“There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”
Several years ago, shortly after I left my job as Arts Presenter for the university in my town, my sleepy historic neighborhood became populated with children. On my block alone, we gained three young girls, approximately ten years of age, and one baby boy. The first summer they were in residence, the girls regularly found themselves in my kitchen unsolicited, colorful bicycles scattered at my doorstep. My husband hypothesized that this resulted from the wafts of aromas drifting from the soups, casseroles, cakes and cookies that I concocted regularly. He surmised that, like a hungry witch in a fairy tale, I must be surreptitiously luring the children to our home. At first I simply presented them with lemonade and cookies, but as time went by I became concerned that they were not having a more productive summer. As a former teacher turned writer, I knew the intrinsic value of structured activities, whether they be physical or intellectual. One day as they stared at me over a plate of cookies I proclaimed to them that if they were going to spend so much time at my house, then they needed to do something productive. As the words spilled from my lips I had visions of them polishing my silver and rearranging my pantry. My life could become more orderly if I could put these chickadees to work. Before I could elaborate on my plans however, one of the girls excitedly erupted, “I wish we could have a book club, but we don’t know how to do it!”
The words “book club” were music to my ears, for I have enjoyed book clubs for my entire adult life. Reading well written, engaging stories has become an imperative in my life. Never one to get my heart rate up over sporting competitions or rock concerts, from a young age I found my soulmates in books. For that, I blame my mother who always had a book in hand and made sure I did too from the day I was old enough to hold one. Jack and Jane, Blueberries for Sal, Loud Mouse, Nancy Drew, Jane Eyre. Collectively, they served as my gateway books. It didn’t take long before I was hopelessly hooked. I remember the first time sat in the bathtub reading a book until the water turned cold. Nancy, Bess and George were in there with me. I was not yet ten years old. So yes, a book club I could handle, even if it meant that my silver would remain tarnished.
The girls and I met for an official planning meeting. I assumed that we would meet monthly, as did my adult book club, rotating hostess duty after reading the same book collectively. We would enjoy a meal together and discuss the characters, themes, conflicts, settings and relevance of the book. Fine. I told the girls my plan and was promptly nudged off course.
“Well, we were thinking that you would have us over here and you would make it like a tea party. You know? Pretty with flowers like you do for parties. We think we should meet once a week."
I chuckled to myself as I thought, “Of course you think we should meet once a week. I set the table, I make the tea, I make the food, I pick and arrange the flowers, I wash the dishes. Once a week. Sounds like a sweet deal for you.” I didn’t say those things, though. Instead, I diplomatically compromised.
“How about this? I’ll set the table with pretty dishes and flowers and make two pots of tea. I will provide the books and we will meet once a week. We will each read the same few chapters prior to our meetings and I will lead the discussion, but we will rotate the snack. I will provide the food one week, then each of you can bring it for the next three weeks. It can be anything from homemade cake to store bought cookies. Your choice. That is my final offer.” Such a tough negotiator. They agreed and we began to meet weekly, each Monday from 3:30 until 5:00. The tea party element went smashingly, but I quickly recognized that some of the girls were not pre-reading before our gatherings. Some did, some didn’t, but it was hit and miss which made for fragmented discussion, so I came up with plan B which I presented at a meeting after several weeks of double clutching a book discussion.
“It has become clear that pre-reading is not working, so you will no longer have to read the book on your own. Instead, you will leave the books here and we will read them aloud for the entire meeting. That way, we can be sure that we are all actually reading the story. If you don’t feel like reading out loud on any given day, you may simply say “I pass.” At each meeting, one of you will be assigned the dictionary. When we hit a word that is new, we will look it up and discuss it. The dictionary girl will keep a list of all the new words. At the end of the meeting, you all will make up a skit from one of the chapters we have read aloud that day. You can prepare and rehearse it while I clear the table and load the dishwasher. Once the table and kitchen are clean, I will come watch the skit. Oh, and you must use at least two of the new words in the skit.”
They liked the revised format, and so did I. The Neighborhood Book Club took on a new flavor. No longer did the book club sport any likeness of the homework assignments they dutifully toted back to our street each day. What was left was a beautiful, civilized, orderly party unlike any other that they had ever attended, and what began to grow was a camaraderie between the girls, so I began to seek out other girls to join us. When one girl moved out of town, I replaced her and added another one or two. I found myself intentionally seeking out girls who did not always fit into the standard recipe of school, sports, cheerleading/dance team. Some fit that mold, but not all of them. Some came from nontraditional families, some struggled emotionally, some were on the homecoming court, some had no rhythm, some felt embarrassed by their family situations. Many of them had never met each other until that first Monday in September, but by December, they were operating like Navy SEALS, protecting each other, supporting each other, encouraging each other and forgiving each other. The books we read provide common seeds for friendships but, if the truth be told, Neighborhood Book Club has taken on a life of its own.
Our little group of three pre-teens plus me has grown into a ensemble of seven teenage girls from three different schools plus one matron. None of the girls in the club lives in the neighborhood, but we kept the name because, well, the club is our neighborhood. One of the girls told me recently that she used to hate Mondays because Mondays represented a fresh week of being bullied at school. Now, however, Mondays mean that she starts her week with a story flanked by two pots of tea, a vase full of fresh flowers, and a platter of something sweet and frosted. She said that Neighborhood Book Club helped her find her tribe. She had never had a tribe before now, but now she is a part of the best one ever. Me too.
Donna Gay Anderson is the founder of the Neighborhood Book Club, a reading community for young girls. After graduating from Southeastern Louisiana University with a BA in Speech, she attended the National Shakespeare Company Conservatory in New York City. She worked as an actress before accepting a position as Director of Children and Teen Division at Gilla Roos Talent Agency in New York. After moving back to Louisiana (everyone eventually does), she taught Theater and English at the high school level before becoming Director of Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts and it annual festival, Fanfare. She now writes plays is currently pursuing an MFA Creative Writing with a concentration in playwriting at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is the author of High and Mighty, a musical which debuted in November of 2015 at Southeastern Louisiana University to a sold out run. Sections of the work were featured at the American College Theatre Festival, Region VI in 2016, where Donna Gay also served as a presenter. Previously produced works are An Act of Charity (New York) and Formula One (Louisiana). In 2016, she was a finalist in the one act play category of the New Orleans Tennessee Williams Literary Festival for Shrimp and Crab, and the winner of the So You Think You Can Write Celebration of the Written Word for her one act, Blues. In summer of 2017, her ten minute play Customs and Immigration received a reading at Chicago Dramatists. Donna Gay is a member of Theatre Communications Group, Dramatists Guild of America and Chicago Dramatists. She loves good stories and sharing them over a cup of tea. She also loves her husband Tom, and shares a happy home with him in Louisiana.