Book Club Bunch: Actor-led book club unpacks a creative angle to reading

Book Club Bunch: Actor-led book club unpacks a creative angle to reading

The kernel of the idea for Book Club Bunch (BCB) came from a place very close to home for founder Melissa Haggist. Four years ago she was trying to think of ways of getting her son and his male friends more engaged in reading. She says: “As the mother of a little boy, I was aware that reading and literacy is more of a challenge for boys. And this, coupled with those early academic expectations, can create a stressful childhood. I wanted to make a safe, non-assessed space with no pressure for kids, so they could just enjoy the pleasure of listening to a story.”

She hit on a relatively simple but seemingly untapped idea: why not start a company of professional actors who will read to children at bookshops and schools in order to really bring books to life? So, in 2017 in the downstairs corner of Waterstones’ King’s Road branch, London, what was then called Book Club Boys was born. After a few successful sessions, Haggist decided to broaden the scope and the model was changed to make the clubs available for boys and girls (and the current company name was introduced) but the core mission remained the same. She says: “It’s about helping children fall in love with reading through the simple gift of reading aloud to them. We try to associate books with entertainment, relaxation and fun to create a desirability around reading that motivates young people to become independent readers.”

The fun side
Haggist says that, yes, there is a lot of fun with actors hamming it up: putting on voices, dramatising key moments in the books and really selling the funny bits. But there is a more serious side to project, in what she calls “stealth learning”: the actors lead children in discussions after the readings, help with tricky or new vocabulary, and provide historical and real-world context for the stories. 

Haggist is responsible for the selection of books read during the sessions—with input from the readers, particularly BCB creative director Matthew Peter-Carter. While publishers have approached her to take on their titles, Haggist has preferred to choose independently and tries to pick titles that kids would not necessarily pick for themselves. She says: “We aim to balance classics and contemporary books, and generally look for something that’s beautifully written, reads aloud well, and offers great discussion.” The discussions, which take place after the readings, offer the children the unique opportunity to cross-reference knowledge and make links to current affairs or something happening in one of their lives.

But Haggist does applaud the how children’s publishers have expanded their repertoire and seem to be thinking about a number of audiences. She explains: “I remember seeing Anthony Horowitz at a festival in about 2007 and thinking that [with his Alex Rider series] he was one of the few authors out there really writing for and succeeding with boys. Now there is a plethora of book series that are turning boys into readers.”

This diversity of experience can be seen in titles on tap for future sessions, such as Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich’s upcoming If This Gets Out (Hachette Children’s), a queer YA romance focusing on the relationship of two members of America’s biggest boyband, who realise they will never have the support of their management. “It’s so important that children have the opportunity to consider the lived experiences reflected back at them in literature.”

Though books are chosen primarily for story and character, many tackle weighty issues in a subtle way: Onjali Q Raúf’s The Boy at the Back of the Class (Hachette Children’s) and Morris Gleitzman’s Boy Overboard (Penguin) have helped to instigate discussions on the migrant experience, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (PRH Children’s) led to a talk about misogyny.

Of course, as a business based on live performance and working within schools and bookshops, BCB had to pivot its model over the past 18 months. Fortunately, it had been experimenting with virtual content pre-pandemic, but during lockdowns BCB offering daily virtual book clubs for boys and girls to support working parents. “It was a very dynamic time and a steep learning curve, but it cemented the online book club offering,” says Haggist.

Pivoting in lockdown
Last summer, BCB created a new product, almost 10 hours of online reading and discussions by senior readers, Peter-Carter and Alex White, of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Haggist said: “It captures the energy and accessibility yet elevated nature of our book clubs. We have been approached by a children’s video-on-demand service to license our vlogs, and we are hoping to record more of these for Key Stage 2.”

Peter-Carter adds: “We’re looking to expand our age-range following the success of our Animal Farm club, so we’re looking to add some other classics, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

In a strange way, Peter-Carter suggests, the online expansion has been a boon for BCB. He says: “Our live concept has been proven many times over in schools, with our ‘clubbers’ and parents. But we maybe this will help us expand and reach all the children we would like to.”

In the end, Peter-Carter loves how children respond positively to hearing a trained actor read out the books, and promises: “Nothing will encourage home independent reading quite like our readers ending on a cliff-hanger in the middle of a fantastic book.”