On recent evening, Margaret Cooper led a book discussion on The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo.
"Raise your hand if you enjoyed the book," said Cooper, the children's librarian at the Elkridge library branch.
Everyone raised a hand. Then Cooper started asking questions. "Why did Despereaux's father and the Mouse Council feel that Despereaux was a danger to the whole mouse community?" Cooper asked.
Several hands flew up.
"Because they heard he was born with his eyes open, and he had big ears," replied Jeffrey Tilley, 7, of Elkridge.
Next she called on Megha Sharma. "Despereaux wasn't following the mouse rules," she said.
The discussion was part of a book club started about five years ago at the library to meet the growing demand for groups for children ages 7 to 9.
The Elks Jr. Book Club was begun in response to several parents' requests for a discussion group for younger children. Other county library branches offer clubs for teenagers and adults.
"We had a mother-daughter book club," said Cooper. "But parents wanted something for younger children that could also include boys and fathers."
Cooper begins preparing for club meetings in the summer, when she selects the books. "I try to alternate the books, so that one month a girl is the main character and the next month a boy is the lead character," said Cooper. She also chooses authors who have written multiple books, she said.
"If they like the book I select, they can go out into the library and find other books by the same author," she said. "Then the kids can continue reading authors they know they enjoy." Then Cooper finds craft projects to coincide with the book the children are reading.
The books are pulled from county library branches, and the children have a month to read each book, said Cooper.
20 children enrolled
This year about 20 children enrolled in the one-hour program, held the third Thursday of each month. Children must be accompanied by an adult who stays with them throughout the session.
Sandra Tilley began attending the session with Jeffrey this year. She was looking for an educational activity that she could do with her son. She began bringing Jeffrey to the book club alone. Then one month she was sick and her husband brought him. He liked it so much that both parents come now.
"We all enjoy it," she said. "We are reading books we would never have been exposed to otherwise. Now, when Jeffrey reads the books, he looks at them in a different way."
The club also has the family reading together.
"We take turns reading the books out loud," said Tilley. "We read sometimes every night. Then we have a discussion of our own at home. Jeffrey's learning new vocabulary, and he enjoys reading."
When Jeffrey and the other children arrive at the library, they start by filling out a worksheet, usually a Criss Cross puzzle provided by Cooper. Then Cooper leads the discussion, followed by a question-and-answer session that lasts about 20 minutes. Although both the children and their parents read the book, the children answer the questions. After the discussion, the children do a craft that relates to the book.
"The program has been a hit," said Cooper, who registered two new children at the February meeting. "We started with a few people the first year and now we have more than 20 children registered. And people keep signing up."