Starting a Kids’ Book Club: The Power of Reading Together

by Lisa Varner

“Whether or not people read, and indeed how much and how often they read, affects their lives in crucial ways. All of the data suggests how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact—books change lives for the better.”1

Reading Is Foundational

Most of us agree that developing our children’s love for reading and great books is one of our most important goals as parents and home educators. Everywhere we turn, it seems, we encounter study after study stating that a person who voluntarily reads will do better in school and in life.

Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and its nationally recognized studies Reading At Risk and To Read or Not to Read, summarizes this well, “If you could know only one thing about a 17- or 18-year old to predict his or her future success, you’d probably want to know whether they voluntarily read. If the answer is yes, you can be reasonably sure they will do better in school, they’ll do better in the job market, they’ll become more integrated with their community, and they will have higher odds of successful personal outcomes.”2

Obstacles to Cultivating a Love of Reading

We want our children to grow into lifelong readers. It can be difficult to encourage our children to love reading, however.

We often face many obstacles. Not only is the act of reading complex and difficult for many of our children, but also we can struggle to find books that they are interested in reading. Some of them haven’t yet discovered the enjoyment of a great story, and so they have declared that they do not like to read. As a result their “mental reading muscles” are underdeveloped. Finally, digital media can prove to be one of our most significant obstacles.

The Rise of Digital Media

Today’s generations are growing up in a world no longer dominated by books and literature. Instead, according to the Center for Disease Control, the average American child aged 8-18 years old spends 6-9 hours every day in front of a screen.3 The U.S. Census Bureau conducted a large survey in 2002 on participation in the arts with startling conclusions: “With the rise of digital media, less than half of U.S. adults were now reading literature.

The survey found there had been a 10 percentage-point decline over two decades, which was a loss of 20 million potential readers. The drop spread across every age group, every ethnic group, both genders and all income levels. Worse yet, the steepest decline was among those 18 to 34, who 20 years earlier had been the most likely age group to read a book. The survey also indicated this backsliding of a literate America had rapidly accelerated with the advent of social media networks, streaming services and all-consuming video games. Experts extrapolated that, if the trend continued, reading as a pastime would be all but nonexistent in another 50 years.”4

The Reading Crisis

It is the sad truth that every group in America is reading less than 20 years ago and also reading less well—kids, teens, young adults, adults, and even college graduates.5 Dana Gioia’s 2007 NEA team discovered that people who didn’t read were less likely to vote in elections, volunteer for charities, attend public events, and support cultural institutions. Additionally, Gioia was correct in his suspicions that the dangers didn’t end there. Later neurological research and MRI testing confirmed that reading increases brain connectivity and improves basic human empathy, while exposure to most screen-based media has the exact opposite effect.6

Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading. “The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem. If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks.”7 America is facing a reading crisis. We need to do all we can to lead our youth to rediscover the gift of great books.

The Power of Reading Together

Kids’ book clubs can be such a powerful help in this effort. J.K. Rowling states that if a person doesn’t like to read, they haven’t found the right book. We can take that a step further and also conclude that if a person doesn’t like to read, perhaps they have not yet encountered the joy of fellow readers. I have seen my own amazing proof of this in the last several years.

May 2019 marked the end of the third year of our girls’ book club and the end of the second year of our boys’ book club. We read ten books a year, or one book a month, from August to May. We have had a range of ages in our book clubs, although most of our girls were 13 and most of our boys were 10 when we began. Our girls and boys absolutely love book club!

Positive Social Influence

Book clubs are just wonderful, in our experience. They bring us together around a great book and provide community, accountability, and fun. Whether a child is a nonreader, reluctant reader, or a lover of books, all of the members will grow in their eagerness to read. I most attribute that growth to the positive social influence of a book club.

There is nothing quite like the influence of friends and peers who are excited about the same book and excited to talk about it together. When you add in the chance to grow in friendship with others, along with games and snacks, it is easy to see how book club has the potential to transform children into lifetime readers.

Starting Your Own Book Club

Have you considered starting a book club for your child? If so, perhaps you were unsure of what to read, how to get other kids to come, or what to do during book club? I’m excited to share my experiences with you from my years of leading these two book clubs, along with lots of information on my Facebook page, Starting a Kids Book Club – The Power of Reading Together, to help you get started.

Step One: Deciding on the Format

Once you’ve caught the passion to start a kids’ book club, the first step is to decide on your format.

  • How often will you meet?
  • Where and when will you meet?
  • What will be the size of your book club?

Enjoy the freedom of designing a book club around your schedule and interests.

While my groups have enjoyed meeting once a month in our home, book clubs can happen with different frequencies and a variety of locations such as in libraries, coffee houses, churches, etc. I encourage you to decide on the group size you would like and extend invitations slowly so that you don’t grow too big. The average size of our groups has been 16 kids.

I have been amazed by the enthusiastic response from every girl or boy we have invited and can assure you that you will not have trouble finding kids to join your book club. It is very fun to have a large group and yet also challenging. Generally speaking, the optimal size is probably 8-12 members.

Step Two: Planning the Reading List and Book Club Dates

The second step will be to plan the reading list and book club dates. Others get even more excited about your book club when you have a great line-up of books and specific dates already selected for the upcoming year all presented in an attractive way.

You will find all of the book lists we have used—nearly 70 books in all—on my Facebook page. I have chosen books from a variety of genres so that our kids are stretched to read books beyond what they normally would read. Our girls and boys have stated that they really love this aspect of our book clubs.

There are so many available resources beyond my book lists to help you discover great books for your book clubs. I have used all of the following titles for help: The Read Aloud Revival by Jim Trelease, Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt, Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Gladys Hunt, Give Your Child the World by Jamie C. Martin, Books that Build Character by William Kilpatrick, Books That Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson, and Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson.

In addition, the following websites have been a fantastic help:

I frequently consult lists of Newberry Award winners, read many book reviews, and ultimately read lots and lots of books. I encourage you to use my book lists and all of these wonderful resources to choose books your kids will love.

Step Three: Inviting Others

The third step will be to invite kids to join your book club. Consider inviting your children’s friends from homeschool groups, church youth groups, neighbors, sports teams, etc. We have really enjoyed having a mix of homeschooled and public/private-schooled kids in our book clubs and have seen it as an outreach of sorts. Be sure and have your book list, book club dates, and location all ready to hand to each child you are inviting.

Step Four: Planning the First Meeting

The fourth step will be to plan your first meeting. A two-hour book club meeting works well. For about the first 30 minutes, we typically play ice breaker games (an online search will lead you to many great games) or share a bit of what’s been happening in our lives since we last met by sharing a “high” and a “low” from the last month. Then we move into the book discussion which usually lasts 45-60 minutes.

Our teen girls lead their own discussions, while adults lead our middle school boy discussions. We usually use some kind of object to pass around and to be held by the person speaking. This is a helpful visual reminder that it is another’s person’s time to speak and a time for all others to practice listening.

It has been thrilling to watch our kids grow in their ability to listen, reflect, and respond to each other’s opinions and perspectives on the books. Then we end our time together by eating snacks and playing games or playing outside. You’ll find more information about this schedule and some lists of general book discussion questions on my FB page.

Step Five: Planning Snacks

The last step will be to plan snacks. Snacks are essential for a great book club. Consider having a family snack sign-up list and decide how many people will bring snacks each time. Sometimes our families have brought snacks that match the book theme. That is always fun and so enjoyed. Be sure to send reminders to those signed up, and be ready with a backup plan just in case. As the host, I provide water and plates, napkins, silverware, etc. The kids love snack time. They love everything about book club!

Leading a Book Club Is a Worthwhile Endeavor

It is my great passion to be a small force in this bigger battle to get our kids reading again. The evidence of literature’s importance to civic, personal, and economic health is too strong to ignore. We must do all we can to reclaim our youth for books, for reading, for the power of a great story, for the ability to imagine, reason, ponder and reflect, for community in a non-online world, and for the opportunity to encounter role models in books who are brave, good, fascinating and different than us.

As Sarah Clarkson beautifully states, “…to read a great story is to begin to learn how to live one.”8 I believe this is even more certain when we are reading these great stories together.

I want to encourage you that leading a book club is definitely something you can do and absolutely worth every effort. I hope this will be the year you start a kids’ book club. Everyone will be so glad you did. Happy reading to all!

Lisa Varner

Lisa Varner has always loved books and been an avid reader. She loved teaching high school English for 11 years and then moved into professional counseling. Her career path changed again in 2011 when she and her husband, Mark, decided to homeschool their three children. She has loved homeschooling for the last 8+ years—even on the difficult days—and has been thrilled to grow her children into readers. When she’s not leading a book club or homeschooling or counseling, she loves any chance to be with her family and friends, especially when that includes hiking, camping, and reading. Lisa lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband, children, and, quite arguably, the world’s best dog. Follow Lisa’s Facebook page Starting a Kids’ Book Club – The Power of Reading Together for more helpful information.

End Notes

1 National Endowment for the Arts. (November 2007). To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.  (Research report #47). Washington, DC: Office of Research & Analysis.

2Burger, John. “Dana Gioia Shares the Key to Your Teen’s Success.” Aleteia,  28 January 2014, https://aleteia.org/2014/01/28/dana-gioia-shares-the-key-to-your-teens-success. Accessed 14 June 2019.

3 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Screen Time vs. Lean Time Infographic.” 29 January 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/multimedia/infographics/getmoving.html. Accessed 10 June 2019.

4 Anderson, Scott Thomas. “The Man Who Saved Reading: Dana Gioia’s Battle for the Future of the Arts, Literature and Critical Thinking in America.” Medium, 22 December 2018, https://medium.com/@ScottA_RsvPT/the-man-who-saved-reading-dana-gioias-battle-for-the-future-of-the-arts-literature-and-bdb48d7856f1. Accessed 13 June 2019.

5 National Endowment for the Arts (n1)

6 Anderson (n4)

7 National Endowment for the Arts (n1)

8 Clarkson, Sarah. Caught Up in a Story: Fostering a Transformed Life of Great Books & Imagination with Your Children. Monument, CO: Storyformed Books, 2013. Print.

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