Bonding through Books

A good read gives mothers and daughters much more to talk about than just the plot

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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."

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