A Look At: One Book, One Philadelphia

Free Library of PhiladelphiaKalela Williams, One Book, One Philadelphia program coordinator, spoke with Books In Common about the program and how it has grown and evolved for over 12 years.

One Book, One Philadelphia started in 2003, what do you believe is the key for keeping a program such as yours going strong for over a decade?
I think the primary key is having strong support and backing from the organization that is sponsoring the program, whether it’s a library, university, or other non-profit. Without leadership fully vested and committed to the project, you can’t go far in terms of securing the funding and resources you need, allocating time to the program, etc. Having enough funding is also key, whether it’s from individual donors, corporate sponsorships, or collaborating with other organizations to share some of the costs. And of course, experienced and most importantly, committed staff is also key. For large-scale programs like a community read, you’re going to be working late nights and early mornings—you’ve got to have staff who are willing to put in the time!

What did you learn from last year’s program that is helping you this year? What are you changing, what worked well?
This is my third year as coordinator of One Book, One Philadelphia and each year I learn something new. The most important thing I learned in 2014 that helped with 2015 was to reach out to specific audiences who might be interested in certain One Book programs, and not to rely on general One Book promotion. What I mean is this: One Book, One Philadelphia is one of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s most highly advertised program. We print tons of OBOP calendar booklets each year listing all of our programs, and we also have this information on the web, not to mention One Book ads and posters around the city. But in 2015, we also looked at audiences and markets who might be interested in certain events. For our “One Book, Many Ballets” performance, we got plenty of flyers to local dance schools, and listed the program on a dance-events website. For our Young Professionals Book Club, we hit social media, posted the event on local arts and leisure websites, got flyers in local coffee shops where young people tend to hang out, and partnered with a local organization called Young Involved Philly who reached out to people on their mailing list. It’s that old business adage: “If everyone is your customer, no one is your customer.” Your community read as a whole should be advertised as much as possible, but honing in on targeted audiences is so important!

CBK at Philadelphia OBOC

Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, participates in the launch of One Book, One Philadelphia program

What advice or tips can you share with us about hosting a community reads program on a city-wide scale?
Partner, partner, partner. Go to every museum, library, bookstore, college/university, school, and non-profit organization out there. Ask them to host a community-read event—on their own dime. Sell them on the benefits of being part of this amazing city-wide read you envision, and of cross-promoting their venue with your organization’s marketing efforts. The organization doesn’t have money or resources to add another event to their schedule? No problem. Ask them to fold the theme of the book into an existing event that they already do. For instance, Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Institute hosts monthly open-mic nights. Each year, they devote one of the nights to poetry and prose relating to the theme of the One Book featured selection, whatever it is. The Barnes Foundation, a local art museum, hosts monthly Sunday family programs. Each year, they link the theme of one of their programs with whatever the One Book selection is. There are countless other examples of Philadelphia organizations tying One Book themes into their already-existing programming. And reach out to organizations that might have a special interest in the book. When One Book, One Philadelphia featured The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a novel about an Iraq War veteran, we reached out to local veterans’ groups. When we featured Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, a novel which tells the story of a courageous girl locked in the foster care system, we reached out to child advocacy groups.

Philadelphia City Council reads OT

Philadelphia City Council holding 2015 One Book, One Philadelphia selection, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Also, don’t forget your local government. Send a book and a letter to the mayor’s office, and reach out to City Council. You might be surprised at the enthusiasm you might receive, and this translates to more interest from your community!

Finally, bringing in the author is crucial. A reading by the author generates excitement and energy for your citywide read. Remember that your community will have been reading, studying, and discussing this book for weeks and will want to hear from the author! Find the money. Partner with other groups for funding. Perhaps the author can appear at one venue for a reading, and do a reception somewhere else, which is a great way for cash buy-in from other organizations. For instance, the author might give a reading at a school, and then take part in a reception/book signing at a nearby local bookstore or library. That way, both venues enjoy the author’s presence. Also, secure in-kind help for the author’s lodging and meals. Ask a local boutique hotel for a complimentary room. Ask local restaurants for gift certificates that will cover the cost of meals. If you absolutely don’t have the funds for the author to visit your town, bring them in virtually. Skype live or ask the author to record a video message that you play at one of your events. Or, host an online Q&A between your readers and the author.

How has your relationship with Books In Common been beneficial?
Books in Common has been an amazingly helpful liaison between our most recent featured author, Christina Baker Kline, and a successful One Book program. They have communicated our needs with her clearly and promptly, and also expressed her needs to us (she is absolutely wonderful to work with, by the way, just a complete joy!). Books In Common can help you secure the author, help schedule her for your events, and facilitate any particular requests such as the online Q&A I mentioned. They are literally pros at those sometimes-knotty issues such as offering an honorarium or writing contracts. They can even help with programming ideas and book suggestions! They are a treasure trove of experience and know-how when it comes to community reads.

Do you have any examples of bridging diversity in a community by coming together around a book?
Any work of great literature has universal themes that speak to all of us, regardless of our experiences and backgrounds; and because of the outstanding books we’ve featured, One Book, One Philadelphia has never failed to reach out to our diverse city as a whole. That said, when The Buddha in the Attic was our featured selection, I personally, and so many of us in this city, learned more than we ever knew about the experiences of Japanese Americans who were forced into concentration camps during World War II. Actually speaking to and hearing from people who experienced the trauma of giving up everything they ever owned, their livelihoods, their friends and neighbors and even family, to live behind barbed-wire fences under the eyes of armed guards was more than I ever learned in a classroom. When One Book focused on The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, we heard from a panel of Iraqis and Iraqi Americans whose lives were thrown into turmoil by war. All of us were touched by the words of a woman, who told us in halting English how two of her sons were killed, and one son is missing. She had to leave Iraq not knowing where he was, and how her heart aches every morning she wakes up. The books we read together as a city resonate in a far more personal way when we offer experiences around them.

What are some of your fondest or most notable memories from past events?
My most notable memory was in 2014 when we hosted The Yellow Birds, and one of our programs was “Four-Legged Heroes: Dogs that Make Our Lives Better.” We had the *great* idea of bringing in various working dogs and watching them in action! We got permission from the Powers-that-Be at the Library, and secured a police officer and his canine Thor, a social worker and her therapy dog Gus, and a search-and-rescue dog named Pacy and her handlers. There was a massive snowstorm that night and that affected our audience size. The dogs were restless, and little Gus was afraid of massive Thor, and so we had to keep them on separate sides of the auditorium while both of them waited to go onstage. Thor also got hugely distracted when he was looking for “contraband” in the auditorium, and instead took a keen interest in sniffing audience members’ laps. Then it was Pacy’s turn to demonstrate her skill; her job was to find one of her handlers, who hid in a collapsible canvas tunnel in the auditorium. She was off-leash, and when she found her handler she was tremendously excited and proud of herself (she was only 8 months old), and began running around the auditorium like mad, and no one could calm her down, even while a shelter brought their adoptable dogs onstage. It was a crazy night! It taught me and our One Book Program Assistant Cynthia Schemmer to be super-flexible when it comes to programs, to roll with the unexpected. It was a reminder that nothing goes perfectly, and sometimes it can seem like complete chaos, but if the audience enjoys themselves, that’s what counts! At our staff meeting that week Cynthia and I proudly reported, “No one pooped, so it was a success!” I guess that should be our mantra for all of our events from now on!

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