I’ve always treated reading as a solitary excursion. I could be transported anywhere, any time with a good book and it was a necessary escape while growing up.
From my earliest childhood memories, I treasured all the books in my classroom and begged my parents to get me a library card so I could read all the free books I could get my hands on. My neighborhood library was over a mile away and had a very small children’s section with outdated books, usually with pages ripped out at a crucial moment in the plot. While I saved my allowance to buy new books from book fairs and bookstores, I began creating my own stories. I wrote on the edges of old envelopes, the borders on newspapers, the backs of wrapping paper. I punched holes and used old shoelaces to make a binding for my homemade books. I used watercolors and crayons to bring vibrant color and life to my pencil drawings. I savored my completed works and selfishly refused to share them with an audience. It wasn’t until many decades later when my mother was cleaning out the attic that she found all my creations carefully stored in a butter cookie tin. After my mother finished reading all my books, she told me that I should have read them to the family all those years ago because my stories brought such a vivid picture of innocent optimism and hope to the reader. My mother said she never knew how much I loved reading but she said wasn’t surprised. She also loved reading and writing in her native language but never got the chance to exchange her ideas and opinions with others because life got in the way.
Hearing the wistfulness in my mother’s voice, I realized that a lone relationship with reading wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. There is more power and depth to a shared experience with books. Whether someone agrees with your point of view or not, the chance to plead your case brings reading to a whole new level. It also brings a fire to your spirit and even the most reserved of us can get a renewed spark debating characters, plots, and outcomes.
I was a stay-at-home mom when I first considered the idea of starting a book club. I was an active volunteer in my daughter’s elementary school, member of the school leadership team and head of the parent teacher association. As busy as I was, I always carved out time for a good read; however, I was still reading alone and my mother’s words stuck in my mind. I needed to get out there and find others who also loved reading. It was at a parent education conference that I discovered that the Queens United Federation of Teachers could help me get a parent book club off the ground at my daughter’s school. The Queens UFT would provide 4 free books to our parent book club and our group would choose 4 books on our own in an 8-month time frame. The Queens UFT sent a facilitator to our school to show me how to form the group, select the books and plan a schedule on when to meet. Our school also has a large demographic of English Language Learners. Many of our parents come from China and India and their first exposure to English is through their children who are learning the language in school. In our freshman year of the book club, we formed the TALES (The Active Learning Elementary School) Parent Book Club and read Animal Farm by Orsen Wells. A satire of the Russian Revolution, the book prompted members to discuss the complexities of societal situations. Members made connections between themselves and which animal/role they most related to in the book.
The second book the club read was Love, Loss and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman. In her memoir, which was performed Off Broadway, the author reflected on how her fashion choices impacted different stages of her life over the years. Accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations, members said it felt as though they were looking at a scrapbook of the author’s life story. Members also shared their own recollections of what a particular article of clothing meant at significant milestones such as a graduation, job, first date, wedding, and birth of a child.
The club discussed the second book for its presentation at the Queens UFT Reading Groups End Term Celebration. The theme was motivation. Members made a poster and included pictures of them in clothing representative of American, Chinese and Indian culture. Members also made new words from the letters that made up motivation to tie in what all these words personally meant to us.
In our sophomore year of the club, we have read some heart-tugging stories including The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes and Goodnight June by Sarah Jio. The common thread in these stories is the choices women make every day of our lives. Our group had many emotional discussions after reading these books because choice is something many of us feel limited by, especially in our East Asian and Southeast Asian cultures where our choices are often dictated by our spouses, children, parents and elders. Is this choice expected of us? Is this the choice someone else wants from us? Will this choice lead to a better outcome for our loved ones? Could we live with the end result from this choice? What we learned from our talks is that choice doesn’t have to be a heavy burden. It is putting one foot in front of the other and stepping firmly on the path you have chosen to take at a particular moment in time. You are uncertain where this path might lead you but you know you can’t just stand there so you move. One of our members once said the hardest step is the first and all the “what ifs?” that go on in your mind and I find that to be very true. Breaking down and overanalyzing a situation often turns the initial choice to chance and the lines between the two become increasingly blurred.
I love the camaraderie that has developed because of our book club. I see our book club members in full dimension through our exchanges. Without the catalyst of a book club, I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond the surface of some extraordinary folks and I truly believe that a book club is the sum of all its parts.
Our club was invited again to present at the Queens UFT Parent Book Club Culminating Event and the theme was “my book club experience”. I wish everyone could experience a book club because it really opens your mind and soul and starts a dialogue with others. Too often, many of us are stuck in an eternal monologue with ourselves and I have to say I am happy to switch the off button on my personal musings at times. A book club could be the best thing you do for yourself and others. Find a way to make it happen, whether it is to join one at your library or to start one through your school or work. Get connected to others in a more meaningful way and watch what grows out of it. You may be surprised all the places you’ll go with good friends and even better conversations.