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Book Club members are ‘licensed to read’

East Grand Rapids—Zephyr White likes a video game called Risk of Rain 2.

It takes place on an alien planet and includes killing monsters, finding treasures and much more.

What it doesn’t include, though, said Zephyr, are good backstories for the characters. So the seventh-grader decided to address that, writing a piece of fan fiction it is hoped will dig deeper into the game’s characters for those who enjoy the game.

Advice, feedback and more is coming from peers at East Grand Rapids Middle School, where Zephyr is a member of the after-school book club.

“One of my friends asked me to come,” Zephyr recalled. It was maybe only three weeks ago. I kind of got involved later than some of the others.”

It only took one visit to be hooked.

“It’s a smaller group so there is a lot more room for discussion. I like reading, and I like writing in equal amounts, so it’s perfect.”

Hearing that brings a smile to the face of teacher and book club mentor Danielle Smith.

It’s her classroom that’s the home to the book club: Room 007, in fact (and she has a doorstop made by East’s innovation lab that says “Licensed to Read”).

A Fun Place to ‘Nerd Out’

Every Thursday after school since October, students have gathered there to read, to share writing they’re working on, to discuss favorite books and generally to just gather for an hour after school in a place that feels inviting and safe.

Said Smith: “I really want the club to be a fun place for kids to nerd out about reading and writing. I want them to form connections with people who love literature as much as they do. And I want them to have a place at school where it feels like they have a home.”

Mission accomplished, according to club members.

Seventh-grader Fielding Elzinga invited Zephyr after he had been invited last fall by Davita Deaner, a fellow seventh-grader.

“I just wanted to read after school and talk about books,” Fielding said. “So this is great.”

Davita said the same.

“When I saw the poster, I was like ‘OK, this is going to be my thing I guess.’ I really look forward to coming here.”

Colette Kanngiesser, also a seventh-grader, was one of the students who got the club going and has only missed one meeting. “I love this club,” she said. “It’s really fun. We’re all really good friends now, and we get to talk about things we’re passionate about.” 

There’s also the candy.

Seventh-grader Ellie Brandstadt joked that candy was what drew her in.

“I was walking down the hall, and I saw the candy,” she said with a grin. “But now, yeah, it’s the candy, the people and reading and writing.”

Reading Is Life

Smith said the club is open to anyone who wants to join, but typical attendance is 6-8 students.

“The kids really set the agendas,” she said. “I am more here to supervise and offer guidance when they need it. Typically, the kids come in, catch up and get snacks or candy. They talk a lot, usually trying to persuade one another about what to read. Sometimes they fan out on a series they’re all reading. Then, the group discusses what they want to plan for or prepare for the next meeting. Finally, they usually end with quiet reading or writing time.”

Smith remembers becoming a reader because of her mom. 

“As an oldest child, I felt it was unfair that I had to go to bed at the same time as my younger sisters, so I was allowed to stay up later if I was reading,” she said. “Getting my hands on books was never a problem. We didn’t have a lot of extra money when I was a kid, so my mom would take us to the public library all of the time.”

‘When I saw the poster, I was like ‘OK, this is going to be my thing I guess.’ I really look forward to coming here.’

– Davita Deaner

Seeing today’s middle school readers fall in love with books is what it’s all about as an English teacher, Smith said.

“One of the things I have always loved about reading is that it can take you to totally different worlds,” she said. “It’s the only time you ever really get to live life as someone else. So, to me, reading is a dress rehearsal for life. It transports us, it teaches us about the world, it builds empathy for others and it helps us to better understand ourselves.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio

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