A Book Club For Boys Who Hate Reading

It’s 6:29pm on a chilly Thursday evening, and a line of cars is parked outside a cheery blue Victorian house. One by one, car doors open and a pack of 3rd-grade boys emerges, skipping and whooping their way to the front door.

No one wants to be late for book club.

On this night, they’re eager to discuss a short graphic novel in the Lunch Lady series, this time involving a demonic plot by a power-hungry gym teacher with an army of cyborg instructors. Shoes off, books out, they file into the living room and take their places on beanbags and floor pillows arranged in a loose circle. Prompted to retell the story, they giggle as they recap the plot, the character names, and the heroics of the Lunch Lady. They envision alternate endings, theorize about her motivation, and debate the moral merits of her cause. And they mine the pages for evidence throughout the goofball debate, reading short bursts of text aloud to make their points.

A half-hour later, the hard part ends and they head to the kitchen for cookies. Then it’s hats, coats, and flashlights, as they run through the backyard for 20 minutes of hide-and-seek in the dark.

* * *

One part playdate, one part “Dead Poet’s Society,” and one not-insignificant part dessert, this invitation-only weekly gathering brings together a most unlikely group of members: boys who struggle with reading in school. If you’re an 8-year-old who has decided you hate books, this is the club for you.

Why start a club whose members resent the activity at its core? The idea emerged from an experimental approach to reading homework that another parent and I devised at the outset of third grade: a homegrown buddy system. Both of our sons were having trouble mastering the complexities of reading—and amid current, fast-moving standards for the early elementary grades, that meant lots of really boring remedial work. After long days of decoding worksheets and pamphlet-sized readers at school, books were cast under an evil spell, re-imagined not as adventure stories but as torture devices. The idea that reading could be interesting and fun seemed a cruel fiction.

So why not make it interactive? Our boys were intensely social and loved silly jokes and crazy stories. And like all young boys, they were fascinated by the world of older boys. So out went the worksheets and in came the first Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.

Technically, it was over their heads in terms of skills. But that was part of what made it appealing: it was a big-kid book, not the baby stuff they were told to read at school. They loved the vaguely scatological cartoons, the boy-centered story of middle-school humiliation, and the chance to hang out together. So they met two mornings a week for 20 minutes or so before school, and page by painstaking page, traded off reading aloud the short, clever paragraphs that have made the series a giant hit. Aside from arranging the time and the drop-off, we parents let the kids take the lead—they read as much, or as little, as they wished. The story pulled them along, and the burden of reading was lighter because it was shared.

* * *

Soon, word spread—and not by the two mothers who launched the plan.

“We had book club this morning,” the boys boasted to their teachers and friends. They felt proud to be reading on their own, without an adult standing over their shoulders. They were excited because they had a special, secret meeting time to do it. It was a club, and they belonged.

Other boys wanted in. And so they were invited, one by one, from a short list of parents who had been trading the same book-avoiding stories for years. By November of third grade, 10 boys met every Thursday night to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid together aloud, paragraph by paragraph. The only goal was to have fun, books in hand. After 20 to 30 minutes, reading was over, they ate sweet snacks, and had a raucous tag session in the yard.

As the weeks turned into months, the boys were asked to come to book club having already read a passage, so they could talk about the story together. And so reading with a buddy progressed to independent reading, with the club meeting as a reward in mind. And 10 pages turned into 20, and then 30, and then the impossible happened: parental reports of the book-haters picking up Diary of a Wimpy Kid and independently giggling through a half-hour reading session on the couch. It doesn’t happen every day, or even every week. But it happens. The evil spell has been lifted.

Book club hasn’t solved every challenge—my son, for example, is still slightly behind where he should be in reading at the moment. But his progress in and out of school has been astonishing this year, not least because his attitude has changed. He’s a better and more confident reader. And he considers children’s literature to be kid stuff, something designed for him and his friends — not just something that a teacher or parent forces kids to read.

* * *

Recently, when the club embarked on the Lunch Lady series, I found a used bookstore online and purchased all 10 books. That next Saturday, a dreary afternoon when the soccer goals outside our front door tempted no one, I left the stack on the table and walked away.

Moments later, the reluctant reader spotted the pile.

“My books!” he shouted. “These are for book club! Thank you!”

And he scooped them up, ran to his room, and carefully stacked them on a new white bookshelf. He grabbed the first book, sat down, and dove in. The next book club was coming up, and he wanted to be ready.

— Kathleen Carroll

Kathleen Carroll is an independent writer specializing in education and manuscript editor at Education Next. This originally appeared in Bright magazine.

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