Connecting An American Sunrise to Circe 

This November marked my second year working for the Big Read Lakeshore. As a future teacher, the Big Read and Little Read Lakeshore programming has taught me a lot about the importance of reading and what it means to read in community. My first year working with the Big Read program and reading An American Sunrise helped prepare me to read Madeline Miller’s Circe. 

One connection I see between An American Sunrise and Circe is the focus on different perspectives and revisionist history. I did not learn about boarding schools and other aspects of Native American history until a course in college because that version of the story was left out of the history. Similarly, Circe’s version of the story was not included in the original Odyssey, so this book gives a new version of the story. This emphasizes the importance of looking at things from different perspectives other than your own. 

Another similarity between these two programs was the opportunity to learn from intelligent women that were passionate about their subjects. Both Joy Harjo and Madeline Miller have been teachers and authors. They studied and perfected their craft and are now able to share this gift with audiences like our community. 

Lastly, readers were able to get a broader picture of our book by bringing in speakers to approach things from all different perspectives. Last year things were approached from a poetry and a historical perspective. This year the program thought about Greek Mythology as a retelling from another point of view, her origins in the Odyssey, comic strips, and as a musical performance. 

What We Learned from Matt de la Peña

Photo Credit: Heather Waraksa

Matt de la Peña visited Hope College’s campus on November 9. He spoke to 400 elementary students in the morning, a college English class, and to the public in the evening. His message was funny and inspiring since it touched on why readings matters, a topic that is near and dear to our program. 

During his visit, participants learned that anyone can be an inspiration to others. In college, a professor gave de la Peña a book (he later revealed it was The Color Purple) and told him the book made her think of him. He gave himself until the end of college to read it and eventually in his senior year he read it on a basketball trip. The book touched him and he continued to read books like this title. 

Later on, de la Peña’s dad asked him to read the book he just finished and this eventually led to his father, who didn’t read often to become a book lover and go back to school to be a teacher. 

De la Peña shared that he didn’t expect to be a writer early in his life, but he gravitated towards these classes in college and discovered a passion for it. A few of his professors submitted an application on his behalf to graduate schools in creative writing and he was accepted to two of them. 

Now de la Peña travels the country to speak about his books and inspire others to follow their passions. 

From this message, the audience learns that simple things like recommending a book to a student does matter and can even change the trajectory of someone’s life. This happened in both de la Peña’s and his dad’s cases. The Big and Little Read Lakeshore believes that reading matters and Matt de la Peña certainly illustrated this when he spoke as part of our program.

Mythic: Kruizenga Art Museum

Each year the Kruizenga Art Museum (KAM) curates an exhibit based on the chosen Big Read Lakeshore book. This year the exhibit is based on Greek Mythology, specifically, characters included in Madeline Miller’s novel Circe. 

This photo was taken at the Big Read Lakeshore book discussion with KAM where Charles Mason explained aspects of the Mythic exhibition.

Charles Mason, the curator at the KAM, mentioned that he thought about a few different things when selecting artwork for this exhibit. 

One thing that inspired this exhibit was the Homeric language and the relationship between texts and images. Each reader tends to create a different mental image of something based on their reading of a text. This means that different styles in the exhibit represent the different interpretations of Greek myths. 

Inspiration for the exhibit was also taken directly from Madeline Miller’s book Circe by weaving together characters from her story into the exhibit. Some of these pieces include depictions of the Minotaur, Jason, and others. Miller gave cultural relevance to her retelling of Circe, so this exhibit contains different modern approaches to these characters as well. 

The Kruizenga Art Museum continues to feature this exhibit until December 17 and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Come check out the artwork!

Greek Democracy: A System Worth Copying?

It’s no secret the United States government system is based on Greek democracy; however, we need to ask the question, “is it a system worth copying?” To answer this, we need to examine both the pros and cons of the current and original democratic system.

The US government system is often described as a republic or indirect democracy; this means elected officials represent the people. In the Classical Age (480-338 BC), democracy became a firmly established form of government, Athens being the first of the Greek city-states to implement such a system. In Greece, the government was a direct democracy where the people, or demos, voted and participated in every aspect. The Athenian democracy was divided into four sections: assembly, council, magistrates, and law courts. 

In the fifth century, the assembly, or Ekklesia, would meet forty times per year; ordinary citizens heard reports from magistrates and city officials on any civic matter. These meetings were open to any Athenian citizen, and any citizen could share his opinion. There were also multiple boards of magistrates to survey the civic affairs of a city. Before 487 BC, these magistrates were elected from the top two social classes, but after 487, candidates were submitted to be chosen by random selection. This allowed ordinary citizens, not just the aristocracy, to participate. 

The council, or Boule, was comprised of 500 ordinary citizens, fifty men from each of the ten tribes. They were not elected, but rather appointed by lot. Each tribe would select their fifty representatives, called councilors, that would only serve for one year and then were out of the running for the next ten years, allowing almost every man to serve at least once in his lifetime. All of these non-elected positions truly represented the common man, not just the aristocracy like many systems before. 

Considering the notions surrounding democracy today, many people think the Athenian and Greek democracies fully represented everyone perfectly. It did not. While important to acknowledge all the benefits of a democracy, especially a direct democracy, we also need to acknowledge the shortcomings. 

One of the shortcomings is exclusion from the demos. Only a small percentage of the Athenian population were actual citizens: native-born free Athenian men over the age of twenty. This excludes a large portion of different groups of people, namely women and slaves. In modern society, we acknowledge that minority groups need to be represented in government to truly understand “the people” and their opinions. Not only were these groups not represented, but they were also marginalized. Women and slaves were viewed, and therefore treated, as inferior beings that only served a particular purpose, determined by the citizens (men). 

The image of the unseen, silent, doting, and waiting wife comes from ancient Greece. Athenian women from citizen families were viewed as a way to continue the family legacy by producing legitimate heirs. Non-Athenian women were either prostitutes or concubines, and much like the wives, were defined by their relationship to men. Even the myth surrounding the creation of women reflects the male attitude towards the female race. Zeus creates women as a punishment from men because Prometheus gave them the gift of fire. Women, therefore, are man’s affliction.

A slave was a body, not a mind, and therefore could be punished and treated accordingly. Physical torture was permitted because slaves were viewed as less than human, and therefore could not rely on their intellect—they either had none or they forfeited it when they became a slave. This is the clearest reflection of the power dynamics in Athenian society. 

In contrast to American slavery, the Greeks did not determine status on skin color but rather on Greek and non-Greek. This started towards the end of Persian Wars when the Greeks portrayed their enemy, the Persians, as weak in body, mind, and spirit, and this idea then spread to other cultures and peoples until “non-Greek” or “others” were viewed as inferior to the Greek male ideal. 

The only reason we have the Greek legacy of high culture thought and reason is due to slavery. The majority of agricultural workers in Attica were slaves. Therefore, Greek men were able to engage in subjects such as philosophy, poetry, and other high culture pursuits because slaves were doing all the menial labor that would have distracted from such leisures. 

Without a doubt, Ancient Athens and Greece provided a template for modern government, but we have to recognize it came at a price: the dignity and freedom of those subservient to citizens.

Author Spotlight: Matt de la Peña

This Wednesday, November 9th, the Big Read will have the joy of hosting author Matt de la Peña at Hope College at Jack H. Miller at 7:00 pm for our Author Event.  Matt de la Peña’s book The Last Stop on Market Street is the featured Little Read book for 2022.  To preview this much anticipated visit, let’s deep dive into Matt de la Peña.  

Photo Credit: Heather Waraksa

  Matt grew up in National City, a community of San Diego.  On his childhood in National City, de la Peña said in an August 2022 interview with the San Diego Union -Tribune: “[w]e struggled at times, but so did everyone around us, and you got the sense that the community was looking out for you. National City left a huge impression on me. It has found its way into many of the books and essays I’ve written.”  His family would then move to Cardiff-by-the-Sea, another neighborhood near San Diego, which de la Peña described as being “quiet and sleepy”.  In the same interview, de la Peña credits the two contrasting neighborhoods for helping merge his writing voice.  

While being an esteemed author now, Matt de la Peña has stated his struggle with reading as a child.  In his formative education years, he was written off as a student who “couldn’t read” and didn’t finish a book until after high school.  De la Peña had his literature epiphany after a college professor made a deal with him to read a specific book in its entirety before his graduation.  In an article with NPR titled “Sometimes the ‘Tough Teen’ is Writing Stories”, de la Peña revealed that he started and completed this novel during a trip for a basketball game.  He was astonished to have finished a book, and within two days.  The book had struck de la Peña emotionally and the words on the pages stayed with him.  The book: The Color Purple by Alice Walker.  This led de la Peña to discover works by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.  

De la Peña understands the importance words have on people, especially children.  It pays to have everyone represented in literature.  In 2012, de la Peña visited a school in Tucson, Arizona after a student and the school librarian raised money to cover his speaker fee.  The student had just finished Mexican Whiteboy by Matt de la Peña.  In a 2012 article with the New York Times titled “Racial Lens Used to Cull Curriculum in Arizona”, the state legislature of Arizona had upheld a law that aimed to remove Mexican- American studies from the curriculum as law makers determined the subject matter to be “anti-white”.  This made books like de la Peña’s Mexican Whiteboy illegal to teach in the classroom, even as the book promotes cultural identity with its usage of “Spanglish” and the tension children feel being bi-ethnic or biracial.  His visit continued, but had deeper political meanings during a time in 2010 where Mexican-American studies were being targeted and curriculums restricted.  In the article, de la Peña is quoted at the event to have said: “If you are Mexican-American, embrace it.  If the classes are offered, take them; if not, try to get them back.”  Much to the surprise and joy of the students attending the event, de la Peña donated his speaking fee to supply each student with a copy of Mexican Whiteboy.   According to the New York Times article de la Peña stated, “I want to give back what was taken away.”  

Matt de la Peña is an advocate for literature and its ability to allow individuals to connect to the underlying message.  When talking about his book Love, de la Peña has said he wrote it for the kids who are not sure who they are yet, and that the confusion is okay.  Mexican Whiteboy offers connection to those like the main character who are half-white, half- Mexican in a community that try to push those into one box or the other.  Literature is at its most influential when it’s in the hands of the readers.  In his work, we see how de la Peña uses his craft to allow readers to identify with the words on the page and then feel inspired to act from there.  It’s our joy and pleasure at the Big Read and Little Read to host Matt de la Peña this week and to offer a platform to share with our community the importance of reading that de la Peña continually supports. 

BIG Potential for Small Children with the Little Read Lakeshore Partnership

It is November, which means it is officially Little Read month!  At Ready for School, we are so excited to partner and participate with Little Read Lakeshore during this month-long celebration of reading.  This year’s programming is focused on Matt de la Peña’s book Last Stop on Market Street.

Ready for School’s mission is “to PREPARE CHILDREN up to five years old for success in kindergarten by the integrated SUPPORT of the Holland, Zeeland, and Hamilton communities” and the Little Read Lakeshore is “a community-wide reading program that creates and fosters a culture in which reading matters to children’s families and those who support, advocate for and work with children.” From reading these statements hopefully, you can start to imagine what can be done for the community when Ready for School and Little Read Lakeshore partner together. 

As Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshores’ partnership enters its seventh year, I have three big takeaways.

1. Supporting Educators Is Important 

While the Little Read Lakeshore provides a book for the community to read, along with questions to consider while reading the book, a wonder may arise as to how the book gets into classrooms.  However, the goal is not that the book only physically ends up in the classroom. Rather, since part of the Little Read Lakeshore’s goal is to foster a culture in which reading matters, children need to be able to connect with the book in a way that is meaningful to them. Educators are masters at finding new and different ways to help children connect with books, but being realistic, our educators are strapped for time (this might very well be an understatement in itself). Enter the partnership between Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore.

Over the past five years Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore created professional development opportunities for preschool through 5th-grade educators that offered ways to incorporate the book into their curriculum. Over the years Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore partnered with individuals from eight different local community organizations to provide trainers for the professional development.  

In the five years that Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore hosted professional development trainings, we supported the continued professional development of 150 educators. And by the way, the pandemic did not slow us down, we just got creative and offered it in ways that made teachers feel engaged and safe. 

2. Books Open Up Possibilities 

Children are drawn to a book and develop a sense of being by finding ways they connect with it.  But, what does that statement mean?  It means Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore know that a story becomes more important and will stay with a child if they can relate to the story and its characters.

Over the years Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore continued to think of different ways to help children see themselves as a reader. This was done some years by Ready for School partnering with local preschools and Herrick District Library to have book clubs for parents about the Little Read Lakeshore book. Book clubs support parents in two ways: they model how to engage children with books and bring a sense of community around reading.

This year Ready for School is working with the Little Read Lakeshore to bring this year’s author, Matt de la Peña, to Holland on November 9th. Author events are amazing because they motivate writing for children. Children learn authors are people, and they too need to work to get their stories from their heads onto paper. As much as stories are magical, magic is not what makes a story come to life. Lastly, author events help children to see everyone has a story, and stories are meant to be shared. Ready for School and Little Read Lakeshore work together to promote the importance of everyone’s stories.

3. Partnerships are crucial!

Over the seven years Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore worked together, the partnership bloomed and flourished. Excitement grew and more community partners were brought in to offer different and unique programming that worked to foster the idea that reading matters.  Now, thanks to hard work, 50 community organizations and 30 schools participate in the Little Read Lakeshore month-long programming during November.  

A thriving community requires mutually invested parties. Ready for School and the Little Read Lakeshore came together over the mutual goal of uplifting our youngest readers. We hope to see you at one of the many events this November. 

By: Megan Koops-Fisher
Megan Koops-Fischer  is the Director of Operations and Strategic Partnerships at Ready for School, who lives a life of adventure through all the wonderful books in the world.

Why I Care about The Big Read

Returning to Hope College this Fall semester, I have had the opportunity to work closely with the NEA Big Read Lakeshore that hosts a series of author events through November.  This year, the theme is Greek Mythology and the Hero’s Journey.  Organizing event details alongside Dr. Deborah Van Duinen, Director of the Big Read, has given me insight to this complex and exciting event. 

I was first introduced to the Big Read last year, as I sat in Dr. Van Duinen’s Foundations of Education course.  It was there I learned about Social and Emotional Learning as well as Culturally Relevant Teaching in the classroom.  Tagged along with the Big Read, which last year featured Poet Warrior by Joy Harjo and Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, a determination sparked within me to promote literature that reflects the diversity of culture within the classroom.  

When I am not studying at Hope College, I take my drive around the lake until I am back home in northern Illinois.  Being a transfer student at Hope has widened horizons and provided new experiences.  I attended community college before my transfer last year, and there’s not an event quite like the Big Read in my area.  The mission of the Big Read was all but foreign to me.  Introducing classic stories from alternative perspectives was not only mind blowing, but also made sense.  Coming from a high school with a strong Latinx student body, I crave an experience to read classic plays,but with supplements that reflect not only my culture but the cultures of my peers as well.  An example would be studying Romeo and Juliet, but reading a book like Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall– a retelling of Shakespeare’s play but set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century.  

As a Creative Writing student, I understand the necessity for children to engage with literature that reflects their identities.  It’s this desire that encourages what I read and motivates what I write.  Working with the Big Read has allowed me to follow this passion in a proactive way.  Little Read author Matt de la Peña is visiting Hope College on November 9th to discuss his book The Last Stop on Market Street.  Getting to organize this event for students in the Holland and surrounding areas feels like a step towards the mission of my calling. 

The behind the scenes work gives me a glimpse of how much dedication it takes to engage with the movement of Culturally Relevant Teaching.  While I am not studying to be a teacher, my work with the Big Read is building experiences of how to prove that literature matters.  The content we read influences our manner and actions in the world around us.  The books that our teachers hand us at formative ages matter.  Being given books that don’t reflect ourselves or the communities around us limits our knowledge of our neighbors and the cultures that influence our environment.  It also inhibits those of marginalized cultures to view themselves and the individuality of their culture in the curriculum they are presented with.  It’s the Miles Morales of the classroom seeing himself as Spider-Man. Seeing himself as the hero makes the web-slinging adventures more fascinating to follow and hope the hero wins in the end.   

There are pockets around the country like my hometown in Illinois and Holland where the student body consists of marginalized groups who don’t always receive literature that reflects their cultures or life experiences.  By offering literature with alternative perspectives than that of the original text, we allow students to engage fully with the text and give them the opportunity to see themselves as the hero in the story. 

Greek Mythology and General Education 

You might be wondering, is Greek Mythology really relevant today? Well, in order to fully understand just how relevant it is, you first need to understand Greek mythology. Mythology is important for the understanding of history, art, and literature. Science, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, and many other topics were heavily influenced by Greek myth. This is one of the many reasons Greek mythology, and mythology in general, should be a part of the general education curriculum in schools.

Just look up into the night sky and each constellation tells a story from Greek mythology. Look at almost any painting from the Renaissance and you will see aspects of Greek and Roman myth. To fully understand most classic literature, like any of Shakespeare’s works, you need to have a basic understanding of Greek myth. Even psychological theories have been based on Greek mythology; for instance, Sigmund Freud used the myth of Oedipus to help explain his theories of psychosexual development.

Greek mythology has shaped cultures, traditions, and history. In order to fully understand democracy and forms of government, you need to know the history behind it. There is a myth about a man named Lycurgus who was given the Great Rhetra by the oracle Delphi. The Great Rhetra is the Spartan constitution that gave most of the power to the people. This document was the first of its kind in the Western world and was the first step towards modern democracy. The Greeks even informed Western and Eastern cultures and their relationship today; for instance, the Persian Wars changed how the Western world viewed the East, and understanding this background is essential.

Myths don’t just inform the way we study certain topics, but they also give us insight into the human condition. Emotions such as grief, love, anger, lust, pride, and jealousy are all themes throughout Greek myth and most Greek heroes wrestle with these emotions. Reading about these mythological characters can give students guidance and assurance when dealing with their own emotions. 

Learning Greek mythology in the school setting would help students better understand their emotions, the context for modern society, and the background for most modern structures, systems, and beliefs. 

Firekeeper’s Daughter: The Hero’s Journey and the Ojibwe Medicine Wheel

The 2021 Big Read programming featured Angeline Boulley and her debut novel Firekeeper’s Daughter. Her book is one example of following the hero’s journey, but it contains a twist by also using the Ojibwe medicine wheel to create the story. She discussed the structure of her book at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English Conference on October 14. 

Boulley structured her book into four acts in order to overlap the four quadrants of the hero’s journey with the medicine wheel. She incorporated the medicine wheel by combining the plant medicine of tobacco into the story. Each act continues to highlight areas of the medicine wheel to capture this aspect of her Native American culture. 

We see a similar theme in our 2022 Big Read Lakeshore book since Circe is knowledgeable in herbal medicine and hones her craft throughout the book. One of the reasons we read stories is to learn about the culture and practices of different cultures. 

Angeline Boulley announced that her next book will be available next spring about a heist gone wrong. Keep an eye out for it! 

The Odyssey: Choosing a Translation

With over 60 English translations, knowing which translation of The Odyssey to read can be difficult. 

In the original Greek, The Odyssey is in blank verse, using dactylic hexameter, both of which are common attributes of Greek and Latin poetry. Some translators of The Odyssey choose to keep their translation in blank verse while others choose to change the style or instead write in prose. Because of these style choices, each translation highlights different aspects of the original. 

The first person to translate The Odyssey into English was the British poet and playwright George Chapman in 1616. Since then, men have continued to translate the famous epic, but it was not until 2018 when the first female translator published her version of The Odyssey.

Emily Wilson is this first female translator. Her translation of The Odyssey keeps the original blank verse, but changes the dactylic hexameter into iambic pentameter. Throughout the poem, she keeps many of the original Homeric similes. Another unique characteristic of Wilson’s translation is her portrayal of the female characters and certain situations; for instance, she translates male and female relationships without compromising the original meaning. Wilson’s translation is great for anyone who is interested in reading The Odyssey, whether a first-timer or a veteran.

George Chapman’s translation, one of the most advanced, is written in Elizabethan English. Similar to Wilson, he also keeps the epic in blank verse and turns the dactylic hexameter into iambic pentameter. Throughout his translation, Chapman adds descriptive, moral, and philosophical details and interpretations that are not in the original, making his translation more like a personal response. This translation is best for more advanced readers who are already familiar with The Odyssey.

Some translators choose to write their version in prose since it can be easier to read and understand. One prose version of The Odyssey can be found in the textbook World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics by Donna Rosenberg. This is a paraphrased version best for younger students and individuals who are only interested in a summary of The Odyssey. Another prose translation by A. S. Kline can be found for free online. It includes hyperlinks to character descriptions and images which can be helpful for first-time readers. This translation is great for beginners since it keeps the integrity of the original translation while still providing a prose version that is easy to read.

Robert Fitzgerald and Peter Green both wrote poetry translations of The Odyssey. Fitzgerald’s translation has been the most common modern translation since 1961. It has sold more than two million copies, and has been the standard translation for most schools and poets. The one aspect Fitzgerald’s translation lacks, however, is a rhythm; it is not written in a particular meter like Wilson or Chapman’s. Peter Green translated the original poem line-by-line which keeps most of the original integrity of the poem. Similar to Fitzgerald, Green’s translation is not in a specific meter; however, it maintains a lyrical tone, analogous to the original. Both Green and Fitzgerald’s translations are great for students and adults alike.

Although finding a translation of The Odyssey can feel challenging, when looking at the pros and cons of each translation, you can easily find one that fits your needs.