by Tom Owens
Look out, Oprah. Mr. Benson has muscled in on the book club market. Students at Pilot Knob Elementary in Eagan, Minnesota wouldn’t trade their celebrity for any TV book booster.
Of course, principal and book club host Tom Benson may have more star appeal than the average administrator.
Before being hired away from a California school in August, 2007, the St. Cloud native spent his spare time competing in five Ironman Triathlons, climbing Mount Whitney, surfing, sailing and hiking.
“It’s pretty hard to keep up with kindergarten students, so you need all the energy you can get,” he told a reporter.
Pilot Knob media specialist Kathryn Marron saw the potential in Benson’s personality.
“Mr. Benson is the energy behind the book club meetings,” she said. “He has an engaging, insouciant charm that the students are drawn to. His presence and willingness to interact with the families are as much of a draw as celebrating the books. Promotion is one of Mr. Benson’s gifts.”
The book club is held about once a month during the school year. All grades at this K-4 show up for these events.
“We meet for an hour in the evening with parents and students who have read the book or have had the book read to them,” Marron explained. “Mr. Benson prompts the students to write, reflect, and engage in activities related to the texts that are selected.”
Marron and Benson don’t stop at selling the joy of reading to a student.
“Parents enjoy the sense of community and the opportunity to gather around neighborhood families who share or support a passion for reading,” Marron said.
“The parents who don’t have a passion for reading come because they value the excitement it generates and want their children to know they support reading, even if it wasn’t their favorite thing to do when they were growing up.”
For reading selections, Marron uses the current year’s Division I nominations from the Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award. These are books for grades 3-5 that have been pre-screened by the Minnesota Youth Reading Awards volunteers.
Marron marveled at the receptive audiences for all of the selected books.
“We have awesome parents; they really have it going on! Even though the books we select are written for 3-5 graders, there are just as many, if not more kindergarten and first grade families who participate in the evening book clubs,” she said. “There’s a collective parental sigh of relief when we give them ‘license’ to read longer books that are more interesting to adults. The students aren’t overwhelmed by the characters’ experiences; instead they learn new vocabulary, and ask questions, weaving their own experiences into the fictitious reality the books represent and construct their own response to the texts. It’s really beautiful to see their impressions. Their fresh perspectives always reminds me of some facet that my age, education, and experience cause me to overlook.”
All ages of attendees know meetings aren’t dominated by dreary discussions.
“The students are motivated by the activities we do in the library,” Marron recounted. “We played tag in the library when we read Punished, because the main character was punished for running in the library. When we read Abby Takes A Stand, everyone practiced the secret handshake and greeting that Abby and her best friend used to make certain they weren’t speaking to an alien inhabiting a familiar body (after seeing a sci-fi movie). When we read Phineas MacGuire Erupts!, we made volcanoes and watched them erupt. Sometimes we have readers’ theatre or students draw pictures of their favorite scenes. When we film or photograph the activities and publish them to our school web page, students take pride in seeing themselves reflected in our school’s identity.”
Author-illustrator and CLN member Debra Frasier makes anywhere from 10 to 30 school visits yearly. When Frasier spent a day at Pilot Knob, Mr. Benson’s Book Club wowed her.
“The reason it caught my eye (and stood out among the many schools I visit) is that large attractive posters greet you the minute you walk into the school—posters with book covers, a picture of Mr. Benson (who is quite charismatic and erupts in enthusiasms when you enter his atmosphere!), and the upcoming meeting time of the next book club meeting,” Frasier said. “The posters from past ‘reads’ bedeck the school so there is a constant review of covers all around the school.”
Choosing the principal as pitchman for the club makes perfect sense to Frasier.
“Principals are very important in the scheme of a school to focus attention on reading,” she said. “When I walk into a school I can almost immediately tell if the principal’s focus is aimed in this direction. Students are just like adults: they recognize that the principal is very busy and is going to focus on the things that are most important. They will take their cues from the principal.”
Mr. Benson’s Book Club titles for 2008-09:
Punished by David Lubar
Phineas L. MacGuire Erupts! by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Three Good Deeds by Vivian Vande Velde
Flush by Carl Hiaasen
Scraps of Time: Abby Takes a Stand by Patricia McKissack
Princess for a Week by Betty Ren Wright
Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Writing as Thomas S. Owens, he is the author of several books on sports, sports card collectibles, history, and health. Tom is a frequent contributor to the Children’s Literature Network’s Radar magazine. He and his wife, Diana Star Helmer, who is also a children’s book author, reside in Boone, Iowa.
Copyright CLN 2009. All rights reserved.