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A long-standing book discussion group gives children’s literature lovers the chance to enhance their evaluative skills and grow professionally.
Earlier this year Capitol Choices, a venerable Washington, D.C., area book discussion group, unveiled its new Web site, designed to allow people from all over the world to follow and participate in its discussions and selection of an annual list. Capitol Choices’ open invitation to talk about books has considerable local appeal, and members who have moved away often stay involved. But what is it about this particular group that has made it so successful, and how can other children’s book lovers create such a group in their part of the country?
History and Purpose
Capitol Choices has distinguished antecedents. Starting in 1964, Virginia Haviland, founding head of the Center for Children’s Literature at the Library of Congress, met regularly with a small group of area librarians to select an annual list of recommended books for children from preschool through junior-high age. After her retirement in 1981, the group continued to meet for 15 more years under the leadership of Margaret N. Coughlan, reference specialist.
Those who were involved in selection for the Library’s “Books for Children” remember spirited discussions, with Coughlan standing at the head of a table and wielding a big gavel. “Well, Duckies,” she would say, and off they would go. Meeting in a succession of odd corners, the group was eventually relegated to the stacks where old card catalogs were stored. “The good humor, fun, camaraderie, and sometimes misbehavior we remember are a testament to Peggy Coughlan and what she did for each of us as individuals and for the field,” said Maria Salvadore, former coordinator of children’s services for the District of Columbia Public Library system.
Eventually, the Library gave up its list and disbanded the group. Ann Friedman, director of the Arlington (Va.) Public Library and a member of Haviland’s original group, offered a new home on the condition that there would be some tangible result. With that, the new Capitol Choices list was born. Books for high-school readers were also considered, and audiobooks were added in 1999.
Meetings and membership have always been open; no invitation is necessary. From its small group beginnings, Capitol Choices has grown to about 60 active members; many more come occasionally to our monthly book discussions and/or subscribe to our electronic discussion list. School and public librarians, writers, teachers and college professors, booksellers, reviewers, magazine editors, an audiobook publisher, and a number of retired “children’s literature specialists” are all part of the mix. Our final list of 100 titles is published yearly in a booklet that now includes not only annotations but also color reproductions of book covers. Up to 5,000 copies are printed and distributed to members, and through them to libraries, school groups, and professional meetings.
Earlier this year, board members and past and present reading group coordinators met to take stock, draft a strategic plan, and discuss leadership succession. To these 18 leaders, what Capitol Choices represents, first and foremost, is high-quality, structured book discussions. They see the discussions and the lists as ways to keep members current, to help library staffs decide about acquisition or placement in a library collection, and to identify quality titles for special readers, for gifts, and for readers’ advisory. They believe that the organization’s value lies in the diversity of titles considered, the online presence, and the mix of book lovers, the professional connections they form, and their common interest and purpose. This organization, unique in the region, not only promotes quality literature but also develops and enhances evaluative skills. For many participants it is a prime source for professional growth.
Although anyone may look at the Web site, attend discussions, and even participate if they have read the title under discussion, the nomination process—the first step to placing a book on the discussion agenda—is only open to reading group members. Group members are self-selected each year; they commit to reading all the titles nominated for a particular age group in a year. But they may nominate titles for any group (ages up to 7, 7–10, 10–14, 14 and up, and audiobook). Many Capitol Choices members are in a position to see advance copies of children’s books. They read and write reviews and seek out likely candidates. Nominations are submitted on the Web with a short supporting statement. Books cannot actually be placed on the discussion agenda, however, until the month of publication.
The Arlington Central Library—where we meet—keeps a special collection of books that are or might be nominated for Capitol Choices. These books, mostly sent by publishers, circulate among the members. Access to books is a critical component to our success. We are fortunate to have strong public library systems, local independent bookstores, a healthy relationship with many publishers (cultivated over years of conference attendance), and a culture of sharing.
While 40 or 50 people may turn up for the monthly meetings, the actual number of people discussing a book is usually much smaller. Each meeting considers a specific list of titles. Only people who have read the entire book may contribute. If too few people have read it, the title will be held over for a month or even two. Following discussion guidelines developed more than 20 years ago by Ginny Moore Kruse and Kathleen T. Horning at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the moderator (the appropriate reading group coordinator) calls for positive comments first. After everyone has had a chance to speak to the book’s strengths (without reiterating what someone else has said), concerns may be raised. From time to time we are reminded to phrase these gently: “Did anyone else have difficulty keeping track of the large cast of characters?” “Perhaps I’m too old to read green type on a gray background!” “Milk is not good for kittens. Does that matter?” The many different viewpoints at the table make for lively discussions, but they are usually polite. Senior members are conscious of the need to model book discussion skills and to encourage new participants to speak up.
We talk about plot and character development, setting and voice, the quality of illustrations, and even design and production. Last year’s list preface explained: “We include titles that we believe have child or teen appeal in addition to the qualities that mark good books: clarity, accuracy, credibility, and that most elusive quality of all, distinguished writing and illustration.” We ask, “Who is this book for?” Sometimes those who deal directly with young people report their experiences, either in the table discussion or later on the Listserv. Sometimes it’s unclear what ages a book is aimed at. Some books are clearly for what librarians call the “special reader,” but those readers are important at libraries. Some “show well”—good books for story hours; some are better for an individual reader or a listener on the lap.
We note errors—typographical and factual—and wonder if they are important enough to negate the strengths of the book. We remind ourselves that no book is perfect. We wonder about unacknowledged sources, unacknowledged homages, stories we’ve seen before. We remind ourselves that our two hundredth book about Abraham Lincoln may be a young reader’s first. In our choices we aim for balance, but publishing years are never balanced. How many books by Mo Willems should we include in a year even if they are ALL splendid? Should we include the second of a series? The last? (All seven Harry Potter titles made the lists, sometimes as books and sometimes as audiobooks.) We remind ourselves to talk about the book at hand, not the book we wish the author had written.
Twice a year, reading group members vote on the books that have been discussed so far. At the end of the year, each group meets to select titles for the booklet. These might be the highest overall vote getters, the highest vote getters among members of the group (who are presumed to be able to compare all books nominated in their category), or books that had the highest percentage of “yes” votes. Annotations are written. The board finalizes and publishes the list.
Do It Yourself
Books to Practice On
Longtime Capitol Choices member Susan Hepler suggested that a fledgling discussion group might want to start off with some readily available older titles as books to practice on. Current Capitol Choices members had many suggestions—books that generated controversy, interesting long discussions, and perennial questions. Here are a dozen, organized by age level as we organize our discussions. We also discuss audiobooks at every session, but since many of those books have been discussed first as texts, comments are usually limited to the book as a listening experience.
Up to Age 7
How to Heal a Broken Wing. By Bob Graham. Illus. by the author. 2008. 40p. Candlewick, $16.99 (9780763639037).
This child-centered book is astonishingly rich in its imagery and set off a long discussion about the qualities of a good picture book. Capitol Choices members enjoyed pointing out details on each page. But some were concerned about the practicality of the pigeon rescue shown.
In a Blue Room. By Jim Averbeck. Illus. by Tricia Tusa. 2008. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152059927).
This was appreciated as a traditional bedtime story, but the room in Tusa’s illustrations is not blue until the end. Will children understand? Will adults? Is it a good book if adults have to explain? Do the lines scan well when read aloud? (This is always an issue for books for this age group.)
Pretty Salma: A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa. By Niki Daly. Illus. by the author. 2007. 32p. Clarion, $16 (9780618723454).
This lively, humorous retelling of a traditional tale in an unusual and modern setting engendered the usual concerns about cultural stereotyping, the provision of sourcing (always an issue for folktales), and the portrayal of a generic “Africa”—as well as plenty of admiration.
17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore. By Jenny Offill. Illus. by Nancy Carpenter. 2006. 32p. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $15.99 (9780375835964).
Is this funny and inventive or simply a celebration of bad behavior? Is the misbehaving girl mischievous or mean? Is there a story arc? What about the ending? Does it send an inappropriate message?
Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude. By Jonah Winter. Illus. by Calef Brown. 2009. 40p. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781416940883).
Who is the audience for this amazing introduction to Gertrude Stein’s approach to the world? Should the book provide more context? Do elementary-age children need to know about Stein? What is the appropriate way to discuss the relationship between Stein and Alice B. Toklas? The question of child appeal is raised for many books.
Redwoods. By Jason Chin. Illus. by the author. 2009. 40p. Roaring Brook, $16.99 (9781596434301).
A boy reading a book about redwoods on the subway imagines it so vividly it seems to come to life around him. Is this fiction or nonfiction? The writing is straight exposition, not unlike an encyclopedia entry. The illustrations convey a completely different tone, providing a delightful fantasy adventure that is also curiously recursive.
Heart of a Shepherd. By Rosanne Parry. 2009. 176p. Random, $15.99 (9780375848025); lib. ed., $18.99 (9780375948022); paper, $6.99 (9780375848032). Also available in audio and e-book editions.
Capitol Choices readers wondered if our mostly urban, East Coast students, patrons, and customers might find it difficult to connect to a story of an Oregon farm boy discovering a religious vocation; others thought that was exactly the reason to place it on our list. Is it too sentimental? Is its appeal limited to a particular part of the country?
The Underneath. By Kathy Appelt. 2008. 320p. Atheneum, $17.99 (9781416950585); paper, $7.99 (9781416950592). Also available in an audio edition.
This story about a calico cat, her two kittens, an old bloodhound, and an angry, embittered man called Gar-Face probably engendered the most passionate discussion of the past 10 years, as admirers of the craft of the writing argued with those who sensed an author’s heavy hand and those who objected to the animal cruelty. Does it have too much or not enough fantasy? What age is it for? There was discussion about the accuracy of illustrations as well.
When the Whistle Blows. By Fran Slayton. 2009. 160p. Philomel, $16.99 (9780399251894); paper, $6.99 (9780142417324). Also available in an e-book edition. Paperback edition available in November.
These interconnected stories set in the 1940s grow more serious as the protagonist matures, making it difficult to categorize this book. We appreciated the craft of this well-written reminiscence but worried about its adult sensibility. It was initially suggested for older readers, but there was general agreement that many scenes were more appropriate for middle school. Audience is a question that is often debated hotly.
Ages 14 and up
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. By Sherman Alexie. 2007. 240p. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316013680); paper, $8.99 (9780316013697). Also available in an audio edition.
We enjoyed the semiautobiographical story of ninth-grader Arnold Spirit’s life on the “rez,” along with the humor and the well-developed characters. We noted that the subject and combination of cartoons and text would appeal to reluctant readers as well as those who appreciate its literary elements. Does it reinforce stereotypes? This title was also discussed at some length as an audiobook, where the question was whether the author had been the best choice as reader.
Crossing Stones. By Helen Frost. 2009. 192p. Farrar/Frances Foster, $16.99 (9780374316532). Also available in an e-book edition.
This historical novel is a fine example of the new genre of verse novel. Capitol Choices members admired the craft and the author’s ability to convey differing attitudes toward World War I. They were surprised to find out how much form the author imposed on her content; the forms helped readers and didn’t intrude. But there was still a question of audience—especially with an unappealing cover.
Living Dead Girl. By Elizabeth Scott. 2008. 176p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9781416960591); paper, $8.99 (9781416960607). Also available in an audio edition.
In this novel a kidnapped and sexually abused 15-year-old, now too mature for her abuser, is required to look for another young girl to take her place. YA fiction is often grittier and more disturbing than adults would like. Is this masterfully written or a sensational case study? How can you write a book in which the character has no character? How does an author make an unlikable character appealing? Our own comfort levels sometimes get in the way of our assessment of books for teen readers.
Kathleen T. Isaacs, longtime middle-school teacher and occasional librarian, teaches children’s literature at Towson University (Md.), reviews for professional journals, and is a longtime member of Capitol Choices.
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