Kids Bookclub Choices:

A School Librarian’s Perspective

by Lucy Ryan


I’ve worked at Bablake School in Coventry since 2009, first as a parent volunteer and then as Assistant Librarian (part-time) supporting the Head Librarian.

One of my first challenges was to set up a book club in the library. This was a fairly daunting prospect, as I’d not been involved with book clubs or worked in a library prior to this, but I did a lot of reading and research, spoke to a number of librarians, visited many a bookshop…and our first Book Club session took place in June 2009.

The school recruited the first half dozen members of the club mainly from Year Eight (12–13 year olds) and we agreed to meet once a fortnight during the lunch hour. Book Club was set up with the aim of reading mainly contemporary Young Adult fiction, and all the books were to be chosen by its members, with my role being merely one of facilitator. However, to try and encourage both boys and girls to the group I did make the book choices for our first term’s reading. These were Girl, Missing by Sophie McKenzie; Silverfin by Charlie Higson; Northern Lights by Philip Pullman; Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I chose these books with care to try to cover a broad range of genres: action/adventure; fantasy; social issues; romance; historical fiction. I felt it was important to include books with different gender perspectives, written in both the first and third person. This initial choice also featured protagonists who were roughly the same age as Book Club members.

My hopes for the Club were that pupils would appreciate their fellow members shedding new light on the chosen books, that they’d tackle genres that they’d not thought to read before and that they’d find mixing with pupils from other year groups a stimulating experience. It was important to me that Book Club would be seen as a place where the academic pressures of exams, coursework and controlled assessments could be left behind for a while. As Book Club takes place in the library, we also hoped that it would encourage pupils to make more use of it, although I do accept that we were, to some extent, preaching to the converted!

Being involved with Book Club is now one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, but I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty apprehensive before this first session. Would the children enjoy the book choice? Would they feel confident enough to voice their opinions? Would they even turn up?

They did turn up – and they were such lovely, enthusiastic readers that I soon forgot my nerves. We made our introductions and I gave them copies of the chosen books for that term and talked about the mechanics of Book Club.

A fortnight later we met to discuss Girl, Missing. A lively, critical debate ensued. Members liked the fact that every chapter ended on a cliffhanger, but one or two felt that the book was a ‘once-only holiday read’, had too convenient an ending and that the actions of the main protagonist, Lauren, were not credible. Most of the group agreed that they couldn’t identify with, or feel sympathy for Lauren’s predicament. Perhaps this shows the importance of having a main character – sympathetic or not – that readers find truly believable.

Reactions to Northern Lights surprised me a little. As the only book on the list that I’d read prior to setting up the Club and making the book choices, I’d felt sure that it would prove a rich mine of discussion material on the nature of the soul, the afterlife and relationships with family and friends. It was by far the most complex book on the list; perhaps that also made it the least accessible and the most demanding, as not all the members managed to finish reading it. One bright, articulate reader loved it, but the others tended not to share her enthusiasm. Interestingly, this title isn’t much borrowed in the library either, although we did see a small spike in borrowing when the film version, The Golden Compass, was released.

The Book Thief was a more popular choice, perhaps proving that young readers, as well as enjoying an escape into a fantasy world, like to discover what real life may have in store for them: be that leaving home, first romance, death of a loved one, friendship issues, prejudice . . . This title deals with some hefty, emotional issues as Liesl, a young girl living in Germany during the Second World War, loses most of those she loves at the conclusion of the book. The book provided many interesting talking points, not least in reminding us that the German people also suffered terribly under the Nazi regime, something not often tackled in children’s literature.

Since that first term, Book Club has developed and grown over time and with experience. I made those initial choices, but since then Book Club members have taken it in turns to nominate a book for us all to read. The pupil who makes the book choice is designated Discussion Leader (and wears a badge to say so!), arriving armed with a list of discussion points. If there is disagreement about a book choice, we put it to a democratic vote, although a negative response to a book often leads to an interesting debate. As facilitator I am there to support the Discussion Leader, but do sometimes gently step in to encourage wider discussion and stop the chat deviating too much from the books.

Last year we launched another book club and now have a Junior Book Club (11–13 year olds) and a Senior Book Club (14–18 year olds). I still run Senior Book Club, but Junior Book Club is guided by four members of the Sixth Form who have all been in Senior Book Club. Senior Book Club meet twice termly, with the Junior Book Club meeting fortnightly. Term ends for each Club with an end-of-term book quiz on the title voted Top Read, and we all celebrate reading (and the beginning of the holiday) with copious amounts of cake and party nibbles, giving out book-related prizes to the winning quiz teams.

Members enjoy the Book Club for all kinds of reasons. Ruth tells me that she comes along because ‘I like discovering books that I have really loved but would never have picked myself’ and she enjoys ‘the atmosphere of a group discussion and viewing books in a new light.’ She also relishes ‘the challenge of trying to remember the details of the book chosen for the end of term quiz!’ Book Club has given Alice ‘the opportunity to get to know fellow pupils in other year groups.’

The books that Book Club members choose for discussion mirror the trend for general library borrowing, in that the vast majority of books chosen are contemporary Young Adult fiction. However, Book Club members have occasionally chosen non-fiction titles. Interestingly, most of these have been as a result of parental recommendations – examples include My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson and Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Parents have also successfully recommended young adult and adult novels to their kids – And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini was a recent nomination. The current popularity of YA, cross-over fiction and more entertaining, less ‘academic’ non-fiction, means that the line between adult and children’s books is more porous than it used to be – which means that parents and children are perhaps better able to share books.

Despite a couple of boys joining us for the early book club sessions, they dropped out and, since then, our members have been exclusively female. I think this reflects a national trend for boys’ reading to drop off in their early teens and, having questioned some of our male readers, they tell me that they don’t generally feel the need to come along and share their views in a group setting.

I really don’t like making sweeping generalisations, and of course there are always exceptions to every rule, but we definitely see differences in the reading choices and habits of girls and boys. I asked a group of our reading boys why they thought some of their male fellow pupils were no longer reading, and the resounding response was the lure of the Xbox! They told me that these boys just needed to find the right book to trigger a lifelong love of reading. My book club girls also thought that ‘subtle peer pressure’ was to blame, with some boys feeling that reading is a ‘nerdy’ activity, which they don’t want to be seen doing.

Over the years we have tried in different ways to encourage boys to join the group, but with little success. I recently asked Savikar and Matthew, both Year Eight boys, if they’d thought about joining our Junior Book Club. They said that they had, but were concerned that there ‘were too many girls in the group’ and all but one of the chosen books for that term were not to their liking – the exception being The Maze Runner by James Dashner, a dystopian book much loved by girls and boys and which features in our Top Ten Most Borrowed list.

Boys Don’t Cry, by Malorie Blackman, a tale of teenage parenthood from the viewpoint of a young father, was chosen by book club girls back in 2012 and I thought it’d be great to have a male perspective on this. I had Matthias in my sights, as I’d noticed that he’d borrowed this book, and I collared him one day in the library. He bravely took up my challenge, and our session was definitely enriched by his presence. He also recommended a book for our next session, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, which I hoped might net some more boys. Sadly, this didn’t happen, and it proved to be Matthias’ last session. Perhaps a book club set up exclusively for boys is the way forward or, possibly, a graphic novel book club – oh for more hours in the working day!

With so many other demands on their time, Book Club members are sometimes unable to finish reading nominated books. When this happens, I just ask that they read the first few chapters, come to the discussion session and explain why they couldn’t get any further. I’d say to authors that you really need to hit the ground running and seize your readers in the first chapter; adults may persevere, but children will find something else to do if the book doesn’t grab them from the off.

Do I read and enjoy the novels chosen for Book Club? Yes, I do read all the books and, in the main, yes, I do enjoy them too! When I was a young reader I went more or less straight from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, as there was a dearth of authors inhabiting the middle ground. I do remember, as a child, escaping into a world of longships and horned helmets (yes, I now know they never wore them!) in a series of books about the Vikings by Henry Treece. I went on to study History at university and am still fascinated by Viking and Anglo-Saxon history, so they very definitely entertained and inspired a young me. I think teens are lucky to have a plethora of brilliant authors writing for them in numerous different genres, about issues that are important and relevant to them: first love; trying to work out how they fit into the grand scheme of things; embarking on life beyond the home; embracing their independence; dealing with life’s many challenges.

The books discussed by our Book Clubs naturally reflect those being borrowed in the library, as pupils are choosing both. For our girls – and many of our boys – dystopian thrillers, with a strong female lead, often featuring a love triangle, seem to be in the ascendant at the moment, with film releases always leading to increased borrowing. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth illustrate this point beautifully, both titles featuring in our recent Top Ten Most Borrowed Books.

These were:

The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

Geek Girl – Holly Smale

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel – Jeff Kinney

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth – Jeff Kinney

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

Twilight – Stephenie Meyer

Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Jeff Kinney

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Maze Runner – James Dashner.

 Our number one title, The Fault in Our Stars, has been incredibly popular with girls in the last year, and many have now been inspired to read John Green’s other novels. As a moving love story set against the backdrop of teenage cancer, perhaps this was always destined to appeal to a female readership; it certainly reduced many of our members to tears – including a certain school librarian. Romance is, perhaps predictably, less popular with boys, but when I questioned Liam, Harry and Oliver (all fourteen year olds) about romance in fiction, they told me they were fine with it ‘as long as it’s not the central theme and the books contain plenty of action.’

A couple of years ago, female borrowers devoured books of a supernatural nature featuring relationships between mortals and werewolves/angels/vampires/extra-terrestrials – Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer, being a case in point. We just couldn’t keep up with demand at one point and had to order in multiple copies of each title in the series. Twilight is still borrowed, but has dropped out of our Top Five. It seems to be a ‘Marmite’ book, with pupils either loving or hating it. Many readers feel that Bella Swan, the lead female character, is far too passive and is defined only by her relationship with the lead male, Edward Cullen. This desire for a stronger, three-dimensional female lead could explain the recent successes of The Hunger Games and Divergent series: books in which a feisty, female main character makes a stand against injustice in her dystopian world.

Looking beyond the Top Ten there have been a few popular titles that have surprised me. Books in The Bunny Suicides series by Andy Riley have been very well-borrowed, and we replace copies on a regular basis as they become a victim of their own success, getting tatty and dog-eared…What makes me smile is that these books contain hardly any words at all and, as the title suggests, feature cartoons of bunnies easing themselves into the afterlife. The macabre humour really appeals to our younger readers – mostly boys, but not exclusively so.

Children do borrow poetry and plays from the library, but this is often in support of their academic studies, or because they’re encouraged to do so as part of the Power Readers scheme. This scheme is run in conjunction with the English Department, to encourage the wide reading of different fiction and non-fiction genres, newspapers and periodicals. Pupils in the lower school take part and are rewarded with a certificate once it has been completed.

Are there any books or authors that manage to resist current trends and remain perennial favourites? Yes, some, but not as many as might be expected – perhaps because of the vast array of new books aimed at the young adult market. One Year Seven pupil is currently enjoying the Nancy Drew series, and Enid Blyton is still a popular choice with our eleven and twelve year olds. Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books are making a bit of a come-back at the moment too, probably on the back of the success of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney. Head librarian, Julie, and I have recently issued the following: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Heidi, Little Women, Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre – all titles which seem to stand the test of time, in addition to being notably feminine, with the exception of Treasure Island.

Graphic novels are pretty popular, and are borrowed mostly by our younger boys. Quickly and easily accessed, often brilliantly illustrated and narrated, they seem to be books that boys are less worried about being seen reading. One of our most popular graphic novel formats are Manga titles based on existing literature. Shakespeare plays in Manga form are very popular with both boys and girls, giving children a quick plot overview before they tackle their GCSE set texts. Recently we’ve also had Manga requests for Erin Hunter’s animal-based fantasy books and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series too.

We have realised that many pupils head straight to our Graphic section when visiting the library, and so we have put other books there to tempt them. For example, the BBC’s Top Gear non-fiction books were ignored when we shelved them in our Non-fiction section, but are now flying off the Graphic shelves, much loved by boys.

Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories remain incredibly popular, and we shelve them next to the Graphic section too. Some boys seem to prefer to borrow non-fiction books, perhaps wanting to make sense of the world around them, rather than wanting to escape into a fictitious one.

I asked my Book Club members how they chose their books, and the answer to this was definitely their peers! In the end, word of mouth recommendation from their friends is what matters most. They are also attracted to the cover of books, the blurb and the reading of the first few pages. To a lesser extent, they will they take up the recommendations of parents, teachers or other adults. Quite a few will also look at online reviews; Goodreads being a website that many pupils mentioned. Young readers definitely gravitate towards books in series – they tell me that they feel the books will be more detailed and complex, with more opportunity for character development. It’s interesting to note that, apart from The Fault in Our Stars, all of our Top Ten Most Borrowed feature books from series.

Where do they choose to read their books? Book Club members answered ‘Everywhere!’ They read at school, on public transport, at home, in the car, at mealtimes, whilst watching TV, with Svetlana confessing that ‘I think I actually read more than I sleep.’

I had expected to find that many pupils would prefer to read on electronic devices, but this wasn’t the case. Many do use them for a number of reasons: they’re cheaper than buying a book; more practical for travelling; the next book in the series can be downloaded instantly; they have everything to hand in the one device ­ be that music, phone, social media, photos, as well as books; and they’re lit for late-night reading under the covers. We do have twenty-five Kindles in the library which are for the exclusive use of Book Club members, but these are sometimes passed over in favour of the real thing. Pupils say they miss the smell of their books, the ease of flicking back and forward through physical pages, and looking at the covers. We are in the process of launching an e-lending service (RM Books) in the library; it will be interesting to see how much take-up we get. Julie has been busy introducing it to different class groups, and tells me that the boys seem to be more enthused about it, possibly because reading electronically seems a natural ‘fit’ for them (the Xbox effect at work here?) and they can read what they want without being ‘found out’! We have discovered that not all publishers make their books available to this system, but hope that all the most popular titles will be included soon.

So what does the future hold for our library? I’m sure it will continue to be the vibrant, busy place it is today and that e-books will co-exist happily with their paper counterparts. As for me, I’m looking forward to a time when I can put up my feet and catch up with the ever-increasing pile of books on my bedside table!