How does a parent get to talk to a child? Long ago when I was learning to be a teenager, the only times I ever really talked to my father were when we sat in the car waiting for my mother and sisters to come out of the house for church. Something about not being face-to-face, I suppose. Shireen Dodson, the associate director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, had a better way: five years ago she organized a mother-daughter book club.
Not only did she make a great permanent connection to her daughters Morgan and Skylar, but she wrote a book, The Mother-Daughter Book Club (HarperPerennial), that helped launch hundreds of such clubs. If you ask me, the reading of books and more books is perhaps our best single defense against dumbing-down and mental apathy and many of the other ills attributed to TV.
I went to a meeting of Dodson's club — ten mothers and their daughters, who now, after several years, are handsome girls of 12 and 13. The group hadn't met all summer ("They're so tall!" one mother remarked), and it took a while for everyone to settle down in the living room of the suburban Washington, D.C. home of the hosting mother and daughter.
The mothers sat around a coffee table laden with veggies and dips, and their daughters sprawled on the floor at their feet. The book everybody had read for the occasion was Holes, by Louis Sachar, nominally about a detention camp for boys but actually about human relations.
At first the talk centered on the plot and characters, with teenage hostess Brittney Fraser asking the questions. The mothers talked a lot, and occasionally the girls had to shush them.
Then suddenly they were discussing what is meant by "popular," and how a girl gets to be that way. The talk took on a new urgency; everyone spoke at once.
A daughter: "Everybody knows it. It's whether you're popular with the guys."
A mom: "We always identified it with being liked, being pretty. So what makes a junior high school girl pretty? Everyone's walking around with braces, still trying to figure out what to do with their hair: What is pretty?"
A daughter: "Pretty is not the same as being liked."
Another daughter: "You can look good, but if the guys don't like you, you're not popular."
A mom: "We're coming back to the underlying theme: it's the guys who define popularity."
A mom: "So how do boys show that they like you?"
A daughter: "Oh, it's when they talk to you after school. A lot of popular girls let everyone know it, and they can be kind of snotty about it."
Then we got down to specifics: popularity is different at an all-girls school than at a coed school; it's different at big schools, where "there are just too many people to have one most-popular." There are groups and a pecking order among the groups, one daughter explained.
And then there are girls who are popular just because they are, and others — like the smart ones and the top athletes — who are popular for a reason. "The cute girls were the dumb ones in Philadelphia when I was growing up," one mother remarked.
Gradually a picture emerged of life today in junior high school, what it meant to be smart and a girl, and how some teachers were biased toward the smart ones. The prettiest, someone said, were the most confident. And that also helped in their popularity with the boys.
The chatter went on for an hour, and it dawned on me that everybody was learning something rather basic here: the girls, that their moms had gone through pretty much what they were now experiencing; the mothers, that they actually had things in common with their hip daughters.
The idea for the book club came to Shireen Dodson when she and a friend were walking on a beach at Martha's Vineyard, trying to make some sense out of their bright but mysterious 9-year-old daughters.
"Morgan is my middle child," said Dodson. "She kind of danced to her own drummer, but she loved to read and was very social. How could I get to know her better? And suddenly the lightbulb went on: a book club for mothers and daughters!"
The idea was a hit from the start. Morgan picked ten girls her own age, not just her best friends but acquaintances from church and the Girl Scouts and other places.
"It's more her club than mine," Dodson said. "The girls make up the questions and lead the discussions and do the food. Our group has been pretty consistent — we've lost a couple and picked up a couple, and I've become really good friends with the other moms."
Dodson and her husband, Leroy Fykes, and their three children are all avid readers. The oldest child, Leroy III, is in college now, and the youngest, Skylar, 9, has started a second club. A family friend has organized a father-son reading club, and Dodson said she has heard of mother-son clubs as well as grandmothers and grandchildren. "It really works for any adult-child combination."
The beauty of the book clubs is that, under the guise of discussing characters in a book, you can express your own feelings. As in, "I have this friend who..."
A vital benefit of these nonconfrontational meetings, a forum where girls can become passionate in their opinions and hear how they sound to others, is that once the barriers are down the girls tend to talk much more freely with their mothers outside the club.
Dodson recommends that a club span no more than two grades of school. With any wider age spread, girls find they are dealing with very different issues.
"When the same thing doesn't strike the whole group as funny, you have a division," she said. The Mother-Daughter Book Club is chock-full of such useful tips as well as suggested reading lists.
At this first meeting of the club year, the girls brought books they had read during the summer that they would propose for the club. I was curious about what exactly they read, and Dodson promptly gave me a copy of her second book, 100 Books for Girls to Grow On.
It's a wonderful mix. The stories go back to Colonial America and forward into the sci-fi future, notably Zimbabwe in the year 2194.
"It's mostly modern literature," Dodson noted, "because this is not school. It's for fun."
Certainly I hadn't expected The Mill on the Floss, and I was glad to see that it had gone far beyond the Nancy Drew books. The list includes The Chronicles of Narnia,Charlotte's Web, the Little House series, and works by Ray Bradbury, Maya Angelou, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Miller.
"Some of them are definitely what you would call boys' books," Dodson said, "partly because girls need to know what goes through boys' heads and partly because a good book is a good book. If it's written well and offers a good opportunity for discussion, why not?"
Her first book quotes Alice Letvin, who was once president of the Great Books Foundation: "Sometimes children are locked into their own realities. They can become trapped in their own perceptions. One of the great positive and liberating things about discussing a rich story is seeing all the different ways of looking at it that people in the group bring. It can be highly motivating, a kind of revelation for the child."
She is right. It is a creative act to read to oneself, but when you and your friend get something different from the same book, and can talk about it, that's education.