I know from experience that when fifth graders plan a potluck lunch, sweets are the main items on the menu.
“Hey, remember, we’re inviting the teachers to the Book Feast,” I always tell them. “Let’s think of foods that are not candy or cookies.”
The Book Feast is the grand finale of a year-long fifth grade lunch-time book club, a volunteer task I take on because I love reading with kids. And because the kids get to be with other kids who love books.
In September I ask the fifth grade teachers in the Canton, NY middle school to pick ten kids who like to read and to see if they’d like to be a part of a weekly book group. They have to agree to read half a book a week, not a difficult task for kids who devour books. We start reading and talking about books together.
This year we met in a spare room. Imagine a small, stuffy rectangle with no windows and a big round table. Ten small bodies and one adult body are crowded around it. Lunch trays are littered with untouched vegetable portions and bits of crust from mini-pizzas. If the discussion is going well we’re getting to the core of what the book means, and maybe we’re sharing our ideas about the main character. If the kids are tired or hyper I’m doing my best to keep the conversation going but I’m not getting much help from my fellow readers. They’re too busy trading desserts or grumbling that the book was “boring”, a word I try to outlaw.
The good days far outnumber the not-good ones and remind of just how smart kids are. Near the end of the year we read a “People’s Choice” book, one that wins the most votes after the kids each promote a book. This year produced a three-way tie and I decided we’d read all of them. One was the 1970’s era book, Bunnicula, a surprisingly insipid book about a vampire rabbit. I decided I could at least show the kids how much of our vampire “knowledge” comes from Irishman Bram Stoker’s late nineteenth-century classic, Dracula. We wrote on the white board all the things we knew about vampires. One boy knew many details. “I read the book,” he told me.
“The actual Dracula?” I asked.
“Well, I only read half of it because it is REALLY scary. My mom said when she read it in high school she had nightmares for a week.”
For our final event, the Book Feast, we think of a food from the dozen books we’ve read together. Some books are easy. In The Great Gilly Hopkins, Gilly’s foster mother makes amazing chocolate chip cookies. Grandma Dowdle in A Long Way From Chicago produces hearty breakfasts every day. In Wonder the main character has a damaged jaw and can only eat small bites of things. A fan of that book said, “I’ll bring Muddy Buddies! Augie could eat those.”
And so we gather with our literary lunch. We tell the teachers why we choose the foods, and then we dig in.