Kids who have spent countless hours listening to NPR’s All Things Considered because their parents tune in can now prick up their ears for a new segment designed just for them. NPR's Back-Seat Book Club, aimed at readers 9-14, launches this month with The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. As part of the kick-off, the author will discuss the book and answer questions submitted by young readers during All Things Considered this Friday, October 28.
The club is the brainchild of ATC co-host Michele Norris. "It’s been percolating in my head for a while," she says of the idea. She recalled a 2009 interview with Jeff Kinney, author of the wildly popular Wimpy Kid books."We wanted to solicit questions from kids for the interview," she says. "In the days leading up to it, I had promoted it on air saying things like 'I’m talking to our listeners in the back seat. We’d love to hear from you.' " The response, she reports, was incredible: "We were floored by how many kids sent in questions." Norris posits that lots of teachers heard the call-out, too, and encouraged students to respond. "We would get a batch of questions all from the same town in Oklahoma," she says. "That had to be what was happening."
Norris notes that she and her ATC co-host Melissa Block, both parents of young children, have enjoyed doing more features on children’s books in recent years. But Norris was inspired to try a more specific project, and brought the idea to producers. "I wanted to do something special for our passive listeners, the so-called 'prisoners of NPR' who are listening because their parents listen," she says. "And I wanted it to be interactive so that kids can develop a relationship with the authors they love."
NPR's Back-Seat Book Club is poised to grow organically, according to Norris. The hope is that parents and teachers will read along with the kids and that they’ll extend the reading experience by encouraging discussion of the book at home or in the classroom. In addition to submitting questions and comments on the selection for the author interview, Norris envisions many different opportunities for kids to truly be a part of the Club. "We might have kids read their questions or passages from the book on-air," she says. "We could ask them to send a picture of them reading, to send in a book review, or to submit a drawing of what they think a character might look like. We’re looking at all kinds of ways to engage them."
Initial plans are to introduce a new book selection each month, though Norris says a schedule is still being figured out. "We thought we would announce the next book after each author interview," she notes. "But we’ve heard from some teachers who want a bit more time so that their students can all read the book. The teachers and educators are very enthusiastic, and we’re trying to honor their concern."
A small team at NPR, which includes Norris and producer Justine Kenin, will make the final selection of books, but Norris says they are actively reaching out to "librarians, booksellers, people in the publishing world, and teachers."
Classics and new titles will be part of the Back-Seat mix, and ideally books will be "representative and diverse," says Norris. Books that "dovetail nicely off the news" would also be welcome. And the selection team will always be on the lookout for books with "playground/lunchroom buzz, the books that kids are talking about, the ones that come back to the library dog-eared and well-loved," Norris adds.
Although as many listeners—and readers—know, Norris will be temporarily leaving her hosting duties at ATC, she will continue to do reporting and special on-air projects, including NPR's Back-Seat Book Club. "I grew up in a household where I was a prisoner of NPR," she says. "And I’m passionate about children’s literature. I love finding ways to get books into kids’ hands. I’m very excited about it." And, Norris says, based on the number of Graveyard Book questions received so far, and the activity she’s seen on Twitter, readers in the target age range and beyond are excited too.