Parents reliably dropped their middle schoolers off after school for book club meetings at the Jolla/Riford branch of the San Diego Public Library. But despite a warm welcome from the librarians there, and the enthusiasm of those moms and dads, few kids stuck with it. “We tried everything to boost enrollment, including e-blasts at school, posting flyers, and rounding up kids in the library on the same day, but the club was really struggling,” recalls Shaun Briley, the La Jolla/Riford branch manager and a 2016 Library Journal Mover & Shaker.
A sea change was in order—and a lightbulb went off. “At the time, I was writing occasional book reviews for the Sunday edition of the San Diego Union Tribune,” says Briley. “Also, I had done some marketing work for a publishing company in the past, and the two things came together in my mind.” He wondered if there wouldn’t be a demand for middle schoolers who could act as a focus group by writing book reviews.
In researching this idea, he came across NetGalley, the digital service that provides online galleys to professional readers on behalf of hundreds of publishers worldwide in order to help promote and market new books.The reviewers, who join for free, include booksellers, educators, librarians, and others who download galleys to read and review online, providing feedback to the publishers. Briley contacted Tarah Theoret, community manager at NetGalley, who agreed his idea could work.
To get children on board as reviewers, NetGalley had to work carefully to respect the Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The law gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their children ages 13 and younger, so NetGalley began by making each reviewer’s account anonymous. “Each account carries the book club’s name and lists the adult supervisor in charge, so that publishers aren’t exposed to the students’ identities or their demographic or contact information,” explains Theoret. This way, students can participate and submit their reviews directly to the publishers as a “La Jolla Middle Grade Reviewer” without compromising the privacy of their personal information.
Briley and Theoret were now ready to ramp up this formerly anemic program by enlisting kids as reviewers of new books aimed at their exact demographic. With this format in place, the middle school book club took off. “We’re currently at capacity with 25 members, and have a waiting list of another 25,” says Briley.
The club’s great success is due in part to the fact that the kids get their hands on new, unpublished books. Another selling point is that members can select which titles they’re interested in. “Kids this age want to make their own choices and feel that what they are doing is important—and it’s certainly a thrill when you get to read a book before anyone else,” notes Briley. The group meets regularly and members discuss their selections and opinions.
Equally appealing is the buzz that their reviews create. “They understand that they’re contributing reliable information and helping the feedback process,” says Briley. “To have young people commenting on books intended for their market group, and knowing that their voices are being heard, is quite rare,” he adds.
Theoret agrees. “Knowing your review could potentially influence the next book someone may read is hugely attractive to people of all ages,” she says. Also, the children realize that their thoughts about the book might be read by the publisher and/or author, and that’s exciting. The online component has added to the success of the club, since it widens the range of books students can access. “And the club members get to interact [while supervised] with the NetGalley site, which has made the whole process feel very grown up and official,” says Theoret.
At this point, the La Jolla-NetGalley partnership is still new—but replicable. Similar future programs will be curated on a case-by-base basis, notes Theoret. “But if other libraries are interested, they should definitely reach out to NetGalley to talk about their situation and come up with a plan that’s suited to their students.”
So how seriously do these 11 to 13-year-olds take to their new book club? Trevor, 11, switched summer camps in order to attend one that would allow him to bring his Kindle. “He was genuinely upset to be parted from his reading,” says Briley. “You can’t compare this book love and our long waiting list to the club’s situation just six months ago,” he adds. The kids couldn’t be happier—nor could Briley. “We were able to get this tricky demographic excited about books.”
Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a Manhattan-based reporter who writes frequently for Parents.com, Care.com, and Modern Farmer.
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