Back in 2001, in a fourth-grade schoolroom in the San Francisco Bay area, a band of 12 mothers had an idea: What if we read books together with our daughters? Bibliophile Meritt Sawyer, whose gift for leadership was bearing fruit on the boards of John Stott Ministries and Fuller Theological Seminary, watched her initiative take off. "We knew the girls would be going through stages where hanging out with Mom was not the favorite thing to do," she says. The girls are now beginning their sophomore years in high school, yet still convene for meals and spirited conversation. "This continues to be a vehicle to bring us together," says Sawyer.
Central to the purpose of the mother-daughter book club, now in its seventh year, is to instill in the girls a love of literature. As Meritt's daughter, Clary, observes, "Most of the time people my age—members of the club included—are doing sports or musicals. They usually don't think that reading can be an extracurricular activity." The group's reading list has spanned everything from classics such as The Odyssey and The Count of Monte Cristo to contemporary fiction such as Josh Grogan's Marley & Me, Sue Monk Kidd's Secret Life of Bees, and Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, among others worthy of an Oprah endorsement.
Sawyer's book club insists on gathering for meals beforehand, ensuring plenty of face-to-face time with family and peers while they introduce their daughters to current social and ethical questions. For example, upon reading two books about girls coming of age during China's Cultural Revolution, Chinese Cinderella and Red Scarf Girl, the group talked about the revolution's disastrous effect on families. "That was a profound discussion for them," says Sawyer, as they began to appreciate perhaps for the first time their political freedoms. Jeanette Walls's harrowing memoir, The Glass Castle, prompted a discussion on dysfunctional families, and the modern classic about Irish-Catholic immigrants in 1920s New York, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on poverty and adolescent angst.
Some topics are difficult to broach, but the girls have learned to engage issues analytically, if not definitively. "Sometimes the benefit [of the conversations] is in the process of discussion, not necessarily coming to an immediate conclusion," says Sawyer.
There are a few other professing Christians in the book club, but religion is not the point. Sawyer is instead intent on fostering relationships: "I don't want to hang out only with Christians … I don't think that's what Christ called us to do. So what I can be is myself—be who I am in Christ in the world." But she also wants to reclaim a crucial human activity, one Sawyer fears her daughter's Facebook-friendly generation may be losing. "There's still a value in the printed page, still a value in friendship where you see each other face to face. And there's still a value of getting together and dialoguing on contemporary issues."
Her mission for literature seems to have worked, at least for one of the group's members. "My daughter has said that if it weren't for this book club, she does not believe she would have read anything outside of what was assigned in a classroom, and yet today she is a voracious reader. In fact, she's upstairs reading right now."
Katelyn Beaty is a CT assistant editor.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
This article is the fourth of five profiles in Christianity Today's cover package on "The New Culture Makers."
Christianity Today also wrote about the artist Makoto Fujimura, angel investors, and the Prison Entrepreneurship Program.
Crouch spoke with CT about culture making on a local scale.
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