Mother-daughter book bonding

Mothers and daughters in the book club, organized 10 years ago, are (from left) Diana Schlossberg and daughter Hannah Kearney, Lisa Shulock and Emma Feyler, Dorel Shanon and Ari Bogom-Shanon, Kathie Bowes and Lucy Van Kleunen, and Kate Stover and Lydia Wood.
Mothers and daughters in the book club, organized 10 years ago, are (from left) Diana Schlossberg and daughter Hannah Kearney, Lisa Shulock and Emma Feyler, Dorel Shanon and Ari Bogom-Shanon, Kathie Bowes and Lucy Van Kleunen, and Kate Stover and Lydia Wood. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 18, 2013

The topic was Cat's Cradle.

For an hour, 10 women talked - sometimes over one another - to discuss not just the sci-fi classic by Kurt Vonnegut, but also the Cold War, organized religion, and Central America. They talked about TV shows like House and Game of Thrones, literary characters like Sherlock Holmes, and authors like Jane Austen and William Faulkner.

They laughed. A lot.

It was a typical book-club meeting for an atypical book club.

Ten years ago, at a time when most 8-year-olds were learning fractions, five second-graders were pulled from the playground by their mothers to their first book-club meeting. Now those girls are women, poised to graduate high school, having met, along with their mothers, since 2003.

The books, of course, were the stated reasons for the meetings, but there was always more to talk about: beloved teachers and bad ones, proms and dances, music and movies.

A lot has changed - relocations, relationships, and don't forget puberty - but the club has endured.

"I never imagined it would last this long," said Dorel Shanon, who, with 17-year-old daughter Ari Bogom-Shanon, hosted the first book club at their Mount Airy home. "I got so much more out of it than I thought I would."

The idea for a book club sprang from Shanon's desire to help Ari learn "to love reading for the sake of reading."

"I think that can be hard today, given how intense schools are and how much homework there is. I wanted her to think of reading as a lifelong pursuit."

So she gathered four like-minded mothers and their daughters, finding them at Ari's school and through friends of friends. One original family moved away soon after the club formed. That spot was filled by another mother-daughter pair when the girls were in fourth grade. (The club members still joke that they're latecomers.) Since then, the group hasn't changed.

"One of the best things has been watching the dynamics between my daughter and the other adults," said Dina Schlossberg of Penn Valley, who attends with daughter Hannah Kearney, 18. "You can see how much each parent appreciates each of the girls."

The club's first book was Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall. Shanon remembers the mothers structuring those early meetings, asking questions and setting up a Jeopardy-style game to engage the girls.

After the "work" part of the book club was over, the girls were allowed to run off and play while the mothers socialized.

"Sometimes we moms really tried to dominate the conversation," Shanon. "We sent e-mails to each other as reminders not to do all the talking."

As the daughters grew up, they began taking more active roles in the discussions. No one wanted to run off and play. Yet, with a group of self-described interrupters, some of the girls were hesitant to assert themselves, said Lisa Shulock of Mount Airy, mother of Emma Feyler, 18.

Lately "even the quiet girls seem to be participating more equally," Shulock said. "It's great to see how they have become more comfortable in the rough-and-tumble of some very opinionated, smart and vocal women."

The books brought up subjects the mothers and daughters may not have tackled on their own. When the group read a book about a woman in an abusive relationship, the daughters talked about how they would react in a similar situation. During one conversation about eating disorders, the daughters discussed acquaintances who were struggling with the problem.

Kate Stover, who hosted the recent meeting with her 18-year-old daughter, Lydia Wood, has enjoyed the intellectual quality of the conversations.

"Even if you haven't read the book or only 60 pages of the book, you come for the quality of the conversation and the sharing of ideas," Stover said. "It's almost like a salon."

Mom Kathie Bowes, of Germantown, agreed.

"We all laugh at each other as the comments fly," said Bowes, mother of 17-year-old Lucy Van Kleunen. "At this point, we can anticipate each others' reactions to the book."

As they aged, the daughters also began to have more of a say in which books the club chose. Sometimes, they picked titles popular even with "adults only" book clubs, such as The Help and Water for Elephants. (The latter book still spurs discussion, as the girls read it while in middle school, and there was some S-E-X in it.)

"Honestly, one of my favorite things about the group is the books themselves," Lucy said. "I can look through my bookshelves and see years of our meetings. It's a great way to read stuff you wouldn't normally pick for yourself."

The club has made adjustments over the years, especially as homework and extracurricular activities demanded more of the daughters' time. They don't meet in December or during the summer. One month, each member came to the meeting with a poem to share. Another month, everyone read articles about women's boxing in the 2012 Olympics.

The daughters take different things away from the club. Ari was 14 when the group read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, She and her mother hosted a tea party for the club, with Ari dressed as Alice and her mother as the Mad Hatter. It's one of her favorite memories.

"We dusted off the nice teacups, made cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches," Ari recalled. "When else does one get to go to a tea party and talk about fascinating children's books?"

Hannah - and her mother - said the book club has been a welcome constant; the family has moved three times in the last few years.

The club has also spurred conversation between mother and daughter.

"Before I started driving, we'd drive to and from together, and on the way there and on the way back, we'd talk," Hannah said. "It linked us."

The club has allowed the daughters to remain close, even though they go to five high schools. There are no cliques, and everyone gets along, even though Emma and Lydia almost never agree on books.

"We do agree on other things, like peace is good," Emma said.

As the discussion of Cat's Cradle wound down, talk turned to the next meeting - and the sad fact that next year, the daughters would undoubtedly be scattered to points now unknown. Would they book club by Skype? Would every school vacation mean a club meeting?

"It's a bittersweet thing," Shanon said. "It's greedy to want more, but it's been so much a part of my life. I will miss it. There's no question about that."

Want to Start a Book Club?

Consider checking with your library. Some systems have such clubs. The Burlington County Library System started a mother/daughter reading group, open to daughters ages 8 to 12, four years ago.

"The girls have a very good time," children's librarian Kathy Kelley said. "You could tell them to read the entire encyclopedia, and they would still come."

There can be any combination of book clubs that parents and children are willing to create. But father-son clubs are rare, said Cindy Hudson, author of Book by Book: The Complete Guide to Creating Mother-Daughter Book Clubs (2009).

"What I've heard from librarians is you can get the boys to read, but not the dads," she said.

In Burlington County, the "Guys Read" book club is geared to boys ages 8 to 12 and any caregiver. (Mothers and big sisters are also welcome, but they must be prepared for books with "guy" subjects, like sports and war.)

If you want to start you own club, Hudson, who attended book clubs with both of her daughters, shared some tips:

1. Find a partner who is also interested in starting a club. Then the two adults can plan together. Like-minded folks can sometimes be found at scout troops or neighborhood play groups.

2. Optimal groups are four to eight pairs. Less than four, "and you might not get the depth of discussion you're looking for," Hudson said. More than eight, and the scheduling gets extra tricky.

3. Lay out the ground rules: How often will you meet? Where will you meet? How will you choose books?

4. Be flexible, especially as the children age and their schedules become more hectic with homework and activities. Be open to changes, like meeting less frequently and letting the children choose books.

"At one point, when the girls were in middle school, it could have fallen apart," Hudson said of her book groups. "We changed things up and kept going for another five years. I can't imagine all the rich conversations we would have missed."

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