Four years ago, eighth graders Wrishija Roy, Laurel Yarborough and Damare Baker all read "Fat Chance" by Leslea Newman in a girls' book club at Columbus Middle School run by Emma Thompson, then a senior at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.
Now MSMS seniors themselves, they're back at the middle school reading the same novel, which tells the story of a girl with an eating disorder. This time, though, they are leading the book club.
"It's been nice to give back to the girls because I know how helpful it was for me," Yarborough said. "And I just hope I'm having the same effect."
The Women Influencing Lives Through Literature – or WILL – program is Thompson's brainchild. She wanted a way to mentor younger girls using literature.
A $150 grant from the nonprofit First Book of Lowndes County pays for two to three sets of books that are purchased through First Book's website, said CMS librarian Stephanie Montgomery. She usually ends up buying about two sets per year, and club participants get to keep their books.
Thompson, a native of Picayune, Miss., had seen a lot of girls her age fall behind academically in middle school. It wasn't because they weren't smart or ambitious, Thompson felt, but because they didn't have the mentorships or support they needed to stay on track.
"That was really frustrating to me because it seemed unfair," Thompson said.
In high school, she decided to do something about it. With help from some teachers at MSMS, she reached out to CMS librarian Jamie Davidson to put together a group of 15 eighth-grade girls. Thompson met with them for about an hour during the school day once every two weeks, and they talked about books.
"For me, literature's been a very therapeutic tool in my life," Thompson said. "It really helped me think.... When you're exploring literature in a group setting, it opens up dialogue and gets girls being able to articulate their opinions and think critically. And just on a technical level, it helps with your critical reading abilities, public speaking abilities."
The first book they ever read was "The Giver" by Lois Lowry.
"It's about a dystopian society, and that's a really interesting concept (that got them) talking about their place in society and what they would do in this situation," Thompson said.
Roy, Yarborough and Baker were all part of the club that first year, also picking up classic novels like George Orwell's "Animal Farm." The program continued after Thompson went to North Carolina State University, with two or three MSMS senior girls running a club of 15 eighth-grade girls every year. Last year, when teachers at MSMS and CMS were trying to decide which students to put in the club, all three volunteered to lead.
The club has changed since they were members, though. The girls now meet once a week, the books are now mostly about young empowered female characters and they usually focus on some kind of social issue. They just finished Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why," which tackles bullying and teen suicide, and are now reading Patricia McCormick's "Sold," which is about a teenage girl in Nepal who is sold into sex slavery.
Several of the girls in the club said reading the books has exposed them to ideas and issues they hadn't thought of, as well as to new genres and books they may not have picked up outside the program.
"I like to hear different (points) of view from different types of women," eighth grader Amber Jones said.
Still, she acknowledges that as a fan of the horror genre, she would have otherwise overlooked "Sold."
Eighth grader Henrietta Krogh agreed.
"I don't think I would have read ('Sold') because it's not in my general genre of fiction that I enjoy reading," she said. "... I'm not sure, if I just glanced at it, I would have picked it up."
Now they've both found they enjoy the book, even though the topic can get pretty heavy, they said. They've also enjoyed being in the club – not just getting "free books," as Krogh put it, but having a relationship with high school girls who can give advice.
"It's kind of like having this older friend who I can ask for help," Jones said.
For Roy, Yarborough and Baker, leading the book club this year has helped them see girls growing and learning in the same way they grew and learned four years ago.
"When I was in eighth grade, I did not want to speak out ... at the beginning of the year," Yarborough said. "And throughout the year, I noticed myself contributing more. So it's been nice to see the girls also begin to contribute more and speak up when they feel a certain way."
Roy spoke to the developing bond between the club's members.
"You can tell, beginning of the year, maybe not all the girls were as comfortable with each other," she said. "But (now) you can see as they discuss these books with each other ... it allows them to be more open with their peers, and I think that helps them a lot in their future as they go into high school and afterward."
Baker said the program encourages girls to speak out about their beliefs.
"I like how this program is giving young girls a chance to find their voices," she said.
• To learn more about the program or how to start one, go to ourwill.club.