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Bonding over books


Maybe it was the "rest" of the title that hooked me. The Mother-Daughter Book Club: How Ten Busy Mothers and Daughters Came Together to Talk, Laugh and Learn Through Their Love of Reading.

That did it: An interview with author Shireen Dodson would open our series on ways readers get together to share what's usually a sit-all-by-yourself- curled-up-with-a-good-book kind of thing. Through several e-mails, Dodson offered her tips for bringing people together to share their love of reading.

Although reading can be a solitary venture, readers do get together _ all the time. Book clubs are sprouting like weeds after a Florida thunderstorm. We've even found groups of passionate readers who battle it out over books. (Don't worry, though, their weapons are pretty tame: titles, authors, setting.)

Stock up on confetti and party hats, then join us each month as we "Celebrate the Love of Reading."

Atkins: I understand that this whole mother-daughter book club idea began when you were on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, walking along the beach with a friend and talking about finding a way to be able to spend more time with your then 9-year-old daughter, Morgan. What happened between having a book club get together in your home with a few friends and their daughters in 1994 and becoming a bestselling author with an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show?

Dodson: I was asked to write the book after an article about my book club appeared in the Washington Post for Black History Month. The article mentioned that I worked at the Smithsonian Institution, and my phone rang off the hook at work for weeks with people wanting more information. One of the calls was from my now agent; as the saying goes, the rest is history. My second book, 100 Books for Girls to Grow On, was in response to moms saying that they could not do questions and had no idea what activities to do at a mother-daughter book club meeting. For each book there are discussion questions and beyond-the-book activities.

Atkins: Why a "mother-daughter" book club? Could other groups of readers use your book?

Dodson: Historically and maybe somewhat stereotypically, relationships between mothers and daughters are not always smooth. Mother-daughter book clubs help to build lines of communication between mothers and daughters and to keep those lines open in both the good times and the difficult times. Club discussions also give both mother and daughter a heads-up on how the other thinks about a particular issue before it is relevant to them. Also of importance: We both learn we are not in this alone. Daughters figure out that they do not have the only crazy mom, and moms figure out that they do not have the only daughter pushing the envelope and spreading her wings.

I tell folks that my book is not a bible but rather a road map whose principles work for any adult-child combination. The basic benefit is the same, strengthening relationships through communication. The biggest difference with clubs not held in the home, that more often than not have fluctuating memberships, is that they do not bond as deeply and do not have the same level of trust among members. It is the trust among members that builds up over time and creates more intimate in-depth discussions and personal sharing.

Atkins: Can you give us an update on your own mother-daughter book club?

Dodson: My original club is still meeting. First Sunday of the month, September through June. Over the years we have lost some folks and added some folks. People move away or a daughter becomes consumed with an extracurricular activity that takes all her time. At our September meeting that just passed, some of the moms suggested because the girls had ever-increasing demands on their time that we might want to meet quarterly or bimonthly. After much discussion, the girls wanted to continue to meet monthly. We did agree to move the time up to noon from 3 p.m., and we agreed that some meetings would be at a restaurant for Sunday brunch or high tea.

It continues to be a wonderful journey seeing the daughters bloom into wonderful young ladies. While they are all friends and may do other things together, they all have different personalities, ambitions and interests that make our discussions very rich.

Atkins: If you were asked to write a new edition of The Mother-Daughter Book Club, what, if any, changes or additions would you make?

Dodson: I would not make any changes to the current text in a new edition, but I would make several additions. The original book was our experience and my thoughts, which have remarkably held true. I would add three things: 1) an update on each girl and her mom 2) sidebars about lessons learned and 3) a small sampling of testimonies and experiences from the thousands of clubs around the world. Finally, I would add a chapter about my second club, started four years ago with my daughter Skylar when she was 8 and in the third grade. This is the start of our fifth year. We had to make some changes because they were younger, but not many. One of the changes was that we do a craft at every meeting, and they still will not let us drop the craft part of the meeting. For example, after a book about a memory box, we made memory boxes.

Atkins: Over the years you've read many, many books in your club. Any books that especially wowed the moms and girls?

Dodson: The girls would tell you that they do not have favorite books or meetings but that all of the discussions have been meaningful. We have had a great discussion even when the book was not a great book or they did not like a particular book. We use the book as a backdrop for discussing life issues, and there is always something exciting and interesting that comes up. (Refer to 100 Books for Girls to Grow On _ in the individual book summaries I often give specific comments on how the book went over in our club and/or how it has special meaning to me.)

Atkins: What about a special, never-to-be-forgotten club meeting? Any one in particular that stands out in your mind?

Dodson: One of the most memorable meetings was a discussion of The Wedding by Dorothy West. The girls or moms were asked to come in mom's wedding gown. Only one mom wore her gown. The rest of us could not get in them. Oh, but our daughters could! My wedding gown fit Morgan perfectly. The girls really got a kick out of wearing our gowns and hearing us tell stories about our weddings; it was quite an afternoon. I don't think the moms will ever forgive our hostess for suggesting we wear the gowns!

Atkins: Do you have any do's or don'ts for moms and daughters wanting to start a club of their own?

Dodson: My biggest don't is for all the type A moms who can't help themselves when it comes to taking control and being in charge. Don't! Remember this is first and foremost your daughter's club. Let her suggest the members (so what if she does not like the daughter of your best friend; she does not have to include your best friend's daughter _ note the emphasis on "your," not "her" best friend). Let the girls select the books (both daughters and moms recommend books, but it is ultimately the daughters who select what they want to read. And finally, keep it simple; it works because it is simple. Don't script or overplan your club.

Atkins: Reading your book is such a great experience. There are so many treasures tucked here and there throughout the book. Truly this work goes beyond the how-to's of forming a mother-daughter book club. This is a celebration of reading. The comments from famous people about some of their favorite books were so wonderful to read.

Dodson: What would a book club be without books? One of the best sources for a good if not great book is a recommendation from someone who has read the book and was in some way inspired or moved by the book. Thus was born the idea to gather recommendations from the famous and not so famous. I sent out letters describing the book project and simply asking for their recommendations. The response was amazing.

Atkins: Our Newspaper in Education series this year is titled "Reading Matters." In what ways do reading and the book clubs matter _ why are they so important?

Dodson: Reading really does give you a window to the world as well as a window to your inner self. Exploring the world and your inner self through reading, with a trusted group of friends, is a wonderful journey. During our mother-daughter book club, we really are not mothers and daughters but girls (now young ladies) and women on a wonderful journey together. As the world becomes even smaller and travel is more and more difficult, some of our children will only be able to expand their horizons through books. Progress is only made when people understand where they have been, and books help in that understanding.

The girls also benefit in school; they are great discussion leaders and can analyze a story down to the finest detail. They build self-esteem regarding expressing their views, and the list goes on and on.

Rosie Solomon, right, tries her hand at monogramming a handkerchief, helped by Yu Chuan Wiley. To the left is Wiley's daughter, Whitney. Mothers and daughters gathered recently at the Wiley home in St. Petersburg to discuss Whistler in the Dark by Kathleen Ernst. The book, set in the 1800s in Colorado, included a character who embroidered monograms.

Author Shireen Dodson with daughter Morgan. Dodson started the first mother-daughter book club when Morgan was 9 years old as a way to spend more time with her daughter.

About the author

Holly Atkins, a national board certified teacher, loves to read and write. She is a teacher at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and has been an instructor at the Poynter Institute's Writers' Camp. She was the author of last year's Newspaper in Education series, The Wonders of Florida.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To let us know what you think about this series, or to find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8969. For past stories, check out and click on the Kids Only area.