Starting a family book club

Reading together can foster literacy skills, as well as life skills such as empathy.

Reading together as a family nurtures all the usual literacy skills: comprehension, reasoning, language skills, etc. But a family book club can also foster self-expression, creative thinking, and empathy in kids. Plus, a recent study suggests that children from book-oriented homes develop higher reading, math, and technological skills that can benefit them later in life. “Home reading helps improve concentration, imagination, and confidence,” says Patricia Edwards, professor of language and literacy at Michigan State University. “And it relaxes the body and calms the mind.” (Get tips on raising a reader.)

Getting started

Step one is to choose the book. Have each family member suggest four titles—from picture books, novels, even graphic novels—then vote as a group to select one per list. To ease kids into the club, start with favorite books that kids have already read; once they’re hooked, start selecting books new to everyone. And don’t underestimate those books for beginning readers. Though subtle, many picture books have character development, tension, and plot twists. Even nonreaders can join the family book club. “Choose a wordless picture book, or let them retell a story based on the illustrations,” Edwards says. (Get book ideas from Nat Geo Kids and Nat Geo Travel.)

After the book is chosen, let children set the pace, choosing to read to each other as a family, in pairs, or alone. Let them decide when to meet, but schedule it once or twice a month at the most. Plan for an hour or less, even with older children.

Before you meet, choose a leader to run the discussion, and make sure older children have a turn. The leader can then decide on an informal outline to keep the conversations moving. For example, the outline might include two questions to encourage discussion; a theme focusing on a character, storytelling style, or the ending; and a quick vote on whether the book deserves a second read. (Just be sure to throw the outline out the window anytime everyone gets immersed in the conversation.)

Book club basics

Children new to a book club might be shy or unsure about expressing thoughts; they might even confuse it with doing a book report. To make them more comfortable, encourage thoughts and analysis appropriate for their age and skills instead of pushing or demanding deeper answers. Help them by asking open-ended questions that start with why, what if, and how. For example, you might ask, “Why didn’t the character listen?” or “What if the dog didn’t follow the girl?” Kids will surprise you with their in-depth thoughts.

Older children can explore the nuances of characters, like their virtues and flaws, how they change, or what they learn throughout the story. Parents can help encourage this thinking by providing fuller answers and descriptions. For example, you might say things such as, “I like this character because …” or “I’m curious to find out how / why / what happens if ….” You can also build confidence with phrases like “Excellent point,” or “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Don’t worry if the conversations spark some disagreement—that’s OK. Debate in book club is vital, and allowing children to express different opinions builds confidence and teaches how to thoughtfully argue. The key is to make sure the conversation stays respectful. Use neutral phrases such as, “I see what you’re saying, but I think …,” “I’m not sure I agree,” “I’ll have to think about that,” and the ever popular “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Conversation starters

Here are some ideas to get the pages turning at your family book club meeting.

—Have a bowl with open-ended questions written on slips of paper, and take turns choosing them. (Make sure kids understand that these are not test-like questions to see what everyone remembers.)

— Ask: If you were the writer, what would you change about the story?

— Finish this sentence: I think (character’s name) is misunderstood because …

— Have one person read a picture book aloud without sharing the illustrations. Then reread it showing the illustrations. Discuss how the art changes everyone’s understanding of the story.

— Examine how people, cultures, and experiences shared in book compare to your family’s.

— Discuss how a story would be different if it were set in a different era or location.

— Challenge each other to rewrite the ending.

— Consider how removing a character would change a story.

— For an illustrated book, ask readers how the art brings the book to life. Would they have drawn something different?

— Take turns reading scenes using different voices.

— Act out a favorite scene from the book.

— Choose which character each person relates to most.

— Pick a character and describe how you’d spend the day together.

— Finish this thought: If I were (character in this moment) I would have ... because ....

— Ask: How does this book / scene / character make you feel?

— Read a couple chapters of a novel, then write down how you think the book will end. See who comes the closest.

— Prepare a meal that a character ate in the book.

— Figure out what song or style of music would make great background music to the story.

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