How To Run a Successful Kids Book Club

Start small. Lead by letting go. Read more tips from experts who run book clubs for kids of all ages.

Members of the Girlfriends Book Club of Baltimore.
Photo courtesy of Tonya Wright/The Girlfriends Book Club of Baltimore

Eight-year-old Ezri Blau likes to read all kinds of books, but reading isn’t the only reason she returns to her book club at the Naperville (IL) Public Library. “My favorite thing was when we read Rowan of Rin and had to defeat the hanging spider maze,” Blau says. “Well, and the cookies. I love cookies.”

Tasty snacks and conquering book-inspired obstacle courses may seem far from the traditional tasks of a book club, but Naperville’s Book and Cookie Club exemplifies exactly the kind of creative engagement one can expect from today’s successful book clubs for kids and teens. A book club, one of those bread-and-butter library services, is as adaptable as it is stalwart. It can be boisterous and active or quiet and small. It can grow and change, serving the same group from the pre-tween years through adolescence, or welcoming a different crop of readers each new school year.

A good book club may run itself once it gets going, but starting and sustaining one through discouraging moments—a dismally attended first meeting or a poor book match—can be difficult. Persistence, flexibility, and above all, knowing and responding to your readers can make a book club work in any place and with any age group.

Fox River Grove (IL) students design a conveyor belt after reading the John Henry legend.
Photo courtesy of Fox River Grove Memorial Library.

Start small

An intimate size allows club members to get comfortable with one another and helps create a group identity. It also minimizes the worry of coordinating discussion among a large group. When Tonya Wright started the Girlfriends Book Club of Baltimore in 2014, she set out to create a stress-free environment where her second-grade daughter could discuss books. She wasn’t looking for a big crowd. “I said, ‘Baby, if we get one of your friends to say yes, we’ve got a club!’” Seven girls from her daughter’s class joined.

Early on, Wright just wanted to help the girls find their voices. Discussions were simple and focused on likes and dislikes, clarifying confusing sections, and listening to one another. Occasionally, Wright would bring in a multiple-choice survey about the book to get the conversation moving or offer a relevant game to break the ice. The book discussion was a vehicle for building confidence in sharing opinions and being respectful listeners.

As the girls have grown older, Wright has needed to adapt to their busy lives to be able to continue the club. Now in sixth grade, the preteens meet on weekends instead of after school and limit their time to only one hour, down from the more open-ended schedule in the early years. When the members started forgetting meetings, Wright began sending out Evites as reminders.

Activities To Augment Book Clubs

Tweens’ “book face” photo at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, IL.
Photo courtesy of Heather Booth

• Create art based on the title or topic

• Cast the movie based on the book

• Take “book face” pictures (above)

• Write shelf-talkers for favorite titles

• Make snacks based on the book’s themes

• Rework a favorite scene into a mini-reader’s theater

• Take a field trip to a local author event

• Arrange a video chat with an author

• Host a used book swap

• Compile a playlist for the book

• Conduct Pictionary battles

• Play character charades

• Create a trivia quiz

Bridgett Kaiser

Find a partner

Bridgett Kaiser of the Fox River Grove (IL) Memorial Library wanted to start a science club, but when the local Rotary Club offered a literacy-focused sponsorship, a book and science club was born. The library purchases individual copies of books that relate to science experiments for children to keep. Rotary members have even pitched in to help when extra hands are needed.

Seed to Plant by Kristin Baird Rattini paired easily with a hands-on planting project. Magnets: Pulling Together, Pushing Apart by Natalie M. Rosinsky had the kids exploring the library with magnets on wands to figure out what was magnetic and what wasn’t. Reading the story of John Henry led to one of the group’s favorite activities: Inspired by the legendary race digging through a mountain, the kids worked in groups to design and build a conveyer belt that could move rocks.

The club, called It’s Elementary!, brought kindergartners through fourth graders flooding into the small library, regularly packing the program. “It was like we had opened up a door that they didn’t know existed,” says Kaiser.

“They’re never quiet. They’re always engaged. That joy is so real, and so is their interest in being here at the library. They’re interested [in learning more] way beyond the day of the club.”

Partnerships can draw participants who might not otherwise be interested. At the Downers Grove (IL) Public Library, teen services coordinator Lynette Pitrak found a partner in a publisher, forming a mutually beneficial relationship. Pitrak can attract teens to her book club with the novelty and access of advance reader copies from Bloomsbury, and the publisher gets frank feedback from the teens on its titles. This cache of pre-publication books is something teens can’t readily access elsewhere and provides a great motivation to join the library book club.

Some of the most beneficial collaborations happen when librarians work together. Danielle Jones of the Multnomah County (OR) Library and Paige Battle, teacher librarian at nearby Grant High School in Portland, have joined forces for Half-Blood Printzes, a mock-Printz book club. Battle can connect to and recruit club members through her work with teachers and students, and Jones hosts and facilitates the discussion through surveys, moderated conversation, and, of course, snacks.

Parents can be partners, too. The Book and Cookie Club at the Naperville (IL) Public Library brings in parents with their third through fifth graders for a snack, conversation, and activities. “It’s a good thing to get families reading and talking about books together,” says children’s services librarian Emily Bayci. “I really try to build relationships with the parents. I’ll send out emails after the book club to anyone who misses with suggestions on how to talk about the book with their child and a reminder that I’m always around if they just want to stop in.”

A green screen photo booth at a Book and Cookie Club event at the Naperville (IL) Public Library.
Photo courtesy of Emily Bayci/Naperville Public Library

Be an opportunist

Sometimes creating a book club is a matter of being in the right place at the right time and applying a little bit of librarian magic. North Carolina school librarian Tomi Black was helping a boy find a copy of Kwame Alexander’s Booked at his friend’s suggestion. “On instinct, I grabbed two copies of the book and returned to the two boys, suggesting they could read it together. Immediately this generated interest from two additional boys seated at the same table. Luckily we had two more copies of the book and voilà impromptu book club was formed!”

Go multimedia

Media tie-ins are a hit for Noelle Spicher, the teen librarian at the Lisle (IL) Library District. Cautioned by coworkers that teens hadn’t come to book clubs in the past, Spicher took a chance and started one at the request of a few of her regular teen patrons and teen advisory board (TAB) members.

“I hesitated at first, but once the teens mentioned it again, I figured I would try it out,” she said.

The group began with the core TAB members who requested the club but has grown to seven participants. With guidance from Spicher, they decided to focus on books with movie adaptations, beginning with Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.

Their Friday evening meetings begin by watching the movies, which adds to the fun and social feel of this teen event and gives them even more to discuss. Spicher occasionally has to gently redirect conversation back to the topics at hand but notes that the teens are able to self-regulate quite well, even in lively discussions.

When kid lit makes it to the big screen, as Wonder did in 2017 or as A Wrinkle in Time will this year, librarians can leverage the heavily marketed events and host media-themed book clubs. Even if it’s a one-off event, media-themed discussions bring participants into the library and help kids see the library as a place where their views are important. Tapping into popular fandom can also bring in participants who already have something in common.

Books That Got Them Talking

Kids books

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White Cry of the Sea by D. G. Driver I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris The Isle of the Lost “Descendants” series by Melissa De La Cruz Narwhal by Ben Clanton Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan and Roslyn M. Jordan Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan Teddy Mars Almost a World Record Breaker by Molly B. Burnham “Upside-Down Magic” series by Sarah Mlynowski

Tween books

Be Light Like a Bird by Monika Schröder Booked by Kwame Alexander “The Books of Elsewhere” series by Jacqueline West Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz The Worst Class Trip Ever by Dave Barry

YA books

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds Most Dangerous by Steve Sheinkin Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Lead by letting go

Taking a step back and letting participants lead can be a recipe for success. Kitty Felde, creator and host of the Book Club for Kids podcast, has been talking to youth book clubs across the country since 2000. Book clubs are best served when adults are comfortable taking a back seat, she says.

“Step back. Let the kids pick the book. Try not to be the adult in the room,” she says. “Kids will tell you anything if you listen to them and are interested in what they have to say. And follow up.”

The follow-up is key, gently encouraging participants to think and say more. “You just want to get it started and make yourself as unobtrusive as possible,” she says.

Facilitators are there to set a tone of respect, and participants respond in kind.

“I’ve never run into an issue of students not being respectful of one another,” says Beth Ebenstein Mulch, school librarian at the T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA. Sometimes, that means respecting a student’s need to be a quiet observer instead of a vocal participant.

“It’s OK for students to be quiet,” she says. “Sometimes it’s enough that students want to come to each meeting and not feel pressured to talk. I try to incorporate questions that allow for students to answer as a group (thumbs up, thumbs down) as opposed to singling out individuals. I will often email ahead of the meeting and ask students to think of a book they would recommend and share.”

Spicher credits the burgeoning club’s success to the autonomy of her teens.

“This group is very enthusiastic about reading. Essentially they started the book group, and I’m just here to facilitate,” she says. “They even talk about having a Google chat going about book group. I think the success is due to the group’s level of interest and feeling of ownership.”

Focus on the end goal

Ultimately, a book club can take any form that works for the group, so long as the guiding focus is clear. The goal for these clubs is often about much more than a book.

“I want them to be comfortable with their own voices and stand in their own power without being disrespectful to other opinions,” says Girlfriends Book Club founder Wright. In addition to nurturing their love of reading, “I want them to have an open discussion and debate and feel comfortable knowing that they can still walk away as friends. Those skills are going to help them in everyday life.”

Felde says that a good book club is a little like her Girl Scout troop.

“They might not all be your best friends, or people you have a lot in common with, but you have this one thing that’s important to you and you share,” she says. “I remember so much being 12 and wanting an adult to treat me like an adult. I had opinions and wanted to voice them.” Felde adds, “I find that works with this age group. They have some experience with the world. They’re unafraid. They’re smart! They’re full of heart; they’re not cynical. It’s a joy to hear them speak, like peeking into the brain of tomorrow’s leaders. And it’s hopeful.”

Heather Booth is head of teen services at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, IL. Her clubs include a Next Chapter Book Club for young adults with special needs.

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Tara Davis

Ms. Wright, after reading the article I am so excited to have my daughter join the book club. This is such a great opportunity for our youth. Congratulations and thank you for your time and efforts.

Posted : Apr 07, 2018 01:38

Elizabeth Kahn

I did a presentation on book clubs recently. If anyone is interested, here is my presentation: I run three book groups at my school for 6th and 7th grade, 8th and 9th, and 10th-12th grade. I have had the group for the oldest kids since 2007. Elizabeth

Posted : Mar 19, 2018 09:02

Keesha Chambers Summers

Great presentation! Thanks for sharing.

Posted : Apr 10, 2018 07:31

Rose Mukira

Great article to read. I am quite interested to find Girlfriends book club and enlist my daughter. What an amazing job! Congratulations Mrs Wright with your team of girls!

Posted : Mar 16, 2018 04:34

Lisa Luntz

Spot on! My daughter’s experience within the Girlfriends Book Club was amazing! This was an opportunity for friendships to be built around reading.

Posted : Mar 16, 2018 01:11

Sunia Lessing

Wonderful article!! Thank you so much for highlighting friendship and learning!

Posted : Mar 15, 2018 10:54

Tonya Wright

Such a great article, Heather & SLJ!! Thank you so much for including Girlfriends Book Club Baltimore and shining a light on the positive impact of book clubs. It's also very cool to read what others are doing and learn how we can continue to evolve and expand our reach. Thank you! #ReadingMatters #ReadingIsCool

Posted : Mar 15, 2018 10:45



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