The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Between the Lines: Eastern Washington University?s Get Lit! Programs

Cheney, WA

Spokane County residents of all ages attended the opening of the Telling the American Story art exhibit, part of Get Lit! Programs? Big Read. Photo courtesy of Get Lit! Programs

In 1998, Eastern Washington University Press and the school?s creative writing department joined together to sponsor a day-long marathon of literary readings. This one-day event has since grown into a week-long festival featuring nationally known writers, as well as a year-round educational outreach activities. For its 2011 Get Lit! Festival, the coordinators chose to connect their activities with The Big Read, and will feature Tim O?Brien, author of The Things They Carried, as their keynote speaker. With more than a month to go until the festival, Big Read activities are already taking place around the theme ?Telling the American Story.? We spoke with Danielle Ward, the Get Lit! Programs Coordinator, to learn more about Spokane County?s Big Read.

NEA: How does The Big Read fit in with the work Eastern Washington University?s Get Lit! Programs do year-round?

DANIELLE WARD: Eastern Washington University?s Get Lit! Programs, which includes a literary festival in the spring as well as educational outreach projects throughout the year, seeks to engage members of the Inland Northwest community in a celebration of the written word, and to encourage discussion, at all age levels, of literature in its many forms. The Big Read draws communities together around a single book through a month of related literary events, so our missions are much aligned. We wanted to host the 2011 Big Read as an extension of our festival programming. We decided to start The Big Read events in March to get the community excited about one of the headlining festival authors. Tim O?Brien will be speaking at the festival as the culminating event of The Big Read and the community already has been buzzing about it!

NEA: Why did you choose to read Tim O?Brien?s The Things They Carried?

WARD: For 2011, Get Lit! Programs selected Tim O?Brien?s The Things They Carried because it exemplified this year?s festival theme, ?Telling the American Story.? Spokane also has a large military and veteran community and we wanted to reach out to them as a new audience for the literary festival. The week-long festival in April will feature an evening with Tim O?Brien and Iraq War veteran and poet Brian Turner as they share their processes of writing about their combat experiences. We will also spotlight youth stories that touch on war themes, Native American storytelling, issues related to WWII, immigration stories, memoirs, natural history, and writing workshops that encourage others to tell their American story.

NEA: You?ve created programming that looks at this book and its themes from a lot of different angles, including an art exhibit, a theater adaptation, and readings. What events are you most looking forward to?

WARD: One of the goals I had for the festival since becoming the Get Lit! Programs Coordinator was to think outside of the book box. For The Big Read, I wanted to continue this idea of collaborating with different art groups to bring literature to life, and [to] make people examine the written word off the page. I also wanted to make sure to offer multiple perspectives of the Vietnam War since it was a complicated time. For example, the Eastern Washington University Theater Department wrote an original adaptation of the book for the stage. It opened on March 4th and it is a wonderful re-visioning of the book. I am excited about moving it to a larger stage in the community for a one-night performance that is free and open to the public.

The kick-off event also occurred on March 4th in collaboration with the opening of the Telling the American Story art exhibit at the City Hall Gallery. We had four veterans (a mixture of branches, generations, and genders) address their combat experiences. Over 60 people came to hear the speakers, but even more came to view the gallery opening. We quickly ran out of the 50 books we had to distribute at that event! We still have multiple events coming up that should spark discussion: a 1960?s Teach-In, a Veterans for Peace Panel on The Things We Still Carry, a staged reading of A Piece of My Heart about Vietnam nurses, a reading from We Also Served: Stories from American Military Families, as well as children and youth authors that will touch on American history and the military in a way that those age groups can understand.

NEA: This is the third time a Big Read program has been held in Spokane County. How do you think The Big Read has benefited your community?

WARD: This will be the 13th annual Get Lit! Festival, but it is the first time we have hosted The Big Read. Our community has multiple universities and colleges in the area who host literary events like the ones we host each April, so our community has access to literary events year-round. But The Big Read does create a community bond that the other events do not. With over 50 events, the festival has multiple audiences: K-12 students, educators, college students, and the general community. It is often hard to market such a large animal, but the focus on a single Big Read book has greatly increased the engagement in the festival and The Big Read events.

Access to people is also easier. I work with local K-12 schools on educational outreach events year-round, but I was stunned by the unusually quick response from the high school English teachers. We gave a class set of books to each of the high schools in the region and multiple teachers from each school were clamoring to use them in their classes. Many have also requested some of our free tickets to the O?Brien event because their students are planning on attending. The community is really getting behind this book in a way I have not seen before. We have The Big Read to thank for that.

Plus, because of the book we have chosen, I believe the veterans who are involved in the events are finding them healing. Given the history, it is great for them to be able to share their stories and have an audience that is interested and open to listening. That goes beyond what I could have imagined a program like The Big Read could do.

NEA: Any last words?

We are also excited about using a read and release program call BookCrossing to get the books out to the community. This organization is actually headquartered in our own backyard in Sandpoint, Idaho. Each book we have distributed to the community has a sticker in it and an ID number. The sticker instructs people to read the book then go online to to comment about it and say where they are leaving it for others to find. Our hope is to double the impact of our limited book budget by using one book to reach multiple people. We also hope that it encourages people to try an alternative way of sharing a book and to think about it as a community resource instead of something to sit and gather dust on a bookshelf.

The Big Read continues in Spokane County through April 16. For a full list of events, visit Eastern Washington University?s Get Lit! Programs website. For more information on The Things They Carried, visit The Big Read website.

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