I sat down this week to chat with Jonathan Robbins Leon, a youth specialist at the Osceola Library, about how he incorporates STEM and history into his book club for middle graders, and he passed along some great ideas for parents, teachers, and librarians who want to add a little something extra to their middle-grade book discussions.
MP: Tell us a little bit about how you started the book club?
JRL: We started this last August. The sessions run from August to May. It started out as a home-school book club to tie books into home-school lesson plans. Last session, I chose 8 random books, but this year, I decided to do a series.
MP: Why did you decide to do a series, and which series are you focusing on this year?
JRL: This year, I did the Chronicles of Narnia. It has worked out well. It gives the kids a goal to work toward, finishing the series, and we’ve had a lot more regular participation than just choosing different books for each session.
MP: So, the kids read along with each session. What if they haven’t finished a book yet?
JRL: The activities that I chose go along chronologically with the events of the books, but the kids don’t necessarily have to have read the book in order to enjoy the activity or participate.
MP: That sounds interesting. Can you give us an example?
JRL: In The Magician’s Nephew, there’s discussion about the dying sun on Charn. So, we talked about the life cycle of a star and built solar K’nex machines. Also, we talked about World War II, which is the setting for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We talked about what it was like during World War II. The kids planted mini victory gardens and learned how to sew a button. We also handed out recipes for war cakes that would have been made with what was given on a ration card.
MP: Have any interesting observations come out of these sessions?
JRL: During our World War II session, we talked about the roles of women during war time and how some women fought during the war, and one girl raised her hand and asked “Then, why does Lucy get told that she needs to wait during the battle?” It led to an interesting discussion about gender roles.
MP: Any tips for teachers, parents or librarians thinking about coming up with their own extension activities?
JRL: This first one is obvious but read the books. The first session of the book club, I’d read the books, but a long time ago. So, the meetings weren’t as detailed as they were for this session because I read the Narnia series knowing that I was going to be planning the book club around them. I made pages of notes as I was reading. Also, break it down into how many meetings you’re planning to hold. Make sure the final meeting of the book club has all the fun stuff so that it’s a reward for finishing the whole session.
MP: Were there any other lessons that you learned from planning this session that you’d like to pass on?
JRL: This session we added an incentive, a little 3-D printed charm, for each book read. This has helped to keep the kids reading along with the activities.
MP: Are there any resources that you can recommend to help planning a program like this?
JRL: Think outside just what goes on in the book, and find ways to connect the time period of the book, the culture, and the author’s background. Teacher’s guides are incredibly helpful for this because they’ll often have extension ideas. Also, consider inviting guest presenters to add depth to the meetings. We’ve Skyped with Big Cat Rescue about lions, and had a magician come in and teach some beginning magic tricks.
MP: Any other suggestions?
JRL: Make sure that you have enough copies of the books for everyone to read. Also, if you can, find young reader copies for younger siblings that may want to participate. Finally, at least in a library, if you are having guest presenters, advertise them separately from the book club as well to get more interest. For example, our meeting with the magician was bigger because some people only came to see the magician, but we had several people join the book club afterward and stick with it.
MP: This sounds awesome! Do you plan on repeating the program with other series?
JRL: We’re definitely going to continue this next year. I’m thinking about doing either A Series of Unfortunate Events or Harry Potter.
For more information about Osceola Library’s home-school book club, visit their page here. Or for more ideas to pump up your own middle grade book club, check out our list of Author Websites with Discussion/Activity Guides as well as our reference page For Teachers and Librarians.