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Get Reading Givens Black Books


Nothando Zulu, a Givens literary artist and storyteller, facilitating a Givens Black Books discussion. Photo courtesy of the Givens Foundation

It should come as no surprise that Minneapolis was recently ranked as the country’s third most literate city. The notoriously brainy city has consistently floated between the top three spots in the annual survey by Central Connecticut State University. But there is always room for improvement.

“We do have an active literary scene, but we also have one of the largest achievement gaps,” said Eartha Bell. Bell coordinates Givens Black Books, a community-wide reading initiative run by the Twin Cities’ Givens Foundation for African American Literature. Each year, a different African-American author is selected, whose books are used as the basis for reading clubs, book discussions, etc. Sound vaguely familiar? Bell said that the Givens Foundation, a former Big Read grantee, used the NEA program as inspiration when it launched its own Givens Black Books two years ago.

Though the Givens Foundation owns 18,000 African-American literary works---a collection that is housed at the University of Minnesota---Givens Black Books steers away from scholarly writing and features more contemporary, popular writers. J. California Cooper was the program’s inaugural selection; this year will focus on four works by Walter Mosley. The program will conclude in April with a luncheon featuring the author himself.

One of the featured books is 47, Mosley’s first young adult novel. A Minneapolis middle school will be conducting a school-wide reading of the novel, while a resident literary artist is developing a curriculum to teach the book at another local school. As part of the residency, students will have a chance to create their own works in response to 47, which chronicles the coming-of-age of a young slave. “For a young student trying to figure out their identity and figure out who they are, they need a character to identify with,” said Bell. “I think by seeing themselves in books, they can relate and they’re more invested in it. They can understand the culture. We’ve seen students get really excited about that.”

Bell expressed a hope that this excitement would motivate students to keep reading, and in turn, do its part to help close the achievement gap. She said, “If they start becoming more literate and they’re excited about the work they’re doing, then hopefully that can help in other aspects in their education.”

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