What I Learned From My 9-Year-Old's Book Club

When my daughter Lily came home saying she wanted to start a book club, I was excited -- I'm a writer after all, so this was music to my ears -- but also a bit skeptical. Right away, I started to fret about the mechanics of it.
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When my daughter Lily came home saying she wanted to start a book club, I was excited -- I'm a writer after all, so this was music to my ears -- but also a bit skeptical. Right away, I started to fret about the mechanics of it. Who would be invited? How would it be structured? Would they have certain number of pages to read every week? Would she choose all the books -- and what would happen if they didn't like her choices?

Here's the thing: it wasn't my idea and it wasn't my club. It's hers. Giving her the chance to do it herself has taught me lessons I need to learn in my transition from parenting a young child who requires my help into parenting an older child who needs her independence even more.

Let her lead.

At every turn, Lily made clear I was overthinking the "what" and "how" of her club. She ended up choosing friends who did not all know each other, but that she thought would get along, consciously omitting kids she knew to dislike each other. When she picked one set of siblings, she immediately invited another, making sure the younger one in the first set wouldn't feel alone age-wise. And she chose both girls and boys.

At the first meeting, she had a list of starter questions to get her friends talking, and a goal for how much they might read aloud. But she was adamant that I not be in the room where they were meeting. I wanted to be nearby, but this was clearly for my own sake, not hers. I just couldn't picture her corralling a total of seven kids, keeping them on task and refereeing any fights that might arise.

I spent that first meeting pretending to read in the next room, one ear cocked (ok, both ears) to hear how it was going. What happened? Through her door, I could faintly hear them as they read aloud in turn and then answered one of the questions she'd written. Eventually, when there was an excited spike in volume, I intuited correctly that she must have announced snack. I hurried to the kitchen to get the popcorn going, trying to look completely unlike the eavesdropper I was.

Having seen that she really could do it herself made it easier for me to take a breath when there were glitches, which led to the second lesson:

Let her work it out.

After the first meeting, one set of siblings dropped out. I asked who should replace them and my daughter looked at me like I was loon. "We don't have to have seven," she said, stating the near-obvious. "What's wrong with five?"

Meeting every two or three weeks after, Book Club didn't always run smoothly. Sometimes, one child or another would be too busy making jokes when some wanted to read or interrupting others when they were trying to participate, and squabbles ensued. It took a lot of willpower for me to let them be, and not to wade into the fray. But this was her club, so instead my husband and I tried to just listen to her report on how it was going, and offer suggestions when she shared a problem with us. One week, for instance, she asked her friends to all agree upon a set of rules for how to treat each other, rules that we dads didn't come up with or force upon them, so they did just that. Will they honor this agreement every time? Maybe, maybe not--but they know it is their own to keep or break.

Because of that, Book Club doesn't replicate just more schoolwork or an extracurricular activity where the law is laid down for them and they have to do as they're told. This difference is heightened by an overall informality that yields the third lesson:

Let her define success.

The actual "book" portion of Book Club typically runs only a half hour long. After that, the kids clamor for whatever snack we offer, and then just play for twice or three times as long as they read. The first time we had serious snow, they piled outside for almost two hours of fort building and wintry battles.

I admit that I was a little nervous about it after the initial week -- was this really what the parents were expecting when dropping their kids off for a book group? Thankfully, that Type-A twinge on my part faded pretty quickly, as I realized that I was just giving in to the relentless pressure for benchmarks and outcome conformity that is the bane of our teach-to-the-test time. If these gatherings are just extended playdates dressed up with books at the beginning, how can that be anything but a positive? More play + love of books = WIN. As one mom said to me, "Isn't that pretty much how adult book clubs go, too?" (Any Pulpwood Queen can tell you the answer is yes.)

The fact that Book Club is still going after six months is good enough for Lily. They've talked about books as different as Because of Winn Dixie, The One and Only Ivan, and The Giver, with no one grading their efforts or testing them to see how much they got from each text. No wonder the kids keep coming back - the only measure of success my daughter cares about.