Book club brings families together

— Photo by Megan Gejay

Sharing a smile, Lauren Hoyle, left, and her mother, Chris Hoyle, pause while filling in the blanks on a sentence about each other.  Lauren has written that her mother is kind, and Mrs. Hoyle has written that Lauren is thoughtful, smart, athletic, and funny. The exercise was part of a book club discussion on Wonder at Westmere Elementary School.

GUILDERLAND — Over 50 people came to school on a recent cold winter’s night — parents and their children — to talk about a book. No one was required to read the book but those who had gathered pursued it with passion.

The Family Book Club was the brainchild of Westmere fifth-grade teacher Cheri Hart. Her son, Zach, a Niskayuna student, was in sixth grade last year at a time when she felt “he was pushing me away a little.”

As part of a book club at his school, they read together. “As a parent, I was so moved by the event and the joy, I wanted my parents to have that,” said Hart of her students’ parents.

She and her colleagues at Westmere — fifth-grade teachers Megan Gejay, Katie Garrity, and Joann Gigante — chose R. J. Palacio’s novel Wonder for their inaugural selection. Knopf Books for Young Readers published the volume on Valentine’s Day 2012 and it went to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list.

It tells the story of August “Auggie” Pullman, a 10-year-old boy born with distorted facial features who was home schooled until he entered middle school in the sixth grade. “He encounters a variety of reactions,” said Hart, explaining, “the story is told from many perspectives.”

One of the main characters who bullies Auggie “has a personality driven by his parents’ point of view,” said Hart. The bully’s mother, for example, Photoshops Auggie out of the class picture.

At the book-club session, Hart recalled, “A couple of parents said, ‘The book made me think about how I chose to respond to my child.’”

After the book was published, Palacio wrote a follow-up chapter from the bully’s perspective. He spends the summer with his grandmother and gets to know a friend of hers involved in the Holocaust, which “opens his eyes and redeems him a little.”

Hart says of Palacio, “She does not say everyone is redeemable.”

Hart notes that Palacio has said she started writing the novel after a girl with a distorted face sat near her children at an ice cream shop. When her young son began crying, she abruptly left with her children in tow, and later regretted her reaction.

“She said she started writing the book that night,” said Hart.

Holding Wonder in their hands: Fifth-grade teachers at Westmere Elementary School — from left, Megan Gejay, Cheri Hart, Katie Garrity, and Joann Gigante — prepare for a book club meeting with parents and students. The Enterprise — Michael Koff


The book club had an honest talk, Hart said, about “what you do when you see someone in a wheelchair.”

Responses included: “I look away,” “I feel sorry for them,” and, “I don’t know what to say.”

A teacher in Wonder tells Auggie’s schoolmates, “When given the choice between being right, or being kind, choose kind.”

The evening started with an activity Katie Garrity found on Pinterest. Each of the four teachers oversaw a table of parents, mostly mothers, and their children. Each was given a sheet of blue paper with Auggie’s face on it, similar to the book’s cover.

They were to write some of the things — like “freak,” “monster,” “drools,” “ugly,” and “scary” — that Auggie was called. Each paper was crumpled into a ball, passed onto the next person who added an insult, and crumpled it again until it had circulated around the table; then, it was smoothed out.

The lesson, said Hart, was, “No matter what you say, how you try to smooth things over, those words will be part of you. Scars will always be there.”

Smoothing away hurtful words: Book club members have written some of the horrible things the hero of Wonder, Auggie — a sixth-grader with distorted facial features — was called. The crumpled paper is opened and smoothed out but the kids learned the scars can remain.  Participating in the event at Westmere Elementary School are Michele Teague, Liam Teague, Brendan Curry, Elaine Curry, Susanne Witkop, Matt Witkop, and Victor Petitti on the other side of the table. — Photo by Megan Gejay


Next, each group discussed a series of questions. “We started with easy ones like, ‘Who is your favorite character and why?’” said Hart.

One of the questions that really struck a chord was: How do the things people say about us form who we are and what can we do to change that if it’s not correct?

Next, the group members shared the most important things they learned from the book. Their answers — “One true friend can make all the difference” or “Be kind and respectful to others no matter what they look like” — were written on Post-it Notes stuck on a large paper for everyone to see.

The next activity was for each person to write a “wonder compliment” on a paper that had a sentence with two blanks to be filled in. The first blank was for the name of the person, the student or parent, with whom the writer came to the club. That blank might say “Mom.” Then the next printed words read, “is a wonder because.” The last blank was up to the writer’s imagination and kindness.

The group’s final activity was to write a “precept.” That’s a term coined by Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Brown, who uses thought-provoking quotations to inspire his students.

The book-club members illustrated their precepts with crayons and markers; the posters will be hung in the school’s front lobby.

One of Hart’s favorite precepts was from a student: “We are all like snowflakes, the same and yet so unlike.”

“She made it up herself,” inspired by a school bulletin board of cutout paper snowflakes, said Hart.

Hart said she was moved to tears when the mother of one of her students emailed her to say how much she enjoyed reading Wonder with her fifth-grader, and her fourth-grader had joined in, too. “Now I miss that time so much,” she emailed. “What other books do you have?”

The teachers have selected a second book for the club, Number the Stars, a 1990 Newberry Medal winner, by Lois Lowry about a Jewish family escaping from Copenhagen during World War II.

She says the book deals “with very heavy issues” but in a way that 10- or 11-year-olds can grasp.

The book club members will meet in April to talk about Number the Stars, perhaps picking up the conversation where they left it.

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