Food for Thought | What Works

A brown-bag book discussion group has middle schoolers rushing to the library

Lunchtime at Edward E. Drew Jr. Middle School isn't typical. Instead of heading to the cafeteria, twice a month 20 to 40 students march toward the media center, with their trays and Café Book passes in hand. Once they settle into their seats, a youth services librarian from the nearby Central Rappahannock Regional Library and the media specialist encourage students to exchange views about a book they've just read. Adele Griffin's Overnight (Putnam, 2003), which focuses on the cruelty of school cliques, is the topic of discussion this week, and 13-year-old Bethany is quick to point out the novel's flaws: “Nobody would really go with a stranger like that, and I don't know any girls who are that mean.” Other students quickly chime in, and the exchange gets lively. Anthony says even though it's considered a “girl book,” he read it because “he wanted to see what everyone was talking about.” Soon the 20-minute lunch break is up, and kids scramble to check out another title before heading to class.

Café Book is a book discussion club that started in 1998 as a partnership between school and public libraries to encourage middle school students to read. Hundreds of teens at six area schools gather every other week over lunch to talk about the latest young adult works. Titles are selected by media specialists, public librarians, and former Café Book students who read and evaluate many works to select 25 before the start of the school year. The rules are simple: a handful of titles are introduced every six weeks, and at each gathering, at least three students must have read the same book for the discussion to begin.

What were some past favorites? Dust (Random/Wendy Lamb Bks., 2003) by Arthur Slade, about a seven-year-old boy who vanishes when he walks into town alone, was a huge hit. At each meeting, we'd hear from a different student trying to explain how he interpreted the novel's ending. Books like this are just one of Café Book's great benefits. Based on the enthusiasm or skepticism of their peers, students check out science fiction and historical fiction—genres they might not otherwise read.

Six months later, we celebrate. Students eat pizza, receive a free book, and vote for their favorites. These Top Teen Picks are made into bookmarks and become instant reader's advisory tools. A field trip to the public library, our final event, is a crucial part of the program. For many, it's a student's first trip to the public library, and all are encouraged to take part in the summer reading program.

Café Book has costs for both libraries, such as staff time and a heavy investment in multiple copies of each novel. Is it worth it? Last year, Café Book titles accounted for seven percent of Drew Middle School's total book circulation and 20 percent of all seventh- and eighth-grade students participated. We've met one of our goals of recruiting and retaining more eighth-grade readers—membership has increased by 12 percent over the last three years. The reading levels of participants range from third to 12th grade, so we make sure our list of titles is diverse. This year, for example, we chose the fantasy Witch's Boy (HarperTempest, 2005) by Michael Gruber, as a tough read for those who need a challenge and Claudia Mills's Makeovers by Marcia (Farrar, 2005) for those who need a shorter, more straightforward book.

We each benefit from this collaboration. As the only librarian at her school, Martha loves the cooperation with other librarians. The summer meetings and e-mail exchanges provide a forum for discussions that extend beyond Café Book topics and include support and advice on issues ranging from censorship to collection building.

A highpoint of Rebecca's year is regular contact with more than 200 middle schoolers brought together by books. For the public library, previous Café Book participants are now active library users, joining statewide book discussion conferences, serving on teen councils, working as pages, and taking part in library internships. We agree: connecting teens and books is a dream come true.

Martha Walker Baden is a media specialist at Edward E. Drew Jr. Middle School, and Rebecca Purdy is a youth services manager at Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Virginia.

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