Why It’s a Big Deal that the NEA’s Big Read Program is Coming to the Alabama Book Festival in 2017
Every year since 2006 the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 for communities to promote the benefits of reading literature through its wildly popular Big Read program.
In 2017 the Big Read makes its debut at the 12th annual Alabama Book Festival on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 10 a.m. with an appearance by Tayari Jones. The festival will take place at Old Alabama Town, located at 301 Columbus Street in downtown Montgomery.
Ms. Jones’s 2011 novel, Silver Sparrow, is one of the fifty titles the NEA makes available to sponsoring institutions to select as the centerpiece of their programming. Other novels range from classics such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) to more recent works like Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human (2002) and Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters (2010).
Silver Sparrow tells the story of two teenage girls in the 1980s, Dana and Chaurisse, who share more than just their middle-class Atlanta neighborhood. They also have the same father – although only Dana knows it. James Witherspoon, the bigamist the girls’ lives revolve around in very different ways, isn’t a cad, however – he’s depicted as a charismatic, devoted parent…one who’s just deeply flawed, and whose secret bears immense consequences on his daughters as they become friends.
“I chose Silver Sparrow for our grant because I thought it would be a good fit for our Troy Montgomery Campus and the city of Montgomery,” says Alyssa Martin, instruction and reference librarian at Troy University’s Rosa Parks Library, who spearheaded the grant. “I wanted one of the newer NEA Big Read books that would give us the opportunity to have a living author visit our town. Tayari considers herself a Southern author, originally from Atlanta and she mentions Rosa Parks and the importance that history has on our everyday lives.”
Ms. Jones’s novel addresses issues of honesty within families and the pain that truth inflicts on relationships. The author has spoken of the story’s unusual situation as a metaphor for young people’s feelings of confusion and inadequacy when their parents have children from other marriages.
“I was giving a reading in Florida and a woman had me sign her book,” she told National Public Radio in 2011, “and she said that on Father’s Day she had written on her Facebook status something like, ‘Happy Father’s Day to the greatest dad in the world.’ And she had seen her sister’s Facebook page, and her sister had written, ‘I never had a father ‘cause the coward wasn’t there.’ It’s the same man. What does that mean?”
For the Alabama Book Festival, the NEA Big Read program means an opportunity to reach out to audiences that don’t always have access to novels, or to readers whom may simply not have much exposure to fiction. Between now and April 22, readers have an opportunity to receive a free copy of Silver Sparrow and participate in community activities with the following institutions:
- Montgomery City-County Public Libraries (all 10 branches) – book clubs are reading/discussing the book
- Trenholm State Community College – students in English, History and Cosmetology are reading/discussing the book
- Troy University Montgomery Campus – employees and students in English, Sociology and Psychology
- Alabama Librarians – books will be passed out at the Alabama Library Association Convention (held the same week as the Alabama Book Festival) so that librarians can take the books back to their libraries
- Carver High School in Montgomery – all 9th grade English classes will read the book
- Pike Road Liberal Arts School, Troy
- Julia Tutwiler Women’s Prison – inmates have been provided books
- The Phoenix Salon & Spa in Montgomery – will host a book discussion
“The Big Read grant is a tremendous opportunity for our Montgomery Campus, but also for all of the citizens of Montgomery,” says Dr. Christopher Shaffer, dean of library services at Troy University. “This grant provides all of us the opportunity to have the shared experience of reading and reflecting on a fascinating piece of literature. It is such a great way for a large number of people to step back from the frenetic world in which we live, and without the obstacle of technology, read a unique book, reflect on it, and then interact with each other. It is in moments like these that members of a community can forge stronger ties.”
In addition to Ms. Jones, the 12th Alabama Book Festival will feature some forty other authors in a variety of genres, including nonfiction, children’s and young adult literature, cooking, outdoor adventures, and entertainment – a little something for everyone, in other words.
That’s not including an entire day of free writing workshops with nationally known writers. The festival will also feature a bevy of family activities to celebrate the power of books and reading to enliven imaginations and inspire empathy and thought. There will be story time session for infants and toddlers and an open mic for authors to promote their work.
The event is free and open to the public. For more information on all the fun that will be had on April 22, please visit http://www.alabamabookfestival.org