Mothers and daughters bound by books

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the house is a scene of frenzy as our preteen hostess Carey, checks and rechecks the soda, chips and dip. Her friends (and their mothers!) are due in less than 15 minutes and everything has to be just right. There's only one thing missing. Ah, yes - the book.

With "Out of the Dust," by Karen Hesse (about a girl living in Oklahoma in the 1930s), firmly in hand, my teenager-in-waiting settles on the couch. We're ready for an evening of food for thought and body (with equal emphasis on each).

This is the monthly ritual known as The Mother-Daughter Book Club. And we are part of an exploding phenomenon fueled by a book by the same name, (with a subtitle: "How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading" HarperCollins, $12.95, 1996).

Author Shireen Dodson says she has received e-mail from dozens of budding book clubs in the U.S. and overseas. "It's a genuine grass-roots movement," she says with a laugh, recalling that she created the club that sparked the book with her then-nine-year-old daughter. Her goal was simple but twofold: to encourage her child to read outside school and open a door of communication between the two of them.

"You want your daughter to be able to come to you with all the questions a teenager will have," reflects Ms. Dodson, adding that "the earlier you start the process of becoming friends, the more likely she will feel able to do that."

The target age for the girls is typically nine to 12 years old. "This is such an important time in these girls' lives," says Dodson. Pointing to other publications such as the oft-quoted "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," (Putnam, 1994) she emphasizes the significance of the preteen years.

Away from boys and school

"These are the years during which they understand the importance of their minds as well as their looks," Dodson says, adding that providing a venue away from boys and school can be invaluable for the sort of nurturing that will strengthen a young girl's sense of self.

The format of the clubs is similar to adult book clubs with a few important exceptions. Dodson highly recommends the daughters organize the questions and conduct the meetings themselves, with minimal help from adults. While clubs usually create their own book-selection process, Dodson says the girls should be involved. "Otherwise," she remarks, "they will see the club as just another one-way process with the mothers telling them what to do."

Bookstores around the country have begun facilitating and advising mothers and daughters who want to start a club. Michele Cromer-Poire, owner of the Red Balloon Bookstore in St. Paul, Minn., says she pre-screens books for some clubs. This helps parents who don't have time to stay abreast of the literature for the age group. Cromer-Poire says she sees the clubs as an invaluable tool for today's busy mothers. "That's a tough age for girls today," she observes, "[the clubs] give the girls a chance to see their mothers as people, not just parents."

Next generation readers

Developing the next generation of readers is certainly another goal that has made the clubs attractive to booksellers. Liz Shaffer, co-owner of the Junior Editions in Columbia, Md., facilitates three mother-daughter book clubs by selecting the books and running the discussions herself. "Now, I see the girls come in and look around for books for themselves," she says. Her store is working on a deal to run similar book clubs through the local school district.

Teri Fox Stayner, mother of fifth-grader McKenna, put together a group that is now in its second year. "I wanted an environment where we could communicate about ideas, but where it wasn't me drilling her."

Encouraging a love of reading is an important goal for many mothers. While author Dodson points out that some children are more natural readers than others, the club format plants a seed that may come to fruition later in life. She adds, "even if they don't become prolific readers outside the club, at least they're getting good books somewhere."

Parent Anne Cochran says the discussion format has produced an added benefit for her fifth-grader, Claire. "[She's] always been reticent to speak out in groups," Ms. Cochran says, but since Claire has been part of the book club, "I notice her doing that more."

Claire adds that the club has helped her choose her own reading material. "Before I was in the club," she says with a sense of accomplishment, "I didn't know how to choose a book." Now, she says, she knows what to look for and how to find it.

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