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Humanities-based Book Discussions


New Books, New Readers
Maine Humanities Council
674 Brighton Ave., Portland, ME 04102
207-773-5051; toll free 1-866-MEreader (637-3233)
fax: 207-773-2416


New Books, New Readers (NBNR) is a book discussion program for adults who are new readers or who are not in the habit of reading. As a program of the Maine Humanities Council, NBNR works to fulfill the Council’s mission to help people of all ages and educational levels deepen their understanding of themselves, their communities, and the world, working to make Maine a more thoughtful, literate, and humane. NBNR seeks to carry out this mission in programs which (1) encourage reading, (2) stimulate a love of reading, and (3) develop critical thinking and group discussion skills in all participants, no matter what their reading level.

Rationale and Background of the Practice

While reading and sometimes discussing books may be a common experience of at least some of the general public, the sharing of ideas that books can generate is rare for New Books, New Readers participants. Thus NBNR brings to a new audience the richness of a humanities program, with theme-based series and a discussion format which provides a level playing field for all participants, students and staff alike. New Books, New Readers is meant for adults of every age, from the lowest literacy levels to those involved in GED preparation. It is available to organizations throughout Maine which serve these adults.

New Books, New Readers has grown from small beginnings in 1993 to become a major program of the Maine Humanities Council, with 46 programs at 27 sites in 2003-4. NBNR was modeled after the “Connections” program developed by the Vermont Humanities Council, which had its genesis in the desire of an Adult Basic Education teacher to bring to her students the excitement of her own experience in a group discussion of literature.

Description of the Practice

New Books, New Readers consists of theme-based book discussion series in four sessions, led by a scholar-facilitator who engages even the newest adult readers in thought-provoking discussion, and encourages participants to share their ideas with one another, something many have never done before. Through the discussion, participants learn that books can play an important role in every life, helping them to understand themselves in relation to the world and each other. The books used in NBNR are carefully selected from the best of children’s literature, grouped in series designed around themes that relate to the lives of the participants, e.g., Friendship, Courage, Home, and Memories. The participants receive a copy of every book to keep and are encouraged to share their enjoyment with family and friends.

Each series in a New Books, New Readers program uses nine books from first grade to sixth grade levels, united by a common theme that relates to the participants’ lives. A series has four meetings, usually monthly and always informal, where participants discuss the theme with the help of a scholar-facilitator. The opening session provides an opportunity to get acquainted and to begin thinking about the series theme. At the end of the opening session, the first three books are handed out so that participants can read them, with the help of tutors and instructors where needed, before the next meeting. Three books are discussed in each of the second, third, and fourth meetings.

A typical group of three books for a single session may include a picture book, an easy reader, and a relatively easy “young adult” chapter book. The three books are chosen to work together to encourage reflection on the theme of the series and of the particular session. Participants are encouraged to begin with the easiest book and to read as much as they are able, with the help of tutors or instructors where it is needed. Scholar/ facilitators design the discussion to be inclusive, even when not all participants are able to read all three books. NBNR series make use of both favorites (such as Caldecott Medal winners Make Way for Ducklings and The Little House and Newbery Medal winner Charlotte’s Web) and current titles. Among the recent titles are Jacqueline Woodson’s The Other Side, which deals with the ways in which communities can come together despite racial divisions, and Jon Muth’s The Three Questions, an adaptation of a Tolstoy story which stimulates discussion of the purposes of life. Books that on the surface appear to be merely amusing often resonate with meaning for adults. For example, in Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad are Friends, the foibles and the relationships of the two protagonists shed light for everyone on the nature of friendship.

In Maine, NBNR is organized by a Program Director on the staff of the Maine Humanities Council who provides overall quality control, assuring that NBNR’s goals are achieved, and who works closely with the sponsoring organizations. Sponsoring organizations may include Adult Basic Education and GED, Literacy Volunteers, ESOL, family literacy and parenting programs, Even Start, Head Start (parents), correctional education programs, workplace literacy programs, and public or school libraries. In larger communities, a single organization may sponsor NBNR for its students or clients. It is more common, however, for a lead group to draw in other organizations that may provide participants, particularly in small communities and rural areas. The resulting cooperation not only provides for a numerically stable group, but also for cross-fertilization among groups, as, for example, when a Head Start Parent becomes acquainted with Adult Basic Education students and instructors and decides to go to class to improve her reading skills.

The Program Director and staff at the Maine Humanities Council

  • work with sponsoring organizations to plan the programs,
  • purchase books and distribute them to program sites,
  • recruit and train scholar-facilitators, matching them to sites,
  • provide help and advice as needed,
  • develop new series and search for replacements as books go out of print.

Sponsoring organizations

  • organize the local site and schedule,
  • recruit participants and encourage them to attend regularly,
  • distribute books to participants,
  • work with participants to read books,
  • send teachers, tutors, or staff members to be part of each discussion.

Particular consideration should be given to secure scholar-facilitators who

  • are good listeners – have teaching experience but do not lecture and will work on the premise that there are no “wrong” ideas,
  • have literature training – the ability to go beyond plot and character description to draw out the themes and ideas from the books and to lead the group in making connections between the books that are being discussed, and with the participants’ lives.

NBNR selects scholar-facilitators from a wide variety of backgrounds, including college professors, writers, clergy, and teachers from all levels. Many scholars make a lasting connection with the group they lead.


To plan and run an effective continuing New Books, New Readers program, we must:

  • Ensure that site coordinators understand the rationale for NBNR and are commited to the effort required to make the program work effectively;
  • Find potential scholar-facilitators and provide them with appropriate suggestions and support as they begin their first series;
  • Maintain continuity so that participants get the full benefit of several contiguous NBNR series;
  • Collect data that accurately reflect both educational and social achievements of participants in NBNR programs;
  • Refine our perceptions of the needs of specific NBNR groups (e.g., ESOL, family literacy, ABE, LVA) so that site-specific variants of the program will enhance the effect of NBNR for the participants;
  • Stay alert for potential books of high literary quality and with thematic depth as replacements for books that go out of print and for new series.

Evidence of Impact and Effectiveness

In an educational program where the overwhelming emphasis must be on the often painstaking acquisition of literacy skills, New Books, New Readers provides a new excitement about reading and the motivation to read books. NBNR sponsors report that the monthly meeting is a high point for participants, and that, when each series is over, most participants look forward eagerly to the next one. Sponsors have also indicated that they believe NBNR is responsible for boosting progress in developing reading skills, that owning the books and participating in the discussions has often reinvigorated flagging motivation. Many tutors, instructors, and staff members report that this is the first time some participants have ever read a whole book all the way through, even a picture book. Participants who have children report that they have read the books aloud at home.

Beyond progress in reading skills, sponsors report that participants have improved their critical thinking skills. In the discussion, participants learn to see and to honor a variety of points of view. They are encouraged to support their own ideas from the text and from their own lives. They learn that they have the power to make choices that will affect their lives. For many, this a new and empowering concept; some have never before experienced being told that their own idea was a good one. Additionally, the group-related social skills developed in NBNR discussions have also served participants well as they progress in their education and throughout their lives.

Many participating literacy providers have based much of their reading program on the New Books, New Readers books. This is good for NBNR, since it helps guarantee that the books will be read, and also benefits literacy programs by providing multiple copies of books, which many sites would otherwise be unable to afford.

Cost and Funding

NBNR estimates an average cost of $4300 to run NBNR in one site for an academic year (which includes 2 series, one in the fall and a second in the winter/spring) program, of which approximately $1500 goes toward administration, $1000 for scholar honoraria @ $125 per session, plus mileage. The cost of the books averages $55/individual set of 9 books, depending on the number of participants. Other expenses include phone, duplication, space, and refreshments, if desired. These figures do not include the in-kind contributions of the sponsoring organizations, such as recruitment and retention of participants, work with students to read the books, organizing meetings, and some administrative work.

Over the years, NBNR has been funded by grants from the Maine Humanities Council, U.S. Department of Education (Library Services & Construction Act), the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation, and, since the fall of 1999, through the continuing generosity of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Since NBNR does not provide instruction in literacy skills, it has not been supported by traditional funders of literacy programs, but it has been included as a collaborator in literacy grant proposals, particularly for family literacy grants.

Implications for Practice, Policy, and Research

If an individual literacy program wishes to initiate a book discussion group it needs to balance this effort with other priorities that also call for additional resources. Nowadays, adult literacy programs are expected to meet many mandates and to produce measurable learning gains. Evidence-based research on the impact of book discussion groups on participants’ reading, critical thinking, and social interaction skills would be valuable.

For more information, contact NBNR for their flyer, “What you can do to start a New Books, New Readers reading & discussion program and to make it work and keep it going.” NBNR staff is also happy to share book information.

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