For the Love of Books

Ten years ago on a school playground at the base of a mountain in Northern California, a kindergartner named Megan and her mother, Nicole, embarked on a project that would change their lives. Nicole, a native of Zimbabwe, poked around the playground discerning which girls seemed to have a good relationship with their moms. Nicole was no counselor or psychologist. She was a former reigning national tennis champion of her country and put her competitive streak to use for one more triumphant match. This one involved creating a book club for mothers and daughters.

Ten years later, 14-year-old Megan and Nicole are celebrating the 120th book they’ve read with the same Mother Daughter Book Club they started in September, 2000. Though the girls have gone on to other schools, they’ve remained loyal friends and dedicated readers, meeting once a month to share dinner and discuss the latest book they’ve read. They’ve even taken vacations together, shared many Girls Weekends, and rallied at each other’s sporting events – enjoying the kind of supportive friendships between women that become the bedrock of a life well-lived.

“Sometimes life really hands you something purely magical in the truest form,” Nicole wrote in an email to me. I would have to say the same about receiving the invitation to meet her group for their 10th anniversary last September. They had chosen my latest novel, Kingdom of Simplicity to mark the occasion and they wanted to know if I could meet on a school night.

Of course! A mother-daughter book club? I loved the idea. I had to check this out given I had just become a new mom and was already reading Brown Bear Brown Bear to my baby girl, Gracelyn.

I love book clubs and meeting my readers is one of the greatest rewards of my profession. I’m always excited to meet them, and a little nervous, too. Not everyone is going to love my work, but I can’t help but hope that the story will touch them in some way. In this case, I was asking a lot – for the reader to dive into the world of the Amish and entertain the idea of forgiveness.

How would 13 and14-year-old girls, my youngest readers to date, take the story of a 16- year-old Amish boy who struggles with forgiving the man who killed his five sisters? I mean these were hip California teenagers. Would they even be able to relate to a story set in Pennsylvania?

What I discovered that night blew my mind. Not only had they fully entered the story world in the novel, they had recreated it. I entered the home of Cathy Paterson and her daughter Lucy to find a long dining room table set for dinner with a dark green table cloth – the color of Amish window shades, and an African Violet, a big part of the novel, in front of every place setting.

I was honored and deeply touched. Being received by readers like this was a great gift.

Cathy had heard me speak almost a year earlier at Westminster Presbyterian in Tiburon and told me she’d like to choose my book for the 10th anniversary of the Mother Daughter Book Club. I emailed back immediately and said, “yes!” I looked forward to meeting her all year.

I was the first to arrive and stood awkwardly in her kitchen, suddenly aware that I wasn’t just meeting Cathy’s friends and the other mothers on this momentous occasion, but I was meeting their daughters, too. I was honored, nervous and excited all at once. I had big shoes to fill.

These girls and their moms had read Caldecott and Newbery Award winning books. Booker Prizes and my all time favorite, The Book Thief. They were smart: well-read, articulate, poised. Very fun. And cute! They flashed gorgeous smiles through braces, welcoming me to their table.

In my perpetual sleep-deprived state, Cathy would help me to remember each of them later. In an email she wrote: “Kelly and Britt Haegglund. Kelly is an architect.  Britt’s smile lights up a room as if her twinkly eyes hadn’t already. Nicole and Megan Scholvinck.  Nicole is the founder of the book club. Megan attends Hamlin and wants you to read at Hamlin’s book fair. Maryse and Camelia Varriale.  Maryse is the pharmacist who arrived after work.  Camilia has beautiful wavy hair and a beautiful smile (without braces). Jill and Eliza Mantz.  Jill is the brain of the Mother Daughter Book Club book. Eliza shared her favorite sentence.”

Though I was prepared to engage in the topic of forgiveness, I was more interested in hearing their story and witnessing the loving dynamic between these mothers that began when their daughters were so young. They had a lot to teach me about what is possible as a parent.

“The brains,” Jill Mantz, is working on a book about the book club. While we ate, she shared a photo album of the girls over the years. One image struck me: six smiling faces laying on the ground in a circle holding up a ‘six’ – the ages of the girls at the time of the photo. There were several more like this marking the growth of this special group from childhood to young adults.

Jill also showed me photocopied book covers that she’s putting into her book – a wild goose chase to recreate a decade-long list of books. She said it’s impossible to recreate it entirely, but she’s done her best to remember most of the hundred and twenty titles they’ve read so far.  Her goal with the book is to help other women start their own Mother Daughter Book Clubs.

Seeing the titles made me recall my own fond memories of reading some of these books. Here was evidence that no matter how precarious the publishing industry might become, one thing was certain. As long as there were people like this who devoted 10 years to making a ritual out of reading with their children, my books, and many others, would have a purpose and be loved. Even better, books would continue to sweeten the bond between mothers and daughters.

Author Holly Payne joins the 10th Anniversary of the Mother Daughter Book Club, Mill Valley, California to discuss her novel Kindgom of Simplicity