Tonight, Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Ellicott City will be host of one of its most popular book groups. Sherry Elswick, the bookstore's community relations manager, expects a minimum of 30 participants for a discussion of the novel The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary L. Blackwood. If the crowd consists of more than 50 people, as it often does, club members will form several groups, spread throughout the store.
More surprising than the size and popularity of the book club is its membership: middle-schoolers.
"They don't get extra credit for doing this. They just do it because they really, truly love to read," Elswick said.
Initiated by two children at Patapsco Middle School four years ago, the Middle School Book Club is sponsored by the county's Gifted and Talented Program. The bookstore provides a gathering space the first Wednesday evening of the month and makes the books available. Participating middle schools are supposed to have two representatives and a teacher at the talks; they often send more.
Each month, the school that selected the book guides discussion, preparing questions. Books are chosen by pupils and teachers. Books must be on an approved list for middle school resource centers.
Penny Zimring, a gifted-and-talented resource teacher, said at least 12 of the county's 18 middle schools are active in the book club. Many of those schools support the program by holding weekly meetings. Reading teachers such as Sharon Zelenak and Lynn Kohler at Patapsco join their pupils for a weekly discussion.
Zelenak describes her seventh-graders as well-read and very opinionated. "They can tell me what is a good discussion book and what isn't. They truly enjoy discussing what they've read. Our weekly meetings enhance" the monthly meetings, she said.
Yesterday, nine of Zelenak's pupils gathered in her trailer classroom for a lunchtime discussion of The Shakespeare Stealer. The young-adult novel is set in Shakespeare's London, leading children to critique historical fiction.
"It really brings the characters from the past to life," said Lauren Barr, 13, adding that the book helped her to view Shakespeare as a real person. "It gives you an insight into the past."
Belonging to the book club helps the teens academically and socially, Zelenak said. "They develop higher-order thinking skills," she said. "They learn to interpret what they're reading and relate it to their lives. [During] these in-school meetings, they definitely enjoy the camaraderie, the interaction with their peers."
Kohler, who works with sixth-graders, said that being in a book club "encourages the kids how to look at the books critically, learn how to ask good questions, how to conduct book club discussions themselves." At the monthly meetings, there is no adult intervention. Children learn to manage a group.
"They learn the strategies that help mediate a large discussion," Kohler said. "It's so impressive to watch sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders lead a group discussion with poise."
Mark Hoover, 13, of Patapsco said, "Sometimes it's hectic. It's great [to hear] what the other kids think about the books."
Lauren agreed that both the small and larger meetings had benefits. "With the small group you can give your opinions personally," she said. Although it is harder to give input when there are 30 or more other people, she said, "you learn good leadership skills."
Members of the club are kids who are natural readers, according to Kohler, who has eight schoolchildren in the program. "We want kids who like to read and to discuss what they're reading, self-motivated readers," she said. "[The book club] is a real-life application of the skills we teach in reading. The exposure to literature, to authors' styles, critical analysis - that's what we try to accomplish in the classroom."
At least four of Zelenak's students plan to attend tonight's book club meeting. As they pack their lunches, these children are like participants in any other book club. There are offers to share favorite books, and discussion of The Shakespeare Stealer continues into the school hall as Lauren, Mark and their friends head to their next class.
The Middle School Book Club 2001/2002 book list:
October: Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher
November: Turnabout by Margaret Peterson Haddix
December: A Door Near Here by Heather Quarles
January: Don't Look Behind You 2by Lois Duncan
February: Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede
March: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
April: The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary L. Blackwood
May: The Wanderer by Sharon Creech Library book clubs
The Howard County Library offers book clubs for children ages 9 and older with a parent. Parent-Child Book Clubs meet at the east Columbia, Elkridge, Glenwood and Savage branches. Chapter Chat meets at Miller. Go Girl! Mother-Daughter Book Club meets at east Columbia, Elkridge and central branches. Contact your local branch for dates and times.