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All About Reader's Guides

abstract:"In the end, the Reader's Guide is only as successful as the reader who uses it," writes Jennifer Tedford, book group facilitator and author of the Reader's Guide for Lynette Brasfield's Nature Lessons.

article:

May 21, 2003
— Guest columnist Jennifer Tedford offers a personal commentary on the value of Reader's Guides. Her Reader's Guide for Nature Lessons can be found on Lynette Brasfield's website.

 

Mapping Books: Readers Guides to Literary Novels

Reading may be an independent activity, but the greatest joy of reading is often found in the discussion the book offers.  Reader's Guides can provide an engaging opportunity for readers to explore the many layers of a book.  Having recently written the Reader's Guide for Lynette Brasfield's Nature Lessons, I have come to appreciate the value a Readers Guide can have on book discussions.

 

Reader's Guides are generally created by the publisher for the publication of the paperback edition of a novel that has done well on the bestsellers lists of major newspapers around the country.  With the explosion of book groups around the country, largely an influence of Oprah's Book Club, the demand for Reader's Guides has increased exponentially.

 

Initially, Reader's Guides focused on general questions to assist the reader in following key events as the reader progressed; however, the social nature of book clubs has driven publishers to create Reader's Guides that include a wide range of information.  Author interviews, biographical information, a short excerpt, related background information, and questions that are often thematic and open-ended are common elements of recent Reader's Guides.

 

Publishers have become savvy to the word-of-mouth impact that book groups can generate. Consequently, Reader's Guides now reflect the social yet intellectual nature of book group readers. Expanding to include such genres as memoir, short story collections, and even some non-fiction, Reader's Guides are currently an expected component of a fine paperback edition of a book.

 

When I began facilitating book clubs over five years ago, Reader's Guides were only occasionally available, and they often did not provide the range of information and analysis that my readers require. The best books for book clubs are often thought provoking and controversial, and a smart Reader's Guide captures and prompts readers to address even the most difficult topics. Readers want to not only deconstruct the book; they also want to make connections to their own lives and the world around them.  An effective Reader's Guide will enable this kind of discussion to take place.

 

Still, an author has little say in what goes into a Reader's Guide created by the publisher.  For Lynette Brasfield, clarifying complicated issues in her novel Nature Lessons was of primary concern. Allowing her input ensured a thorough exploration of complex plot points and themes.  Because her book focuses on the topic of mental illness, we were careful to address this issue in her author biography and Reader's Guide questions.  Our collaboration also provided Lynette with a view of how readers, particularly book club readers, might approach her novel.  Indeed, I read her book as both a personal mother-daughter story and a social commentary on apartheid South Africa, yet her vision of the book differs dramatically. Lynette views her story as more personally focused on the mother-daughter relationship as it informs her protagonists personal growth. Our diverse perspectives on the book ultimately led to a more comprehensive Reader's Guide that will benefit a wide range of readings.

 

In the end, the Reader's Guide is only as successful as the reader who uses it. We will undoubtedly see Reader's Guides increase and expand into more non-fiction, but the heart of the Reader's Guide will almost certainly remain in the contemporary literary novel, the most popular genre choice of book clubs. Whether for independent enrichment or book club discussions, the Reader's Guide is a valuable tool.

 

Jennifer Tedford is an English Teacher at Beverly Hills High School and a Book Club Facilitator.  She can be reached at jltedford@jps.net.

 

 

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