What one activity could be provided to high school-aged girls that would promote development of leadership skills, literacy, discussion of social issues, and inter-generational interaction all in an informal, relaxed setting? Vinalhaven School librarian Susan Dempster has found the answer – A Girls’ Point of View Book Club.

Dempster started the club last November with two goals in mind: to get girls reading and to get them talking about issues that are important to them.

According to Dempster, a few high school girls had been coming into the library regularly, talking about books. She had wanted to start a book club since becoming the school librarian two years ago, but finally got the push she needed last fall when she was approached by Mary O’Rear, executive director of Mainely Girls in Camden. O’Rear had helped to start a similar book club in Old Town, and had the expertise – and more important, the funding resources – that Dempster needed to get her club off the ground.

Dempster felt the high school girls would really be ready for a book club, considering there are few extracurricular activities offered to Vinalhaven’s high school students outside of sports.

Senior Caitlyn Warren is a voracious reader, and has been a member of Book Club since the start. “I’m glad there is something else besides basketball and cheerleading,” she said, proving Dempster’s hunch correct. Sophomore Emily Brownsword agreed, adding, “I’m glad there’s somewhere I can go and discuss books with other people.”

The Girls’ Point of View Book Club appears to be a great success, boasting 13 student members – a half of the female population in grades 9-12 – plus five faculty members who simply wanted the opportunity to read some great books with the girls and relate to them in a relaxed atmosphere outside of school.

At first Dempster was wary of allowing too many adults to join the group. She didn’t want the girls to feel as if they were in school, and she didn’t want the girls to lose a sense of “ownership” in their club.

Her fears were soon laid to rest, however. Many of the girls in the club enjoy interacting with the adults. According to junior Christina Wadsworth, “my favorite part of Book Club is [English teacher Janey] Rountree picking up all the parts of the book that we miss!” Junior Hannah Swears agreed that hanging out with some of the teachers in a non-school setting was a benefit of Book Club.

“The girls see us at meetings not as teachers, but just as different women who read the books, who bring different experiences to the table,” said Dempster.

Dempster encourages the girls to do research in order to find books suitable for Book Club. This way the girls read books that interest them, rather than books adults think they should read. “I think it’s important for girls to take leadership roles,” she said. Once suggestions have been made, girls present at the meeting vote on which books the club should read next.

Some of the books that have been chosen for Book Club are Speak by Laurie Anderson, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Local Girls by Alice Hoffman.

One of the many “perks” of belonging to Book Club is that not only do the girls get to read lots of great books, they get to keep the books for their own home libraries. This is made possible by grants from Mainely Girls, MBNA, the Island Institute, the Lions Club, Camden National Bank and the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, in addition to money raised by the school library during its annual book fair.

Book Club meetings are held every two weeks at the Town Library. Members filter in informally, find a seat at the old oak table, and chat until most everyone has arrived. Meetings usually include dinner or dessert and general conversation before it’s time to get down to business. At the Feb. 10 meeting, the club discussed Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. This book follows the main character, Caitlyn, through a difficult year of high school after a summer in which her older sister ran away from home. Besides dealing with how a runaway child affects a family, Dreamland also tackles the hefty issues of violence and abuse.

Discussion around the Book Club table included asking those present to imagine what they would do if they were abused, as well as discussion of power and relationship issues. Most of the books chosen for Book Club have intense themes, which is something Vinalhaven School guidance counselor and Book Club member Yvonne Thomas applauds.

“It’s a great way to address those issues in a different format,” she said. “It feels more effective to me.”

Dempster often uses other resources to emphasize themes in a given book. During discussion of Dreamland, she passed around an issue of “Teen Voice Magazine” in which there was a feature entitled “Violence Does Not Love.” The magazine made its way around the table while the book discussion carried on. Many girls chose passages or sidebars of the article, which they thought were important or relevant, to read aloud. As they took their turns the larger discussion would subside momentarily, then resume until the next girl found a part to read.

Another important resource for the club is Deal With It by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald and Rebecca Odes. This resource represents “a whole new approach to your body, brain, and life as a gurl [sic]” according to the cover, and includes sections on the body, sexuality, the brain and life. Each girl in the club now owns a copy of this book, and it has proven to be quite a favorite. Dempster used this book in the discussion of Dreamland as well as with other books.

So, have Dempster’s goals – getting girls to read and getting girls to talk about issues important to them – been met? According to Dempster, yes they have.

“A girl came into the library recently to talk about a younger girl dating an older boy,” said Dempster, emphasizing that this situation obviously bothered the girl, who had come to talk about it. “The girls in Book Club are becoming more willing to talk about issues and stick their necks out than they used to,” she said.

And they are reading more than ever. “I like walking past study halls and seeing multiple [copies] of books being read,” said Thomas.

Dempster plans on running the Girls’ Point of View Book Club through the end of this school year, and resume next year. No doubt the enthusiasm she has generated for reading will carry over into school years to come. More important, she will have encouraged a reading habit that these girls will have for the rest of their lives.