Six weeks ago, a box of books arrived at my apartment, filled with a combination of already published paperbacks and Advance Readers Copies (ARCs) of ten diverse middle-grade novels. There was the latest installation of the 39 Clues series; The Apothecary, the first children’s book by novelist Maile Meloy; graphic novel Astronaut Academy; Shakespeare’s Secret by Elise Broach; Liesl and Po, a new dystopian fantasy by Lauren Oliver…and more and more.
So what was this? A publisher trying to show off to an agent who represents middle grade fiction? No,the books were published by a wide variety of houses. A job-seeker giving a visual resume of her wide-ranging taste? No, though that would be a new one!
Nope. It was homework for my 12 year-old son, from a remarkable program he has now just completed called the Thalia Book Club Camp (TBCC). Run out of Symphony Space on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, TBCC is a series of one-week programs for either middle-grade kids or teenagers. Each day one novel is analyzed, with writing exercises, frequent field trips either to locations in the book or places relevant to it (a backstage visit to the newly constructed scale replica of the Theater at Stratford-on-Avon in the Park Avenue Armory during the Shakespeare’s Secret day, for example), and highlighted each day by a visit from the author for a Q and A and book signing.
It’s a pretty remarkable program, with an avid and growing following (the sessions sell out months in advance) and one that expects diligence and rigor from its 9-12 year-old participants. Joe was told in no uncertain terms that he was expected to have read all the books prior to the start of the session, since once of the exercises on the first day was to compare the books that were going to be discussed that week. And to his credit, Joe buckled down and stretched himself, reading books he might not have gone for naturally (high fantasy or a novel in verse) and making it through. In the end, he appreciated and enjoyed stories that he hadn’t even particularly liked for the first 50 pages but needed to finish, and he understood why they had been assigned. It was eye-opening for him, and wonderful to watch for me.
One of the other things TBCC did extremely well was to give the kids a different context when going through these books: the place that these books have within publishing. The authors, when they came in, talked about how long it took them to write, and how difficult it can be to get a book published. The kids got to understand illustration and its place in children’s books. And on one exciting day, they visited Random House, met President and Publisher of RH Children’s Books Chip Gibson, and served as a kind of focus group on covers. Then, in a big surprise, they walked into an office to find Eragon author Christopher Paolini waiting for them to talk about finishing his immensely successful fantasy series that he began when he was 14. Joe came home each day with a different perspective on the world of books and publishing, and with several new favorite authors. In fact, my wife and I needed to change part of our itinerary for our upcoming trip to London in order to make time to visit the Chelsea Physick Garden because it's featured in The Apothecary.
Of course as a parent, one of the things I loved was the fact that it also meant that Joe spent so much of his time this summer reading a wide variety of terrific, interesting books, rather than, say, more Archie Comics, which certainly have their place but get to be a wee bit repetitive and enervating after a while.
At the end of each week, TBCC concluded with a reading of the participants’ writing, in the Symphony Space theater, by two professional actors. We had seen one of them this past winter in The Importance of Being Earnest--a fact that was significantly more exciting for us than for Joe, who simply loved that the guy had gotten Joe's super hero's voice spot on! The actors read the poems and fragments and stories and descriptions with as much humor and verve and respect as if they were reading Wilde or Shakespeare instead of a fourth grader from PS 196, playfully intoning "To Be Continued" or "The dreaded dot...dot...dot..."
This reading was one of the more interesting parts from the perspective of my own career, rather than just as a Dad. Not because of the kids’ talents (some were extraordinary, some were finding their voices), but because before each work was read, the actor gave a short bio of the author (taken from interviews the kids did with each other), where among other things they said what their favorite books were. In two weeks, so 40 or so kids (some were there both weeks, so there was a bit of repetition), more than half said that their favorite books were the Harry Potter Series. Around a quarter included the Hunger Games Trilogy (which surprised me, as I thought that would have skewed older), and a bunch of others added The Ranger’s Apprentice and Percy Jackson. And a vast majority said that if they could ask anyone about writing it would be J.K. Rowling. These are sophisticated, broad-minded kids. They ALL love that wizard.
Since Joe started TBCC, I’ve had lunch with a bunch of children’s book editors. I’ve been relentless in suggesting to them that they contact TBCC to get their talented, buzzworthy local authors to participate in future camps. Not that the curator of the program needs help—her eye is pretty much unfailing and her list is so spot on and eclectic that she clearly does fine without my pushing editors her way! But I can’t help preaching this from the mountaintops. From its fascinating insights into the world of publishing, to the transcendent selection of novels, to its ability to entice authors to come and speak to the participants, to the interactivity of the writing and drawing the kids did, to the excitement of hearing their works read by real actors on a real stage, the Thalia Book Club Camp is a unique and extraordinary program. Joe can’t wait till next year. And neither can I. (And I have an author, who lives in the Village, with a big debut about an adventure with pirates who might be perfect…dot...dot...dot...)