No, not those kinds of services. People, get your minds out of the gutter!
I met Marsha Toy Engstrom at the 2008 Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. We hit it off immediately, sharing both a common sense of humor and outgoing personalities. Marsha was just getting her website, The Book Club Cheerleader, put together, and I was writing my humor column for the Placentia News-Times. Freezer Burn was but a twinkle in the back of my mind. We had a great time that weekend, and kept in touch.
The concept of a cheerleader for book clubs intrigued me, and, being an enquiring mind, I had some questions for her. What I discovered was a woman who injects energy into everything she touches, including her answers to my questions! I was going to edit Marsha's answers so my post wouldn't be too long, but I can't bear to remove one word. I'm going to post our interview over the next two days, so you can feel the enthusiasm for yourselves.
All I can say is, I want to go out and start a book club, just so I can have as much fun as Marsha!
1. Is your coaching service available online only, or do you make house calls? If so, how many pom-poms do you bring?
Gayle, the last part of that question is always the toughest one for me! Pom poms are not like little black dresses—or even coach’s whistles—where you know you can pack just one. So it really depends on how many participants you expect. You need at least one per person—preferably two. And then there’s the question of color—do you match what you’re wearing—or do you match the home décor? Is the occasion special enough to bring the metallic pom poms and wear the sparkle Nikes?
I do make house calls—I hold public workshops with my business partner, but I love to make private house calls; they're the best. Book clubs have invited me to help them facilitate the process of choosing their group name, coordinate icebreakers to kick-off their meetings, and observe their group processes and give them feedback. Each reading group is different, and what they want to achieve varies, so I love the diversity of visiting different clubs.
2. What's the best experience you've ever had with a book and a club?
Wow—I’ve had so many truly great experiences with reading groups—it’s hard to pick just one!
One time, I visited a book club to facilitate a fun activity called “Hat’s Off’ where a half the group holds a mock decision-making meeting while wearing hats, and the other half of the group observes their interaction. Each hat tells all the other group members how to treat the wearer, i.e. “Agree with me”, “I’m the Leader”, “My Ideas Stink”, etc. It’s fairly short and it typically takes about 30 minutes to conduct the activity and facilitate a discussion of group culture, power, unwritten rules, etc. This group had so much fun role-playing, and then was so interested in what the results meant, that we spent over an hour debriefing and discussing their group dynamics. They really got into it—it was a powerful learning experience for them.
Another time, a group asked me to facilitate a team-building session at their off-site on personality differences. I asked them to take an assessment ahead of time, giving them directions on how to score it. They arrived at the off-site ready to find out what their personality type meant—and how each affects their reading group as a whole. Not only did the group have a fun and high-energy learning experience while I was there, but also I’m told that for the rest of the weekend, they kept bringing up various aspects of what they learned about themselves as new “aha’s.” That is one of the greatest compliments a facilitator can get!
3. How does your group choose their reading list?
My own neighborhood book club, Readers in the Hood™, chooses our books two to three months in advance. Other groups I work with choose anywhere from 6-12 months in advance. Our club’s first rule is that you must have read the book to suggest it. (Yes—we have a couple of horror stories about books that got good press, but no one in our group had read them before suggesting, and they bombed…) Many of our group members use on-line resources including Book Browse and Reading Group Guides, as well as other print publications such as Bookmarks and The New York Review of Books to help find potentially good book club selections. Everyone is encouraged to bring a nominee or two. We then go around the room, Round Robin style, with each member telling a bit about the book, and why she believes it would make good discussion material. Finally, we take a vote, and the book with the most votes wins. If it’s a tie, we have our selection for the following month as well. We also keep a detailed history of past selections by genre, with the average group grade. This reminds us what types of books we’ve enjoyed reading and discussing in the past (Multi-cultural and Coming of Age are two popular themes for our group) and also encourages us to keep diversity in our reading.
4. I tend to think of book clubs as being fiction-readers, but is that accurate?
Some are, however, many book clubs enjoy reading a variety of types of books including biographies, memoirs, and history in addition to the typical literary novel. According to Reading Group Guides, 5 of their Top 45 book club selections for 2008, or 11%, were non-fiction tomes. These included contemporary book club favorites such as A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls; and enduring favorites like The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.
Readers in the Hood™ has selected 15 out of 50, or 30% of our reading list to include non-fiction books. Some of our favorites include: The Color of Water by James McBride, The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Honeymoon with My Brother by Franz Wisner, Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy by Robert Leleux, Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, and Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer.
Most reading groups tell me that they enjoy reading a diverse reading list, and with so many great non-fiction books available, it would be hard to exclude them. (And then there are the books that were classified as Nonfiction, that turn out to be fiction—but we probably shouldn’t go there, should we, Mr. Frey?)
5. Do you ever abandon a book?
We subscribe to Nancy Pearl’s “50-page rule.” It states basically —and I’m paraphrasing—that life is too short to read bad books. And we’re not snobs here—a ‘bad book’ is simply one that you do not enjoy reading. So if you read the first 50 pages and you are completely underwhelmed, the author has not done his or her job—which was to hook you. You, therefore, have permission to ditch that puppy and move on in search of your next great read. In a book club discussion, this means that the person just needs to tell the group, “I invoked the 50-page rule” and no one will think any worse of you. Sometimes that person can add to the discussion by telling what didn’t work for her, and other times she just won’t be able to add much to the conversation. But reading book club books is not homework for English 101. Reading should remain an enjoyable aspect of our adult lives—not a drudgery. Thanks, Nancy!
See, isn't she great? Tomorrow, we'll talk about bad book (and group) experiences, and what's next on the horizon for our Book Club Cheerleader.
(Marsha and her Readers in the Hood, at the Forsyte Saga event. Marsha is at the top, left.)
Get your pom poms ready and join us!