One Book, One City, One Great Experience!
by Candice Michalik
In early 2002, energized by an idea and a few dedicated people, the Lynchburg Public Library launched the first "Lynchburg Reads" citywide reading program. On the whole we considered the program, featuring John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a success. The book was chosen because 2002 was Steinbeck's centenary, and we learned a local high school would be presenting the play. We included book discussions, movie screenings and discussions, and a lecture and slide show by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw. The library's copies of the books checked out about 300 times; local bookstores sold over 400 copies. Over 500 people participated in the activities, including the 375 people who saw a local high school's production.
This year, building on that success, we grew more ambitious. A committee that included librarians, teachers, a former school-board member, a bookstore owner, and members of the Friends of the Library met in August 2002 to choose the book for "Lynchburg Reads 2003." We all agreed a contemporary book would be best, and James McBride's The Color of Water quickly became the front-runner. Among the arguments for the book was the fact that it appealed to a wide range of ages, races, and religions — something we felt was important in a community-wide reading selection. A superbly written story of love, hope, and inspiration, it spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list and was an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year for 1996. Since many on the committee had already read the book, it didn't take long for us to reach a consensus that this was the book we should encourage the community to read in 2003.
Upon researching the author, we learned that it was possible to invite him to come to Lynchburg. We knew the library could not afford the $10,000 fee, but with a few partners it just might be possible. We decided to apply for grants and to seek other creative ways of funding his appearance. I had never applied for a grant, so I decided to look on this task as a learning experience. With help from The "How To" Grants Manual by David G. Bauer and from my director, we applied for four grants. Then Randolph- Macon Woman's College stepped in and offered to partner with us. James McBride would appear as part of the "Lynchburg Reads" events and also as part of the college's Black History Celebration. The college would help publicize the event, as well as offer a venue for the free public performance and help with funding.
Waiting to hear if our grant applications would be funded seemed to take forever, but in December 2002 we received a $2,500 grant from the Greater Lynchburg Community Trust. Then the unexpected happened: We received an unsolicited $1,000 grant from Frito Lay. The daughter of one of the Friends of the Library board members had applied for the grant for us and didn't tell us about it until the grant was awarded. What a wonderful thing to do! We received another $500 grant from the Lynchburg Retail Merchants Association, and our Friends of the Library group also provided $500. Randolph-Macon Woman's College, with the help of an anonymous donor, provided the rest.
If we were to encourage our citizens to read The Color of Water, then it was important for us to make enough copies available to them. We increased the library's number of copies of the book to 33, which was just about perfect for our particular system. We shelved most of the copies in the adult section of our main library, but we also had copies in the young adult section and at our downtown branch. At times all of the books were checked out, but the holds list never got above three people, and most of those didn't have to wait more than a day or two.
We feel strongly that book discussions should be an integral part of a citywide reading program. The library scheduled both an afternoon and an evening discussion group, and one of the library staff volunteered to go to a local retirement community to host a book discussion there. As they did last year, local bookstores offered their support. Three local stores agreed to host a total of four book discussion groups. Daytime, evening, and Saturday groups were set up in order to reach the greatest number of people.
For something special like "Lynchburg Reads," we felt that there needed to be more than just book discussions and an author appearance. We decided to explore some themes of the book in two additional programs. I contacted Karen Ganske, the director of the Nampa Public Library in Idaho, as Nampa had chosen The Color of Water as their citywide book last year. Ms. Ganske was kind enough to send me a copy of their "Nampa Reads" brochure. Borrowing ideas from Nampa, we decided on a family folklore program and a program to explore Judaism. A librarian from Randolph-Macon Woman's College agreed to give a program on "Telling Stories: Collecting and Preserving Family Folklore," and the local Rabbi agreed to give a program on "Ten Questions People Ask about Judaism."
With a program in place, we needed to get the word out to the community. We sent letters to all local, high school, English teachers and about forty of the largest churches, suggesting the book for youth groups. The public schools responded enthusiastically by buying 100 copies of the book and having senior English classes read it over the Christmas holidays. The local newspapers provided us with great publicity. One of the Lifestyle reporters wrote an article for the Sunday paper on James Mc- Bride and "Lynchburg Reads" and included our "Lynchburg Reads" schedule in the article. Two of the paper's columnists mentioned both the author and the program in their columns. And our local weekly paper devoted its entire center section to Lynchburg Reads. We couldn't have asked for more support from the newspapers.
Thanks to the creativity of the staff in the city's Office of Communications, we have an eye-catching logo that can be used year after year. That office also designed flyers and bookmarks for us, printed with the "Lynchburg Reads" schedule. We kept some flyers for library distribution and took others to local bookstores. This year Randolph-Macon Woman's College provided posters announcing James McBride's appearance, and mailed 1500 announcements to their constituency. Combining all of this with the newspaper coverage, Web-page coverage, librarynewsletter coverage, and a banner hanging in the library, our program did not lack for publicity.
Without a doubt, the author appearance was the capstone to the program. For the program to succeed, this event had to succeed. And it did! James McBride's agents were a pleasure to work with. They allowed us to suggest what it was that we wanted Mr. McBride to do that day. They answered all our questions promptly and were very helpful. We did hit one small snag: About a week before he was to appear in Lynchburg, we learned that James McBride was scheduled to fly into Richmond, about a three-hour drive away. With the added travel time, he wouldn't have time for all of his planned activities. So we rebooked him to fly into Charlottesville, and everything ran smoothly.
Since James McBride is an award-winning jazz musician as well as an author, we invited his band to come as well. This gave us a wider audience. Readers came to see James McBride the author; jazz aficionados came to hear James McBride and the band. All were thrilled! On the afternoon of the performance, the group arrived at a local high school at around 1:30. After his plane trip and the 90-minute drive to Lynchburg, James McBride was first entertained by the high school's jazz ensemble, following which he spoke with the students. One of the teachers said that he was great with the students: he established an instant rapport and had them in the palm of his hand. Their schedule was non-stop after that. Following the high school visit, it was time to sign books at the Randolph-Macon Woman's College bookstore. After signing over 100 of his books, Mr. McBride and the three band members had dinner with a small group of Black students and alumni at the college. Dinner with the students was not originally on the group's schedule. He had asked to meet with them, and it was decided that the already planned dinner would be a perfect way to meet and chat. Then came the public performance.
The evening was so exciting for those of us who had been working on "Lynchburg Reads" for so many months. People kept pouring into the auditorium — Black people, white people, young people, old people, men, women, book-lovers, jazz-lovers … you get the picture. The eighth-grade class of a local private school all read the book and attended the performance en masse. Over 600 people packed the hall. And what a performance!
After the introductions, and the Mayor's proclamation that March 18, 2003 was "James McBride Day," Mr. McBride took the stage. With a wonderful sense of humor and enchanting storytelling manner, he told us about his family, interweaving his narrative with readings from the book. Toward the end of his hour-long talk he sat at the piano and made a seamless transition into a performance with the band. With James McBride on saxophone, the quartet, composed of pianist, bassist, and drummer, played a number of lively, crowdpleasing jazz selections for about half an hour.
After a long day of speaking and book signing, many people would want to retire to their hotel rooms, but James McBride stayed afterward and talked to individuals and signed books and CD's. We could not have asked for a better author to represent "Lynchburg Reads." We hoped that the enthusiasm generated by James McBride's appearance would carry over to the other events we had scheduled. On the whole, we think it did, although programs met with varying degrees of success. One of the local bookstores had 26 people at its book discussion. The library's discussion held the day after Mr. McBride's visit attracted only four. Actually there were five, but the fifth participant had thought that James McBride would be at the discussion and when she found out he wouldn't, she left. It seems that no matter how you word press releases, there will be someone to interpret them incorrectly. We were disappointed in the low turnout at the library's book discussions but hope next year to choose a book that the library's regular book group has not already discussed and, therefore, have a ready-made group for at least one of the discussions!
Our two programs that examined themes from the book drew a good number of people for a city of our size. Frances Webb, a reference librarian at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, gave an excellent presentation on developing your own family history. Besides earning a library degree, Mrs. Webb did graduate work in folklore and oral history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Each spring she teaches a popular course at the college called "American Folklore and Folk Life." Her credentials made her perfect for a talk on family stories. To the 18 people present she gave detailed suggestions for interviewing family members and provided the audience with a handout containing helpful suggestions and a bibliography. One audience member was heard to say she wanted to go right away and interview some of her older relatives. Rabbi Tom Gutherz of Lynchburg's Agudath Shalom Congregation presented his afternoon program to about 25 people. After eliciting ten questions about Judaism from the audience and answering each of them in his talk, he opened the floor to more questions. What we expected to take about an hour took just over two as he eagerly and patiently answered questions from all who asked. The audience left with a better understanding and appreciation for Judaism thanks to Rabbi Gutherz.
How many people read The Color of Water? It's impossible to get an exact figure, but the library's 33 copies of the book circulated about 175 times and are still being checked out. In addition the audio version circulated 17 times. Most local bookstores report a dramatic increase in sales. Close to 500 copies of the book were sold in Lynchburg in the months surrounding the event. That's a lot of reading!
Based on our experiences, I would encourage any library considering the one city-one book idea to go for it! There are lists of books other libraries have chosen at various Web sites, or just go ahead and pick one that strikes a chord with your community. In the past two years, Lynchburg has shown it's a win-win situation for all who are involved — increased library checkouts, increased bookstore sales, increased recognition for everyone involved. And although we can count the book checkouts, sales, and attendance figures, some things can't be measured. How many "new" readers have we reached? How many young people have been inspired by James McBride? We may not have exact numbers, but we know it happened.
Candice Michalik is a Reference Librarian at Lynchburg Public Library. She can be reached at candice.michalik@ lynchburgva.gov.