A Guide for Beginning a Book Discussion Group

Last Updated: Tuesday, 06 February 2018

 iconmonstr-printer-icon-16Download a Printer Friendly PDF of the 2018 Big Read Guide

Jump to:

downarrowA Guide for Beginning a Book Discussion Group


downarrowLeading a Book Discussion

downarrowHow to Handle Difficult Situations

downarrowDIY Discussion Guides

downarrowOnline Resources to Get You Started

downarrowThe Big Read 2018 (Book Information)

downarrowThe Big Read 2018 (Author Biography/Links)

downarrowDiscussion Questions for The Underdogs

A Guide for Beginning a Book Discussion Group

The First Meeting

At your regular meetings you may not need one person to lead the group. However, at this first meeting you need to take the lead! Keep in mind that, just like the chairman of the board, the role of the moderator/group leader is not to make all the decisions but to ensure that:

The first meeting is the perfect time to talk about your expectations for the book club, listen to what others think, discuss books in general and the types of books members have read or would like to read. The key purpose of this meeting is to ensure that everybody is on the same page before you move ahead with regular meetings.

The American Library Association recommends answering ten easy questions to get your book discussion off the ground. Establishing these answers early will help you avoid any trouble down the road.


American Library Association Quick Start Guide

Quick Start Guide retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/tools/atoz/book-discussion-grps

  1. What kind of book club? Decide on a club orientation: somewhere between highly social and seriously academic.

  2. What kind of books? Choose a literary genre or a mix of genres: fiction (current or classic), poetry, drama, mystery, sci-fi, current events, history, or biography.

  3. How many members? 8 to 16 members are best: enough for a discussion if several are absent, but not too many to make discussions unwieldy.

  4. How often should we meet? Once a month works best for most clubs. Some meet every 6 weeks. Pick a schedule and try to stick with it.

  5. When should we meet? Weekdays: mid-morning, lunchtime, dinner, evening—depends on jobs, childcare, family dinners or difficulty driving at night. Weekends: Saturday morning, or Sunday afternoon or evening.

  6. Where should we meet? Homes, clubhouses, public libraries, churches, local Y’s, restaurants—all make good meeting places.

  7. What should we call ourselves? Give your club an identity — Brookville Book Babes, Reading's Red Hat Readers, New London Literary Lions. Or simply the Lakewood Book Club — that works.

  8. How do we keep in touch? Send out monthly meeting reminders. If not everyone uses email, mail postcards. Distribute a complete list of phone numbers, home addresses, and e-mails.

  9. Keeping memories. Keep a club journal—a 3-ring binder to keep track of the books you’ve read, plot summaries, discussion highlights, and members’ opinions. It's especially useful to bring new members up to speed.

  10. Give back to the community. Collect dues for a scholarship or an annual literacy award at a local school. Purchase books for your local library, or become involved in a tutoring program.


Other Things to Consider

In short, by the end of the first meeting make sure that you all agree on



At your first book club meeting, or whenever new people join your reading group, it's important to spend a few minutes getting to know each other. This can be as simple as going around the group taking it in turns to introduce yourself, and possibly saying a few words, such as what you're looking forward to about the book club (if you're new) or the book you've most enjoyed (if you're an existing member). However, this format can be a little intimidating for some so an alternative is to play a game! You don't need to do any of these activities but the chances are that spending half an hour 'playing games' at the outset will have individuals feeling like they belong in the group faster than if you don't. The purpose of all the activities is to give people a chance to meet each other and to share information about themselves. Emphasize that the activity is meant to be a fun game, not a test, and that nobody will be keeping score!

Several variations of icebreakers can be found online, but here is a fun and easy example:

Pass the Hat

This game is best in groups of about 10 people or less. Think up one or more questions per person (if the group is large have one question per person, if it's smaller have more). Cut the paper so each question is on its own sheet, fold the papers, and put them in some sort of container. Take turns to pull a question out of the hat and answer the question. Once somebody has answered his/her particular question, other people might want to share their own answers. You'll probably want to set a time limit per question in order to keep things moving along - you don't have to announce this up front, just keep an eye on the time yourself and move things along if necessary.

Example Questions:

Important: The questions above assume that the group who are getting together already consider themselves relatively well read. However, if you're starting a group with people who may not think of themselves as "readers", you might want to consider more generic questions, such as favorite sport, favorite place to visit, person they most admire, etc. This game is intended to help people feel comfortable with each other, not embarrass them by asking questions they're not comfortable answering!


Leading a Book Discussion

It's your turn to moderate/lead your book club's discussion. What can you do to ensure a successful meeting?
First, the role of a moderator will vary from group to group. Some groups might be very formal with an 'official' moderator - for example if your group is run by the local library it is quite likely that a member of the library staff will lead the meeting; other groups might rotate the role; others may not feel they need one at all. The moderator's role is somewhere between a chairperson and host/hostess. It's the moderator's responsibility to:

Allow a little time at the start of the meeting for people to say hello, possibly grab a snack and get their socializing done.

Now you need to get the meeting started and, if the group is newly formed or you think needs a refresher, remind them of the 'rules' of your book group and how much time you have to discuss the book. Suggestion: A minute or two reviewing the 'rules' of your group can be time well spent. If you or other members feel there has been a problem in earlier meetings (e.g. one person dominating the conversation or too much off-topic conversation), this is the appropriate time to remind people what was previously agreed, without it appearing to be a personal attack on an individual.

Get an initial reaction from people about the book. It's quite likely one or two might not have finished it (maybe they ran out of time or just found it tedious) - it's not a big deal, this is supposed to be fun, not a test.
Whether you use an 'official' reading guide or think up your own discussion points, decide ahead of time where you want to start the discussion and which discussion points you really want to cover - this will help you keep the conversation on track and enable you to throw in a new question if the conversation lags, goes too far off topic, starts to repeat itself or gets too contentious.

It is quite likely that you won't get through all the potential topics for discussion. If the conversation is flowing the chances are that the conversation will naturally expand from the original topic into other interesting areas. If you do feel the need to move the conversation on, look for a way to weave the next discussion point into the current conversation.

Don't be too rigid keeping people on topic. As Harold Bloom (one of America's leading literary critic) says, the purpose of a book is

"to get in very close to a reader and try to speak directly to what it is that they either might want out of the book or might be persuaded to see... [to persuade the reader] that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real, are being demonstrated to the reader for the very first time"

In other words, the person who appears to be off topic may be finding a way to express and understand an experience in their own lives - so don't be too quick to redirect them!


How to Handle Difficult Situations

Unfortunately, you really might need to be prepared for some of these scenarios.



Most book club discussion guides are created by publishers, who are beginning to catch on to the huge growth in book discussion group. However, there are still relatively few guides available and most tend to be for certain types of books (the genre loosely known as 'literary fiction') and often only available once the book comes out in paperback. So, what do you do if you really want to discuss a particular book but there's no reading guide available? Just come up with a few questions to get the discussion going, and start talking! The following are suggested starting points for creating your own discussion questions. As a general rule, start with broad questions and look for where the interest of the group lies, and then focus in on specific issues. Use the ideas below as triggers for creating questions relevant to the particular book you're studying. Aim for about 5-10 key discussion points that will generate conversation - and if everyone is happy discussing one particular aspect, don't feel the need to rush the group on to another topic.

How to use this list Use the following list to trigger your own ideas about the particular book you're reading. Remember, you're only looking for about half a dozen discussion points, so you don't have to go through this list exhaustively. Instead, skim it for possible question areas that are relevant to the book you're going to discuss, and in just a few minutes you'll have a list of thought provoking questions specific to your particular book, ready for your book club meeting.

General Discussion Questions for ANY book

Retrieved from BookBundlz: http://www.bookbundlz.com/BBArticle.aspx?articleId=25


  1. What is the significance of the title? Would you have given the book a different title? If yes, what is your title?
  2. What were the themes of the book? Do you feel they were adequately explored? Were they brought to life in a cliché or in a unique manner?
  3. What did you think of the structure and style of the writing?
  4. What scene was the most pivotal for the book? How do you think the story would have changed had that scene not taken place?
  5. What scene resonated most with you personally in either a positive or negative way? Why?
  6. Has anything ever happened to you similar to what happened in the book? How did you react to it differently?
  7. What surprised you the most about the book?
  8. Were there any notable racial, cultural, traditions, gender, sexuality or socioeconomic factors at play in the book? If so, what? How did it affect the characters? Do you think they were realistically portrayed?
  9. How important is the setting & time period to the story? How would it have played out differently in a different setting? What about a different time period?
  10. Were there any particular quotes that stood out to you? Why?

  11. Did any of the characters remind you of yourself or someone you know? How?
  12. What is motivating the actions of the characters in the story? What do the sub-characters want from the main character and what does the main character want with them?
  13. What were the dynamics of "power" between the characters? How did that play a factor in their interactions?
  14. How does the way the characters see themselves, differ from how others see them? How do you see the various characters?
  15. How did the "roles" of the various characters influence their interactions? For a woman: Mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, professional, etc.
  16. If you could smack any of the characters upside the head, who would it be and why? (Courtesy of Nick)
  17. Were there any moments where you disagreed with the choices of any of the characters? What would you have done differently?
  18. What past influences are shaping the actions of the characters in the story?

    The Ending:
  19. Did you think the ending was appropriate? How would you have liked to have seen the ending go?
  20. How have the characters changed by the end of the book?
  21. Have any of YOUR views or thoughts changed after reading this book?
  22. What do you think will happen next to the main characters?

  23. Are there any books that you would compare this one to? How does this book hold up to them?
  24. Have you read any other books by this author? Were they comparable to your level of enjoyment to this one?
  25. What did you learn from, take away from, or get out of this book?
  26. Did your opinion of the book change as you read it? How?
  27. Would you recommend a friend unleash it?


Online Resources to Get You Started

The Big Read 2018

The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love
by Melissa Fay Greene


From two-time National Book Award nominee Melissa Fay Greene comes a profound and surprising account of dogs on the front lines of rescuing both children and adults from the trenches of grief, emotional, physical, and cognitive disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Underdogs tells the story of Karen Shirk, felled at age twenty-four by a neuromuscular disease and facing life as a ventilator-dependent, immobile patient, who was turned down by every service dog agency in the country because she was “too disabled.” Her nurse encouraged her to tone down the suicidal thoughts, find a puppy, and raise her own service dog. Karen did this, and Ben, a German shepherd, dragged her back into life. “How many people are stranded like I was,” she wondered, “who would lead productive lives if only they had a dog?”

A thousand state-of-the-art dogs later, Karen Shirk’s service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, is restoring broken children and their families to life. Long shunned by scientists as a manmade, synthetic species, and oft- referred to as “Man’s Best Friend” almost patronizingly, dogs are finally paid respectful attention by a new generation of neuroscientists and animal behaviorists. Melissa Fay Greene weaves the latest scientific discoveries about our co-evolution with dogs with Karen’s story and a few exquisitely rendered stories of suffering children and their heartbroken families.

Written with characteristic insight, humanity, humor, and irrepressible joy, what could have been merely touching is a penetrating, compassionate exploration of larger questions: about our attachment to dogs, what constitutes a productive life, and what can be accomplished with unconditional love.

Author Biography:

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of six books of nonfiction: Praying for Sheetrock (1991), The Temple Bombing (1996), Last Man Out (2003), There Is No Me Without You (2006), No Biking in the House Without a Helmet (2011), and The Underdogs (2016).  The newest is an expansion of “Wonder Dog,” a 2012 New York Times Magazine feature story which became one of the most popular, most shared NYTimes articles of the year.

Melissa’s work has been translated into 15 languages and has been honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Book Award nominations, a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the ACLU National Civil Liberties Award, the Hadassah Myrtle Wreath Award, Elle Magazine’s Readers’ Prize, the Salon Book Prize, a Lyndhurst Foundation Fellowship, a Dog Writers of America Award, and induction into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She has contributed to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, LIFE, MS, CNN.com, and other periodicals. Praying For Sheetrock was named one of the “Top 100 Works of American Journalism of the 20th Century” and appears on Entertainment Weekly‘s list of “The New Classics–The 100 Best Books of the Last 25 Years.”

A native of Macon, Georgia, childhood resident of Dayton, Ohio, and 1975 graduate of Oberlin College, Melissa and her husband, defense attorney Don Samuel, live in Atlanta and are the parents of nine.

Author’s Bibliography:


Discussion Questions for The Underdogs

  1. Before starting 4 Paws for Ability, Karen Shirk was a deeply depressed disabled person, homebound, with few relationships or pleasures. How did dogs save her life? Are there other people you know who have found healing through animals? What is it about dogs and other animals that promote well-being in people?

  2. Talk about Karen's journey. What personal characteristics has she exhibited? Do you agree that her achievements are remarkable? What can we learn from her?

  3. Melissa Faye Greene weaves the science and history of dogs throughout the book. Almost everyone in the book, including the author, clearly loves dogs. What did you learn about dogs? Why do you think dogs and humans are such close companions? 

  4. Are you a dog person? If so, what do you love about dogs? If not, why not?

  5. Why do most service dog training organizations not work with children? What makes 4 Paws for Ability different?

  6. Consider the lives of some of the children and families profiled. What challenges do they face? What touched you most about their stories?

  7. Many families were concerned that adopting a service dog might mean more work for them, not less. What are some of the jobs these service dogs perform? How do they make life easier and better for children and families?

  8. How is a trained service dog different from a family pet?

  9. Discuss the training regimen 4 Paws for Ability follows. What factors do they consider when matching a dog with a child?  Why does adopting a service dog cost so much money?

  10. At the end of the chapter on Prison Dogs, Karen says "I had learned with Ben that a dog helps you make friends." Discuss the power of friendship. Where else do you see friendship at work in The Underdogs?