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Book club maestro: Christianne Hayward

Interview by Pam Withers

Few people have put as much time and effort into figuring out what makes a book club successful as Christianne Hayward, who has been running them for kids aged three to eighteen for fifteen years.

As a single mother of two boys – one a keener reader than the other – she decided to apply her Ph.D. in education towards inspiring a love of reading in children of all ages.

She wanted to help families engage in and celebrate literature. The “family” model was especially important to her because of a deeply-held belief that developing a culture around reading helps build social responsibility. This also compelled her to make the commitment to read one novel with her boys each month: a difficult challenge for a busy single mom to meet.

She started book clubs in the local community centre, which she quickly outgrew. Today, her Lyceum of Literature and Art in Vancouver, Canada provides a cozy space and encouragement for after-school reading and writing clubs for hundreds of children per week. Her clubs require parents to read and discuss the book, too.

Dr. Hayward also serves as a consultant to educators and book club leaders around North America. What she finds most gratifying, however, is running into families of her grown students who say, “You made such a difference.”

The Lyceum’s website is  www.christiannehayward.com

Q: What are some of the key ways you engage the boys in your clubs, as opposed to the girls?

A: First, you need a lot of humor. Boys respond well to a bit of teasing. Second, I serve great snacks and provide a comfortable space where they can feel free to make themselves at home. I let them move around.  Third, I choose books with male protagonists and subjects to which boys can relate easily: I also make a point of offering one non-fiction selection and one graphic novel per club because boys typically gravitate to these genres. Fourth, I develop activities tailored to boys’ interests: crosswords that test whether they’ve taken in details of the book we’ve just read, art projects connected to the book’s scenes, and breaks that feature food mentioned in the book.

In the senior book clubs I often encourage boys to read books with female protagonists, arguing that it’s the best way to understand that strange sex called girls. It’s amazing how they internalize that!

Q: Some of the boys in your clubs come with their mothers, and some with their fathers. How important is that male role-model factor?

A: For the boys to see a male involved in a book club is huge, but it doesn’t have to be their father. Boys who come with their mothers forge better communication with them than boys that don’t; it allows the mothers to talk to their sons about difficult topics through a literary character. Dads who attend our club raise the bar for everyone, because they tend to be avid note-takers and take the discussions very seriously (and they hate not doing well on the crosswords!).

What’s most important is that boys see men reading and discussing reading, or what I call “socializing around reading.” Women do that naturally, while men tend to socialize around sports instead. Since coaches don’t read books between periods, and guys don’t typically discuss books after a game, you have to find a way to expose them to this – by making an effort at home or enrolling them in a book club.

Q: Roughly what percentage of boys are reluctant readers?

A: In my experience, around forty percent. The divide begins in about fourth grade, and has to do with under-acknowledged brain differences, a lack of books that interest boys (especially after sixth grade if they’re not into fantasy), not seeing men socialize around reading, and schools’ more auditory-driven education system. Boys respond better to kinesthetic learning: Pictionary, graphic books, charades, drama, debates, crosswords and art. With these activities, an element of “safe” competition in a friendly environment grabs boys’ attention and becomes a motivator for engaging with literature.  At-home reading and book clubs can cater to these needs better than traditional classrooms. The optimal point at which you can make a big difference is in grades four, five and six – by choosing books that are fun and engaging, pumping up the number of graphic books you let him read, and modelling your passion of reading at home.

Q: Some parents steer their kids away from picture books and graphic novels before the child wishes to give them up, on the assumption that these are unsophisticated forms of reading holding him back. What’s your advice?

A: Don’t get too stuck on this. Our youth have to be more visually literate than we were: They need to be able to deconstruct images quickly. Even top-flight PowerPoint presentations today incorporate more animation and symbols. When parents read a graphic novel, it seems choppy to them, but today’s kids know how to bridge between cells and use the break to reflect on how meaning is created between the two images. Graphic books are a different type of literacy. They don’t replace textual literacy but allow readers to hone their visual literacy and sharpen their decoding skills in a vocabulary based on iconic symbols.

If you keep throwing books at your boy that are too difficult, you’ll lose him. One of my sons didn’t read for enjoyment until age ten; it was a graphic novel that finally hooked him. He’d always been able to read, and had been read to. But reading for enjoyment took longer to kick in. Get them graphic books, story tapes, whatever it takes. Keep them in the game until their maturity catches up with them.

Q: What’s your best advice to parents who want their boys to be keen readers?

A: Let him be involved in choosing what he reads, and continue reading to him even after he can read by himself. Where you apply your greatest influence in what he reads is in the books you read to him. Start reading to him long before seventh or eighth grade; otherwise he’ll be less open to being read to aloud at that age. Choose themes that interest him, books that have hooks within the first chapter. And read several chapters ahead before sitting down with him, so you won’t stumble over names and so that if you start to lose his attention, you can shorten what’s happening, take him to the exciting bit and close on a cliffhanger. That way, he’ll plead and beg you to read more, but don’t. Make him come to the book hungry the next day. Also, read to your kids when you’re fresh. For me when I was a single mother, that was early in the morning instead of at bedtime, and always in the same space with our comfort drinks in hand.

There are three kinds of books that parents should have in their homes: books he can read independently, books for guided reading (where reading is shared, for example, between parent and child) and books for reading aloud (you do all the reading). There’s typically a two-year difference between a child’s receptive and his expressive language abilities. By choosing books that address his receptive language abilities, you create a scaffold that he can use in building his own literacy journey.  You will in effect create a stronger reader through helping him understand patterns, reinforcing his ability to predict plotlines and exposing him to the cadence of oral language.

Q: Why is it important to learn to enjoy reading?

A: Reading is an investment in yourself, an education in itself. It nurtures curiosity and a thirst for learning more; it can be very addictive once you have a good experience with it. Literacy is incredibly important for giving you information, encouraging personal growth and developing breadth of knowledge. It supports emotional intelligence, which you need in order to excel at the top levels of every industry. Emotional intelligence helps you build bridges of understanding with those who may have very different experiences than yourself.  It helps you articulate your thoughts, which can boost your ability to speak in front of a group.  Broad reading exposes you to other perspectives, which is very precious in a diverse society.  This is why it is important that we invest in strategies to disrupt the prevalence of reluctant readers amongst boys.  As parents, we need to connect our sons with the world of literature.  Book clubs are key to this because over time they infect youth with a passion for what they read.  My favourite quote expresses this admirably: “A love of literature is caught, not taught.”

Q: Parting thoughts?

A: As I think about my older boys, a lot of the reason they come is for a good snack and the opportunity to debate – when they are younger they like the games and crafts. I would have to say another big draw is that the older boys really enjoy having the opportunity to debate with girls who are passionate about their ideas. They can broach topics relating to politics, sex, things you don’t get a chance to talk about in a school setting where there is so much social pressure around how boys and girls relate to one another. The parents love coming and the kids are rewarded by the fact that their parents enjoy an evening out together where there is mutual satisfaction and an absence of tension. Parents and kids experience joint ownership of the evening.”

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