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Telling tales out of school

Book clubs bring kids together outside the classroom

NEEDHAM -- We've heard the caterwauling that young people don't read books anymore, but Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp beg to differ. Not only are kids reading, these friends discovered, but kids' book clubs are proliferating across the country. Trying to catch that wave, Gelman and Krupp have just published a guide, "The Kids' Book Club Book," for kids in clubs and adults who want to start them.

It's the second book-club guide for Krupp and Gelman, and like the first -- "The Book Club Cookbook," in 2004 -- it's all based upon the happy marriage of writing, reading, and socializing.

Gelman and Krupp had belonged to adult book clubs, which had a tradition of pairing food with books at meetings, such as Mexican foods in a discussion of T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" or Norwegian cheese while talking about Sigrid Undset's "Kristin Lavransdatter." They found that this was common in book clubs, so in 2002 they began researching clubs around the country (100 in all), gathered recipes, sold a sample chapter to an agent, and published the book in paperback.

"When we were out on the road," said Krupp, "parents would come up to us, or librarians who had clubs, and say, 'When are you going to write a book like this for kids?' " Gelman said. "We weren't sure it was enough of a phenomenon, but when we started researching, we saw this huge surge in the number of kids' clubs." Both au thors are married -- Gelman, 44, has two children, and Krupp, 43, has three -- and their own children's participation in book clubs whetted their interest.

"I was surprised by the variety of settings," said Krupp. "I was expecting to find clubs in schools, libraries, and living rooms, but we found them in community centers, juvenile detention centers, museums, churches, temples, YMCAs."

Their book is directed at kids 8 to 18, with a preponderance of books aimed at kids in middle grades. It contains 50 recommended books, along with information about authors provided by the authors themselves, plus activities that adult leaders can use to keep kids interested. Many particular clubs around the country, and their readings, appear in the book.

There's no central national registry of kids' book clubs and no way to count them all, but the writers found them in city and country, and in all regions of the country. Others have seen the growth as well.

"I definitely see an increase over the last five to seven years in the number of book clubs for young people," said Judy Nelson, president of the Young Adult Library Services Association and a youth librarian in Tacoma, Wash. "I'm leery about saying that more kids are reading, but it's not unusual to see a child whom you would not assume would read with his nose buried in a book." Nelson said many libraries are creating book-club kits -- i.e., a box of 15 copies of a book that can be checked out and used by a club.

Nelson says part of the growth proceeds from efforts by schools and libraries to get young people reading beyond what they have to read for school, partly in response to worrisome recent surveys. In a 2006 survey by Scholastic Inc., American publisher of the Harry Potter novels, 44 percent of children age 5 to 8 read one book per day, but between age 15 and 17 the percentage declined to 16 percent. A 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found a 28 percent drop in reading since 1982 in the 15-17 segment.

For many kids and the adults who start the clubs, however, the idea is not so high-minded as improving literacy. It's more about enjoying books for their own sake -- not for homework or to pass a test. That's why Melrose teacher Joellen Beaudet started the Fifth-Grade Parent-Student Book Club at the Herbert Clark Hoover Elementary School three years ago.

"We put up a sign-up sheet at the beginning of the year, for anyone interested in getting together to read as a family," Beaudet said. Of the 45 fifth-graders' families, she said, "we were shocked that 20 were interested."

The club picks one book a month, usually an award-winner or bestseller, which the parents and kids all read, in some cases aloud together. "I was afraid it would be my top five students, and all girls," said Beaudet, "but there have been as many boys as girls, as many athletes as bookworms, A-plus students as well as kids who have never enjoyed reading. It's just one more thing to look forward to in fifth grade. It was a dream come true."

Word spread among kids. "My sister had done it," said Cassidy Barbaro, 11, a Hoover School fifth-grader, "so I thought I would try it. You have activities, something to eat, and talk about the books. I didn't think it would be fun, but I enjoyed most of the books and talking about them. I wish we could do it every year."

Deborah Grimmett, children's librarian for the Abington Public Library, started the Cliffhangers Book Club in 2001, and the demand was so great that now she runs clubs for three age groups: second and third grade ; fourth through sixth grade; and a teens group, which has members up to age 15.

Chris Jones, 15, of Abington is in the teen group, and his sister Stephanie, 11, belongs to the middle-grade club. "It's about 10 members, boys and girls," said Chris. "You get to meet people who have the same interests as you. Not a lot of people talk about books in daily life -- it's more sports and stuff. Everyone in the club is really into books, and so it's fun to talk." Stephanie said she enjoys hearing other kids' perspectives on the book of the month: "It's kind of cool to hear how everybody feels about the book," she said. "Sometimes, it changes your ideas. You can say, 'I never thought of it that way.' "

"It's wonderful. Connecting a child with a book is the major thing I do," Grimmett said. "A book club allows you to see the child connecting with the book, to their parents, to the outside world, and their own experiences. It's another level of reading."

One unexpected delight for Judy Gelman and Vicki Krupp was how much they enjoyed reading the 50 books they chose, even though they were not part of a club. "We said, 'These books are fantastic,' " said Gelman. "For me, this was just a great year of reading."

David Mehegan can be reached at

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story about children's book clubs in the June 20 Living/Arts section misstated the findings of a 2004 Reading at Risk report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. The report cited a survey finding that the rate of decline in literary reading among 18- to 24-year-olds increased by 28 percent between 1982 and 2002.)