Art Works Blog

The Big Read Spotlights Wichita’s Vibrant Cultural Heritages

"If we can get artists to talk about their immigration murals, chefs to share their food traditions, musicians to entertain with their musical heritage, authors to explain their influences and ideas, the community comes away with a deeper sense of the commonalities and differences between people." -- Julie Sherwood

Wichita, Kansas is home to a diverse mix of cultures with community members hailing from Lebanon, Vietnam, and China, to name just a few countries. With its long history as a hub for immigrants, Wichita Public Library planned its Big Read programming this year to highlight that mix of rich cultures and help deepen understanding among its diverse community members. For this reason, they took on Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea as their Big Read selection. Not only did they get the immigrant community involved in the literary discussion, but Wichita also engaged their youngest readers in the cultural dialogue too, introducing “The Little Read.”

Julie Sherwood, program and outreach manager at Wichita Public Library, gave us the inside scoop on the community’s Big Read and how the program garnered the attention of national media.

NEA: Why did your community choose to read Into the Beautiful North?

JULIE SHERWOOD: We liked the themes of the novel. Like many communities across the U.S., Wichita has experienced growth in the numbers of immigrants making their home here, particularly from Spanish-speaking countries. The opportunity to partner with this segment of our community and help the larger community understand more about what challenges they face was appealing to our program team.

The opportunity to bring the author to Wichita was another huge factor. In general, Wichita is a little off the beaten path for author tours, so we welcome the chance to host author visits as part of our Big Read. It gives an added dimension to our celebration when the audience can interact with the creator of the story.

We felt that the contemporary, youthful appeal of this book would attract adult readers in the 18 to 35 age bracket. In Wichita’s past Big Reads, we have enjoyed strong support from older adults. The title we selected for 2014 was The Maltese Falcon, and that had strong appeal among our 55+ community members. This was a chance to broaden the horizons of seniors and at the same time attract new participants.

NEA: Could you talk about the role of culture in the arts and how that conversation takes shape in your community?

SHERWOOD: To me, culture can seem invisible until it is contrasted with other traditions. When we learn more about the “other,” it makes clear what things we take for granted about our own culture. All of the things that make up a culture—the history, the arts, and the customs—are shared community values that are lived out daily. Arts are the way we express ourselves, and our art reveals how our community has shaped us. Art gives a community a way to express its individuality and its cultural heritage and values. It brings people together. Art gives people a chance to experience and appreciate other cultures and understand viewpoints that differ from their own.

Wichita has a long history of diversity dating back to its origins as a trading post with the area tribes. The early town was home to Black Civil War veterans, Mexican railway workers, and Chinese laundrymen. Every wave of immigration has added to our cultural mix, including Lebanese, Vietnamese, and, more recently, African immigrants.

If we can get artists to talk about their immigration murals, chefs to share their food traditions, musicians to entertain with their musical heritage, authors to explain their influences and ideas, the community comes away with a deeper sense of the commonalities and differences between people.

NEA: How are the connections being made with the community’s young readers?

SHERWOOD: In a family-oriented community such as Wichita, programming for a wide range of ages is critical to our success. Participation by the whole family has been a big part of all of our Big Read celebrations. In each Big Read, the Wichita Public Library partners with the Wichita Public Schools by choosing companion titles for younger readers that address similar themes to those in the Big Read selection. The pre-school book was read aloud in the library’s pre-school storytimes at all locations.

In October, the Wichita Art Museum dedicated its ArtStart for children to celebrate the Big Read. Green Is a Chile Pepper was the jumping off point for activities related to colors in their gallery and art studio with a highlight on Hispanic culture and bookmaking. At a special Saturday Little Read event, they had book giveaways and a gallery scavenger hunt for families. Separately, the library hosted Hispanic storytelling sessions along with a Dora & Diego party for the younger set.

The Wichita Public Schools had school librarians reading Dear Primo. A total of 2,292 students heard the story read aloud in their school. Goddard High School had an interactive museum event. Students created team projects related to various aspects of Into the Beautiful North, made a visual museum display of their information, and shared it at a public event where each team presented their topic. Topics ranged from women in bowling (a reference to Aunt Irma in the book), to garbage-dump families, to Mexican-American cultural barriers, among others.

Finally, Great Plains Nature Center hosted an event that included a lecture for all ages on the migration of monarchs from Mexico through Kansas, with children’s butterfly face painting from CityArts artists. The Mid-America All Indian Center hosted a Day of the Dead event that included a skull-making craft for children.

NEA: Having been a Big Read participant since 2008, what were you looking forward to the most for this year’s program?

SHERWOOD: I think the author visit engaged us the most. This is only the second time we have had an author visit as part of our Big Read. Mr. Urrea’s keynote lecture was the last feature event of our celebration, and as the finale, it provided a nice wrap-up and opportunity for the community to actually meet the author whose work inspired our Big Read. 

He met with a group of high school students at Wichita’s North High school who had read his book and were studying Spanish. There was a panel discussion at Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum with professors from the modern and classical languages and literatures department. There was a visit to the Sedgwick County Juvenile Detention Facility, where he gave encouragement to the artistic and creative expression of the teens, from acting to music. The author also gave a public lecture with a book signing.

NEA: Your program has a partnership with the local radio station. How did the organization form this partnership and where did the idea come from to create programs about immigrant members of the community?

SHERWOOD: KMUW, the local NPR station, is a longtime partner with the library and the Big Read. Their emphasis on issues-oriented radio meshes well with the type of community dialogue we encourage with the Big Read.

This year, Stephanie Huff, the library’s marketing manager, visited various media outlets to have one-on-one discussions about the Big Read and opportunities that each could be involved in.

The idea for the immigration stories came from the Big Read program committee, and it fit well with a new project that KMUW, the local NPR station, had just started. They had previously run stories submitted by viewers on their own family’s “big fish” stories to coincide with a local performance of the musical Big Fish. Combining our Big Read themes with projects that media outlets were already doing was a win-win for both of us.

NEA: What has been the most successful event so far?

SHERWOOD: The most well-attended event of the 2015 Big Read was the kick-off at the Wichita Art Museum. Much of our publicity leads people to that first big event. This year’s kick-off included Mexican-themed refreshments (fruit punch and Mexican wedding cookies), book giveaways, a reader’s theater presentation, mariachi music, classical guitar, Baile Folklorico dancers, a welcome from our honorary chair, a trivia quiz, and a door prize drawing. Over 300 people enjoyed the event, which Wichitans look forward to each year.

NEA: What were some hurdles that were faced when trying to bring the community together?

SHERWOOD: One hurdle is how incredibly busy everyone is. While we work incredibly hard to include as many events as possible, there were some ideas that didn’t come to fruition simply because we lacked the time to develop and implement the plan.

Another difficulty is trying to get community partners to understand how they fit into the Big Read umbrella. The business community is a challenge, but we continue to work on ways that they can be involved and participate. An especially fortuitous partnership this year was when the local gardening center that hosts an annual Hatch Chile Festival agreed to partner with us to promote the Big Read at their event. 

NEA: What have you learned about your community through the program?

SHERWOOD: Wichita has an amazing arts community. Local talent abounds from muralists, designers, and craftspeople to musicians, dancers, actors, and others who make our lives richer through their art.

We have some incredibly dedicated program team volunteers and completely reliable community partners that we can count on! Our audience is willing to step outside their comfort zone and join us in learning more about potentially politically sensitive subjects.

NEA: Literature is important because…

SHERWOOD: It introduces us to a world of ideas, challenges our assumptions, and might even correct our biases/blind spots. It allows us to see and understand things that we will never personally experience and thereby gives us the chance to live more than one life in our imagination. It stimulates discussions with those around us on topics that are vitally important to all of us. It draws people together with a shared vocabulary, a shared vision, and a shared emotional experience. It gives us the power to change our world in positive ways.



Submitted by Susan Miner (not verified) on

I am so pleased to see this positive coverage of Wichita's Big Read, with which I enjoy volunteering every year.  Our public library staff are amazingly creative and generous with their time, making the Big Read a wonderful community project that reaches a wide diversity of people who otherwise might never encounter the featured book.  Thank you, NEA, for all your support of this rewarding program.

Submitted by Rita Sevart (not verified) on

Each year, Big Read Wichita has gotten bigger and better.  Thanks so much, Wichita Public Library!

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