By Maggie Shea
Issue 145 - November/December 2008
It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own. —Katherine Paterson, author of Jacob Have I Loved
"Chapter #1" is written in gold ink on the first page of a scrapbook thick with memories. It tells the story of the Page Turners: six girls and their mothers whose journey together began when the girls were eight. They met at the Shireks' house to discuss Baby, by Patricia MacLachlan, the first of many books they would explore together. They shared snacks and painted watercolor pictures—and began a tradition that would take them through elementary, middle, and high school, and then into their sophomore year of college. "Baby" is written in careful cursive on that first page, where there is also a picture of the dark-haired sisters Caitlin and Anne Mevissen, with Erin Olson and Elizabeth Shirek between them, smiling at the camera and proudly displaying their bright paintings.
Fast-forward 11 years, to Chapter 61. It is a sultry August evening in 2006, and the same four girls—along with Katy Kluis and Laura Krumholz, who joined in the early years—and all six girls' mothers are meeting at the Kluises' home to discuss Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake and enjoy a lesson in Indian cooking. The young ladies sport tank tops and summer tans, and their expressions reflect the confidence and grown-up wisdom of their first year away from home.
The intoxicating scents of fresh coriander and curry waft through the room as they gather around the kitchen island to learn from Sri Lankan chef Heather Jansz. Whole spices, jars of lentils and rice, and mango lassis in rainbow-striped cups crowd the countertops. Heather lifts a small container of ghee—clarified butter—and measures a generous dollop into a pan of simmering red lentils. Over the course of the evening, the Page Turners learn plenty about where Heather came from. She shares the wisdom she has accumulated from a life that spans continents, cultures, and careers, a life with surprising parallels to the main characters in The Namesake.
The inspiration for this enduring book club came from three moms who were volunteering as facilitators for the Great Books program in their daughters' first-grade class. The moms liked the program's focus on child-centered discussions, and decided to use the same strategies in reading with their girls outside of class. Their initial meetings centered around award-winning books, but, more important at the time, also included creative activities that related to the book, as well as a family-style meal.
Over the years, the host family has always prepared a meal that, like tonight's meal, is often based on the time period of, or food mentioned in, that month's book. The Page Turners moms realized early on that the meal needed to be a focus: "It has always been important to have meals around the table," says LaDonna Krumholz. "The natural tendency is for the moms and kids to segregate from each other. The meal helped us stay together."
Heather's Sri Lankan roots are reflected in her cooking, just as, in The Namesake, Ashima's Bengali heritage permeates all things edible. The book opens with Ashima, who is nine months pregnant, making a spicy Indian snack to remind her of what she left behind in Calcutta. The question "What role does food play?" is thrown out for discussion. "Food is a way of holding onto one's culture," says Elizabeth. "It is easier to re-create Bengali culture by food—it is more immediate." As I listen to their discussion, it is apparent that all the girls have read the book carefully, all have opinions, and that their discussion could go on for hours.
Most Page Turners meetings have gone on for hours; some have lasted all day. Along with lengthy book discussions and a lingered-over meal, the girls have usually created something, played a game, or planned a book-related field trip. The host member would choose the book, plan the activity, and add two pages to the Page Turners scrapbook: one collage-style page decorated with words and images from the book, and occasionally a picture of the club; and a summary page taken directly from the book jacket. The field trips and activities drew the girls in when they were young and helped bring the books to life.
The Page Turners' Chapter 11 was an all-day affair. The girls read the Kirsten series of American Girl books, and took a field trip to the Gammelg?rden Museum of Swedish immigrant history in Scandia, Minnesota. Their scrapbook entry memorializes the day: under a picture of mom Vicky Shields and Anne, Erin, and Elizabeth creating a paper chain is a pink-and-white gingham rectangle with the day's schedule handwritten in blue, the words "have fun!" at the bottom. On the facing page, all six Page Turners girls are wearing name tags and sitting up straight on antique wooden benches, their smiles brightening the austere museum classroom.
Later that year they read Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, a story set in Denmark whose main character, Annemarie Johansen, is the same age the girls were then, but is in hiding from the Nazis and eventually is sent on a dangerous mission to save her best friend's life. The club also saw the story performed on stage and ate typical 1940s Danish fare: blintzes, roast chicken, apples, and honey challah bread.
They have boated out to an island to discuss Sharon Creech's The Wanderer; built sandcastles like the characters in Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved; explored a marsh with a naturalist to step into the world of Louis the swan, a primary character in E. B. White's classic The Trumpet of the Swan; and road-tripped to Laura Ingalls Wilder's childhood home in southern Minnesota. Over the years, the Page Turners have learned flower-weaving and calligraphy; redesigned jeans; created painted birdhouses, cross-stitched bookmarks, memory boxes, clay sculptures, bead jewelry, and whirligigs, to name a few activities.
Fun and food aside, the moms emphasize that the girls' welfare has always been at the heart of this book club. From the very first meeting, the moms consciously put their daughters in the driver's seat and attempted to give them "preferred member" status in discussions. "If a child comes to the discussion with her own question, and she is curious enough to want to know the answer, she will be invested in the book and the conversation," says Vicky Shields. Handwritten questions from both the girls and their moms are gathered at the start of each meeting and discussed, one by one, until the group is satisfied. The challenge in these discussions is to truly let the kids be in control, and to ensure that the girls feel free to express their opinions. Not all moms are expert at deferring to their daughters, and from early on, this group has been opinionated. The Page Turners girls have not only read more than 60 books together, but over the years have explored hundreds of vital questions, supported by a circle of committed mothers.
Both the daughters and their moms say that book-club meetings were a safe place to try out ideas and examine beliefs, especially during the teen years. Their meetings were a real-life classroom, with the mothers in the background modeling respectful dissent and nonjudgment in the face of widely divergent opinions, and the teaching going in both directions. Vicky says her favorite aspect of the club was learning from the girls: "These girls are very bright. They read books at a very different level than I do, and I have always delighted in telling them how much I have learned from them."
"Relationships with all the moms— that's what I've really enjoyed," says Elizabeth, who included this thought about the group in a college application essay: "Not only has the book club given me great friends, but the rare gift of four other 'mothers.' "
Good books have a way of shaking out deeply held beliefs. The books were "an entrée to discussion," Vicky says. "They prompted discussion on topics that might normally be awkward to talk about. The afterlife, for example. I can tell you what every woman in this club thinks will happen when she dies." Another mom recalls discussing child abuse with her daughter for the first time during a book-club discussion. The girls liked hearing both their own mothers' opinions and those of their friends' moms, which were often refreshingly different.
All the members appreciate how the book club made them read outside their comfort zones. Over the years, the girls gravitated toward different genres in their book choices. Elizabeth preferred historical fiction, Erin leaned toward the mystical, Anne became known as the one who chose "the witch book," Laura liked science fiction, Katy's choices were modern and trendy, and Caitlin's taste was eclectic. This diversity created both challenges and rewards. Cindy Olson was sure she would not like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone until she dutifully read it for Page Turners, and discovered that she loved it.
Cindy's daughter, Erin, acknowledges that it was difficult to read every book, but points out that the lasting value of their meetings lay outside the books themselves: "I'm pretty sure about a third of our conversations focused directly on the book itself, while the rest of the time we just talked about our lives. In meetings that often lasted five hours, I think that is pretty significant. It was this combination that really made the group what it was—we weren't just having a class discussion, but we were applying what we read to how we lived our lives, and learning about each other at the same time."
Many adolescent girls would rather disappear than spend one evening a month sitting around a dinner table, discussing books with their mothers. The mothers and daughters of the Page Turners, however, continued to meet through high school. They adapted by reading shorter books during the school year, and for summers chose "Summer Reading" books assigned by next year's English teachers. One summer they invited some boys to their meeting and gathered around a bonfire to discuss Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees.
Reflecting on high school and their freshman year in college, the girls credit the book club with boosting their skills in English and other classes. By the time they got to high school, they had years of practice in formulating opinions and reading books at a level much deeper than the superficial. Any English teacher will tell you how challenging it is to get students to speak their minds in a room full of peers, and to extend their thinking about a book beyond such basic concerns as the plot. This is partly because the room is too full; smaller classes tend to have richer discussions.
Elizabeth says, "Book club is a more intimate atmosphere, so you'd feel very comfortable asking questions or discussing topics that you wouldn't feel comfortable talking about with a big group of people [whom] you don't know as well." Caitlin adds, "This is a completely different level of discussion. In school we would just touch on certain subjects, but here there is no time limit—any question people want to ask is okay." This from the young lady who cheerfully admits that she was the least avid reader in the group, and that the crowd she hung with in high school sometimes wondered, when she talked about the Page Turners, "What's up with that?"
The tenor of the activities and field trips changed to reflect the girls' maturing interests. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in ninth grade at many high schools; these girls read it in seventh grade, and saw the play at The Great American History Theatre. When they were in high school, author Faith Sullivan came to talk about her book The Cape Ann. The moms were proud of their daughters' display of assertiveness and intelligence during this meeting: "The girls questioned her—they interpreted her book in a different way and weren't afraid to tell her!" relates Sandy Shirek.
If the girls wanted to talk about sex—or any other squirmy subject— it would likely pop up during a book-club discussion. Perhaps because they and their mothers had forged strong bonds and set a tone of acceptance early on, by the time the topics of dating, drug use, and politics arose, they were able to handle them. They weathered the contentious 2004 election, even though club members fall at both ends of the conservative-liberal spectrum. "We spoke our minds, but were willing to say, 'I really disagree with you there,' " says Vicky. They've read and discussed books that explore varying worldviews and belief systems, and traveled the stark terrain of grief and violence. Anne Mevissen says that discussing difficult subjects was easier because they were with their mothers.
Despite the wide range of opinions among the group, all the girls agree on one thing. Asked "What has kept you going over the years?," they reply in unison: "The moms!" In September 2005, after the girls had all left for their freshman year of college, the moms met at the Shireks' north-woods cabin to discuss their new stage of life and prepare care packages for the girls. They plan to meet as a book club throughout the year, and gather with their daughters during school breaks.
Tonight, as they fill in the details of Chapter 61, the moms are given a rare glimpse of the future. Reflections on the Page Turners' evolution have spun off into thoughts about the future. The girls speculate about what they might be doing in ten years, and their responses are, as usual, diverse and accepted without judgment. Their dreams encompass careers and children, indecision and unwavering conviction.
The discussion returns to Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. The group points out that Nikhil—a boy born early in the novel, shortly after his mother, Ashima, prepared her spicy Bengali comfort food—seems to reinvent himself again and again. One mom asks, "Would you ever want to reinvent yourself?" Many of the young ladies feel that going away to college has been a sort of rebirth; they're no longer known as someone's sister, or a certain kind of student, or the shy one, or the talkative one. They're putting the first strokes on the canvas of their adult lives, and the richness of their Page Turners experience—as well as the depth of their mothers' love and dedication—will certainly color these evolving portraits.
Maggie Shea is a freelance writer who lives in Minnesota with her husband, Tom, and their children: Sean (10), Anna (7), Elise (5), and Cecilia (3). Maggie is an ardent book-club fan: She belongs to two herself, and sees years of parent-child club action in her family's future.
Image provided by the author.