America is a nation of 330 million individuals. Although many of us praise our unique strengths and weaknesses, American individuality, and the promise and power of one person, we also create communities that revolve around family or religion or sports, or work, or hobbies. And, in school and public libraries we create communities of readers.
Developing such communities is precisely the idea behind programs that have for about twenty years encouraged members of a larger population, such as a school or city, to read simultaneously a single title and freely discuss the concepts and content of that common book. The natural place for such a program is the library; the architect, the professional librarian or librarians.
The American Library Association provides helpful tools, including a planning manual and a compilation of over 100 such projects across the country (http://www.ala.org/tools/programming/onebook). In addition, several publishers have guides, hints, and resources for these programs. (See, for example, the materials from Simon & Schuster (http://www.simonandschusterpublishing.com/onebook/) and Penguin/Random House (http://commonreads.com/).
The first step in beginning a “Big Read” is to select your book, or books. Not any book will do. Books with big ideas and universal themes are the ones that will appeal across a wide audience. Young adult titles, such as The Hate U Give, have tremendous crossover appeal, pulling both adults and teenagers into the program. Adult books with solid adaptations (Unbroken or The Boys In the Boat) often meet the reading skills of a variety of customers. And consider The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, available in adult, young adult, and picture book editions. Such a choice, besides being entertaining and informative, allows everyone in a family to be talking about different facets of the same book.
Trying to meet the different maturational levels and reading sophistication of students in schools does not have to be problematic. Many picture books, such as Each Kindness , Dreamers, or Jon Klassen’s Hat Trilogy, have such rich content that discussions can stretch among all elementary grades. Librarians may veer from a single book to other related ones. For example, students in grades 2-6 respond to The One and Only Ivan, while the companion book, Ivan, The True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, has appeal in the early primary grades. Beyond the direct content, ancillary subjects such as zoos and endangered animals can be targeted at all grade levels creating literary glue that binds all students.
Second, order the number of books you estimate you will need. Grant opportunities may help with the funding. Often the books are passed out to the community at large, but sometimes they are just read aloud to groups of individuals. You will need a calendar for the readings so that everyone can be in approximately the same place at the same time.
Third, begin thinking of enrichment activities. In the case of Ivan (above) the local zoo may present programs in your library. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind opens up a ton of STEM activities and The Boys in the Boat or Unbroken might create an opportunity for youngsters to salute local veterans by interviewing them to discover their own experiences. The list of supporting events is only limited by your imagination.
And fourth, plan a culminating celebration that may be a literacy night; a visit (either virtual or in person) with the author; or a display of all the projects created around the book. Such an event brings the reading and discussing full circle and solidifies the new reading community.
Clearly such a project involves much attention to detail and prior planning. But don’t forget to enjoy the experience. And then begin to plan for the next “Big Read.”
Applegate, Katherine. Ivan, The Remarkable Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla; illustrated by G. Brian Karas. New York: Clarion, 2014.
Applegate, Katherine. The One And Only Ivan. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
Brown, Daniel James. The Boys In the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. New York: Viking, 2013.
Brown, Daniel James. The Boys In the Boat (Young Readers Adaptation): The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold. New York: Viking, 2015.
Kamkwamba, William. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity. New York: Morrow, 2009.
Kamkwamba, William. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Young Readers Edition. New York: Dial, 2015.
Kamkwamba, William. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Picture Book Edition. New York: Dial, 2012.
Klassen, Jon. I Want My Hat Back; illustrated by the author. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2011.
Klassen, Jon. This Is Not My Hat; illustrated by the author. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2012.
Klassen, Jon. We Found a Hat; illustrated by the author: Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2016.
Morales, Yuyi. Dreamers; illustrated by the author. New York: Neal Porter Books, 2018.
Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray, 2018.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Each Kindness; illustrated by E. B. Lewis. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012.