Heavy Hitters vs. Lite Lit: Selecting A Common Reads Title for Students

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Christie Hinrichs, BIC Director

For many Common Reads program coordinators on college campuses, First Year Experience departments, and in public/private high schools, the pressures of meeting upper administrative demands while keeping students enthused and engaged can be daunting. Sometimes it may feel like these closed-door committee members are out of touch. Other times, tension originates from over-enthusiastic coordinators who prefer beach books to the literary canon. Striking the right balance when selecting a Common Reads text for students is absolutely crucial to the continued success of the program—and can mean the difference between a program that falls flat, and one that students will remember for the rest of their lives.

First and foremost, we must examine our goals. Without knowing what you want out of the program, it’s very difficult to establish success!  For the vast majority of our academic venues, the #1 goal of a Common Reads program is to encourage community among a diverse student body by giving them something in common they can gather around. In fact, this was the original purpose of the campus Common Reads movement that began some 40 years ago, and continues to be the primary goal for most programs. For this reason, it’s vital that the selected title be something a wide variety of students will enthusiastically read, that sparks conversation, and begins a dialogue that will allow students to interact socially and intellectually.

The right book for your students can be fun, exciting, engrossing, AND have elements of the “teachable moments” that your administrators will care most about.  Keep in mind, most students will have the opportunity to read plenty of heavy hitters during their academic career.  Why not consider books that will be exciting for a diverse group of students? These titles will foster discussion and create a social community that shares at least one guaranteed common interest: the book. This concept is often lost when the focus on selecting a title needs to accomplish a laundry list of curricular to-dos.  Sure, these “serious” books can be challenging and worthy of intellectual exploration, but for students who are just beginning to find their voice, a book they will read, enjoy, and want to talk about with strangers will almost always be more successful (and memorable!). During this one time each year let your FYE or Campus Reads selection help create a social bond between diverse students.

Also, keep in mind that having the author attend the main event is one of the best ways to get students invested in your program. Obviously, if your selected title is 100 years old and the author is dead, this can be tough to accomplish.  Consider choosing books by living authors who are vibrant, generous speakers. Sure, it may take longer to find a title that appeals to a diverse group of students, AND features life lessons and teachable moments, AND is penned by an author who is as good of a speaker as a writer. But the success of your program will start and finish with the book you choose.

Here are some titles that have had wonderful success for academic venues, by authors who also happen to be charismatic, resonant, and excellent on stage…


art-of-racing-in-the-rainThe Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. A heart-wrenching but deeply funny and ultimately uplifting story of family, love, loyalty, and hope, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a beautifully crafted and captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life…as only a dog could tell it. Throughout the story auto racing is used as a metaphor for living and planning one’s life: “that which you manifest is before you.” Students can find lessons within the engrossing story about inspiration and perseverance to pursue goals and dreams despite obstacles.


The DThe Distance Between Us_PBistance Between Us, by Reyna Grande. An eye-opening memoir about life before and after illegally immigrating to the United States as a child. At a time when immigration politics are at a boiling point in America, Reyna Grande is an important public voice for Mexican Americans and immigrants of every origin. The Distance Between Us has the power to change minds and hearts.


Dave Eggers The Circle coverThe Circle, by Dave Eggers. A dystopian novel of ideas concerning social construction, the deconstruction of privacy, and the dissemination of information as power—told through the eyes of a young woman, who has just landed her first job at the largest internet company in the world.



Etched in Sand, by Regina Calcaterra. A true rags-to-riches story, Etched in Sand chronicles the painful early life of the now successful lawyer, as she survived an abusive childhood, intermittent homelessness, and the challenges of the foster-care system with her four siblings.



We Are Called to Rise, by Laura McBride. Three lives are bound together by a split-second mistake, and a child’s fate hangs in the balance. This is a story about diversity in America today and the challenges that come with choices we make and our responsibilities to each other.



dead man walking coverDead Man Walking, by Sister Helen Prejean. A profoundly moving journey through our system of capital punishment. Sister Helen confronts both the plight of the condemned and the rage of the bereaved, as well as the fears of a society shattered by violence. Students gain lessons on social equality within the American justice system and inspire critical thinking about the criminal justice system.


astoria-198x300Astoria, by Peter Stark. The true story of John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s mission to colonize the Pacific Northwest a mere two years after the Lewis and Clark expedition concluded. Astoria follows two dynamic leaders as they make decisions that impact the lives of the people in their party. Astor was a visionary businessman who envisioned a global trade network which sprouted the roots of today’s global economy. Lessons in making tough decisions, human perseverance, the pursuit of dreams and the power of money are intertwined within a fast paced narrative of American history.

Books In Common maintains a database of nearly a thousand current titles that are perfect for FYE and Campus Reads events. We can help you find just the right book for your program by offering feedback on shortlisted titles, provide insight on the author as a speaker, and explore ways to secure the author for a discount.

Because we work with thousands of venues across the country, we can tell you what titles have worked best, and which ones we recommend because they are powerful in both narrative and message.

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