OTR (Off the Record) is a mental health social movement by and for young people aged 11-25 in Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. OTR isn’t just a charity providing mental health services, it’s a mental health movement mobilised to support, promote and defend the mental health, rights and social position of young people. OTR provides information and support around wellbeing, including group work, sessions around body image, activism, LGBTQ+ spaces; sessions in schools and colleges, and one-to-one therapeutic support. OTR’s Book Club is a great example of a group that provides a welcoming space to bring together young people.
Years ago we realised how important reading can be as a self-care practice and as a way of nourishing yourself. Reading can be both a source of escapism and also can be used to educate, challenge and explore yourself and others, and find meaning in what is around us. You know that feeling of reading a book about a subject that you’re really interested in and the author can simplify all your feelings in just a couple of lines? Yeah, that feeling. Or when you find a book with characters that feel like your friends and the world they live feels like coming home after a long day? That one too. So, we thought we’d create a space to facilitate those experiences with our young people. And so OTR’s Book Club was born!
We have invited our young people to come along once a month to our Book Club space to discuss a book. Everything about the sessions is led by them, including deciding by popular vote which book to choose each month. We have the lovely Give a Book charity to ask for our copies and we thank them endlessly (especially Olivia and Mima!) Once the copy is in the young people’s hands, they can read as much or as little as they like, which is a relief to most of us who can’t bear to have another deadline to grapple with. We discuss how the book made us feel; the writing style, characters, the genre and whether we’d like to read more books of a similar style.
One of the many lovely things about this space is the collective ease in which we all share our opinions. I have never felt shy to disagree about a pilot twist or felt like a brash rant about a boring protagonist wouldn’t be a welcome addition to the discussion. It’s a space that I always feel giddy to come back into, ready to shed the normal trappings of a Monday and see people my age to talk about the real stuff: paperbacks or hardbacks?!
“I love just simply being able to talk about the same book, because everyone has read it and you can share all your ideas! It’s a really relaxed space and always leaves me feeling happy and inspired to read more 🙂 I love that we also have general bookish conversations too!!”
OTR Book Club member
The spaces that we use have changed many times over these years. Initially the sessions ran in the Hydra Bookshop and then Foyles in Cabot Circus, which means we were off to a great start because nothing compares to the comfort and awe you have when you are in a place where books live – it’s the warm bath feeling! Particularly in Foyles, we used to spend some time exploring the shelves of new releases and happily taking pictures to add them to our own shelves later. Times like these were the most wonderful and reminded us how important it is to share your love of reading and stories with others in a community.
But then big bad COVID-19 came along in early 2020 and soon we had to say goodbye to meeting in person. We moved online shortly after, sessions running via Google Hangouts, and we haven’t changed back yet. Don’t get me wrong – we’ve had the conversation about meeting in person many times but it seems that meeting online has benefited us all in some way. Book clubs being held in the evenings often meant that most of us who commute quite a lot and who have quite busy lives have to spare an extra hour travelling to and from our homes, which is also extremely difficult for those who have different access needs. Hosting sessions online absolves us of that trouble and we can all sit ‘together’ in the comfort of our warm homes with a cup of tea – it feels almost normal now.
“The idea of a book club in general seemed so great, as I had not been presented the opportunity before. I wasn’t reluctant in any way to get stuck in, and I definitely wasn’t put off the fact it would be online. If anything, making events more virtual makes it much more accessible for many different people: for me, being someone who works and is a Postgraduate student, it means I am more likely to meet new people and be able to benefit from online zoom calls. It can be underrated just being able to discuss a book in a group of people who are all there for the same reason. I often find when reading books that I want to share my thoughts but have no fun way of doing so. Additionally, for some it can still be scary meeting up with people in person, due to Covid. Therefore, making hangouts virtual can help minimise those anxieties plus any social anxieties. It is just a very wholesome experience”
OTR Book Club member
Many of us who attend Book Club come as a form of self-care and as escapism from the normal trappings of life – including people. Something that I have personally enjoyed through these past two years is being able to give our members the chance to be anonymous in the meetings. Anxiety is not to be dismissed as a legitimate barrier to connecting with others, and the online environment can offer us the chat function, and option to hide our faces when we need a break from the screen time. In some cases we can just have a listen to the others members nattering away, stay off mic/camera and eat dinner instead.
“I love how if I’m not having a good day when I attend a session I don’t have to have my camera or mic on and I can just type and don’t have to feel guilty or embarrassed about it. It means I feel like I can always join in no matter what’s going on in my life!”
OTR Book Club member
OTR’s Book Club has now evolved into something that is entirely led by our members in every aspect and is still going strong with about 10 new sign ups every month! It has been a joy to run these sessions and to sit with people my age who are going through issues similar to mine in a world which can be pretty awful at times. But we don’t talk about that – for us it’s all about plot twists and positive vibes!
Kavita Kaur – Social Action Coordinator, OTR Bristol
Find out more about OTR: www.otrbristol.org.uk and @otrbristol