Reading Big in the Last Frontier

Alaska Takes On Two Big Reads Throughout the State


unveiling of Big Read bus signs

Anchorage Municipal Libraries kicked off its Big Read project with a media conference and the unveiling of Big Read bus signs. Photo by Toni Massari McPherson

Serving nearly half of Alaska's population, Anchorage Municipal Libraries (AML) this spring celebrated Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. AML Director Karen Keller said the novel was appealing because it examines contemporary issues, such as censorship, and because, as science fiction, it's a draw for those wary of "literary fiction." Keller added that the novel also resonates with the strong oral history traditions of the state's Alaska Native and Asian immigrant populations.

Having previously hosted successful community reads, AML used the Big Read grant to broaden its reach. "Even though we're the largest city in the state, and [if we had] just done it here, we could've said, ‘Well, we covered half the state just by staying within the city,' we didn't stop there. We went to the state capital [Juneau], we went to the northernmost city in the United States [Barrow], and we went nearly everywhere in between."

Keller credits the program's success to its many local partners, such as the transportation system, which contributed $5,000 in free bus ads due to the high quality of the NEA-produced publicity materials. "It wasn't just about the Anchorage Municipal Libraries trying to pull this off. We had great support," said Keller.

Residents of Seward, Alaska, play Mah Jong

Residents of Seward, Alaska, play Mah Jong at the Seward Public Library's Joy Luck Club Party as part of the Big Read on the Kenai Pennisula. Photo courtesy of Alaska Newspapers

Unlike Bradbury's firefighters, the Anchorage Fire Department supported the program by providing technical assistance for a teleconference with Ray Bradbury -- a program highlight that attracted 160 participants. The teleconference itself was a partnership between APL and the Montalvo Arts Center, which arranged the teleconference with Bradbury as part of Montalvo's Big Read of Fahrenheit 451 in Saratoga, California.

South of Anchorage, communities on the Kenai Peninsula celebrated a Big Read of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club led by the Kachemak Bay Campus-Kenai Peninsula College in Homer. Campus Director Carol Swarz said that the novel resonated as an opportunity to discuss "the role of immigration in Homer and this part of Alaska -- immigration from other parts of Alaska and from the lower 48, in addition to cultural immigration."

Non-traditional students -- including ESL students in the adult basic education program and high schoolers who are either homeschooled or attend the alternative high school for at-risk students -- were specifically targeted by Homer's Big Read to get the students excited about reading. Organizers also collaborated with the Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference to bring Amy Tan to Alaska for a public reading during the Big Read.