By Carol Dorf for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on November 9, 2009
They have broken my back gate, terrified the cats through excessive love, and whined incessantly for brownies. Why am I hosting the mother-daughter book group again this month?
So I can sit in a room with twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls, including mine, and discuss whether the fantasy plot in Esther Friesner's Temping Fate makes sense, which helps us all understand story structure. Or talk about how to deal with bullying ex-boyfriends and other monsters in Emma Bull's The War of the Oaks, which I must admit was the didactic point I arrived at the group ready to inject as soon as possible.
Getting Started: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
When my daughter was in second grade she wanted a book group: her father was in two; I was in one. I agreed that she needed a book group, too. The first time we met for about an hour-and-a-half, but most girls were more interested in coloring and having a giant playdate than listening when other girls shared their favorite books.
We attempted the book group again partway through fourth grade. The potluck and the playing were still central, but now the girls were ready to discuss (and argue about!) books. Our cast of characters included girls from different schools to minimize cliquish tendencies.
The central questions in Ella Enchanted are when does following the rules cause you great problems, and how do you outwit unasked for gifts. For girls who live in a world where a best friend can tell you not to talk to someone, these questions were vital.
Many of the books we read, such as Daja’s Book or Dealing With Dragons, involved magic with a feminist subplot of a girl proving herself in a world where women had been excluded in the past. Learning magic translates the challenge of learning new things and dealing with difficult people into a world where the stakes are far higher. These were the girls' favorite books and were reasonably enjoyable for the adults, though after reading a number of them, it was hard to find anything new to say.
Too Scary: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I'll admit, I loved this book. It presented a new take on the Holocaust, it brought in elements of the graphic novel, and the young female main character was intelligent and wily. Some of the girls loved the mixture of forms and the serious dilemmas the characters faced. However, one girl said almost nothing, and we learned it was because the book was just too frightening. Afterwards, we turned away from books related to history, and returned to fantasy novels for the next two meetings.
Our Past Becomes History: Wild Girls by Pat Murphy
While our daughters dismantled the house after the formal meeting, the mothers often discussed how to make their educations more engaging. In Wild Girls, a book set in the late 1970s and early 1980s, two girls collaborate on a writing project and meet an ideal teacher.
This book was a favorite because of the writing theme and the complexity of the relationship between the two main characters as they negotiated being at different places in the middle-school social hierarchy. The adults enjoyed seeing their childhoods treated as history and were reassured by Murphy’s positive vision of intellectual life taking place outside a formal school setting.
Our Process: Loud
Many of our early meetings devoted significant time to discussion of our discussions. The issue of learning to speak in a group is crucial for girls—to learn when to make your point, when to listen, and that it is OK to disagree. We tried various mechanisms to organize participation: going around the circle (too boring); raising hands (too much like school); chaos (frequent).
At this point, we work on managed chaos. Mothers and sometimes daughters arrive with questions to start the discussion. The adults try to keep track of who wants to speak and bring them in when necessary. We also reign in girls who don't want to yield the floor.
Disagreement and agreeing to disagree continue to be a big issue for the girls. As mothers, we seek to encourage the girl's expression of divergent or even unpopular views, while putting the brakes on overly vehement expressions of those views.
Observing one's daughter and other girls discuss books and the issues in their lives has profoundly impacted all of us. When our daughters were young they could spend the entire day talking about their worlds. As they grow up, the details fall away. But in the book group, we continue to share our love of literature and stories about our lives.
Carol Dorf is a poet and teacher whose poems have appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Runes, 13th Moon, Feminist Studies, Heresies, A Cappella Zoo, Fringe, The Midway, Poemeleon, New Verse News, Edgz, Coracle, Poetica, Responsa, The NeoVictorian, Caprice, Babel Fruit, and elsewhere. She is a former editor of Five Fingers Review and the Barnard Literary Magazine.