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BOOKS-Reading clubs for the young.

Where Moms, Daughters Are on the Same Page

May 12, 1999|MIKE WYMA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the novel being discussed by the book club, a boy named Will leaves his family and makes a long, dangerous trip to avoid "capping," a procedure that embeds a mind-controlling metal cap in the flesh above the skull. As horrifying as capping may sound, it is considered a routine rite of passage by most people in the post-apocalypse world of "The White Mountains" by John Christopher.

Club members spent some time on obvious questions: Did they ever doubt that Will would arrive at the rebel mountain haven? What exactly are Tripods, the huge metal things that now rule the Earth? Are they living beings or terrifying vehicles being operated by creatures inside?

Soon, however, the club was discussing the book as allegory for complacency and conformity in modern life, but using none of the language one picks up in college. Or high school, for that matter, because in this particular book club, the members are all sixth-graders and their mothers.

"Most people don't even think of not being capped," said Rachel Guest, 11, of the book. "I'm always thinking of goofing off, but I never do it. Then I stop thinking about it. And it's almost like being capped."

"You just tend to be obedient in school," Laura Perry, 11, agreed. "You want to get good grades. You want to look good to your friends."

Book clubs, popular with adult readers for years, are far less common among children. But some parents see them as a way to encourage reading. Interest also has been sparked by the book "The Mother-Daughter Book Club" (Harper Perennial, 1997), the account of a successful East Coast group by its founder, Shireen Dodson, assistant director of the Center for African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.

Dodson, who has some idea of the number of mother-daughter book clubs from a newsletter she briefly published, says the clubs are catching on more quickly in the East than here in the Southland.

"There were six or seven in Southern California, but there are thousands of mother-daughter book clubs out there."

There also are many that include boys, she said, although she believes that single-gender groups stay better focused on the book at hand.

Mothers of girls in the San Gabriel Valley club, which has been in existence for more than a year and a half, say closeness and understanding are among the main benefits.

"Hannah and I get into discussions we never would have without the club," said one mom, Diann Kim. "Sometimes they'll say things in the group that they wouldn't say to a parent," explained Melanie Havens, whose daughter, Caroline, is in the club. "As they talk about the characters, you find out what they think about a lot of things."

The club meets every five or six weeks on a Sunday evening, rotating in members' homes.

"The rule is the dads and siblings leave," Kim said. "It's a very tribal thing."

The girls and their mothers gather over hors d'oeuvres, the talk moving from that evening's book, to earlier books and recent events at school or home. Over dinner the focus shifts exclusively to the current book.

Books are selected by the host girl, although mothers sometimes influence a decision. A few of the moms lobbied for Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," the story of an 11-year-old's tribulations with looming adolescence.

"We thought it would be good because it brings up puberty issues," Kim said, "but they launched into a discussion of whether there's a God."

*

The session on "The White Mountains" was lively but brief, mainly because there was little disagreement. All five girls believe Will makes the right choice in risking his life to join the rebels in their snowbound hideaway.

"I'd go to the White Mountains," Caroline Havens said. "All the hardships would be worth it to be free."

The book was the group's first science fiction selection. Members said it is an example of how the club has introduced them to genres they hadn't considered reading. Still, in a poll of the club's favorite selections, "The White Mountains" received no votes.

The top book was "Ella Enchanted" by Gail Carson Levine (Harper Collins, 1997), a retelling of the Cinderella story. Rachel Guest explained its popularity, saying, "The girl was really independent and didn't care what anyone thought."

Capable, self-confident heroines are a common thread in many of the members' favorite books.

Natasha Lewis said of "Catherine, Called Birdy" by Karen Cushman (Clarion Books, 1994): "I like it because she plays pranks on all the men who come into her life, because she doesn't want to marry them."

But one of the club's best times was had with James B. Garfield's "Follow My Leader" (Scholastic, 1994), and it wasn't a discussion at all.

"The book is about this boy who becomes blind after an accident," Hannah said. "We played a game where the girls and moms would close their eyes and try to figure out who was not in the room."

Dodson believes the payoffs of a book club are many.

"Clearly it's a multifaceted benefit," she said. "You do get the better communication, and the child reads more, and her thinking improves. The analytic skills are better. Teachers will say they can understand a story more fully and deconstruct a character. It shows up in their writing skills."

All in all, just about the opposite of being capped.

E-mail can be sent to socalliving@latimes.com.

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