This past year has brought unimaginable changes to almost every aspect of my job, especially library programs. Although the interactive virtual storytimes over Zoom at least allow me to see and hear the kids I’m reading to, it’s definitely not the same as being in the same room with them. I also miss my Family Book Club, comprised of a small group of kids in grades 3-5, along with their parents. We would meet once a month to discuss a book, while eating a snack related whatever we were reading (carrots for Anne of Green Gables, Lemon Jello for Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, etc).
But the switch to virtual programming has had a few bright spots. Lately, I’ve been working with another librarian on a virtual book club for kids in grades 3-5, and one wonderful feature of that is that I get to discuss books with kids from all over the county. I also was asked to help lead an ESL (English as a Second Language) book club for adults, and that has been an entirely new, but extremely rewarding adventure. Here’s a brief overview of both of those programs.
VIRTUAL BOOK CLUB FOR KIDS
As I mentioned above, the book club I’m involved in is for kids in grades 3-5. We meet once a month over Zoom to discuss a particular book.
Most of the books we are using are available on Hoopla (https://www.hoopladigital.com). I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never actually used Hoopla before the pandemic, and now it is my favorite library e-resource. The beauty of it is that, unlike our other e-book collections, everything is always available for checkout, so you don’t have to worry about not having enough copies. It’s also wonderfully easy to use, and offers a broad range of titles, including a large selection of graphic novels.
For our first book club meeting, we discussed From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks, a novel about a 12 year-old girl who receives a letter from her father in prison, and learns that he might be innocent. It’s a remarkable book that deftly touches on racial bias in the criminal justice system, but also highlights the efforts of the Innocence Project, offering hope for positive change. Although Zoe’s quest to discover the truth about her father’s conviction is the main focus of the book, Zoe herself is a relatable, multi-faceted character, who is trying to invent a recipe to audition for a kids’ baking show, navigate changing middle school friendships, and develop a relationship with the father she never knew. Our book discussion touched on all of these topics, although the kids’ favorite question was coming up with their own original cupcake recipe (one mom emailed me to say that her son had been reluctant to participate in the first meeting, but not only did he love the book, he was also inspired to bake his own cupcakes).
One beauty of meeting online is that it’s so easy to share other types of media, including an interview with the author, the Innocence Project web site, videos of the many songs referenced in the story, and a recipe for Froot Loop cupcakes. There are a lot of great resources on the author’s web site: http://www.janaemarks.com/, including discussion questions. And meeting over Zoom also gives shyer kids a chance to share their thoughts in the chat (although we ended up changing the chat settings so that all of their comments go only to me, which cut down on some of the chat hijinks).
It’s been exciting to discuss books with a whole new group of kids, and to hear about the books they are currently enjoying. If you have any questions about running a virtual book club, or any book recommendations, please let me know in the comments.
ESL BOOK CLUB FOR ADULTS
I have to admit, when I was asked to help with this program, I was a little intimidated, having no idea what to expect. The program had sprung out of an English Conversation Club that our library system had been offering for several months, and a lot of the initial planning was done by library staff who had been reassigned to other projects (part of the ever-changing landscape of this past year).
Unlike a regular book club, where you lead a discussion of a book everyone has read in advance, ESL Book Clubs usually involve reading the book aloud together. Choosing a book for this type of group is especially challenging. Luckily, one of my coworkers had come up with three “Rapid Reads” titles on Hoopla for our participants to vote on at our first meeting. They ended up choosing the book Tiny House, Big Fix by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, a short novel about a single mother facing eviction from her rental house, who decides to build a tiny house of her own.
We originally intended to meet every other week to see how things went, but have since moved to weekly meetings. So far, we usually have a small group (around 6 participants), which we divide into breakout rooms so everyone has more chances to read aloud. Our participants are all fairly fluent English speakers, who can follow the basic plot of the book without difficulty, but we stop after each page to discuss any questions about vocabulary or idioms. It’s often challenging to explain words and phrases on the spot, but I love these discussions, because they really bring home the craziness of the English language. In our first meeting, there were a number of questions about contractions, like I’d and we’d, and I ended up explaining that the words I’ll, isle, and aisle all mean completely different things, even though they sound exactly the same.
As with the kids’ book club, we have been using books available on Hoopla, which are easy to share on the screen during the meetings. Hoopla also allows you to adjust the size and style of the font, which makes it great for older readers, and also to click on individual words to see the definition.
After we finished the first book (Tiny House, Big Fix), I was hard-pressed to find something that would work as well for our group. I looked through lots of collections of short stories and essays, but the writing was usually too challenging. I did suggest the book War Dances by Sherman Alexie, a collection of short stories and poems, along with the children’s novel in verse, Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai, and a Rapid Reads mystery called The Spider Bites by Medora Style. In the end though, the group voted to read another book by Gail Anderson-Dargatz called No Return Address, which one of the members raved about. We also had a member request that we read news articles, so I’m hoping to figure out a way to incorporate those into our meetings as well.
I actually wrote to Gail Dargatz-Anderson to let her know how much my group is enjoying her books. I told her that her novels were the perfect blend of a relatable story with a clear, readable text, and just enough common colloquialisms and modern lingo to challenge our participants and help them pick up new conversational phrases. She was grateful for the feedback, especially because books like Tiny House, Big Fix are part of a recent initiative in Canada to provide books for adult literacy learners that look and read like commercial bestsellers. She said they are a challenge to write, and I can see why!
Anyway, although I was nervous about taking on the responsibility of running the ESL Book Club, it’s one of my new favorite parts of my job. I am so impressed by the participants, who are already so much more fluent in English than I will ever be in another language, and who are brave enough to jump in and read aloud with strangers once a week, asking questions about the words they don’t know. It’s been humbling and inspiring, and I’ve learned a lot.
If you have any questions about running an ESL Book Club, or any tips or experiences you would like to share, I would love to read about them in the comments.