Toddler Bear’s Top 20 Children’s Books

It’s been more than a year since I last posted about my kid’s favorite children’s books. In that time, we’ve read countless stories, many of which were read countless times over (sometimes to my chagrin). As of now, I can confidently say that my two-and-a-half-year-old loves to read. Either that, or he’s spent two years building an elaborate book-loving persona with the sole objective of stalling bedtime with just one more book “for two seconds” (his favorite stalling phrase). It’s entirely possible and, to some extent, likely.

Regardless of his motivation, my bibliophilic heart just about bursts each time he tells me he wants to read together.

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My kid loves to read? Squee! Using it to distract me? Who cares?!  [Source]

Reading with him as a baby was fun, of course, but I must admit that reading with him as a toddler is next-level amazing. As a rule, toddlers are entertaining at every turn, especially once they start talking. He’s so chatty and so inquisitive that each book becomes quite the interactive adventure.

If he’s not asking questions about what he sees and hears, he’s requesting  more information about the illustrations. (I have to say, I’ve been known to use artistic license when developing the background stories for secondary or even non-existent characters.) If he’s not asking me about the books, he’s reciting pages in their entirety. His ability to memorize is incredible, as is his ability to pick up new vocabulary, test out different pronouns and verb conjugations, and analyze a story and its characters.

Reading is such a wonderful vehicle for blossoming creativity, language, and exploration, and as a parent I love how it allows me to watch him process new information. It’s like discovering the entire world all over again through my toddler’s eyes.

This level of interaction and engagement happily means we can read longer and more complex books now, too. Because reading is such a wonderfully enlightening experience for us nowadays, I decided it was high time to share some of our current favorites.

This list is fairly long–and I already made cuts, if you can believe it–but these books are all worth reading. Maybe you’re already familiar with them, but, if not, you might just come across one of your future favorites below.

Books Your Toddler Will Love

Bustle in the Bushes

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Bustle in the Bushes by Giles Andreae and illustrated by David Wojtowycz [Source]

Bustle in the Bushes is a great non-fiction option for young readers because it presents factual information with fun rhymes and bright illustrations. Like many little kids, my toddler seems pretty intrigued by insects, and this is a non-creepy way for him to learn about them. (We have another book about bugs that includes real photographs. Knowing that some spiders burrow their babies in holes in the ground before they burst out is enough to make my skin crawl; seeing it almost sends me over the ledge, and I’m not even afraid of spiders. As you can imagine, this is my preferred insect book.)

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type

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Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin [Source]

In Click, Clack, Moo, Farmer Brown faces a big problem: his literate cows decide to go on strike until he improves their working conditions. Needless to say, this story provides cheeky fun for the whole family. My husband and I love the silliness of the story and our toddler loves chiming in with the repetitive sound effects. It’s the perfect mix of interaction and goofiness for everyone (plus it’s pretty short, which means we can add it on at bedtime without taking up too much more time).

Colección de oro: Jorge el curioso / A Treasury of Curious George

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Colección de oro Jorge el curioso / A Treasury of Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey [Source]

I love bilingual books, and this is one of my favorites for two reasons: it has several books in one, and they’re all about a character to whom my mischievous toddler can finally relate. As such, he now frequently requests the “George” book.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!

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Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems [Source]

Here’s another book that’s just as entertaining for adults as it is for kids. The simplistic illustrations and minimalist bold text make it eye-catching and easy for kids to memorize and recite. Mine especially loves piping in when the pigeon rants, “LET ME DRIVE THE BUS!!!” (If there’s anything he can get behind, it’s a tantrum.)

Dragons Love Tacos

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Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri [Source]

First of all, who doesn’t love tacos? Secondly, dragons?! Yes, please. Now, combine the two, throw in a party and a jocular tone, and you’ve got this book. As far as our family is concerned, it’s a solid home run.

Giraffes Can’t Dance

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Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees [Source]

I adore reading this book aloud, so much so that it’s one of maybe ten that I have completely memorized. The story about embracing one’s individuality is important, of course, but I really love it because of the smooth rhyming structure (minus the part where they rhyme “thing” and “violin,” but I digress). My toddler loves it on his own, but I often try to suggest this book because I like it so much.

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site

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Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld [Source]

What little kid doesn’t love construction equipment? Add that to its adorable and cozy rhymes and this book is perfect for bedtime. It often makes me feel ready to snuggle in bed as well (or maybe that’s just due to chasing after two kids all day, who knows?).

Green Eggs and Ham

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Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess [Source]

My kid asks us to read this classic to him all the time, and I’m not sure if it’s because he’s really drawn to the nonsensical story or if it’s actually because it takes a while to read and therefore stalls bedtime even more (this is a theme, as you can tell). It must be because he genuinely likes it, though, because he’ll randomly choose this for a midday read as well.

How to Bathe Your Little Dinosaur

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How to Bathe Your Little Dinosaur by Jane Clarke and Georgie Birkett [Source]

This is one of the simpler books on the list. It’s short and sweet, and would probably help kids who dislike bath time feel a little more excited about it (this is luckily not our problem). When the dirty little dinosaur finishes his bath, he gets a big hug. During this stanza, my toddler always leans in and gives me a big hug too, and it never fails to warm my heart.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

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If You Give a Mouse a Cookie written by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond [Source]

I distinctly remember reading this book as a kid. My elementary school’s computer lab was decorated with a cutout of this precocious little mouse (perfect background decor for playing Oregon Trail, as far as I recall). It turns out, the book holds up well with the current generation, too, since my toddler regularly requests the “cookie book.”

The Little Engine That Could

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The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper [Source]

I must admit, this isn’t really my favorite on the list (I often feel like it drags on too long), but my kid absolutely loves it. Granted, he’s obsessed with trains, but still. He loves reading along, starting with its very first line, “Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong.” I’ve heard this more times than I care to count.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear

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The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood [Source]

Here’s another short option, and I think it’s one of the most charming books on the list. I enjoy the imagery and beautiful illustrations, and I always end up wanting a fresh, juicy strawberry for myself after we finish reading. My toddler, meanwhile, loves to pretend to be the bear tromping through the forest.

Llama Llama Red Pajama

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Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney [Source]

This is one of the newest books in our collection, and it’s already a hit. As our kid is starting to develop an active imagination, especially after the lights go out, it’s also timely. I find myself paraphrasing “Mama Llama’s always near even if she’s not right here” almost daily. That and “please stop all this llama drama and be patient for your mama.” Two good lessons in one fell swoop!

The Magical Toy Box

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The Magical Toy Box by Melanie Joyce and illustrated by James Newman Gray [Source]

The Magical Toy Box is a fanciful story with uniquely vibrant illustrations. I like it because of its bright pictures and sing-songy verses, and I suspect our toddler likes it because it proposes what toys are really up to each night, à la Toy Story.

The Mixed-Up Truck

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The Mixed-Up Truck by Stephen Savage [Source]

Here’s yet another simple but eye-catching book that really engages our toddler. It’s an amusing story of a cement mixer who’s confused about his task at hand and ends up making a few mistakes. It’s another where the repetition really encourages toddler participation, making it a fun (and short) option for everyone involved.

Newtonian Physics for Babies

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Newtonian Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie [Source]

If you and your toddler want to learn about Newtonian physics, look no further. Sure, it’s a little overly simplified, but that’s precisely why it’s so engaging for a toddler. In only a few short pages, you’ll both learn about mass, force, acceleration, and gravity. That ain’t bad (plus there’s a page towards the end where an apple falls on Newton’s head and our toddler thinks it’s just hilarious).

Pinkalicious

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Pinkalicious by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann [Source]

A stubborn little kid who loves cupcakes and lacks listening skills? That sounds awfully familiar. We all really enjoy this book, likely for entirely different reasons, but I like to think our toddler enjoys reading about how the little girl learns the valuable lesson that mom is always right (and that demonstrating self-control around pastries is a critical life skill). In reality, I’m pretty sure he just likes yelling “pink-a-boo” at the end.

Too Many Carrots

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Too Many Carrots by Katy Hudson [Source]

Our toddler was addicted to this book for months when we first received it. As in, read-it-every-night kind of thing. It’s an adorable, and gorgeously illustrated, tale of a hoarder whose condition nearly costs him his closest friends. It’s a creative story that includes just the right mix of plot and sound effects, meaning that our toddler uses critical thinking to ask about the characters and has the opportunity to say “crash” as loudly as he can. To him, that’s a win-win.

Trains

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Trains by Thea Feldman [Source]

We have read this book so many times, it’s almost worn out. If he could only read one book for the rest of his life, I’m certain our kid would choose this one. Another non-fiction, it’s an early reader book all about…you guessed it…trains. It talks about where trains go, what they carry, and how they work. Now our toddler likes to tell us how we too can ride on–and even sleep!–on a moving train. Well, that is except last week when he said, “No, actually Mommy, you can’t sleep on a moving train. You’re too big.” Gee whiz.

Why Do Tractors Have Such Big Tires?

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Why Do Tractors Have Such Big Tires? written by Jennifer Shand and illustrated by Danele Fabbri [Source]

Surprise, surprise, another non-fiction (our toddler is really interested in learning how the world works right now), this is our favorite book to read at Grandma’s house. It’s a silly book about how various things function, like why airplanes leave white trails behind them and why trains have conductors. It presents the information in a really entertaining way, so much so that even a two-year-old is eager for more.

Reminder: When Possible, Shop Local

As always, I recommend you shop locally where you can. You’ve likely noticed that most of the books link to one of my favorite local bookstores, Women & Children First. I’m as much a fan of Prime’s quick delivery as the next person, but supporting a local business is such a gratifying feeling that I think you’ll find the extra couple of days (and maybe bucks) are worth it if it means you’re doing your part to enrich your community.

Happy Reading & Your Recommendations

Part of the reason I like sharing these lists on the blog is so I have a journal of the kinds of things our kid liked at different points in his life. The other part is to share our favorites in hopes that you find at least one new book to look for on your next library trip.

Reading with my toddler is eye-opening, incredible, and easily one of the most enjoyable parts of parenting thus far. Every day, he surprises me with the things he knows, many of which come from the books we’ve read together. Not only is reading with him entertaining, but I also love knowing that it’s making a huge impact on his cognitive and language abilities. I hope your experience is the same, and I’d love to hear what books your toddlers love too.

 

 

 

[Featured image source]

Mama Bear’s Summer 2016 Reading List

It’s been quite a while since my last list of book recommendations, and since I can’t in good conscience claim to be a book blog without them, here we are.

Before you hit the beach, pool, campsite, or couch, consider checking out some of my favorite summertime reads.

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[Source]

Summer Picks

I’ve organized these suggestions by genre. Before you jump ahead to your tried and true favorite, I encourage you to step outside your comfort zone this summer and pick something you normally wouldn’t read. You never know what you might end up liking.

Humor

Galápagos

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Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut
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Kurt Vonnegut was an incredible author whose vast body of work would make any bookshelf better. This book in particular is my favorite and is one I’ve recommended and gifted countless times. It’s a little bit sci-fi, a little bit post-apocalyptic fiction, and a whole lot of satire.

The book follows a small, strange group of people stranded on an island in the Galápagos. After a pandemic leaves the rest of mankind sterile, they become the last surviving humans with the ability to procreate. Therefore their descendants alone are responsible for how human beings evolve (hint: life is a lot less complicated with a small brain). Told by an omniscient, ghostly narrator, this book will make you laugh and cringe at some of the more painfully accurate portrayals of our society.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson
[Source]

Bill Bryson is an American author—he famously wrote A Walk in the Woods–who spent a couple of decades living in the UK. This book is a collection of essays he wrote for a British paper about returning and readjusting to the U.S.

Bryson is hilariously observant as he contemplates some of the bizarre and seemingly mundane features of our culture. Though a few of the essays are a bit dated as the book was published in 2000, you can’t help but smile as Bryson artfully describes things like his nostalgia for motel room showers and the perplexing differences between American and English postal systems.

Fiction

Gone with the Wind

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
[Source]

Okay, let’s pause. If you haven’t read this book, then it should be the first on your to-read list. If you haven’t even heard of this book, then you need to climb out from under your pop culture rock.

Topping out at about 1,000 pages (I recommend reading the book on a device for this reason), it is arguably one of the finest pieces of historical fiction ever written, as evidenced its accolades, notoriety, and sheer sales volume.

Gone with the Wind is the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a persnickety and stubborn, yet intelligent and loyal Southern Belle whose life is drastically altered by the Civil War. She alone makes the book worth reading, as you will simultaneously love and hate her, but perhaps the real main character is the American South itself before, during, and after the war.

An epic, Gone with the Wind will be captivate you with its rich writing and complex characters. Though it’s long, you will not want to stop reading it, which makes for a perfect summer reading candidate. For what it’s worth, I also love the movie. If you’re not going to read it, at least make sure you watch it.

Ella Minnow Pea

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Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
[Source]

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea is charming, interesting, and very short. Like many other books on this list, I’ve recommended it time and time again.

It’s the story of a little island that bans the usage of various letters of the alphabet. The story unfolds in a series of letters between characters, forcing the author to very creatively manipulate the English language in order to have the characters comply with their new, letter-less laws. It’s witty and clever, and makes you appreciate how much you can bend the rules of grammar and syntax all while expanding your vocabulary. Note: you really have to read this one with your eyes in order to properly appreciate it. You will not get the full effect in an audio book.

Swamplandia!

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Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
[Source]

This book fittingly takes place in Florida, where real life can be stranger than fiction. Like some of the other fiction on this list, it is the story of a family. In this case, it’s a family whose livelihood depends on a gator-based theme park that falls from greatness following the death of its star, the mother of the family.

An adventure builds as the main character, a 12-year-old girl, must put on a brave face in an attempt to save her home and family from spiraling out of control. This book has a little bit of everything: outlandish characters, fantastic scenery, and even a bit of mysticism.

Cold Sassy Tree

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Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
[Source]

Apparently, something about the summertime makes me want to read stories that take place in the American South. I think it’s because I like to imagine myself sipping ice-cold tea (albeit unsweetened), in a rocking chair, and on an old wraparound porch when I read them. Mosquitoes and heat aside, doesn’t that sound lovely?

Anyway, this is another great historical fiction that chronicles life in a small, turn-of-the-century Georgia town. It’s been quite I while since I read it, but I distinctly remember falling in love with the characters as they navigated the ups and downs of life as well as the gossip that runs rampant throughout it. I smiled with their triumphs, cried with their tragedies, and didn’t want it to end.

Romance

No beach or pool vacation is complete without a little dose of romance. While I used to be embarrassed and secretive about my love of love stories, I’ve come to embrace it in recent years. Say what you will, but romance is a genre that has its own literary value.

The Royal We

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The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
[Source]

If you, like me, are strangely obsessed with England’s royal family, then you should read The Royal We. It’s loosely based on Will and Kate’s life, to the point where some consider it to be fan fiction. I’d argue that it’s much more elegant than that. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I started it, but I was pleasantly surprised how engaging and intelligent it was. It’s a novel you’ll want to stay up reading.

Sookie Stackhouse series

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Dead Until Dark (book one) by Charlaine Harris
[Source]

If you’re looking for a ridiculous-but-fun series of books, here you go. These novels track the exceedingly at-risk life of Sookie Stackhouse and her friends in Bon Temps, Louisiana. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen True Blood, the HBO series loosely based on these novels.

There are 13 main books and each is more far-fetched than the last (which says a lot seeing as how the first already starts you off with vampires). The writing takes some getting used to, meaning it’s not all that great, but I seriously could not put down these books. You’ll get a nice dose of, ahem, love scenes, and have fun tagging along with Sookie and all her Southern charm.

Nonfiction

Into Thin Air

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Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
[Source]

You might be justifiably wondering why would I recommend a book set in a such a cold, severe landscape as part of my summertime list. Well, chances are good you will feel a little chilled as you read this harrowing tale. Trust me when I say that reading it in the winter when you are also freezing is a rookie mistake.

Jon Krakauer’s account of his fateful Everest misadventure is famous because it is–to most of us–unimaginable. So much so that it reads more like a thriller than a true story. You’ll read this one quickly and can use it to keep you cool at the pool. Fun fact: when I mentioned this list to Papa Bear, he said, “Oh, will you add Into Thin Air, too?” Doubly recommended.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

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Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
[Source]

Need another bitterly cold story to keep you cozy outside this summer? Let’s move from the Himalayas to the Antarctic. Endurance is also a survival story, but this time about Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the Antarctic in 1914. Shackleton’s ship, after which the book is named, was trapped and eventually crushed by ice, leaving its crew stranded and scared for their lives.

Author Lansing had access to real diaries kept by crew members and was able to interview surviving members as he was writing this book, making it incredibly honest, scary, and arresting. As it is a tale of near hopelessness, it is not for the faint of heart. But if you’re able to read it, you’ll find yourself talking about it for a long time.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

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Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
[Source]

If keeping cool is not your goal, check out Born to Run, which is partly about the author’s path to self-discovery and partly about the history of human beings and our innate ability to run long distances.

This book was recommended to me because I like to run. And while it did inspire me to get out and run more–I only partially subscribe to McDougall’s running philosophies–it ended up appealing to me in a much broader sense, too. Anyone who is interested in learning about new cultures, meeting quirky and nearly certifiably insane characters, or anthropology in general should check this out. You might even find yourself thirsting to be outside to test his theories.

Your Thoughts

I’m going to make this a regular, seasonal feature, so stay tuned for Mama Bear’s Fall 2016 Reading List.

In the meantime, please feel free to comment with your summer favorites!

Little Free Library: A Chicago (& Worldwide) Spotlight

Little Free Libraries excites me because they encourage reading and neighborhood interaction. If you follow this blog, then you know by now that those are two things for which I’ve already demonstrated a lot of enthusiasm (here and here, for example).

A Little Free Library is very simply a free book exchange. Though they are connected through a nonprofit organization, it appears anyone can start one. For that reason, there are now more than 40,000 registered Free Little Libraries across all 50 states and in more than 70 countries worldwide. So if you’re thinking these little boxes look familiar, it’s probably because you have one near you.

The first little box I encountered (near First Slice on Ashland, one of my favorite local bakeries) piqued my interest, especially because it was so carefully decorated. Upon further inspection, I realized it’s actually affiliated with Edgewater Reads, but tomato, tomato (which really loses its pizzazz when written).

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Love at first sight at Ashland and Balmoral.

It soon became my goal to find as many of these libraries as I could. Not necessarily to collect or donate books, but rather to take in a little bit of the blocks and neighborhoods they represented.

Here are a few of my favorites from the Andersonville, Ravenswood Gardens, and Lincoln Square areas.

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Campbell and Sunnyside.

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Rockwell and Leland.
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I cannot remember the location of this one. Oops!

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Glenwood and Berwyn (woo, Andersonville and Sweden!).

Finally, after months of casually (and a little creepily) taking pictures, I decided it was high time donate. So one day, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, and I all went for a little stroll over to the Little Free Library on Eastwood near Rockwell. I love Ravenswood Gardens, so I was happy to leave a little piece of me behind.

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Donation target at Rockwell and Eastwood.

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Our contribution.

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Adiós, friends.

Plan Your Visit

Check out this map to find a Free Little Library near you. If you can’t, start one!

Unabridged Bookstore: A Chicago Spotlight

Yes, yes, yes. I’m a little late to the game, seeing as how it was voted as Chicago’s “Best New-Book Store” in 2015, but I finally made my way down to Lakeview’s Unabridged Bookstore to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day on April 30. (To clarify, “new-book store” refers to a shop where you can purchase new books instead of used books.)

Opened in 1980, it’s been a neighborhood–and city–staple for more than 35 years. Given how tumultuous the last decade has been for brick and mortar bookstores, it’s incredibly impressive how much this one thrives. If you’ll recall, I’m a huge proponent of shopping locally. For the most part, locally owned businesses just care more. They are more knowledgeable about their products and provide superior customer service than the typical big box (and certainly more than online shops). This holds especially true for Unabridged.

The staff was extremely helpful and patient. I was actually a little startled when one employee immediately recognized the titles of two rather obscure children’s books I was trying to find. Though he sadly informed me they were not in stock (which he knew without having to check), he quickly offered to order them for me. After I unsuccessfully searched for a third book, he walked me straight over to where it was hiding. It was a busy day and he didn’t need to do it, but he didn’t even bat an eye. Perhaps these things shouldn’t have impressed me as much as they did, but his sincere helpfulness seems extraordinary nowadays and I really appreciated it.

I was equally impressed with the size and variety of stock Unabridged has. I expected the store to be smaller given that it is located in a city where space is limited. Since one of my favorite pastimes is lackadaisically perusing bookstores, you can imagine my delight when I discovered I was wrong. I could have spent hours exploring all the genres and shelves Unabridged carefully curates. Since I had a hungry baby at home, my first Unabridged adventure was unfortunately cut short. However, I think it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Here’s my quick virtual tour so you can see for yourself how great Unabridged is. Keep in mind that this barely scratches the surface; I only took a handful of pictures because I felt a little creepy taking any, much less any more. I suppose you’ll just have to visit to see the rest. And if you need inspiration on what to buy, you can either ask someone or browse among the several staff recommendation stickers lining the shelves.

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Baby Bear has so much story time ahead of him!

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I’d never seen such a large area devoted to classics before. A good reminder of so many books I have yet to read.

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I love anything to do with Scandinavia, so this whole wall called to me.

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This is just part of the travel section in the basement. Being in this room gave me even more of a travel bug than I already (constantly) have.

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Unabridged Bookstore has one of the largest LGBTQ book sections in the city (if not the largest). Not shown, but right by this is a huge discounted section. It had several titles I’ve been wanting to read, including newer ones that I would never expect to be on the sale shelves. 

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It was tough, but I narrowed down my bounty to the above selection. I see several visits in our near future.

Plan Your Visit

Location and hours

Unabridged Bookstore is located at 3251 N. Broadway Street, Chicago, IL 60657. It’s open Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Parking and transportation

There is metered street parking along Broadway and its side streets, but I’d recommend taking the Red, Brown, or Purple ‘L’ train to the Belmont stop and walking for about 10 minutes.

Stroller or carrier

Though Unabridged is large, I’d recommend using a carrier if you plan to bring your baby. It will allow you to navigate much more easily, though it’ll be harder to bend down to read the bottom shelves.

Final Word

As someone who feels pretty well versed in bookstores, I am telling you this one is exceptional. I’d make it a point to visit, and soon.

Top 10 Book Club Books Part II

Have you finished adding all five books from the first half of this post to your to-read list yet? Or better yet, have you read any of them since last week?

If you’re anything like me, you spend an awful lot of time scouring Goodreads to decide what to read next. You’re also drawn to “best of” lists because they make you excited to read new things you haven’t come across on your own. Well, look no further. Here you’ll find the remaining five books that I think make for the best book discussions.

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Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 5 to 1

Drum roll, please. Here are the best books I’ve ever discussed in book clubs.

5. Outliers: The Story of Success

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Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
[Source]

Malcolm Gladwell was my introduction to the “pop nonfiction” genre. His books were–and still are–everywhere. While I’ve only read the first three of his five books (in addition to Outliers, I’ve read The Tipping Point and Blink), I can see why they are so popular. He has a remarkable ability to explain complex sociological or economic issues in plain language and in a way that is interesting to the masses. In Outliers, Gladwell explores why people are so successful in their respective fields.

According to Wiki, his goal was to communicate to readers that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That is to say that success is not entirely a result of an individual’s efforts, but can be circumstantial, cultural, etc.

For example, he points out that many of the best Canadian hockey players are born in the first part of the calendar year. Since the hockey league eligibility cutoff is January 1st, kids born in the first few months of the year are bigger and stronger than kids born towards the end of that year. Because of this, he says they have an “accumulative advantage” in that they are identified as better athletes than their younger peers, coached more, and given more opportunities to succeed in the sport. Though it’s been a long time since I read this book, I remember thinking about this exact theory when I found out I was going to have Baby Bear in July. If I’m not mistaken, most American sport eligibility cutoffs are aligned to the academic calendar, meaning Baby Bear will potentially be among the youngest and smallest, and therefore may not be a highly successful athlete. I’ve come to terms with it.

Gladwell also says success can be attributed to the “10,000-hour rule,” which is basically the idea that to become an expert in anything, you must have at least 10,000 practice hours. By that estimation, I should be a parenting expert before Baby Bear is 14 months. Time will tell.

Okay, so that’s more information than I originally thought I’d write about this book, but it goes to show how some of these things have stuck with me over time. This is partially why I think it’s a good book for discussion; it’s memorable. My club also had some great dialogue about the case studies peppered throughout the book and tried thinking of any examples we had seen firsthand. Having become a parent, I think I’d enjoy reading this book again to try to examine how Papa Bear and I, and our community, may be setting Baby Bear up for success or failure in ways we can’t even imagine. I might have to give it another go to see.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
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rarely re-read books, but this is another I’d love to read again, and soon.

In this novel, a totalitarian regime has assumed power in what was once the United States. Based on extremist Christian ideals, The Republic of Gilead has created a caste system where women are valued mostly for their reproductive abilities. The story is told from the perspective of a handmaid whose only role is to procreate with married men in the ruling class. Once a baby is born, she must turn it over and leave for their next assignment. She, and most women, have little to no say in their lives much less any rights.

Published in 1985, this book is still incredibly relevant in terms of its social and political commentary. It made me sad, angry, and honestly a little frightful for the future. I’m always impressed by and fascinated with authors who can conjure up entirely new worlds and be so imaginative with language. Atwood does both of these things in The Handmaid’s Tale, all while telling a beautiful and moving story.

A dystopian novel at its core, Atwood interestingly prefers the term “speculative fiction” over “science fiction.” She says it’s because The Handmaid’s Tale is about something that could actually happen today rather than something that humans are unable to do yet (like travel to another universe). It’s intriguing to consider the novel from that perspective, and I think it helps explain why book clubs are drawn to dystopian novels much like they are drawn to World War II novels. Both genres have worlds that are hard to fathom, though the latter is based on a world that actually did exist. You can’t help but consider how things could come to be so appalling or reflect on how you would react in those situations. Both of these things make for fruitful discussion.

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
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This is one of the few books I have already re-read. I loved it so much in high school (which says enough right there, because what high schooler loves any book they are forced to read?) that I recommended we read it for a book club about a decade later. I was not disappointed the second time around.

A classic and oft-parodied novel, it is the story of Dorian Gray, a handsome man who becomes enamored with hedonism and begins to wish that his portrait would age instead of him. As he begins to act more and more selfishly, he notices that his wish has come true and that his portrait is, in fact, growing older and more cruel-looking. While he at first feels a little remorseful as he affects the people around him, he soon gives in and begins to conduct a life of corruption. When he at last faces his conscience, he discovers it is too late. The ending is famous, but I won’t give too much more detail in case you haven’t read it yet.

I once saw Wilde’s writing described as “sumptuous,” and I can’t really think of a better description. Reading it, I strangely felt like I was simultaneously devouring a juicy peach and riding on a thrilling roller coaster. Some of my book club friends had a hard time combing through Wilde’s long-winded prose, but the story is so enthralling and Wilde is so witty that everyone ended up enjoying the book and had plenty to discuss. Wilde’s only novel, published in 1890 and considered to be extremely controversial, Dorian Gray‘s themes are extremely significant today. Hedonism, morality, and the importance of public appearance…dare I say we could talk politics here too? I hate to imagine what some of our politicians’ hidden portraits look like given how they act in public!

Fun fact: the Albright painting that was commissioned for use in the 1945 film of the same name now resides in the Art Institute of Chicago. Hometown folks, go check it out!

2. The Shining

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The Shining by Stephen King
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Yes, this is a horror novel and I know it’s scary. But don’t skip over it! This is seriously one of the best books I have ever discussed in a book club. It didn’t even stop with book club, actually. I kept asking everyone I came across if they had read this because I wanted to talk about it all the time. Partially because I was scared but mostly because it was so good.

Most everyone knows this story. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic already haunted by his own demons when he moves his family to the isolated (and haunted) Overlook Hotel. He is to be the off-season caretaker. His son, Danny, has a supernatural ability, called “the shining,” which allows him to see and experience the horrible things that have occurred in the hotel. (Remember the confession bear meme I posted in this post? I shudder to think about it.) The you-know-what really starts to hit the fan when the family is snowed in and the hotel decides it wants to “keep” Danny by way of Jack. This will make more sense if you read it.

There are two things you must know.

  1. The movie is almost nothing like the book. Yes, the plot is loosely the same, but there are several serious differences [spoilers in the article]. So many that King has publicly stated his dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. So if you think you know everything about the book because you’ve seen the movie, you’re mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is wonderful for a lot of reasons. But it’s not the same story and the characters are totally different.
  2. It’s not just a horror novel. While it does have some of the scariest and most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever read (those hedges though!), this is a complex story with highly developed characters. King did an especially incredible job building humanity into Jack. We are witness to his slow descent into madness, try as he might to fight it. It really makes you wonder what’s scarier, what your mind and body are capable of or a haunted house?

It was really fun to discuss King’s writing style, especially because it blew us away. Obviously King is an extremely successful author, but we had no idea how deep this story would be. We talked a little about what scared us the most, but most of the time we focused on the characters and their development throughout the novel.

For even more fun and discussion, watch the movie after you discuss the book. My book club always reads a scary book in October (so original), and for this one we made it into a combo book and movie night. It was fun!

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
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When I first decided to write this post, I immediately knew this would be my number one book. We had such a tremendously engaging discussion about it that, to me, it was the model of what all book discussions should be like.

The novel is composed of letters written by a mother, Eva, who is coming to terms with the actions of her high school shooter son, Kevin. The letters are written to her estranged husband and recall their lives before Kevin was born, through his trying childhood, and up to the point of the massacre (Eva’s trips to see Kevin in prison are also highlighted). Eva’s memories make it clear she has always found Kevin to be challenging, though as he ages and she fits all the  pieces in her retrospective together, it’s clear he demonstrated sociopathic behaviors for years. Unfortunately, he usually seemed to reserve these behaviors for Eva and acted like a nearly perfect son for Eva’s husband and Kevin’s father, Franklin. Matters grew much more serious when Eva and Franklin added a daughter, Celia, to the mix and Kevin suddenly had a little sister.

Without saying too much more about the plot, I can tell you that the content is deeply disturbing, especially because of how believable it is given the pervasiveness of school massacres nowadays. Eva struggled with motherhood before Kevin was even born, and knew her relationship with him was off when he was an infant. She justly fell  into a depression, especially given that he acted so differently with Franklin. Was he always evil or did it develop over time? Can babies be born evil? The nature versus nurture debate is as old as time, but that makes it no less lively. And while Kevin is certainly the character who has the most impact in the novel, he was not the only thing we discussed.

My book club and I were also drawn to Eva’s relationship with Franklin. How would a woman react if her husband did not see any of the warning signs she did about their son? What would that do to their relationship? What would it do to her mental health? Now that I’m a mother, I’m especially flummoxed when I try to think of how I would possibly cope with a child like Kevin. There’s already so much guilt I feel as a mother (about things I logically understand I should not feel guilty about) that I cannot possibly imagine trying to cope with the legitimate worries, guilt, and fear Eva feels. Unfortunately, there are parents of high school shooters out there who must face the fallout of such horror in real life. Luckily, we only examined Shriver’s fictional account, but it felt chilling nonetheless.

What Are Your Thoughts?

What books have sparked your book club’s most interesting discussions? What would you change on this list? Let’s start a discussion about discussions.

Top 10 Book Club Books Part I

I could talk about books all day long. In fact, I’d love to do just that. But since it’s not exactly practical, and it would take forever to type up an entire day’s worth of discussion, a wee blog post must suffice. Well, two blog posts.

I previously mentioned that I’ve been part of several book clubs over the last decade or so. I also suggested a few of my book club dos and don’ts to help others either get started or just maintain momentum for their own clubs.

Here, I’d like to continue exploring that topic by presenting some of my favorite book club books so far. It should be noted that I have a horrible–absolutely awful–memory and yet these books have stayed with me because they sparked such rich conversations.

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Let me preface this list with a small clarification. While there is certainly some crossover between these books and my all-time favorites, they are not necessarily the same. Some books lend themselves to thought-provoking conversations but still may not be completely up my alley. Similarly, some of the books that I think are just mind-blowing may prove to be uninspiring to others.

“Did you like the book?” “No. I don’t even have much to say about it.” “Okay, great discussion. Have some more hummus.” On the positive side, food. On the other side, that’s not why we’re here today. Focus, Mama Bear. Focus.

While I loved all of the following books, they are my favorite specifically for discussion. My all-time favorite list will eventually come up in a different post.

Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 10 to 6

Without further adieu, here is the first half of the list of books I’d recommend you add to your book club’s to-read list. For what it’s worth, the order is fairly insignificant. They’re all very good.

10. And the Mountains Echoed

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And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
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This heart-wrenching novel tells the tale of three generations of one family: parents forced to make a horrifying decision, children torn apart and never fully able to recover, and a granddaughter trying to make sense of her own life. Hosseini’s beautiful storytelling ability evoked several emotions from our group and made us discuss familial sacrifice and belonging.

9. Man’s Search for Meaning

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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
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This short nonfiction work was not the easiest for some of the book club members to finish, but it was one of the most impactful for those who did. It’s only 165 pages and is broken into two sections: one about Frankl’s time as a Nazi death camp prisoner and one about the existential search to find meaning in one’s life. World War II books seem to attract book clubs (as evidenced by the next recommendation actually), but this one was incredibly different from any other I had ever read.

Unlike many other accounts of prison camps, Frankl provides more of an analysis of people’s psyches than detailing what exactly occurred in the camp. Though it’s been several years since I read it, I remember being especially affected by the idea of a prisoner finding humanity in some prison guards and finding a lack of humanity in some fellow prisoners.

Furthermore, his theory of “logotherapy,” which he details in the second half of the book, really resonated with me when I read it. The main idea behind this concept is that human beings are driven by the need to discover their individual meanings in life, that all lives have meaning, and that people are free to find this meaning (even those in horrific situations). Though I luckily cannot relate to being a prisoner, I read this when I had just finished college and was going through a bit of a quarter life crisis. This book helped me examine the meaning in my own life in terms of what was ahead. And while the other members of my book club were very mixed in terms of age and life experience, it made everyone take a look at their own lives in a similar way. Any book that can do that is worth discussing.

8. All the Light We Cannot See 

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
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Our February 2016 pick, this Pulitzer Prize winner is the most recently discussed book on the list. Another World War II book, this time fictional, it tells the story of two young people trying to survive the war. The first is a blind French girl who must leave her home in Nazi-occupied Paris and adjust to life in a small seaside town that is increasingly affected by the war. The second is a German orphan who is more or less coerced into joining Hitler Youth and becoming a technical specialist of sorts. They both encounter several memorable characters before their paths collide.

Even though it was a bestseller for so long, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now I am so glad we read it. The chapters are short and the story is captivating, so the other group members and I found ourselves reading it rather quickly. That said, it was the kind of book that made me want to slow my pace a little to actually savor the prose. Put simply, this book is beautifully written. Its imagery is profound; I felt like I could run my hands along the streets of Saint-Malo and smell the salty sea air myself. There was a lot to discuss in this book, from Doerr’s writing style to the war and its effects on the people on both sides. Plus, a book that everyone ends up enjoying is a big bonus.

7. The World Without Us

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
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If you ever want to feel like a terrible human being, but in a positive, I-will-be-better kind of way, read this book.

The World Without Us is a thought experiment conducted by Weisman, the premise of which is, “What would happen to the Earth if humans suddenly didn’t exist anymore?” To find out how long it would take nature to reclaim what is rightfully hers and to see what legacy humans would leave behind (answer: so.much.plastic.), Weisman interviewed scientists and other experts and used abandoned sites such as Chernobyl, Ukraine to illustrate his findings.

Interestingly, the book doesn’t focus too much on what humans are doing wrong so much as the world we would leave behind. Even still, this book really makes you think about the impact of your actions. I’ve always had a crunchy side to me, but reading about how something as commonplace as a plastic bag will be here for thousands of years to come made me cringe, hold my baby close, and whisper to him, “Please be a positive change in this world.” While it’s unlikely humans will ever just disappear without some damage to the animals or environment around us, it’s somewhat comforting to know that if we did, it wouldn’t take too long for things to start growing over what we’ve claimed as ours.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I’d say “eye-opening.” Our discussion was rife with ideas of how to make changes in our own lives, even small ones. Any book that forces you to think outside yourself is a good one to discuss.

6. In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
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This was one of the first books I ever read for a book club. It’s a nonfiction crime story detailing the murders of four members of a small-town Kansas family. Capote was culturally significant in his own right, but this book is particularly interesting because it is considered by many to be the first piece of literary nonfiction. Capote himself called it a “nonfiction novel” and it reads exactly like that. It includes dialogue and narrative from multiple perspectives, and is full of suspense. These qualities made for an extremely engrossing read.

Critics have said there are a number of discrepancies from what actually occurred and what is represented in the novel, which it seems Capote repeatedly denied. This was one of the things that made our book club discussion so engaging. We talked about the prose and the overall writing style, sure, but we also had a little debate about how much we personally believed and about how much it mattered either way. Journalism ethics for the win!

To Be Continued…

Check back soon to read part two of this list where I’ll reveal my top five favorite book club books. I might even have to throw in an honorable mention section because this is so hard!

In the Meantime

What are your favorite book club books? Or your favorite books that you’re dying to discuss but haven’t had the opportunity yet? I want suggestions!

 

 

 

 

 

Book Club: An Introspective

I love books. I love the feel of books, I love the smell of books, I love taste of books (kidding). I love reading books. Hell, I even love reading about books (thank goodness for Goodreads). As such, I also love talking about books. It makes sense, then, that I’d love book clubs as they are the intersection of reading and discussing.

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Over the last decade, I’ve been a founder and/or member of a handful of book clubs. Some have been with friends, others with strangers. Some have had wonderfully clever names (Bibliophiles Beets Battlestar Gallactica Book Club–circa the years of Dwight and Jim’s hijinks), others have been more to the point (Corpus Christi Book Club). Some have worked well, others have failed. Sometimes a successful meeting will consist of only three members. Other times, it takes a whole room of people to get the conversation going.

If you’ve ever participated in a book club, you may know just how difficult it can be to get one started in earnest or how hard it is to keep the momentum going.

Because I could talk about how much I love book clubs forever, I’ve decided to reflect on what it is that works well and, just as importantly, what doesn’t when forming and maintaining a book club.

Building That Bibliophile Base

Starting a book club is exciting. You love to read and you probably have a few friends who love to read. So why is actually making a book club happen so difficult?

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The dos:

  • Do start small. Invite a few people you know who love to read and expect to build your club membership over time.
  • Do add diversity. Yes, even close friends have unique perspectives to bring to a club. In my experience, though, a diverse group of ages, genders, or even just circles of friends makes for the best discussions. The love of books is a powerful relationship binder even when you have not much else in common.
  • Do schedule your first meeting. A month or two out, go ahead and start turning the wheels. Act as the first host, figure out what kinds of books people want to read, choose the first book (I suggest starting with a shorter book so as to not scare would-be members off), then just pick a date that works for people. If you have a lot of people trying to chime in, I suggest using an online scheduling tool like Doodle. As far as the location goes, if you don’t want to host in your own home, a local coffee shop (with enough seating) works well, too.
  • Do figure out who you are. Are you a genre-specific book club or will you read across genres? Fiction, non-fiction, or a mix? I’ve admittedly only belonged to the variety camp because one of my favorite things about a book club is that it encourages people to read outside their comfort zones. One member recently told me that joining our book club has made her enjoy fiction for the first time in years. She said she never would have realized she liked it had she not been in the club because she never chooses fiction for herself. What a compliment!

The don’ts:

  • Don’t be afraid to remind people. After you determine your first date, create a calendar invite (Google Calendar, Evite, etc.) to actually get it on everyone’s calendars. Even after that, ask people if they’ve started reading. Engage your members in teaser discussions to help build excitement for the meeting. Remind them of the date a few times so you don’t have a meeting of no-shows. This may sound like overkill, but trust me, it’s not.
  • Don’t come without some discussion questions. Sometimes a book is so thought-provoking that people come armed with questions or discussion topics. Other times, the conversation may be slower to start. This is totally normal. As the host, though, it’s never a bad idea to have a few ideas in your back pocket. You can easily browse the title of the book with “discussion topics,” but I’d also suggest looking at LitLovers for some thoughtful questions.
  • Don’t be too formal. A book club is supposed to be a fun hobby. No one wants to participate in one that’s rigid. Even if you don’t know people well, help foster a warm and welcoming environment and invite everyone to participate without calling on anyone. Similarly, don’t freak out if someone hasn’t finished the book. This will almost inevitably happen to you at some point too. Our book club’s rule is that we will discuss the ending, so if you come to the club, you should expect spoilers. That said, you’d be surprised how captivating a conversation can be even when only a few people have actually finished.
  • Don’t forget to choose the next host. Even if you decide to have each meeting take place at a neutral location, I suggest designating a different host for each one. In my most successful clubs, the person who hosts is responsible for choosing the next book (or, if they have no preference, opening the floor for suggestions). They will also be responsible for meeting reminders and discussion questions. Rotating hosts helps everyone feel responsibility and ownership for the group and keeps it from becoming a burden for one person.
  • Don’t forget to schedule your next meeting. Before you leave your first meeting, you should decide when you will meet next. In fact, you should determine the cadence with which you plan to meet (e.g., monthly) and, ideally, the timing (e.g., the third Sunday of each month at 3:00 p.m.). This helps people set their calendars ahead of time (knowing that some months will need to be more flexible). Regardless of what you choose, I’ve found that waiting to poll people on their availability after the meeting ends often means the next meeting will be delayed. Be respectful of the people who took the time to come and cater to their needs first. Anyone else will come if they can.

Keeping Up with the Book Club-dashians

You’ve had your first, maybe even second or third, meeting! Now what?

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The dos:

  • Do encourage people to invite others. It’s a great problem to have if your book club is expanding enough that you need to break up into smaller discussions because there are too many people for one. Tell people to invite their friends, coworkers, or anyone who would be an interested and respectful addition to your club.
  • Do take advantage of social media. Facebook has been a great tool for my book club. The host posts the meeting information each month (date, time, location, and book) and tags anyone who has specifically expressed interest to make sure they see it. We also share relevant links with each other (like “20 Books You Can’t Put Down” or “The Andrew Luck Book Club“). Other clubs I’ve been in have used tools like Meetup, which is especially helpful if you want an open invitation to anyone in your area.
  • Do reflect on what works for your club. If monthly meetings become too stressful or the books you’re choosing are too long, it’s time to evaluate and change something to make the club fun. If you’ve determined that you don’t want to just read science fiction, try a new genre. Nothing you decide has to be permanent. Experiment a little until you find what works best for your group.
  • Do be flexible. Sometimes, especially over the holidays, people are too busy to meet and it is easiest and least stressful for everyone to just push back the meeting by a month. Just make sure to get the next date on the calendar as soon as you can so you don’t fall into a cycle of delays and cancellations.

The don’ts:

  • Don’t be afraid to let people go. Book club membership will wax and wane. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes people lose interest, become too busy, move, or just fall out of the reading habit. It happens and you just have to move on. It’s most likely not personal.
  • Don’t be too bummed when people flake. Similarly, sometimes you choose a book that everyone is excited about and a bunch of people RSVP yes only to have only two or three actually show up. Life sometimes gets in the way! Just remember that a conversation between two people can be equally engaging as one with seven.
  • Don’t forget to include food and drink. Remember, book clubs are social events. If you host a meeting at your home, I encourage you to do a little potluck with food and drinks (alcoholic or non). A little chitchat is fun and healthy. These people may become good friends of yours, so you’ll want to allow yourselves time to catch up, have a drink, and grab food before you dive into your book discussion.

The Gist

Remember, a book club is supposed to be FUN! They shouldn’t cause you to stress or hate reading. Instead, they should just fuel the fire that is your love of all things books. Now get out there and join an existing club or start one of your own!

I’m happy to answer any questions you have regarding my own book clubs, but I’d also love to hear your dos and don’ts in the comments.

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