One book to rule them all

I just got back from the library/community meeting to choose the possible books for the “One Book, One Community” program that will happen in May. Our town has about 90,000 people and about half of them speak Spanish (counting the unincorporated part of town that has the most Spanish speakers, an extra 15,000.)

The library committee had chosen a list of possible books, but then the city council said, “Hey, why didn’t you ask the community.” So, they threw out that list, and opened an invitation. I came because I’m in the local mothers’ club, and another mom asked a few people she knew loved books to participate. Two of us went. Other groups represented: high school teachers, elementary school librarians, senior citizens, librarians, one Latina librarian, men, and high school students.

At our first meeting, we brainstormed a list of qualitites we felt were important for The Book to have. This worked very well. The list of qualities was rewritten into loosely grouped categories. Then we voted, three votes each, on the most important qualities. Our top three picks were: available in Spanish and English; of high interest to the community; and ability to cross generational lines, i.e. be accessible as far downward in age as possible. “Good story” and “interestingness” I think got folded into “of high interest” which originally meant “topical, relevant to our town”. “Literariness” was actually a negative quality even though many people in the room personally liked it.

Not voted on, but often mentioned, was that the book had to be something that would not be offputting to men. We all seemed to know what this meant. It was a dealbreaker quality. No one liked this idea, but there was a sort of pragmatic consensus.

That was three weeks ago. We all talked to people in our communities and came up with no more than 5 books each that we felt would have the right qualities, and that we felt passionate about. I put the question out there, “So are we committing to the idea of availability in Spanish?” And there was reluctance… though it had the most votes. Tonight there was a moment again where some books only in English might have slipped through, but I put my back up, and then the librarian agreed, and everyone else went with it. I was glad. My main goal of being there was fulfilled…

We had an interesting discussion of books that were good, but that were overused, were sort of too canonical. The Giver, or The Red Pony, or House on Mango Street. The high school student sort of closed her eyes and groaned at all these, which have become standard middle-school reading list fare. I was thinking of House on Mango Street as standard community-college fare, but that was 20 years ago. Now it’s for middle school!

There were only a few of us for this second meeting: The high school girl (new), the senior citizen (she was in favor of more ‘literary’ options), the other mom-club woman’s husband who is a community college lit prof and who was the only non-anglo, me, the librarian who was unbearably cool, and some other old guy who seemed quite well read and interesting, parent of a high school student. I was impressed with everyone. They had all made sincere efforts to ask around and get opinions!

We had some discussion, ruled out a few books, spoke up in favor of some others, passed books around the table, and came up with:

– The Kite Runner
– Before We Were Free
– Grapes of Wrath
– Seabiscuit
– Their Eyes Were Watching God

That’s a pretty cool list. I could lose “Seabiscuit” and not care, but the rest of it’s fine! I don’t think anyone will vote for Grapes of Wrath, which IMHO is too long at 600-ish pages, and also too high of a reading level. “Before We Were Free” was my suggestion. I loved the idea of everyone reading “The Moon is Down”, but could not find it in print in Spanish. The other book we wanted that wasn’t in print in Spanish: Night, by Elie Wiesel.

I would have been unnerved to suggest The Kite Runner, but the high school girl’s freshman class had read it and all really liked it and had super intense discussions. “It’s got war, it’s got racism, it’s got father-son relationships, and going back to your old country, and class issues, it’s got EVERYTHING,” – radiating valley-girly intensity enthusiasm.
“And it’s, well, it’s sort of about, it’s got this… rape. Of a guy.” Okay, after that endorsement from a 14 year old, we were all voting for it! Plus the author lives here. I’ll probably vote for it over my original choice.

Well, I wanted to write that all up because it was a great example of actual community involvement in politics and in canon formation.

2 thoughts on “One book to rule them all

  1. Huh! I read Grapes of Wrath in high school, but House on Mango Street in an upper-level college class a few years ago. Who knows!

    Anyway yay available in Spanish. What is the deal with this one book program, anyway? I suppose I could go look it up. I shall!

  2. Great write-up and super great community thing. When I first heard of what you were doing, I thought Grapes of Wrath, but you’re right, it’s too long.

    I did not know House on Mango Street was being read by middle school students. Cool.

    And I certainly didn’t know Kite Runner was being read in high schools. Very cool.

    If confronted with that list, I would go with The Kite Runner.

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