A Look At: ALLen Reads

Jane Bennett, coordinator for ALLenReads, answered a few questions for Books In Common about her community and the books that bring them together.

ALLen Reads LogoWould you tell us a bit about your program? For instance how long has ALLen Reads been hosting a Community Reads event, how did it get started, and how has it changed over the years?
The Friends of the Allen Public Library, an all-volunteer 501(c)(3) organization, was founded 29 years ago. It is dedicated to supporting the Allen Public Library by providing funds and programs that would not otherwise be possible.

ALLen Reads is a special committee under the leadership of the Friends of the Allen Public Library. We read about the one-book concept (started in 1998 in Seattle, Washington) and decided in 2007 we wanted to do this for Allen. We are now heading into our 9th year. The committee includes members from across the city: representatives from Kiwanis, Lions and Rotary clubs; city and library staff; school district personnel; and members of other non-profit groups like the Heritage Guild, the Chamber of Commerce, the Allen Arts Alliance, Foundation for Allen Schools, and Allen Retired Educators make this a true community partnership, focused on uniting the city through reading. ALLen Reads achieves this by bringing the One Book experience to Allen, Texas. Our program in Allen has grown each year, now averaging over 30,000 participants, from preschoolers through seniors.
Allen’s population is a young one (average age, 34), with a lot of dual working parents. The average number of children/household is above the national average. We felt that people would be more likely to participate in a program that was family oriented than just aimed at adults. So, from the start, we have chosen books, related by theme, on three different levels: an “adult” book (that can reach as far into the schools as grade 7); a young adult/junior book; and a picture book. That way we felt the reading would be across generations as well as across the community.
We also partner strongly with the schools, having “Celebrity Readers” (local “celebrities” like the mayor, the fire chief, the police chief, business owners, etc.) go into schools and read the book(s) to students; taking the authors into the schools as well as having them speak at the library; and encouraging teachers to use ALLen Reads as a jumping off point, enhancing their curriculum.

The key goals of Allen’s One Book program are to:
• stimulate interest in the pleasure and importance of reading for persons of every age
• bring the community together through shared activities and experiences
• open minds as the citizens of our community come together in schools, families, in book groups, in civic organizations and more – to discuss the books and the issues they raise
• encourage second-language speakers to participate in this program
• raise cultural awareness and help to bridge ethnic boundaries within the community and beyond

We evaluate each year as it ends and try to improve¬–fix things that aren’t working, continue things that are, and always be open to new ideas/directions. For instance, for the first few years, we had each school create a poster, showing all who read the book using themed cut-outs. We hung them all at the library and they looked great. But by year 4, we got feedback from the school librarians that that was becoming a chore ¬– so we cut that out.

LFC Actors and CBK

Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, with a group of actors at ALLen Reads.

ALLen Reads chooses both a picture book and a middle grade book to accompany the adult book. How do you think including all ages in the community has helped encourage participation?

With ALLen Reads, we hope to reach out to those people who don’t always read. We know readers will take part. The different level books have allowed many a comfort level to be involved. I have had adults come in and say they loved the junior book. Or grandparents say they loved being able to share the picture book with their grandchildren. Two of our years, we actually chose young-adult books as our main book: Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now and Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks. AARP had a great article a couple years ago on how the young-adult books of today reach far beyond that age group (note: Harry Potter, The Twilight Series…). Those two years were among our most popular.

What did you learn from last year’s program that is helping you this year? What are you changing, what worked well?
One of my favorite things that happens each year is the serendipitous additions that come with the new themes and story lines. This past year’s program was rich in those:

• A local student had chosen to explain through her art her feelings about being adopted as an infant from Russia. We displayed her art at the library and had a reception where people could meet and speak with her.
• The high school art teachers fell in love with the picture book this year and used it as inspiration for all their art classes: 700 students created matchboxes, each with a special memory.
• The orchestra teachers contacted us to say that Vivaldi composed most of his music while he was a teacher in an orphanage – would we allow them to perform a Vivaldi concert at the library? Yes!

One thing that is becoming more and more challenging is having the older students read the chosen book. Testing and studying for tests has become so important that teachers in the main content areas can’t/won’t take that time. We have a number of thoughts. One is to create curricula that would help them insert the ALLen Reads book that year into what they are studying.

How has your relationship with Books In Common been beneficial this year?
Books in Common has been very easy to work with to line up dates for the author visit (we had some glitches at the start and they were VERY patient); and they were quick to respond with any questions we had.

Do you have any examples of bridging diversity in a community by coming together around a book?
Our best book for bridging diversity was Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman. It’s about an immigrant community that bonds over a community garden. It was a young adult book, so easy to read, and our CHAT group (ESL adults at the library) read it and loved it. The ESL students at the Freshman Center even wrote to the author and asked if he would mind if they wrote their own “Seedfolks” stories. When he visited, they presented him with THEIR book.

The year we read The Cellist of Sarajevo brought forward other groups: those who had experienced war in their countries. We had a Holocaust survivor come to the library and speak, introducing the movie “The Pianist.” Books are a wonderful way to initiate dialogue among different groups.

What are some of your fondest or most notable memories from past events?

I think I covered many of those. Here are a couple others:

I mentioned the young artist who used visual art to tell her feelings about adoption – a young woman and her mother came to the reception specifically to meet her, because the young girl was also adopted as a baby from Russia.

We had so many people this year who came to programs to hear about the orphan trains, either because they were descendants or because they were adopted themselves and understood the feelings being discussed. It made it all very personal.

On a lighter note, when we read Rocket Boys, one of the middle school art classes made a great rocket, about 6 feet high, painted silver, to use as a display at the library to generate interest. When Homer Hickham came to speak, he asked if we’d put the rocket on stage with him – and he crawled in and out. He loved it – said if he could get it home on the plane with him, he would.

Lastly, what we all hope for: a little boy came into the library and asked if we had any more books by David Small. Someone had come to his schools and read one and he wanted more. He had never been to the public library before!

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