Venue Interview: Whatcom READS!

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Books In Common recently asked Katie Bray about Whatcom READS! and how their community comes together with a common book.

Would you tell us a bit about your program?  For instance how long have you been hosting Whatcom Reads!, how did it get started, and how has it changed over the years?

Whatcom READS! is a community-wide book discussion program that encourages everyone in our county to read the same book and engage in thoughtful, lively discussions. We usually pick a book that has some local connection, e.g. a local author, topic, point of interest, etc. Then we plan events like presentations, panel discussion, or book groups that explore different topics and themes that are brought up in our selected book. And then, of course, we bring in the author to talk about the book and their writing process. It is a lot of work, but it is so much fun!

Whatcom READS! started in 2008, when Whatcom County Library System and Whatcom Community College were each awarded federal grants administered by the Washington State Library to help establish the program. These libraries quickly brought in other libraries as partners as well as local businesses and other community organizations like the Bellingham Public Library and Village Books. Our first featured book was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Over the years, Whatcom READS! has grown in popularity and scope. We now have partners and three new related programs: Whatcom WRITES!, Whatcom Kids and Teens, and an annual art show. These programs allow people to participate with their own creativity and it gives the overall program more buy-in since people are personally invested. We also have great sponsors that make themed ice cream and fudge which is a sweet way to promote the program.

What did you learn from last year’s program that is helping you this year?  What are you changing, what worked well?

Each year is a learning experience and we discover new and better ways of planning our community read each year. For example, Cheryl Strayed was our author for 2014. She is, other than Sherman Alexie, one of our most popular local authors and has national (and international!) recognition. This meant that we had to really manage her time well in relation to her scheduled events.  So, for the first time, we created an author itinerary that listed, hour by hour, when/where/what needed to happen.  It also included pertinent information like contact numbers. This document turned out to be a life-saver since it helped keep the author and the committee on the same page. And, because it was so useful, it will be used to help plan for future author visits.

What advice or tips can you share with us about hosting a community reads program?

Advanced planning is key especially when you are working with multiple organizations. We typically try to get all of our presenters, panelists, programs, posters, and promotional materials confirmed at least six months in advance. Additionally, our author is selected and confirmed at least one year before they are set to visit. The advanced planning allows us to market the event more effectively, and it helps us correct errors and organize better as we get closer to our event date.

Read BIC Editorial on planning in advance

Do you have any examples of bridging diversity in a community by coming together around a book?

Whatcom READS! consciously tries to find ways to reach different segments of our population and to teach our participants about different cultural issues each year through our book selection and program planning. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian allowed us to reach out and partner with the Northwest Indian College and our local native tribes. Border Songs helped us explore different issues regarding immigration. Snow Falling on Cedars encouraged our participants to learn more about the Japanese-American experience in Washington State during World War II.

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

I am relatively new to the Whatcom READS! Committee, and I am still a bit star-struck when I meet our authors. I always end up being really quiet and smiling a lot, much to my chagrin.  However, that changed this year when I was asked to escort Cheryl Strayed to her events around town. A huge snowstorm had just passed through Bellingham and I was forced to drive her around in my personal vehicle. I was nervous and anxious that she would be reluctant to spend so much time with me. However, she was so kind and down-to-earth — it felt like I was driving a friend around town.  I had a blast! And, amazingly, she had that same approach with everyone she met. As we were leaving her last event, a fan chased my car down in the parking lot so that she could get Cheryl’s autograph. Cheryl happily stopped, signed the lady’s book, and spoke with her for several minutes. It was a great moment and one that really embodies what we are trying to do with Whatcom READS!: Get people excited and passionate about reading by providing them books and authors that they can relate to.


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