The bell rings. The school day is over

The Saratogian, NY
April 20 2004

BALLSTON SPA — The bell rings. The school day is over, but not for
the 22 Ballston Spa Middle schoolers who pile into the school

These energetic and friendly students are members of the Charlotte
Book Award Book Club, the brainchild of three seventh-grade English
teachers: Katie Marcincuk, Jen Hughes and Joe Shaver.

The Charlotte Award is a New York state effort to encourage students
to read outstanding literature and to give them a voice in deciding
which of the nominated books deserve special recognition.

The CBABC in Ballston Spa has been meeting every other week since
Jan. 21, 2004. It was going to disband on April 7, after members
voted and celebrated their own recommendations for the Charlotte
Award. The group, however, has decided to continue.

Today, as the students eagerly greet Marcincuk with comments like:
‘I’m thinking about writing a letter to one of the authors’ and ‘May
I help you set up the snacks?’ I wonder how to bottle and dispense
their enthusiasm to jaded juveniles and apathetic adults.

Not only does the CBABC have school support, it is supported by the
community, as well.

‘The teachers applied and received a grant from the Ballston Spa
Education Foundation,’ says the school’s principal, Helen Stuetzel.

The foundation, comprising Ballston Spa residents, raises money and
provides grants for worthy school projects.

‘We needed the money,’ Stuetzel says, ‘to pay for multiple copies of
the books on the list, so several students could read the books at
one time.’

At this meeting on March 24, the students are gathered to discuss two
books: ‘Forgotten Fire’ by Adam Bagdasarian and ‘The Sisterhood of
the Traveling Pants’ by Ann Brashares. The students have had the
opportunity to read 14 of the 30 nominated books, and they will be
casting ballots for their favorite among these books.

To get things started, Marcincuk, who acts as group moderator, asks:
‘Who read ‘Forgotten Fire?’ Several hands go up at once. ‘Can anyone
give us a brief overview?’

KT Dickman responds with poise: ‘This book tells the story of the
Armenian Holocaust during World War II. A young boy watches as people
in his town and family are taken from their homes to be tortured and
killed. Somehow the boy survives.’

Stacy Machley adds, ‘It was very sad, but also very exciting because
it was true.’

‘And every once in a while,’ offers Taylor Grant-Knight, ‘something
happy would actually happen.’

The general consensus, however, is that ‘Forgotten Fire’ is a hard
book. ‘I tried to read the book a couple of times,’ volunteers
Kristina Mirett. ‘But I just couldn’t get into it.’

Marcincuk sums up: ‘This is a book for mature readers not only
because of the violence but also the story can make the reader feel
very sad.’

Everyone agrees that this is not a book for elementary school

She then introduces the second book for discussion, ‘The Sisterhood
of the Traveling Pants.’

‘We put this book last on the list,’ explains Marcincuk, ‘because it
is long and deals more with mature, contemporary issues than the
other books.’

Alex Ruggiero objects, ‘But the book is so girly.’ Alex is one of six
boys at today’s meeting.

Josh Palumbo concurs: ‘The ‘Rules’ in the book are so stupid. This
must be a humorous or immature book.’

Taylor, also one of the six boys, agrees and disagrees: ‘It took me
days to get through the first four pages, but then shabam! It really

Krystal Dee concedes that ‘perhaps the book is more for girls than
for boys.’

I, too, can well imagine how middle school boys might be turned off
by a book that starts with four best girlfriends on a shopping spree.
The book, however, eventually delves into more serious matters such
as divorce and the consequences of sex.

Jessica McDonald says that she ‘can really relate to the character
Carmen.’ Taylor feels the same: ‘I didn’t cry, but I felt sad for
her. She has divorced parents like me.’

Taylor’s assessment of the character named Lena, however, is not so
sympathetic. ‘She was the most boring, and she whined most of the
time.’ But to Taylor, Bridget, the character who is cute and blond,
is another story: ‘I really liked her.’

So did Alex, who admits, ‘I only read the Bridget part of the book.’

Marcincuk looks at the clock and at the table where the cheese puffs,
brownies, cookies, popcorn and soda once stood and knows it’s time to
bring today’s meeting to a close. She and Hughes and Shaver hand out

The students make up their minds quickly and stuff their ballots into
the make-shift ballot box.

Before everyone leaves, Marcincuk brings up the idea of continuing
the book group for the rest of the school year. The students are
unanimous in their enthusiasm.

Marcincuk suggests that students bring in books that they
particularly liked. I can hear them suggesting book titles to each
other as they file out.

As I trail out behind them, I reflect on what I’ve just witnessed —
intelligent youngsters engaged in lively yet polite discourse about
books, history, human nature and morality. Though some may have
disagreed with each other, they are willing to listen and even
entertain other points of view. If these children are America’s
future, then I can look forward to it with optimism.

The students who attended the March 24 meeting were Chelsea Ahrens,
Brittany Cain, Leslie Cairns, Brittney Czub, Krystal Dee, KT Dickman,
Stefanie Gentili, Taylor Grant-Knight, Artie Knapp, Kayla Lawrence,
Sarah leBarron, Elizabeth Lincoln, Stacy Machley, Jessica McDonald,
Shannen Menia, Kristina Mirett, Josh Myers, Joshua Palumbo, Chloe
Pecorino, Alex Ruggiero, Mike Venturiello, and Kathy Zink.

Susan Van Raalte’s book club series continues Friday, May 7, on the
cover of the Life section. Thereafter, it will run every other
Friday. If you are in a book club that you would like profiled in
thes series, e-mail Susan Van Raalte at [email protected].