A New Chapter

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On this Chicago night, four suburban mothers sip white wine and Diet Coke while dissecting Michael Chabon's latest best seller. This could be any women's book group, save for the four boys, ages 11 to 14, who keep scarfing popcorn, cracking jokes and voicing their comments about Summerland, Chabon's highly touted children's novel. When the moms admit some confusion over Chabon's mystical baseball epic, Mason Marshall, 14, comes to their rescue. "A lot of it was mythology, Norse mythology and Indian mythology," he explains through a mouthful of popcorn.

The natural offspring of book clubs for adults, parent-child discussion groups — such as this one, which meets monthly in Wilmette, Ill.--have grown increasingly popular in recent years. Although the mother-daughter combination remains the most common configuration, mother-son, father-son and father-daughter groups also are coming together in libraries, bookstores and private homes across the country.

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Shireen Dodson, author of The Mother-Daughter Book Club (HarperPerennial), says book groups encourage members to express their ideas and opinions openly without fear of judgment. Which means they're a great way to improve communication and understanding between parents and kids. That can be especially rewarding for mothers and sons who, as the boys grow older, may have fewer activities they share. "I was looking for ways to remain connected to Mason as he naturally — and with my support — began to separate from his dad and me," says Deb Claflin Marshall, a founding member of the Wilmette group. "This allows us to practice being adults together." For Dorothy Hemming and her son Neville, 12, the mother-son book group is "a way for us to be together other than my driving him around to sporting events." Neville, a hockey player and avid reader, says the group helps him to talk to his mother on a deeper level. "It's not just my asking her for something--'I need this by Tuesday. I need you to sign this paper.'"

The Wilmette mother-son group formed about four years ago in response to the mother-daughter groups that were springing up around them. "A mother-son group seemed kind of quirky and fun," says Claflin Marshall. Summerland, which is 500 pages and drew mixed reviews from the group, is one of about 30 books they have read. The boys' tastes are, well, pure boy: heavy on science fiction and fantasy (think Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing with Dragons). The moms' picks have included Laurie Halse Anderson's historical fiction Fever 1793, the story of a young girl during the yellow-fever epidemic in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, and excerpts from Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation.

The women sometimes purposely select stories with female protagonists, books their boys might otherwise ignore. "As long as the story was good, it didn't matter who the protagonist was," says Lurene Thomas, mother of Henry, 11. "But he would never, never pick up a book with a girl on the cover to read." For his part, Henry says he didn't much care for Fever 1793. "It didn't matter that it had a female character," he says. "I just thought it was poorly written and not challenging at all." Still, the mothers say that part of the fun of being in the group is challenging themselves and their sons to read books outside their favorite genres, thus giving all members better insight into one another.

The book club isn't just about books and reading, however. After the discussions end, mothers and sons separate to gab and hang out. "If we just got up at the end of the book discussion and left," says Joan Grossbart, mother of Matt, 13, "it would be a very different group." Besides, who would finish off the Pinot Grigio and popcorn?