Category Archives: Book groups

Artemis Fowl

The 5th grade book group lobbied hard for Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer to be the book for their summer meeting, and we finally had our discussion about it on Monday afternoon.  Uncharacteristically, only four of the eight kids in the group showed up (must be summer), which inhibited the discussion a bit.  M—, a bright and well-spoken young man, openly expressed his frustration that the conversation wasn’t as lively with fewer people.  He missed having eight people waving their hands in the air, anxious to be heard.  He also missed the three boys who didn’t attend on Monday, leaving him as the only boy in the group.  (Luckily he has healthy self-esteem, and being the only boy didn’t really faze him one bit.)  But we had a good conversation about this highly popular book, and I feel like I better understand why it and the rest of the books in the series are so popular. 

While I enjoyed reading the book, it’s not the best or most memorable book that I have read recently.  When my brother saw the book on my coffee table two weeks ago, he said that he had been disappointed in it, that it hadn’t lived up to his expectations, and I agree with that view.  Artemis Fowl  is definitely engaging, and the plot moves along at a good clip, but I couldn’t quite see why this series has reached phenomenon status with kids.

Silly me.  Within the first few minutes of discussion at the book group, the kids made it abundantly clear to me why they love the series:

1) The protagonist is a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind.  Or, as M— put it, “He’s 12!  And he’s a mastermind!”

2) Artemis Fowl has a bodyguard.  M— announced that he would also like a bodyguard.  “How cool would that be?”

3) Action.  The plot nevers stops moving.

4) Technology.  T— talked at length about being intrigued by all the advanced fairy technology.

5)  Holly Short, a girl fairy with brains and attitude.  The girls especially liked Holly’s character.

A— did mention things she really didn’t like about the book, the most major of which is the book’s structure.  A— hates (and I do mean hates) that the story keeps flip-flopping from Artemis’s storyline to Holly’s storyline, then to the storyline back at the fairy base camp.  She prefers stories that “flow” in one even unbroken narrative line.  So we talked a bit about style and structure and how authors assemble their books.  It will be interesting to see how A—‘s views on literature change as she enters 6th grade in the fall.

All in all, the meeting was a success, despite the low attendance, and I better understand the popularity of these books (rather an essential part of my job).

Next week, the Teen Book Group will be discussing Monsoon Summer.

Green Glass Sea

Yesterday was the last fifth grade book group of the school year (though we’ll have one meeting in July), and it was the best yet.  This group of kids has evolved so much over this year, and they are now the most thoughtful, well-spoken, intelligent, and respectful bunch of fifth graders that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. 

Our book was The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages, a piece of historical fiction about the building of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos.  Dewey, the main character, is ten when the story starts in 1943; we begin with her being transported out to Los Alamos to join her scientist father who has been working there for a while.  The story continues up to the dropping of the first bomb on Hiroshima, and a sequel is in the works.

The kids loved the book.  And I mean LOVED the book.  This really surprised me, since I had kind of pulled a fast one on them to even get this book into the mix for a group discussion (they had summarily rejected this book in favor of a cowboy story, and I was regretfully going along with their choice until I figured out there weren’t enough copies of the cowboy story available, and I snuck The Green Glass Sea back in).  The group is half girls, half boys, and everyone really liked the misfit, nerdy character of Dewey.  The girls loved that Dewey is a pioneer, a girl who excels at science and experiments, and that she doesn’t care about what other people think of her.  The boys respected Dewey’s intelligence, and one commented extensively on how being a “nerd” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.   

Another member of the group, who I swear is better educated and more intelligent at the end of fifth grade than I am now, got us into a conversation about the differences between boys and girls.  The conversation arose because I mentioned the tension between the pair of married scientist characters in the book (the wife begins to have serious misgivings about using the bomb on civilians, while her husband is too wrapped up in the excitement of scientific success to see her point), and Aaron commented that boys grow up playing with soldiers and loving war, while girls are more peaceful.  There was some bristling of other group members as he said that, but eventually we were able to discuss that yes, there are some differences between men and women, and that we also need to be careful not to make blanket, stereotypical statements about any group.

Peter, another group member, then said: “It’s really not fair that men can get drafted to go to war, but women can’t.  Everyone’s equal, so drafting should be equal, too.”  A lot of eyes opened wide, as the truth of that statement hit home.  Then Peter started to talk about the cruelty of the atomic bomb, and how hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed.  Which started an excellent conversation about war and why the atomic bomb was created in the first place.

We covered so much ground in our conversation that it would be hard to remember all of the group’s insightful comments; and this post would become more than long.  So let me just finish with a comment from Jill:  she told us that her teacher had informed her that this book was too difficult for her, and that the fifth grade library book group shouldn’t be reading it because it would be too hard for fifth graders to understand.  Jill was incensed by her teacher’s comment, and so she finished the book that weekend and then wrote a voluntary two-page summary and critical analysis of the book, which she turned in to her teacher on Monday morning.

No word on the teacher’s reaction…

Yellow Star

Last Tuesday the Teen Book Groups met.  My group had read Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, with the option to also read Day of Tears by Julius Lester.  In the end, only three of the seven girls enrolled were able to attend the meeting (it’s softball season), but those three and I had an involved, serious, deep discussion about Yellow Star (only one of the three had read Lester’s book) and the broader issues of prejudice, war, and the Holocaust. 

In Yellow Star, Roy relates the story of her aunt’s childhood in the Lutz ghetto in free verse, portraying the thoughts and experiences of a little girl who was one of only twelve child survivors of that ghetto.  Mesmerizing and intense, the incredibly moving story is a read-in-one-sitting book, because there is no way to stop once you’ve been sucked into the vortex of its horror and beauty. 

As we discussed the book, I noticed a couple of things: that it is virtually impossible to snack on Munchkins and pretzels while talking about a book that concerns starvation and deprivation, and that it can be very hard to have a detailed conversation about a book like this one.  We talked how and why Roy had chosen to write in free verse, and we brought up our feelings about certain specific incidents in the book, but our discussion was far shorter than the one we had about the mystery novel Blackthorn Winter.  How to critique an excellent, but spare, piece of historical fiction?

In the end, our conversation turned to the Holocaust in general, films that the girls had seen in classes, books that they had read prior to this one.  One girl brought up The Diary of Anne Frank, and we spent a good portion of the group meeting discussing Anne Frank.  The girl who had brought up the topic is totally frustrated by Anne and her human foibles, such as that Anne wasa still thinking and writing about makeup and boys while others were being tortured and killed in concentration camps.  “How could that be?” questioned this girl, “How could Anne be preoccupied with things like that while in the midst of the Holocaust?”

To me, the natural answer is that, despite the Nazis, Anne was still a teenage girl.  I tried to explain how I thought that I probably would have been the same way if I had been in those circumstances while a teenager, but I know I didn’t make myself clear.  Don’t we all have idealized notions of how brave we could be, how superhuman we could be, how kind and clear-headed and generous we could be, if we were put into a trying circumstance?  I’d like to think that I’d be exemplary, but in truth I’m sure that I’d disappoint myself in my human pettiness.  It was interesting to see a smart, kind, thoughtful teenage girl’s idealism, and to realize the effect that idealism had on her reading of The Diary of Anne Frank. 

So we solved no issues, but we did have a discussion that left all of us feeling like we had accomplished something.  The next three books we’ll be reading for this group are not as serious, but perhaps we’ll sneak a serious book in again next fall and see where it leads us.

Peter Pan in Scarlet

Ok, I admit it, I haven’t finished the book for today’s fifth grade book group (I’ll have to speed read at lunch today), but I like what I’ve read so far.  Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean is very British, and I’m sure her use of words is one thing that’s caused confusion with the kids, but it’s a fun romp.  McCaughread does perpetuate stereotypes, though: there is much offensive mention of the “little redskins.”  I’ll be interested to hear whether the kids in the book group picked up on that particular phraseology.  And I’ll be interested to find out whether the kids enjoyed the book and understood the storyline.  Update tomorrow!

Countdown:  12 days!!!

Confusion

Two of the fifth graders who are in the book group attended game hour yesterday, and as we were cleaning up the room at the end of game time, both boys started talking to me about this month’s book.  The book is Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean, the first authorized sequel to the original Peter Pan.  And the boys are truly puzzled by it.  John told me that he’s totally confused by what’s happening: “First they’re old – then they’re kids – and there’s something weird going on with Wendy…”  Frank told me that he’s read about a hundred pages, but nothing is making sense to him.  John suggested that maybe it’s really a book for older kids, not fifth graders, and Frank agreed.

I haven’t read the book yet (I’m still working on that assignment that’s due on the 19th), so I couldn’t help them with specifics, but I did suggest that they jot down questions that they have as they read the rest of the book, to use as a starting point for our discussion.  And I also mentioned that some books are confusing, but intentionally so, and that such books often work towards resolution and solution by their conclusion.  It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I seem to remember that McCaughrean’s Pack of Lies is one such book.
It’s too bad that the kids are struggling with Peter Pan in Scarlet, but they are all very bright, very literate kids, and hopefully they’ll be able to tease some sense out of this confusing text.  If not, at least we’ll have LOTS to discuss at the next meeting, on the 27th.

Book group update

Last Tuesday was the 4th grade Bagels n’ Books group, today was the 5th grade book group.  Our book was Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, a book which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the giant cockroaches and rats and bats.  This is the last time that the two groups will have read the same book, so the last time that I can compare them head-to-head, and it’s really fascinating to note the differences.

The 4th grade group has dwindled a bit in size from its overwhelming high of eleven participants, one of the unfortunate effects of being a library program, but we still have a good core group.  All great kids, all kids who I’ve gotten to know from their visits to the library on non-book group days, but somehow the group still isn’t quite gelling.  We try, but I have to constantly remind them about “book group etiquette,” such as not interrupting each other, valuing each other’s comments, and staying on topic.

In contrast, the fifth grade group, which has grown a bit in size over the months, has gelled quite nicely.  Like the fourth graders, the fifth graders are all great kids as individuals, but they’ve also reached the next level in their development and in their group dynamic.  At the start of today’s discussion, one of the kids said, “Can we be sure we raise our hands, and not interrupt each other?  I think it would be nice if we made sure we stayed on topic, too, so that we can really discuss the book and not be rude.”  And they were fabulous.  I was the adult in the room, but I didn’t need to prompt book discussion: these kids had really thought about the book and had excellent comments about it.  They had a great dialogue, without much help from me, and I enjoyed hearing their insights.  What a pleasure!

And do read the book, if you haven’t.  Good, original fantasy is hard to come by!

The verdict is in…

Yesterday was the first Bagels n’ Books book group.  A great, enthusiastic bunch of fourth and fifth graders, a dozen bagels that rapidly and magically disappeared into eight mouths, and a lot of talk about The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  Guess what?  The kids didn’t like the book much.

These kids are well-versed in how to discuss literature, and though there were a few groans when I said it’s not enough to just say you don’t like a book, that you have to give specific reasons, they all provided clear and definitive reasons for why they didn’t like the book.  One girl said it was too easy and it didn’t take her very long to finish the book.  A boy chimed in that he read the book in, like, an hour.  Another girl said that there is no point to the book.  “Ah-ha!”  I thought to myself, “Maybe they haven’t delved deep enough into the book and that’s why they didn’t like it!”  But no, this girl went on to say, “I mean, I understand that it’s about Edward learning to love and getting back to Abilene, but what’s the point of that?”

A different boy, and the girl beside him, complained that the book didn’t have enough action.  They mentioned that Kate DiCamillo’s other books have action and excitement, and that The Tiger is Rising and The Tale of Despereaux are books that they enjoyed reading.  Other kids agreed vigorously to this comment.  One girl was brave and spoke up to say that she LOVES the book because of the language and style of DiCamillo’s writing; she also commented on the cyclical nature of the storyline and had as many bookmarks marking places in the text as I did.  Future English major, guaranteed.

I used Aidan Chamber’s technique of writing likes, dislikes, puzzles, and patterns on a big sheet of paper, trying to keep my mouth shut about my own opinions in order to let the kids fully express their thoughts.  Had we had more time together (our actual book discussion only lasted for a half hour), I could have gone on to guide the group to a deeper discussion of the book.  But I’m still not sure that I would have been able to change the minds of those kids who strongly dislike the book; and that was never my goal.

What fascinates me most is that a lot of the negative adult commentary I’ve read about the book has focused on it being too sad for children, too emotionally wrenching.  The kids yesterday really weren’t bothered by the sadness in the book, they were annoyed by the lack of action.  They had wanted a book that was going to take them on journey; I mentioned that well, Edward Tulane does go on a journey, and most of the kids just rolled their eyes at me.  “It’s not a REAL journey!”

Two things come to mind: this book is a very different type of fantasy than the fantasy that prevails in the publishing world today (I hesitate to say it: the Harry Potter type of fantasy).  Most of the kids in the book group yesterday are probably used to action-based fantasy with magic and heroes and sparks and blood.  Edward Tulane can’t speak or act, and thus passively endures all that happens to him, except for the growth within him of a heart and the ability to love.  His physical strength doesn’t change, and he doesn’t accomplish great physical feats in the process of learning to love; he simply learns to love.

The other thought that comes to mind is that any reader, young or old, has the ability to skip those parts of a text that he or she either isn’t ready for or just doesn’t want to deal with.  I do this all the time: when reading the sixth Harry Potter, I knew that someone was going to die, so I purposefully read the end first to find out who so that I wouldn’t be held captive by the suspense of the book.  Perhaps the kids in yesterday’s book group don’t want to read about loss and sadness, or perhaps they’re not ready for stories that deal with those issues in depth, and so the book seemed, to them, to be boring.  It didn’t address their concerns, and it didn’t appeal to them.

Notably, though, it was loved by one group member, the girl who was adept at locating subtleties in the text and who possessed the most sophisticated literary vocabulary.  I’ll go out on a limb here and say that she was ready for the text, and thus loved it.  Ready for the text, and also interested in what the text had to say.  “The right book for the right child at the right time.”  No one book can appeal to everyone.

At the end of the hour, I presented the book group members with seven books to choose from for our next meeting in October.  The choices were: The Tale of Despereaux, The Diamond in the Window, Love That Dog, Half Magic, Room One: A Mystery or Two, The Penderwicks, and The Search for Delicious.  The winner was:  Half Magic by Edward Eager, coming to the library on October 24th.