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What’s a Book For? Some Things to Consider when Planning for Conversations

This post is written by NCTE member, Richard Meyer, who will be participating in a symposium at the Whole Language Institute (WLU) this summer. 

Meyer 23My copy of Grand Conversations (Peterson & Eeds, 1990) is very well worn. The book flops open to my favorite parts just like any book (and teaching resource) that we come to love deeply, value as teachers, and rely on to influence our students’ thinking. I hadn’t heard of book clubs when I first read Grand Conversations, but now it seems that everyone I know is in a book club. My wife’s book club reads some of the greatest new fiction and nonfiction they can locate. When I ask her how her group’s meeting went on one particular evening, she answers, “We did what we always do. Some of us read the book. Some didn’t. We order wine and some tasty appetizers. We talk a little about the book and then we talk about our kids, our jobs, our spouses, our joys, and our worries.”

“What about the book?” I ask.

She grins. “We’re usually done with the book really fast, and then we get into getting caught up with each other. By the time we finish that, we all have to leave—but not until someone suggests the next book!”

Her group’s book serves a few purposes. First, since she has to finish it within a month, it is an excuse to leave other things behind and just read. That’s a really good purpose. It’s also a legitimate reason to be social. That, too, is a fine purpose for a book. Sadly, it also reminds all the members of the group that they have tight schedules with no time to discuss a book, and because of that, the social part of a book group takes over.

What about in school? It seems that between NCLB and the CCSS, books have been repurposed to serve as measures of fluency, vocabulary, text-based (closely read) comprehension, and even as a place to study phonics. I’ve just finished my memoir, which I can imagine 9-year-olds through 99-year-olds reading. Actually, it’s an exaggerated memoir because I’m just not sure if I’m recalling all these events with objective clarity, but my recollections make me who I am and that’s who and what I present in the book. Engaging in a grand conversation about my book would be the biggest complement that any reader could offer. A grand conversation is not a check of any literacy skills; it’s an active discussion about this question: “What do you think?”

Readers of my book—or any book—will understand the story. And if they don’t, they can certainly ask other readers what they think something means. I didn’t write the story to teach a specific reading skill. Readers will learn those in spite of my writing. I wrote the book to see what others think and with the hope that they’ll talk to one another about my life during the summer when I was 9 years old. When I dare to cross a forbidden street, what do you think? When I think back about the hugeness of my fourth-grade teacher’s rear end, what do you think? What I’m beaten up because I’m Jewish, lie to my parents, try to build a robot, or climb a tree to hide, what do you think? When readers engage in conversations about books, those books make them better people, thoughtful people, enraged people, and people provoked to engage in some action. That’s a grand conversation. It’s the real reason for a book.

You can find more about Flush: The Exaggerated Memoir of a Fourth Grade Scaredy-Cat Super-Hero here. If you want to learn the truth about me as a reader, have a read of the interview with me here.

Peterson, R., & Eeds, M. (1990). Grand conversations: Literature groups in action. New York: Scholastic.

Rick Meyer has been a writer since he could talk. He’s a professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, as well as a husband, father, and grandfather. He wants to know what you think.