Family book clubs lead to academic success

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By Warren Parkin

While attending high school graduation for my daughter recently a parent asked me what the secret is to raising children who are successful in school. I was caught a bit off guard. I was emotional as I always am when seeing developing minds recognized for their achievements. I didn’t have an answer ready.

Of all the things that I could have mentioned, the first thing out of my mouth was to encourage a household culture of reading.

I didn’t have time to explain what I meant.

I could have said turn off the televisions, turn off the computers, turn off the cell phones, kick your children outside to play. I could have said that it’s good for children to play in the mud, where their minds make up new narratives, explore different possibilities and forge brave, muddy worlds all by themselves.

But I didn’t.

When it comes right down to it, those suggestions are just preparatory things that can help lead a family toward a culture of reading. You can turn off the screens, but one must also open the books. The way to establish a familial tradition of reading is simple: read books, then talk about them.

One of the most fun things that we do in my family of eight is pass books around that are enjoyable for children and adults alike. Luckily, high quality literature written for children and adolescents is currently in a golden age of unprecedented quality and quantity.

We have passed books around for years. I guess you could say, our family has become its own book club. With six children and two parents, its not surprising, I mean wherever we go we’re a party, if not exactly a club. Our children range in age from ten to twenty-one years old. I am 34 years older than our youngest child. That’s quite an age span, more than three decades. But believe it or not, there are books available of interest to such disparate ages.

The following are some of the books that young children and adults in my family have found enjoyable. They have served as a touchstone for conversation and sometimes have resulted in family parties where we go to see the movie version. Afterwards, we converse about the strengths of the book as compared to the movie and vice versa. By no means are these all of the books that our family has enjoyed together, but they do make an interesting and promising place to start developing a culture of reading.

None of these books has been read by every family member. One of our children has disabilities and does not read. The youngest is just on the cusp of a reading explosion and has read some of them independently, but has had many read to him. Six of the eight of us from 12-44 years old have read most if not all of them. These books come into our home through many different family members. Our twelve-year-old brought more than a third of them to our attention and loves every book on the list, except for the prequel to the Da Vinci Code, but she just hasn’t gotten into it – yet.

Not all of these books are appropriate for children of all ages and maturity levels. As parents, you know your children best and can determine which books you want to share and when it would be best to share them. Books marked with an asterisk * have a movie version available. Others marked with a double asterisk ** have movies in production. I have listed them in order from young readers to preteens and adolescents.

If you want to establish a culture of reading in your family, choose a book from this list, pass it around or read it aloud, talk about it, and afterwards, sit back and enjoy watching the movie together, then talk about the book some more. It’s a practice that has brought my family closer together and instilled a life-long love of reading.

Holes* by Louis Sachar features treasure hunting, injustice and redemption in a camp for juvenile delinquents.

City of Ember* by Jeanne Duprau explores growing up in an underground city in the future.

The Harry Potter* series by J.K. Rowling documents the growth of a young wizard who triumphs over evil.

The Uglies**, Pretties, Specials and Extras series by Scott Westerfeld takes on issues of adolescent identity and conformity in a totalitarian world.

The Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld creates a haunting, magical world of good and evil where monsters come out at midnight and kids with special abilities triumph through friendship and curiosity.

The Golden Compass* series by Philip Pullman focuses on a child’s quest in a fantasy world of good and evil.

The Inkheart* series, by Cornelia Funke is about a girl and her father who can read characters out of books, but not without sending other people back in their place.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas* by John Boyne portrays the friendship between a German boy, the son of a Nazi, and a Jewish boy interred in a prison camp.

The Maximum Ride** series by James Patterson immerses one in a world where children who can fly try to understand why they were created.

Where the Heart Is* by Billie Letts explores issues of teen pregnancy and the importance of choosing one’s own family regardless of blood ties.

The Twilight* series by Stephanie Meyer follows the romantic life of a high school girl who is in love with a vampire and struggles with the decision to remain human or live forever.

Eat Cake and Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray illustrate relationships of middle-age people who, due to crisis, learn to trust their hearts and rely on their own creativity.

Angels and Demons* and the Da Vinci Code* by Dan Brown highlight the action-packed life of a modern Sherlock Holmes who solves religious mysteries.

Remember, not all of these books will agree with your outlook on life, your family’s values or your religion. That too can be good, because it leads to conversation, deeper understanding, self-confidence, and ultimately, more interest in reading which leads to academic success.

If this list doesn’t fit your needs and you would like to know more titles that we’ve enjoyed in our family book club, email me at warren.parkin@yahoo.com.