combinations, based on food mentioned in the book. Once I visited a mother-daughter group who were reading NO CREAM PUFFS, and the hosts served giant cream puffs!
6.) Depending on the age of the girls, you might want to include a craft or art project. Sometimes the best conversations happen when the girls are focused on something else at the same time.
7.) If you are thinking of forming a mom-daughter book group, you might want to keep it small rather than large. As time goes on, schedules get crazier and it’s often difficult to find a date that works for everyone.
8.) I’ve been a guest author at many, many mom-daughter groups. Once I went to a meeting that included 18 girls, plus moms. When it was time to discuss the book, the moms stayed on the patio, talking and drinking wine, while the girls sat in on the discussion. I’m not sure if this is how their group always worked or if the agenda had changed because I was there. But I had the impression that the girls really wanted their moms included in the conversation.