It looks familiar, at first glance -- book club members gathering at Barnes & Noble every month, squeezing one hour out of their busy lives for pursuits more literary.
They're like many book club members, with their hot drinks and myriad opinions. But take a closer look.
Their untied tennis shoes and glittery hair clips give it away.
These avid readers are pupils ages 11 to 14 from various Howard County middle schools, who have homework and after-school activities, but find time to sit down and read for fun.
These sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders come from all over the county. Many take gifted-and-talented courses, but not all. There's a good mix of girls and boys, introverts and extroverts, listeners and scene-stealers.
One thing these pupils have in common: the love for a well-told tale.
"If you consider yourself a passionate reader and you love to discuss books, then you're welcome to come here," said Stacey Kopnitsky, the gifted-and-talented resource teacher at Lime Kiln Middle School.
The club has been meeting since last year, but has taken off this school year, said Patapsco Middle School eighth-grader Patrick Eulitt, one of the club's founders.
Patrick said he and a friend started the club because they wanted to share their love of reading. A gifted-and-talented resource teacher helped organize the club with other county middle schools, and Barnes & Noble stepped in, offering a quiet corner in which the pupils can meet the first Wednesday of every month.
"Obviously, a lot of people must have liked it [last year] because there are a lot more people now," said Patrick, 13. "The first time, it was only like 15 kids."
At the Dec. 1 meeting, 23 middle-schoolers sat in a circle at Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City's Long Gate Shopping Center.
They trickled in from the cold, wrapped in scarves and trendy sweaters, and quickly settled with cookies and Frappuccinos and frothy hot cocoas.
Hammond Middle School pupils had picked this month's book, "The Subtle Knife" by Philip Pullman. It's a magical, mystical tale set in a city called Cittagazze, which the back cover describes as a "beautiful haunted world where soul eating specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky."
Some characters in the book are called daemons, which are small animal-like creatures that reflect the personalities of their human owners.
Pupils answer questions
Hammond eighth-grader Brian Barresi and three others from Hammond had prepared questions which asked the pupils to relate to characters in the story, reflect on subtleties, voice their opinions, and challenge themselves and their peers.
The first question they pitched: Daemons take a permanent form after a period of time and reflect the human's personality. What would your daemon be and what would you name it?
The answers helped the pupils learn more about each other. "I'd be a dragon because I'm obsessed with dragons and I'm grouchy," said Wilde Lake Middle School eighth-grader Laura Cain, 14.
"I think I'd be a polar bear because although they look all big and frightening, they're really not that mean," said Dunloggin Middle School seventh-grader Greg Cooke, who at 5 feet, 5 inches tall towers over the other readers.
The self-revelations went around the circle, each person speaking in turn. But the next question, which asked the group to refer to the book's prequel, "The Golden Compass," was open to whoever wanted to speak:
The subtle knife and the golden compass both possess strong, but limited, powers. Which one would you want to have and why?
Many of the 12 boys chose the knife, with its ability to cut into other dimensions and out of tricky situations or uncomfortable places; many of the 11 girls chose the compass, which gives a solution to any question or problem.
They jumped in and talked over each other to speak their minds. Even the quiet ones came alive when a disagreement arose.
During past meetings, the discussions have gone much deeper, sometimes bordering on fiery, said Wilde Lake eighth-grader Peggy Fulda, 13: "Last year, we read `Of Mice and Men,'which encouraged some heated discussions about execution and treatment of different kinds of people."
"Of Mice and Men" was a difficult book, many of the club's participants said, but this group isn't satisfied with popular teen-age reading like "Goosebumps" or "The Baby-sitters Club."
Next month, the group will discuss "An Acquaintance with Darkness" by Ann Rinaldi, which combines fiction with historical elements about Abraham Lincoln's assassination and body snatching. In March, the club will discuss "Oliver Twist."
Club members say it's fun to read a variety of good books and have someone to talk to about them, but it's also enlightening to learn how others interpret an author's prose or extract meaning from a passage and apply it to real or fictitious events.
A murderous character in "The Subtle Knife" reminded one pupil of the tragedy at Columbine High School. Symbolism in the book prompted Peggy Fulda to think of the movie "E.T."
"We relate things in books to the random-est things sometimes. I'm even confused by people's segues," Peggy said. "I'm learning how other people interpret things and that everybody doesn't always think like me. Different people can read something and think a thousand different ways about it."
`It's really fun'
Some may be surprised that pupils who juggle homework, household chores and other distractions gather every month for a book club. The club members aren't.
"A lot of kids would rather be out doing those things," said Greg Cooke. "But I just like reading. I don't think that only grown-ups should like to talk about books. Kids are also interested in books and stuff. And once you get into this thing, it's really fun."