It was a familiar sight at the John Jermain Memorial Library on Saturday morning in the children’s section. Two moms and their daughters sat in a circle discussing a book with Susann Farrell, the children and young adult librarian, and Cathy Creedon, director of the library.
The refreshments — an array of muffins, donuts, hot cocoa and coffee — and the topic of conversation, however, were out of the ordinary. Mother, Lisa DiRussa, and her daughter Isabella, age 9, debated the motivation of certain characters from the chapter book “The City of Ember” by Jeanne DuPrau. Lisa felt the character Doon Harrow should have told his father before embarking on a perilous mission away. Isabella, Lisa’s daughter, said Doon was simply trying to protect his father.
It is rare to find a parent and child intelligently hashing out the nuances of a book, but this was one reason Farrell and Creedon created the Saturday morning program “Bookclub and Breakfast for Parent and Child.”
After the club’s initial meeting ended, Creedon said “Both Susann and I love to read. We always talk about books together and it was nice to give parents a chance to do that with their children.”
DiRussa reads teen books as a way to “gain insight as to what is coming next” when her daughter becomes a teenager in a few years. When she and Isabella were reading “The City of Ember” simultaneously, she said it was nice to be able to discuss the book with her daughter, which is unusual since they rarely read the same books. During the meeting, Isabella was able to keep pace with her mother when talking about the plot points and themes of the book.
Farrell chose “Ember” because it explores universal themes found in children’s literature, like the child being the hero of the story and the children being able to see the world more clearly than the adults around them.
The Parent Child book club was started as an extension of the library’s four adult book clubs. In recent years, Farrell has increased the number of children’s programs to attract younger patrons to the library. In 2005, she debuted a summer book club for young adults, and 100 children participated in the first year. The book club boasted 300 members in 2008. Under Farrell’s guidance, the library created a teen reading room. Farrell runs a teen poetry and college writing program out of the space. In addition, she established a teen programming advisory committee, comprised of teen patrons who help her create programs and choose books for the library to purchase. One of Farrell’s more novel programs is T-Pac. For the program, children read manuscripts for a literary agency based in New York City.
“Susann is great with pulling kids in here and making them feel welcome. It’s because of that that they are likely to come back. They feel like this is their library,” said Creedon. “The original charter for the library calls for community [and children's] programs. There is 100 years of tradition for these types of programs here.”
Although the genre of children’s literature has a lengthy history, writing aimed at teenagers is a relatively new form of literature. Creedon credits “The Catcher in Rye” by J.D. Salinger with paving the way for teen literature. The book’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was an adolescent, thus the work couldn’t be defined as a strictly adult novel. In the 1970′s and 1980′s, Judy Blume reigned over the genre with her slice-of-life depictions of teenagers. The Harry Potter series debuted at the end of the 1990′s and sparked the current movement of teenage fantasy literature. Creedon and Farrell said that Harry Potter ushered in a whole new generation of readers.
Farrell’s programming efforts tap into a recent national movement to promote literacy. According to a study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), reading among 18 to 24-year-olds declined by nearly 20 percent in 2002. In order to combat this downward trend, teachers and librarians have made a concerted effort to create various national and local reading programs for teens in the last six years. A 2008 NEA study proved their strategies worked. The study showed a 21 percent increase in reading for the same age group.
In spite of these results, Farrell said, “I think it is harder to entice kids to read books unless they have been fed them when they were young, and shown how you can get so much more from a book than from a video.”
For DiRussa, literacy education begins in the home.
“At night, I always read to my kids. It’s the way we end our day,” said DiRussa. “It was never hard to interest Isabella in reading because she loves to read.”
The “Bookclub and Breakfast for Parent and Child” will meet again on February 21 at 9:30 a.m.
Above: JJ Library Director Cathy Creedon explores the themes in “City of Ember” with participants of the “Bookclub and Breakfast for Parent and Child.”