February 26, 2018

Santa Monica Reads (and you can, too!): An interview with Robert Graves

Since our Book Clubs in Your Community webinar last fall, we received many comments about the annual Santa Monica Reads program shared by panelist and Public Services Librarian Robert Graves, who chairs the program. With all the interest in the program, I caught up with Robert to ask a few questions and share what I learned with you.

Q: First, (drumroll please) can you share this year’s pick? You were in the process of choosing the book when we had the webinar.

A: It’s Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. It’s the 45th anniversary of the book. We wanted a book that would also appeal to teens and one that would carry through to summer reading since we’re doing the One Book program later in the spring this year.

Q: So how does the book itself get chosen? Isn’t there a selection committee?

A: There is a selection committee which used to be primarily community stakeholders. We started weaving in facilitators to the selection committee after a year when we chose a book that turned out to be not so great for discussion. We found that their advice helped us find a book that better fit the intention of the program, to get people talking about a book.

One of the community book groups meets to discuss Station Eleven

Q: Can you share more about your use of discussion facilitators for the program?

A: We’ve refined the process over the years. Our volunteer coordinator puts out a call for volunteers including listing it on the volunteer application. We also list it on our Get Involved section of our About Us tab on our web site. We recruit 15-20 folks, from educators to general reading group fans.

Q: What are some of the qualities you’re looking for with these folks?

A: We’re looking for comfort speaking to a group and particularly not being shy about leading a discussion or directing traffic. Also, volunteers don’t have to be someone who liked the book, often the discussion is enriched if they don’t.

Q: What’s the training process like for facilitators?

A: About 75% of our facilitators are ones who’ve done it before so they treat training as more of a brainstorming session. They think beyond the book itself to other programming that might be done with the book in a given year.

Q: One of the things webinar attendees were interested in is hearing more about your icebreaker questions your facilitators use during the discussions.

A: The icebreaker idea was proposed by one of our veteran facilitators. She mentioned that she’d tried it with one of the groups, and everyone really liked the idea of having a question that everyone in the group could answer as a way to pull everyone in the conversation. One they used for Little Bee was, “If you could come up with your own name, what would it be?” Now facilitators come up with one or two questions.

Wonder author R.J. Palacio with some of the "wonder kids" and their families at her author talk. 

Q. Can you talk a bit about how you advertise the program?

A. How we market changes with every book. We’ve done things like put ads in the newspaper; partnered with local businesses and put flyers in their windows and worked with restaurants to offer discounts. A couple of years ago, during the flash mob craze, several library staff and facilitators went to the farmer’s market with a bullhorn and read from the book (Little Bee). Chris Cleave tweeted about it, calling it an author’s dream.

Q. So how do you measure success?

A: Obviously attendance numbers but they’re not the only measure. We’re interested in outcomes; whether people learned something from the conversation.

The year we did Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, we heard from a mom who felt she was able to see life through her daughter’s eyes as a result of reading this book. Another comment, “I would never have read this (Station Eleven by Emily St. John) if you hadn’t made it the selection.” It’s great opening readers up to a new genre.

Sometimes the best things happen by accident. I remember spotting a meeting in our courtyard outside. It was raining and the group was huddled under an umbrella. I said, “Are you a book discussion group? Do you want to come inside?” I found out they’d been meeting on their own in our courtyard for 5-6 months. They loved that we offered them a room every month, let them advertise it, and purchased extra copies of the books they chose. They’ve been meeting regularly for 5+ years.


Looking for more resources on hosting book clubs, or ideas for other unique programs you can implement at your library? Check out our page on connecting to readers through book clubs and take a look at some stories of successful programs and services we’ve collected from libraries around the world.

Kathy Stewart is a NoveList Consultant. 


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