Literary bonds: Authors reveal benefits of mother-daughter book clubs
By Steve Pfarrer, Staff Writer
Reprinted with permission from the Wednesday, May 28, 2014, Daily Hampshire Gazette
Reading has always been a great pastime for Lori Day and her daughter, Charlotte Kugler. Day, a writer and educational psychologist who lives in Newburyport, introduced Charlotte to books at an early age, and Charlotte, who graduated from Mount Holyoke College May 18 with a double major in English and anthropology, has already written her first novel.
But Day and Kugler also shared a special literary bond when Kugler was in elementary and middle school: The two were part of a mother-daughter book club. That experience has inspired their collaboration on “Her Next Chapter,” a book written by Day — with key contributions from Kugler — that proposes mother-daughter book clubs can build confident young women, inoculating them against some of the more ugly manifestations of pop culture and sexism.
“Her Next Chapter,” published by Chicago Review Press, looks back on the experience Day and Kugler shared and forward to the next generation of girls, all of whom are dealing with an ever-growing online world — from texting to Facebook to Instagrams — that Day says can exacerbate issues girls already contend with, including bullying and body image.
“Things have changed so dramatically in just the last 15 years,” Day said in a phone call from her home. “I wrote this book because I think mother-daughter book clubs can play a big part in teaching media literacy ... they can give girls a space to be girls, to discover positive images for women and girls and get away from all the toxic messages the media sends out every day.”
Kugler says taking part in the club with her mother for six years, between third grade and her first year of high school, not only furthered her interest in reading (and writing) but helped her develop a closer bond with her mother and with the other girls in the group. More specifically, she says, reading books with strong female characters helped shape her own voice, giving her a strong foundation to forge her identity.
“It gave me the tools to become more independent as I got older, and I think I learned to really reflect on moral choices,” said Kugler, 22. “If I saw someone being bullied [in school], I’d try to stop it. ... I think we all developed a lot of confidence from being part of the group.”
Day, whose writing includes regular contributions to The Huffington Post, says there’s no reason that father-son book clubs can’t be beneficial, or for that matter any other combination of older and younger readers. But she sees a particular value in mothers helping their daughters by sharing books about girls and women, particularly given how many books and other forms of media are built around male characters.
“It’s not an easy world for girls to grow up in,” she said. “And this was a great experience not just for the girls in the group, but for the moms as well.”
Good books/social issues
In “Her Next Chapter,” Day and Kugler write about how they formed and structured their book club, and they offer advice on how to get one started, good books to discuss, and related media such as movies that address similar themes. But much of the book is also given over to the larger social issues that Day says girls must contend with: having their value defined by their looks and other forms of sexism, for instance, or media cues that encourage girl-on-girl bullying.
Though Day did most of the writing, she says she relied heavily on her daughter for many other aspects of its production; editing, copy editing and general brainstorming. Kugler also added her reflections at the conclusion of several chapters, and she recommended books for others to read.
“Writing with Charlotte is a dream,” Day said. “She’s an excellent editor and writer and she has great ideas ... some of the best parts of writing the book were just thinking and talking with her about how to shape the chapters.”
Kugler says she’s been writing for years herself — as a student columnist for her high school newspaper, as a contributing writer with the Mount Holyoke College communications office, and on her own (she’s completed a fantasy novel). This fall, she’s headed to the University of Rhode Island for a graduate program in communications, and she envisions a future as a writer, perhaps for a nonprofit organization.
As Day recalls, a number of things led her to form a mother-daughter book club. For starters, she didn’t see a lot of books on Kugler’s school reading list in which females were the central characters. Instead, they were often “tokens, sidekicks, or love interests,” Day writes. “It’s not that there were no books about girls — of course there were. But I noticed that girls did not seem to mind reading books about boys, while boys had no interest in — and in fact outright avoided — reading books about girls. You may have noticed the same dynamic at play in the adult world.”
Just about then, Day and her daughter also saw books on display at a local bookstore that were geared to mother-daughter book clubs, and Kugler, then 8, said, “Mommy, I want to do that!”
But Day says her biggest impetus may have been the growing sexualization of girls in advertising she was seeing at that time. “It was horrible, so much worse than anything I’d ever seen,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘It’s hard enough to be a parent, to be a mother, and now we have to deal with 12-year-olds being presented as sex objects?’ What kind of message is that to send to girls?”
Day ended up getting together with four like-minded women in her town with daughters who were avid readers and, using a number of sources, came up with a reading list for the new book club. As she recalls, the mothers guided much of the discussion and reading for the first year, but by the following year, when they were in fourth grade, the girls were becoming more assertive, initiating discussion and talking among themselves.
“It was amazing how fast it happened,” Day said. “It really was a great environment for fostering leadership.”
Though she looks back on the experience as one of her best times as a parent, Day had no particular plans to write about it until a few years ago, when an editor at Chicago Review Press, Lisa Reardon, read an essay by Day on The Huffington Post about the onslaught of what she called the “Princess franchise” — princess dolls, clothing and other related material — marketed to little girls by the Disney Corporation.
“She went to my website and got in touch with me — she said she felt she knew me,” Day said. “Then she asked me to write a proposal for a book, and this is what Charlotte and I came up with.”
While she’s been at Mount Holyoke, Kugler notes, she and her mother haven’t had as much time to discuss books or read the same novels; their tastes have diverged a bit as well, as Kugler has become more interested in fantasy and science fiction. But she credits her mother with instilling her love of reading and her time in the book club with making her a more confident, centered person.
“That’s a connection I’ll always have with my mom,” she said.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.