I always start with the why and for me, a book club was a complete no-brainer as it was something I’d wanted to pursue for quite some time. Unpicking the why behind that really stemmed from what I had uncovered in research about reading for pleasure. I actually took my copy of ‘Reading Science for pleasure’ by Ruth Jarman and Joy Alexander straight to my school library because I was desperate to share so many of the fantastic ideas inside.
So, why non-fiction, and in particular, science? As a reader I don’t just want to read fiction books, I want books which contain interesting facts and which continue to feed my curiosity. As it turns out, talking to children, some also want the same.
Clive Gifford, winner of the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize 2014 summarises the ‘why’ quite nicely:
‘…they (science books) provide an exciting and enjoyable voyage through a science topic. They can open eyes and minds, getting across what science is truly about as well as conveying its applications, impacts and effects on the planet and everyday life.’
This is something which has come through from the feedback of our members- they enjoy the voyage and want access to a variety of science books which are appropriate for their age and interests.
As a reading teacher, I read a huge range of books- everything from early years right through to adult books. This is because I just can’t help but fall in love with beautiful books and the stories within them. However, having the time to read these is incredibly difficult and therefore I’d recommend familiarising yourself with some of the titles, authors and publishers that will engage readers just slightly below and above the age range you plan to target for your book club.
For me, it was about knowing the type of cohort our school usually has in Year 7 and 8 and choosing a text which would capture their interest in science as well as support their understanding and prior knowledge. As we have a high number of EAL learners I knew I wanted books which have a good balance of illustration and text to help with their understanding which led me to explore the ‘graphic novel’/’comic book’ style books linked to science. I then began to longlist books I’d seen on twitter, bookshops etc and I then narrowed this down to 3 books that I wanted to read in advance to make sure that the book sprung no surprises and to assess whether it would be appropriate for our pupils to access.
In the end I decided on a graphic novel titled ‘The Curie Society’ by Heather Einhorn, Adam Staffaroni, Janet Harvey and Sonia Liao which was the perfect combination of fiction and science fact. The story takes you on an action-adventure with the newest recruits as they support the most brilliant female scientists in the world. Throughout the story there are various points where the reader can pause the story to turn to the back of the book to learn more about the science behind that aspect- or, if they’re like me as a reader and can’t stop themselves from reading the back pages first, then there’s no harm in reading the science behind the story first and then indulging in the story in its entirety. This is something I take the time to explore with our book club- how do they access books- especially non-fiction? Do they pick a chapter they like, do they read the blurb at the back, do they flick through the pages first and then go back to a section which captured their interest? I always find it utterly fascinating to learn how they do this and whether this influences whether they read the book in full or not.
This book turned out to be one of our top recommended books and we are fortunate to have enough copies to lend out to others in the future. At the time, I didn’t know whether graphic novels had been read by any of the book clubbers I had, but I know now, after a year of reading together, that this is one of our favourite genres to explore together and does influence the choice of book we choose every term.
How long you choose to explore a book for is totally up to you, but for us, for the first year at least, it made sense to stick to 1 book per half term as far as we could, leaving the first week of the term to explore what we think the book might be about, asking questions about the blurb, the authors etc and the last week to select our next book for the following term. This works well, unless your school is selected to participate in the Royal Society Young People’s Book Prize. If you are successful then expect to dedicate at least 1 half term to reading and sharing these books before submitting your judges feedback in January. This could quite easily be extended to take up a full term once you have the books and free resources and the best thing about taking part is you receive a full set of all the short-listed books to keep in your school/ library.
For our cohort, meeting after school really wasn’t an option, and so having 45 minutes at lunch time meant that we could provide pupils with a ‘first lunch’ pass to allow them to come up to our meetings as quickly as possible and participate in our discussions. If your school has split lunches then this might not be an option, but in terms of time available, 30-45 minutes is ample time to effectively discuss a small aspect of the book and I always ensure I have a set of question prompts available if needed. Quite often the pupils have lots of questions themselves, and sometimes there are questions aimed at the writer about a particular choice of scene or aspect of the story that they just want to know about. At this point I would always go to social media (with the pupils permission) and try to contact the author/illustrator to let them know your book clubbers have a question. 9 times out of 10 the authors will respond and pupils absolutely LOVE the fact that they can connect with writers in this way. In some cases they may even send you some goodies for your school- something which our pupils loved! They’re now desperate for the next book in the series to come out which is fantastic for the writers as they know they will have some sales coming their way.
Being organised for book club, like any club, is key, but something I have picked up along the way is that being organised for 1 book, doesn’t then mean you can organise discussions for the next book in the same way. Let me illustrate this with 2 examples. Part way through the year our book clubbers selected ‘I ate sunshine for breakfast’ by Michael Holland. I’m fortunate enough to run an Eco club during Monday form times, and many of this club also come along to book club and therefore their interest in plants started to spill over into book club.
Word of mouth quickly spread that we were looking at experiments from a book we were reading and this led to a 50% increase in attendance, with the vast majority of members being female. Their favourite investigations included making a plant maze as well as investigating the incredible properties of cornflour- something I assumed pupils would know quite a bit about given its popularity in primary schools, but absolutely nobody had experimented with it- instead they had only experienced it on youtube.
This book completely changed the way I thought about approaching book club and wondered whether I could integrate the book club and my eco club in other ways. This has led me to start a Nature Club next year, where some of the books we will long list, and possibly select to read will feed in directly to our projects including our nature journaling and video clips.
The second book example involved another graphic novel called ‘Global’ written by Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin and illustrated by Giovanni Rigano. This is a beautiful fictional story based on science and the effects of climate change- a wonderful book to integrate into both science and geography lessons and one which led to really rich discussions for our book clubbers. For this book I ensured that I had question prompts available which would help our readers think more deeply about the global issues facing the characters as well as the structure of the story itself in terms of how the illustrations worked alongside the text. It was this aspect that I then collaborated with our readers on, as they wanted to learn more about the illustration process, so again I explored social media. This led to a conversation with Andrew and eventually Giovanni as the pupils wanted to experiment with how to draw the grolar bear.
Ultimately, I would recommend you plan in advance what you’d like to cover in any book club session, but just be prepared for the book club to be pulled in a direction you might not have been expecting. For us, the book club is for our pupils. It’s about their interests, developing their identity and giving them an opportunity to think more deeply about the science within the books they have selected.
Something else I would also consider from the beginning is how many members you’d like to have. This depends on how many teachers are involved. For us I’m the only teacher involved, so at our maximum we had 10 members which worked perfectly for discussion, investigation and to vote on the books we wanted to explore. Next year we want to open it up to more members if we can- but no more than 20. We already have a range of books the new members can borrow and we have ‘experts’ who can discuss these books with them and help recommend books which they might also enjoy. This is something which will build year on year and it’s an aspect I’m really excited to see develop.
There is funding available which I have seen advertised on social media and we have been very fortunate enough to be supported by GiveABook this past year who have just been incredible. Non-fiction books aren’t cheap to purchase as they tend to be oversized and produced in hard back. To be given copies for each member throughout the year initially was just fantastic (as the year went on they actually preferred to share them which was lovely as this allowed them to talk to each other about the books they were reading). I would recommend being creative about how you might raise these funds and consider whether you absolutely need a copy for every member. There is also the opportunity to download the borrowbox app if pupils are members of their local library.
Review and reflect
Something which I need to do more frequently is review how the book club is developing and to do this I’d like to do more pupil voice. Although the members recommendations fed into the books and activities, their opinions, views and thoughts ultimately shaped the club we have. Moving forward I want them to let me know whether they’d be interested in writing reviews of books they’ve read, whether they feel their identity as a reader has changed and how and whether the book club is something they’d like to share with the wider community. Book clubs are a fantastic way for pupils to learn something new about their place in the world, to be curious and just be transported on a journey they would otherwise never have experienced. For me, seeing the joy on their faces as they unlock their next story or adventure through the world of non-fiction, just makes me realise all the more what an utter privilege it is to be a teacher.