Wine was not served. Kitchen renovations were not complimented. The idiosyncrasies of husbands and children were not discussed. But it was a book club meeting all the same, and in fact, the nine members were children. Aside from the fact that they raised their hands when they had something to say and had actually read the book, the Arlington fourth graders had the book club M.O. down.
“You’re fancy,” Olivia said to Lillian, who’d arrived straight from a piano recital, resplendent in a dress and cardigan.
“Did you get your hair cut?” Sasha asked the host mom. (Yes.) And: “Are we having grapes?”
Despite the prevailing belief that kids today are too over-scheduled or screen-obsessed to read, book clubs for kids are hot. There are mom-and-kid clubs, dad-and-kid clubs, clubs run by indie bookstores, libraries, schools. Sometimes the kids themselves push to form a club. Sometimes their parents do.
In Arlington, Kalyani’s mother, Anjali Mitter Duva, was the driving force, the club an attempt to interest her daughter in good literature. “You know those flyers that come home, the Scholastic ones?” Duva said with a shudder. “The kids always were gravitating toward the book that comes with the charm necklace.”
As the author of a forthcoming historical novel set in India, a Brown University graduate with a master’s degree from MIT, and a woman who spent hours reading in her hometown Paris, Mitter Duva found herself disappointed in the third-grade literary scene in her Boston suburb.
“There seems to be little emphasis on what’s well-written,” she said. “There are all those gimmicky series like ‘My Weird School.’ ’’
But here’s where the experience of a mother who grew up reading Balzac and Zola in French pretty much mirrors that of every parent in Greater Boston: She feared that suggesting books to her daughter would backfire. “So I’d buy books and slip them onto her shelf. Then maybe a few days later I’d find her sitting on the couch reading. Neither one of us said anything. It was a silent pact.”
That pact led to a warm reception when Mitter Duva suggested she and her daughter host a book club. For the first meeting, in February 2013, Mitter Duva choose the book – “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett — but now she gives the girls several choices, and the selection goes to a vote.
The girls don’t have to finish a book they don’t like, but they do have to read at least one third, and come prepared to explain their opinion. So far they’ve read — and liked — “Island’s End,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” “One Crazy Summer,” and “Out of My Mind,” among others.
On a recent Sunday, the book was “Esperanza Rising,” an award-winning novel set in 1930 that traces a Mexican girl’s fall from riches, when her father’s murder forces her and her mama to flee to California, where they live in a camp for Mexican farm workers.
“Does anyone know when this took place?” Mitter Duva asked the girls, as they nestled on couches, chairs, and a big bean bag.
Hands shot up.
“It was during the Great Depression,” Olivia said.
Sasha’s hand continued its enthusiastic waving.
“I see your hand Sasha,” Mitter Duva said.
Sasha: “It was a while ago. This was in California and the Mexicans had to be in tents and had to work on farms. In California they don’t really do that anymore.”
Mitter Duva: “That still happens.”
Sasha: “But it’s not as serious.”
Mitter Duva: “Well, it depends on whose perspective.”
Pretty soon, 45 minutes had elapsed, and the group began agitating for a snack and a vote on the next book.
“This is our last meeting until September,” Mitter Duva said, to dramatic expressions of sorrow. “So instead of selecting a long book, I’ve got four different series.”
“Ooooohhhh,” the girls cried.
“The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel” won in an eyes-closed vote, and then it was time to move to the deck for snacks. As always, they were on-theme. In this case, grapes, mango, papaya, hibiscus punch, and burritos.
As the girls devoured the fruit, and Mitter Duva served bean and cheese burritos, the members of the book club, who’d been discussing literature just moments earlier, transformed back into nine- and ten-year-olds. “I only want cheese, no beans,” one girl said, “I don’t want to fart.”
Mitter Duva, too, morphed, from the calmest educator possible, into a human mother. “I need a glass of wine,” she said.