Bursting Our Own Bubbles: The Importance of Reading Fiction Together

By Andrew Silagi 

When I first saw the Barbie movie this summer, I was expecting the film to have a lot of commentary on women in the United States. After watching the film, I remember wrestling with the film and what it says about the role of fiction. Fiction is not like editorials: it is not meant to outright say the opinions of the author on a particular issue. Instead, through a captivating story, the creator has the ability to challenge the reader or viewer and get him or her to think about the topic in a new way. Lifelike characters and vivid descriptions of conflict and relationships often bring urgent and underrepresented issues to the forefront of society’s discourse because of fiction. 

At their best, these stories refrain from telling those who engage with them how or what to think but instead compel them simply to think deeply and uncomfortably about these issues. Barbie, a good example of this, brought debates specifically on the modern feminist movement into conversation in a new way through the tools of humor and satire. Often, the best part of watching films like Barbie for me is the conversation that I can have with my friends about the issues discussed in the movie, which serves as a time to honestly opine and wrestle with our gut reactions and thoughtful observations.

While the video medium has taken over much of the creative appetite for the younger generations, written fiction is a necessity that we continue to try to encourage young people to enjoy. In a country that often struggles with a lack of civil discourse, reading, particularly in community, is a beacon of light. 

For the past nine years, the NEA Big Read Lakeshore has realized that this is true not only for the nation, but specifically for West Michigan as well. This year, the selected books press into challenging topics and allow us to come together to deal with these issues together. Despite the ideological tension in West Michigan, the power of reading, especially reading fiction, has the power to bring communities into honest and humble conversation surrounding the powerful stories that are told by humans. 

Two of the selected Big Read books for 2023 exemplify this notion masterfully. The Middle Read book, New Kid by Jerry Craft, through colorful and clever illustrations, tells the story of a young black student’s experience transferring to a majority-white private middle school. Craft weaves together universal experiences of struggling to find friends at a new school with specific struggles like being one of the only students from one’s ethnic and economic background there. 

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, the selected book for the Big Read 2023, does something similar with the issue of the generational trauma and disparity brought about by the trans-atlantic slave trade. The author creates a detailed story of two half-sisters and the way the slave trade completely changed not only their lives, but the trajectory of their entire lineage.

While both of the issues tackled by New Kid and Homegoing are uncomfortable and will garner plenty of different opinions, one must have the humility to dive headfirst into these enriching discussions. Reading these books is beneficial to anyone in West Michigan, and instead of staying isolated by themselves or in their ideological bubbles, the NEA Big Read initiative gives us the unique opportunity to honestly wrestle with these topics in a community that values hard conversations and the sometimes uncomfortable observations about our own biases and shortcomings. 

The best art does not necessarily affirm the views we already have but instead challenges us to rethink these perspectives and listen to those of others. Jerry Craft helps us see both the universality and uniqueness of one black boy’s experience with middle school in New Kid in an accessible graphic novel format. In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi does not tell us what to think; rather, she encourages us through the beautiful medium of fiction to think in a new way at a long-examined issue in our nation’s history.

Andrew Silagi is a Senior at Hope College studying Secondary English and History Education. He is a section leader in Chapel Choir, a member of the improv team Vanderprov, and a member of the Emmaus Scholars, among other things. He enjoys rollerblading and asking big questions in his free time. He is also a member of the Big Read team.

Behind the Book: Abena and H

We have officially hit the second half of the book with this section! This week we are going to focus on events and culture around the section of Abena, daughter of James Richard Collins and Akosua Mensah as well as the section on H, the son of Kojo Freeman and Anna Foster.

Two of the things that stuck out to me in these sections was the vital part of farming in Akan cultures and the affect the 13th amendment’s exception clause had in continuing a new form of slavery.

Farming in Akan Cultures

Abena’s section of Homegoing gives us a view of agriculture in the late 1800s in West Africa. While we have seen that Akan people have various jobs, agriculture was vital to their culture. In smaller villages like Abena’s, most people would grow at least some crops for subsistence farming, while others may produce a lot to sell at markets or use in a trade. Two important crops mentioned in this section are yams and cocoa.


Throughout this story, we can see that yams were very important to the livelihood of many people of this time. Besides being a staple in their diets, yams also held cultural and ceremonial significance. If you have read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, you might have noticed the similarities between the two regarding the connections between yams and good/ bad luck or being a respected person.

Now, if you are like me, this whole time, you might have been imagining a sweet potato whenever the word yam came up. While “yam” and “sweet potato” can sometimes be used interchangeably in the United States, they are very different foods and are unrelated in food groups. Yams are a tuber with rough skin and white flesh. They are best suited to tropical or subtropical environments and can be grown easily in many parts of Africa.

In America, however, they didn’t have as much luck. When slavers brought them along on ships to America, farmers found it much harder to grow them, and the practice died out. Because yams were such a big part of West African diets, many enslaved Africans turned instead to sweet potatoes as they could substitute them without losing too much of the original recipes.

Yams are still so crucial to the West African culture and diet that there are festivals dedicated to them in parts of Nigeria and Ghana. Even the word yam can be traced back to the phrase “to eat” in many West African dialects. Certain types of yams are drought-resistant, and people can store them for a long time, making them an essential food group to fall back on in bad farming years.


In this section, we also see the introduction of cocoa plants to West Africa. While cocoa is a large part of West Africa today, they are not native to that part of the world. Cocoa plants are native to tropical rainforests in Central and South America. European colonists brought cocoa to West Africa, hoping to get more money from their African colonies. After some research and experimentation by botanists in colonial Africa, cocoa showed great potential in the climate.

Cocoa had already become very popular in the Americas, and it was a steady business for the Europeans to depend on the colonies to grow cash crops like this. Colonial governments and later independent African governments realized the potential of the market and encouraged cocoa cultivation as a means of economic development. They provided incentives to farmers to promote cocoa production.

While cocoa farming started as a means for the European colonists to get more money out of African colonies, it ended up boosting the economy throughout West Africa and remains one of the most important exports in countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Today, these two countries dominate the cocoa industry and produce more than half of the world’s cocoa.

If you are interested to see more about how cocoa is grown, check out this video from Science Channel on how they are made!

The Continuation of Slavery Through Prison

Moving on to H’s story in America, we see one of the next significant struggles coming out of the Civil War. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it also protected it in some ways. A clause in the amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This clause, commonly referred to as the “exception clause,” permits slavery and involuntary servitude as a form of punishment for individuals convicted of a crime. While the slavery that Americans were used to had been outlawed, this loophole was exploited to allow a new form of slavery to continue.

After the abolishment of slavery, a new set of laws called the black codes were implemented to control the newly freed black people. These laws included things like punishment for a black person being too close to a white person in public, walking “without purpose,” walking next to railroad tracks, or assembling after dark. These new laws and many others were used as an excuse to arrest innocent black people and throw them in jail. From there, two routes were usually taken.

Because the abolition of slavery meant working shortages in the South, a significant gap now needed to be filled. Plantation owners and other company owners were given the option to “lease” convicts to work in these positions. They no longer “owned” these workers, which often made things worse as they also had no incentive to keep the workers alive. Conditions for these workers were horrific, and many died before they could complete their sentences.

Another way convicted people were put to work was in chain gangs. While not necessarily leased out for long periods to a specific person, the convicted would have to work long hours while being chained to other workers in chains weighing up to 20 pounds. The work was often physically demanding and dangerous, and being chained to others hardly helped. This practice was widespread in the United States until the 1950s.

Even today, we are seeing the fallout of some of these practices. Debates are going on right now about the use of prison labor and the privatization of prisons. Advocacy groups and activists have argued that these practices disproportionately affect marginalized communities and perpetuate a cycle of inequality. Efforts to reform the criminal justice system, address racial disparities, and advocate for the rights of incarcerated individuals are still going on right now and show how much effect history has had on the present.

I hope learning more about these topics helps you take on a deeper understanding of Homegoing! If you have any questions or comments on our next section, Akua and Willie, let us know!

Behind the Book: James and Kojo

This week we move into the third generation in the Big Read book Homegoing. We follow the stories of James, the son of Quey Collins and Nana Yaa Yeboah, as well as Kojo, the son of Ness Stockham and Sam.

This generation gives us a glimpse into events that span from 1824 until 1860. At this point in history, the Gold Coast was facing the Anglo-Ashanti Wars and the United States was feeling tensions that would eventually lead to The American Civil War.

The history and culture that these characters are experiencing may be unfamiliar to us, so here are some things that might help you understand these characters and their settings a bit better!

Death and Funerals in Asante Culture

Death and funeral traditions play a large part in our section from James. To better understand why funerals are so important to the Asante people, we’ll need to take a deeper look into their culture again.

Asante tradition views funerals as a time for celebration and honor rather than a sad memorial of passing. Part of this is because of their views on death. To Asante people, death is strictly a physical thing. They believe that the body has died but that their loved one’s spirit lives on. Their spirit goes to their supreme god and must account for its acts on Earth and is able to join the rest of the ancestors. Funerals play a part in both helping their loved one move on to this new existence and to honor their ancestors, which is important part of their culture.

Asante funerals include several unique factors due to their beliefs in death. Food and drink offerings, dancing, mourning clothes, and items buried with the deceased to help them along their journey give us glimpses of their beliefs.

To the Asante people, funerals are more of a festival. They are very important social gatherings, and the community sees it as quite rude if family or friends fail to show up. Asante people still carry out some of the traditions mentioned in the book in funerals today, like this one from a few years ago. The audio on this video is not very good, but it gives a glimpse into some of the cultural practices that are still alive today.

This video shows some of the music, dancing, traditional clothing, gift giving, and even the handshake line Gyasi talks about in James’ section in Homegoing.

The Anglo-Ashanti Wars

In this section, there is also mention of a war between the Asante people and a dual army of the Fante people and the English. This was most likely one of the five conflicts that make up the Anglo-Ashanti Wars. These wars spanned from 1824 to 1900 between the Asante Empire and the British empire and its allies. While there were victories on both sides, wins for the British in the last two battles gave them the upper hand and led to the dissolving of the Asante Empire.

While these battles were fought for a variety of reasons and each side had varying motivations for getting involved, these wars show how the state of the relationship between these Akan communities really diminished. A lot of this was due to issues related to the slave trade and pent-up animosity over the constant stealing and selling of each other’s peoples. Britain got involved for economic and social reasons, but their hand in the slave trade also played a large part. At this point, Britain had already banned slave trading in 1807 and later abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire in 1833. Yet they were still solidly attached to Africa, and this led to more problems in the following years.

If you are interested in learning more background and specifics on this, check out this podcast by Turn of the Century which goes deeper into the cause and effect of these wars.

The Fugitive Slave Laws

Making a switch over to the American side of things, we are getting closer to The American Civil War and get to look at some of biggest contributors to the state of America at this time.

The Fugitive Slave Act was originally put into action by Congress in 1793 as a clause in the Constitution. The original clause allowed local governments to capture and return runaway slaves to their owners. It also imposed a penalty on anyone who helped them escape or harbored them while they were a fugitive. When a catcher or owner captured someone who was suspected of being a runaway slave, the suspect and owner (or stand in) would have to appear before a judge and show some sort of proof that the accused was their property and that they had a right to take them away.

Many states didn’t like this act from the beginning and enacted a series of “Personal Liberty Laws” which gave options of trial by jury and gave more protections for free blacks, who were often kidnapped and sold into slavery (similar to the true story in 12 Years a Slave).

The New Fugitive Slave Act

By 1850, many Northern states pretty much ignored the Fugitive Slave laws or even worked against them. Many southern states were threatening secession at this point, and to keep the nation together, Henry Clay helped create the Compromise of 1850. Part of the compromise to appease the southern states was to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act by forcing the northern states to follow it or face serious consequences. It also now denied the right to testify for yourself or have the opportunity for a trial with a jury. If anyone refused to honor the law or tried to help a fugitive slave, they would now face double the fine at $1,000 and 6 months in jail.

This was a harsh blow to abolitionists, freemen, and enslaved people as it cut into so much of what they had spent years fighting for. The added measures led to abuse of the law and defeated its original purpose. However, this corruption led to more people joining the abolitionist movement and strengthened the Underground Railroad. Northern states began enacting more personal-liberty laws and came together to fight back against corruption in their courtrooms.

Unfortunately, these positive actions only strengthen the Southerns States’ resolve to succeed, and the failure of the Northern States to stick to these stricter measures were listed as some of the greivances and reasons for succession for states like South Carolina.

Hopefully you learned something new through this blog, and if you have any questions or ideas, we’d love to hear them!


Behind the Book: Quey and Ness

Our second generation in Homegoing begins splitting these stories between North America and Africa. In this section, we meet Quey, the son of Effia and James Collins, and we meet Ness, the daughter of Esi and an unknown father. The split in these stories also means the background to these stories requires a bit of knowledge of both West African and American history and traditions.

Here are some things I had questions about that might help you gain insight into these two stories (but no spoilers)!


Homegoing mentions fufu in this section, and it sounded familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Fufu, also spelled foofoo, foufou, or ‘fufuo, comes from a Twi word that means “to mash or mix,” which is pretty accurate to how people make it!

The Akan people traditionally made it with cassava root, yams, or other various starchy ingredients, depending on what was available when and where people made it. The starch is heated with a bit of water and then pounded with a pestle and mortar until it reaches a doughy consistency. While I haven’t had the opportunity to try it, it is said to taste somewhat like a mix between regular mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. Because of its mild taste, it is often paired with a stew or soup. To eat fufu, you scoop up a bit and roll it into a small ball. Then after you make a slight indentation with your thumb, you use that ball to scoop up whatever soup or stew you have chosen to eat with it. Instead of chewing on fufu, you just swallow it!

There are several variations of fufu today, partially because it traveled with slavery to places like the Caribbean, where the recipe changed based on what was available to the people there. While the nutritional value changed with what ingredients were used, it was usually a food high in calories and carbs, providing lots of energy and nutrition in smaller portions.

If you are interested in making fufu yourself, here is a recipe for yam fufu to try!

Matrilineal Society

In Western culture, we might be more familiar with a patrilineal view of our families. Patrilineal descent means property, titles, and last names transfer from the father to the children. Throughout history, we see examples ranging from personal items to finances to whole companies or kingdoms handed down from the father to the (usually) oldest son. While we might still get things like our last name from our fathers, we are more used to a bilateral society where both sides of your family are important to you.

In Akan tradition, however, this is not the case. The Akan people live in an area south of the equator in Africa, also sometimes known as the matrilineal belt. Their beliefs and traditions follow a matrilineal system where inheritance and family follow the women more than the men. If you want more examples of these differences, check out this article, “Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession.

Because it was a polygamous society, it was customary for each man to have several wives. As the children grew up, they were associated with their mothers instead of their fathers because it helped narrow down what section of the family they were really from. Matrilineal succession doesn’t mean that they had a matriarchy where the women ruled over men, but that in family matters, your mother and her family are more important than your father and his family.

There is also a belief that you come from your mother’s flesh but only your father’s spirit. While fathers were still an essential part of your life, they believed that your mother’s family was closer to you than your father’s. Because of this, uncles and nephews were seen as a closer male bond than fathers and sons. According to tradition, if you were an Akan man, your priority would be for your nephew, who is your flesh, rather than your son, who is only related to you by spirit.

If you are still a bit confused or want a deeper look into how matrilineal society works, check out this video, Introduction to Matrilineal Descent, that goes more in depth into how this system works.

Ways of Control

When you think of slave owners keeping power over their slaves, you might think of things like whippings, overseers, or other violent, physical ways to keep their spirits down. However, many slave owners also figured out that there were many different ways to keep slaves under control, like controlling food or water portions, religious ceremonies, creating or encouraging divides through class systems among the enslaved people, and creating a reward system where the more quiet, hard-working slaves got better living conditions and some slight freedoms.

Two other methods plantation owners used to try to keep power over their slaves were marriages among their slaves and taking away their culture. They believed that if they married off their men, they would be less likely to rebel or run away because of their families. Marriages among the slaves were also convenient, not just for control but for saving them money. Buying new slaves was expensive, but if they had more being born on their plantations, it was more free labor coming up. Because of this, some plantation owners even offered freedom to enslaved women who could produce 15 children for them. In some places, female slaves were married off and expected to have children around the age of 13. If, for some reason, they didn’t, they were often punished or sold. Once slaves had a spouse or children, the plantation owners could use them as leverage against them, and it was much harder for them to attempt to escape to the North.

Restricting culture, and especially language, was also a common practice. Some places were allowed to keep aspects of their culture, but it would change vastly due to American influences or be used as a fear tactic to keep the slaves in line. Language was one of the first things slave owners tried to get rid of because they didn’t want their slaves to be able to communicate without knowing what they were saying in case of talks of rebellion. This turned out to be a bit difficult on big plantations due to the fact that there were constantly new slaves brought in who then helped keep language and cultural practices alive.

Hopefully, you learned something new or found a resource that was interesting to you! If you have any thoughts or questions on the third generation in Homegoing, James and Kojo, leave a comment, and I will try to bring it up in the next discussion!

A Look Behind the Book: The Akan People and Culture in Homegoing

Our Big Read 2023 season has officially started! If you haven’t seen this year’s selection yet, visit our Big Read website and check them out! We have loved hearing feedback from the community on everyone’s thoughts so far, and we are excited to hear more from you all. Hopefully, you have gotten your hands on a copy of one of the books and have had the opportunity to start reading.

Being both a secondary English education major and a secondary history education minor, I was super excited to start Homegoing and dive more into some stories from these different sections in history. However, as I was reading, a couple of things came up on the historical or cultural side of things that I didn’t know much about. If you are having some similar experiences, don’t worry! This summer, I will focus on each pair in each generation and give you some more background or some cool resources for you to check out. I hope you will find these extra pieces as interesting as I do!

This week I want to focus on Effia and Esi, back in 18th century Ghana. If you haven’t had time to read the first two stories, I will try my hardest to avoid too many spoilers. Feel free to read this blog beforehand to go in with some knowledge, or check back here when you have finished those sections for a deeper look into what you just read.

The Akan People

In these first two stories, we meet characters from the Akan people, who lived in modern-day Ghana, parts of the Ivory Coast, and Togo in West Africa. While the exact history of the Akan people is hard to trace from the beginning, most experts believe that they migrated from the Sahel region and savannas of West Africa. Most of our written history of the Akan people comes from Europeans from the 15th to the 19th centuries when these nations began to trade with various countries. Throughout Homegoing, we will see stories from two Akan groups, the Fante and the Asante.
The Fante (or Fanti) people lived closer to the coast and were the ones who decided what groups could or couldn’t trade due to their trade routes. This power allowed them to prosper by establishing trade between inner Akan groups and Britain and the Netherlands.
The Asante people lived further inland but were very successful trading with the European countries due to their large gold mining industry and powerful military.

The Power of Names

Homegoing uses the name “Asante,” but they are also well known by the name “Ashanti,” which came from British reports where they transcribed different aspects and words as they heard and understood them. The name “Asante” comes from the Twi words ɔsa and nti, which together mean “because of war.” This is a nod to the history of how they became an empire when they rose up and fought against another tribe that had power over them.

Another interesting aspect of names in the Akan tradition is day names. If you visit present-day Ghana, you will still hear people using day names, as it is a tradition that the Akan culture has passed down. Many of the characters at the beginning of this book have common Ghanaian day names, which is another nod to their culture which you may not have noticed.

If you want to read more about day names, check out this article, “The Ghanaian Tradition of Day Names and Everything You Need to Know About it.”

Anansi Myths

Kente cloth is still used in Akan ethic group today

If you have had the chance to read the Anansi myths in an English class (or had the opportunity to take Mrs. Behrendt’s Mythology class at Holland High), then you might have been excited to see an Anansi story mentioned in this section. Anansi is a West African god who takes the form of a spider to teach young generations. He is a “trickster” god who uses his cunning to get what he wants. The Akan people created Anansi folktales and spread them throughout West Africa. The stories are often used to explain why something is the way it is or teach children a moral lesson. In Homegoing, a story of Anansi and the kente cloth is told, and this story is an example of how Akan culture is intermixed into this mythology. If you are interested in hearing another quick Anansi story, check out this one below!

Hopefully you learned something new about the Akan people and their culture! If you come across something that you think we could dive deeper into together, let me know by leaving a comment. Happy reading!

“It Started Ten Years Ago”

By Deb Van Duinen

As we continue to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of The Big Read Lakeshore, we want to highlight some stories from the past couple of years from a few of the many people who helped form The Big Read into what it is today. Our first memories come from Professor Deborah Van Duinen, who began the program in Holland and nurtured it into what it is today. As we launch our newest books, she reflects on the journey of starting The Big Read in our community.

It started ten years ago with a conversation between friends.

During one of the fall months in 2013, I remember asking Joel Schoon-Tanis, a friend and local artist, about his latest art projects. In the following conversation, he told me about an upcoming project in Wisconsin. There, he would do another collaborative art project with high school students involved in a community-wide reading program. He had done this in previous years and absolutely loved creating art with students after reading a piece of literature. This year, the students he would be working with were reading Our Town by Thorton Wilder. 

“The community over there gets a grant called “The Big Read” from the National Endowment for the Arts.” I remember him telling me. “You should check it out. It’d be fun to do something like that here in Holland.”

Full disclosure: I had never written a grant proposal before and knew little about community-wide reading programs or the National Endowment for the Arts. However, I knew Joel well enough to know that if he thought something would be a good idea, it probably was. 

Full disclosure again: I was a new, pre-tenured faculty member at Hope College. I wanted to get tenure and promotion and knew that grants, publications, and service commitments were the currency to achieve this. 

Long story short, in January 2014, I applied for an NEA Big Read grant: my first NEA grant, my first grant.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I quickly learned that applying for a national grant is no small task. For one, many grant requirements need to be followed. These include everything from budget details and publicity materials to evaluation processes and confirmed community partnerships. 

For this particular grant, I learned that I needed to choose a book from a list of Big Read selected titles. Not knowing what kinds of books work best for a community-wide reading program, I went with a book that I loved, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. As a former high school English teacher, this was one of my favorite books to teach, and it was (and continues to be) one of my all-time favorite books to read. This was the easy part. The rest of it? Not so much.

While submitting the grant in 2014, I also learned that most grant writers aren’t successful the first time around. In fact, many grant writers use a failed first attempt to learn what to do better the next time. This makes it all the more difficult to establish community partnerships and support. With no promise of an actual program or effective results, I remain so grateful for the librarians at Herrick District Library, the local English teachers, and the directors of nonprofit organizations like the Holland Museum who were willing to partner with me from the beginning.

Deb Van Duinen (right) with Carla Kaminski (Van Wylen Library) and Wayne Flynt.

In April 2014, I received an email from the NEA informing me that my grant proposal had been accepted. 

And the rest, as we say it, is history.

The first year of programming was magical. We hosted seven events and 16 book discussions. Over 300 people participated in our program. Our main speakers included Mary Marshall Tucker, a neighbor of Harper Lee, and Dr. Wayne Flynt, an Alabamian historian, and friend of Harper Lee. Dr. Fred Johnson delivered our kickoff address, and we screened a documentary, Our Mockingbird, followed by a Skype talk with the director, Sandra Jaffee. Joel Schoon Tanis collaborated with students in five schools to create beautiful pieces of art and also designed a community art piece made up of hundreds of mockingbirds that answered the question: “Who are our mockingbirds?”


Conversations about the book and its topics and themes were rich and meaningful. Community members of all ages listened to and learned from each other. We made new connections with each other. We discovered new insights together.

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Joel Schoon-Tanis and Beth Mawdsley Sherwood, a teacher at Holland High School.

The overwhelming success of this first year propelled us to apply for another grant in 2015 and then again in 2016 and 2017 and so on. And now, here we are in 2023 embarking on our 10th programming year.

Stay tuned for future blog posts that highlight memories from each of our previous years but for now, here’s to another year of showcasing a diverse range of themes, voices, and perspectives. Here’s to another year of coming together, as a community, around the shared activity of reading and discussing the same book. Here’s to inspiring meaningful conversations, artistic responses and new discoveries and connections along the Lakeshore.

Why You Should Participate in the Big Read

Whether you are new to the Big Read Lakeshore program or need more reasons to help convince a friend to check us out, we invite you to consider some good reasons to join us this year!

So, what is the Big Read, and why should you get involved?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Arts Midwest created the Big Read program in 2006. Their focus was on shared reading experiences that would lead to discussions, connections, and responses in every community they touch. While NEA’s Big Read exists nationally, our section, “Lakeshore” started in 2014 and is currently in its 10th year of programming. Each year we apply for a grant, and NEA gives us the support that allows us to distribute books, put on events, and find creative ways to get our communities involved in reading these great books. 

That is where you, the community, come in. You are the center of all we do here at the Big Read. We are constantly thinking of new ways we can help you get more involved and get the most out of the program. From the books we choose to the interactive programs happening all around the community, we are focused on you.

If you are still looking for reasons to get involved in the Big Read, here are a couple to consider:

  1. To be introduced to a fantastic new book:

At the very least, our program this year might introduce you to a great new book. It could be one you’ve never heard of before or one that you have been eyeing for a while but haven’t had the opportunity to read yet. I am always looking for a great new book to read, but don’t always know where to look. If we are dedicating a whole month to talking about this book, you can bet it will be pretty good.

  1. If you have always wanted to dive deeper into books but didn’t know where to start:

I wish there were whole college courses on the books I chose to read. Sometimes I will finish a book and know there is so much there but don’t know how to figure out what it is on my own. Groups like Big Read can come in handy for that. Throughout November, we will have events that help us understand the background of this book better, as well as things like guests on our podcast and our blog giving out additional tools as you read. 

  1. To have deep conversations with others in our community about themes and issues brought up by these books:

Finding other readers to talk about the book you are reading can be challenging. Since everyone in the Big Read will be reading the same book, there will be many opportunities to talk to others about what you see. One of my favorite aspects of having a community-based program is the discussions that get started because of these books. We chose these books knowing that these topics are some that we should be addressing in our community. We love to hear your thoughts on these books and issues as you begin to read them! 

  1. To gain a new perspective:

 One of my favorite aspects of reading is the growth my mind goes through with each new perspective I can take on for a while. To quote from our very first Big Read book, To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” If you want to grow, there are few ways that are better than reading a good book and having healthy conversations with others.

  1. If you are looking for a program that is flexible for you:

One of the best parts about Big Read is that you can commit as much or as little time and energy to this program as you would like. If just reading the book we chose is your style, go for it! To get the most out of the program, we encourage you to get involved in at least one other way. Our blog will release material all summer to help you in your reading and could be a great addition to your personal journey or subject material for a book club. Social media is another great way to stay involved in what is going on, and if you still need to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, check us out! We will also have in-person events throughout the fall program, and we would love to have you stop by for those as well!

We love hearing from the community, so if you have any more questions about the Big Read or how you can get involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out!

Remembering: The Last Four Years

As we get closer to the announcement for our 10th-anniversary book, we want to finish looking back at the books that we have read together as a community over the last couple of years.

In 2019, our 6th year of Big Read Lakeshore, we visited the Mirabal sisters during the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez is a historical fiction novel that shifts in time from the 1940s, 1960s, and 1990s. During this program, we were able to hear from the author Julia Alvarez on a virtual visit, where she gave us a new perspective and lens through which to view the world around us. We were challenged to be butterflies representing courage, goodness, and standing up for the vulnerable, and we also were told to try to find the silent butterflies that might exist around us.

In 2020 we faced a unique challenge. When initially choosing In the Heart of the Sea for the 2020 Big Read book, no one knew how much the program would have to change and adapt to regulation and Zoom calls due to Covid-19, but we were still able to have a great year of discussion. In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of an 1820 sinking of an American whaling ship called the Essex and how the crew fought to survive in the aftermath. This story was familiar to some as it is also the basis for Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. Nataniel Philbrick’s novel, published in 2000, uses accounts from Thomas Nickerson, a teenage cabin boy aboard the ship. A focus on this book brought about conversations on whose side of history gets told and whose side of the story is never seen.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo was the focus of the 2021 Big Read. This was our first Big Read book that was poetry, not prose, and this led to many exciting opportunities to talk about storytelling through poetry. The collection focuses on Harjo’s reconnection with her Native American roots and ancestors in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. This book also allowed discussion of American history through events like the Indian Removal Act, reservations, boarding schools, and much more. Through themes of struggle and perseverance, we could reflect on the ideas of hope and rebirth. The Big Read also partnered with the Kruizenga Art Museum at Hope College to put on an exhibit on Native American Art to bring another art form to life in our community.

Last year, 2022, we traveled far back to the Greek Heroic Age with the book Circe by Madeline Miller. Circe is an adaptation of some famous classic Greek myths like the Odyssey. This adaptation shows a unique look into the role of women in ancient times with a reassessment of the stories of famous male heroes like Hermes, Jason, and Odysseus. Along the way, we questioned what defines a hero and saw the importance of perspective. Through the original songs of Joe Goodkin in a folk opera performance, we were also able to hear the story of the Odyssey from a different perspective.

Now approaching our 2023 Big Read program and our 10th year of traveling through these stories, we are grateful that our readers have been open to new experiences and willing to hear the stories that are not always told. Before we tell you our plan for this year’s book, we encourage you to check out these past stories. Whether it is a first read or your copy is covered in pen marks, there is always something new to be found in the different perspectives of an old story.

Remembering: The First Five Years

Here at the Big Read, we are excited to be getting closer to announcing our book for the 2023 program. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Big Read Lakeshore program, we want to take the time to look back at where we started with the first five books. The Big Read started in 2014 and has transported our community to places and times very different from our experiences here in West Michigan.

In our first year of The Big Read, we visited Scout and Atticus Finch in 1930s Alabama and sat through Tom Robinson’s court case. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was our kickoff book, and it was unclear how the community would respond or engage with the program. Slowly schools, libraries, and other local organizations began to come on board and we were able to continue to grow those connections since then.
Throughout the month, we talked about themes of race and equality and had some great events, like talking to a childhood friend of Lee.

In our second year, we traveled to the Vietnam War through The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. These short stories talked about the physical, emotional, and mental burdens these soldiers took up. Amidst conversations about these burdens, many local schools got involved and found ways to interact with these stories by creating various art pieces to inspire the community.

In our third year, we joined Edwidge Danticat in her journeys in Haiti and the United States starting in 1969. Brother, I’m Dying was the first autobiography we read for the Big Read, and it approached hard topics like immigration and the American dream. Art was used once again, but this time involving as much as the community as we could with an installation art piece made up of hundreds of individual reflections on the stories shared and fingerprints representing the many identities that make up the Holland area.

The fourth year of Big Read brought us the story of a nameless family in a Japanese internment camp through the story of When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. Based on real family experiences, the novel spends time on the differing perspectives of four family members and their eviction from California to a Japanese internment camp in Utah during World War II. One memorable event from that year was getting to see Raion Taiko Drumming and learn some Japanese words along the way.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel kept us in the Great Lakes region and instead took us on a journey to a dystopian future society. A swine flu pandemic taking out a large part of the world population most likely seemed more dystopian in 2018, but rereading it in 2023 could give us a different perspective after our experiences with COVID. Some discussion brought up during the program were questions about art and what legacy we pass on to children. We traveled a lot in this book, from person to person and back to the past many times.

This community has blessed us with a space to share these stories, and we are thankful for your support and engagement with our program. Some of you have been with us from the very beginning, and we are extremely grateful for you. For those who are just beginning their journey with us, welcome! We cannot wait to share where you get to travel with us this year!

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” ~Dr. Seuss: Films for Women’s History Month

By Teisha Struik-Kothe 

As a celebration of Women’s History Month, each week a Hope College professor or student will recommend their favorite books or films dealing with issues facing women today and throughout history. This week is dedicated to movies and films and is written by Dr. Teisha Struik-Kothe, an Assistant Professor of Instruction. As a former teacher and administrator, Dr. Struik-Kothe understands the difference equal representation makes for women in our world today.

As a former K-12 English language arts teacher and administrator, in honor of National Reading Month every March, I planned creative themes, books, speakers, and activities to engage students in literacy and spark a lifelong love of books. It was the annual March-Mission. Throughout the first official month of spring, in a nod to Dr. Seuss, I was busy enticing children to read upside down or read in bed with a flashlight or read to a dog!

This spring, I greatly enjoyed a twisting deep dive into movies list-worthy of Women’s History Month, which is officially celebrated on March 8. Why not spend the month of March (and beyond) engaged in reading and in viewing movies?

Countless films lift up and celebrate women’s brilliance and beauty. Friends, family, and my book club all had favorite nominations. (My significant other felt strongly that The Iron Lady (2011), a biographical film on the life of Margaret Thatcher, should make the list. He was disappointed it did not make the final five!) After considering everyone’s recommendations, and spending several nights with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn, below are the movies that made my Official-Unofficial Women’s History Month Movie List. They comprise an eclectic variety of movies featuring women who are brave, bold, bright, and beyond inspiring. Oh, the places you will go with these films!

Hidden Figures (2016)-The intelligence and determination of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three black women who were employed by NASA in Langley, Virginia in the 60’s, transcended the prejudice of their colleagues. They made significant contributions to the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and they made significant contributions to the fields of math, science, and engineering.

Based on the book by Margot Lee Shutterly, the performances of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae are remarkable. Their visual storytelling is outstanding as an ensemble, and the history (or herstory) lesson is inspiring. Available on Disney Plus, Prime Video, Apple TV, and other sources. Rated PG.

Homecoming (2019)-Beyonce’s documentary and its overarching theme is one of education and hard work. In 2018, she was the first black woman to headline the Coachella music festival, which debuted in 1999. The documentary captures both weekend performances. Montages spliced into the concert highlight the mega-star’s year-long preparation for the show after she gave birth to her twins. Fans are given an intimate look into the intense rehearsals in which Beyonce carefully plans every detail of the concert, balances family time with her husband and three children, and fervently pushes her own work ethic beyond its limits. She is the one and only Beyonce, and she is both the creator and performer of Homecoming. 

During the documentary, the audience is educated in black culture and in the importance of preserving and encouraging a legacy of historically black colleges and universities. (Beyonce’s father attended Fisk University.) Words of Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, W.E.B. DuBois, and Toni Morrison dot “Homecoming” with inspiration. 

Homecoming morphs from “concept to cultural movement” and is best represented by Beyonce’s description: “It’s hard to believe that after all these years I was the first African-American woman to headline Coachella,” she said. “It was important to me that everyone that felt they had never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us.” It is 140 minutes of proof that Beyonce is the hardest-working person in show business, and is a creative, talented, God-loving genius. Available on Netflix and Prime Video. Rated PG-13.

Joy Luck Club (1993)-Based on the best-selling novel by Amy Tan, this movie shares the story of four women who were born in China and immigrated to America. Their daughter’s stories are also central to the piece. The “Joy Luck Club” is made up of the four older Chinese women who meet once a week to play mah jong, and while they play, they compare stories of their families. All of the women have lived to see loss, heartache, and indescribable grief. Their secrets and stories play out in the film, one that moves effortlessly between past and present.

The delicate intricacies between mother-daughter relationships and interracial marriages are intimately examined, and every viewer with a family can relate to the hopes and prayers one generation will have for the next. This story illustrates compassion, empathy, and unconditional love, uniting threads of all cultures. Available on Prime Video, Apple TV, Redbox, and other sources. Rated R.

On the Basis of Sex (2018)-Long live RBG! Felicity Jones delivered an incredible performance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this film. The well-crafted biography covers her life from schoolgirl to the Supreme Court. Did you know Ruth attended all of her law school classes and her husband’s classes when he fell ill with cancer? Did you know that no law firm would hire her despite Harvard Law and Columbia Law (first in her class) on her resume?

If you are in need of motivation and inspiration, watch this movie. Ruth and her husband fought one case together—a tax case that could be argued on the basis of sex—and that case changed everything. If there is “must see tv,” then this is a “must see movie.” Available on Prime, Apple TV, Redbox, and other sources. Rated PG-13.

Venus and Serena (2013)-Seeing footage from when these phenomenal female athletes were only ten years old gave me a whole new appreciation for the struggles Venus and Serena faced during their tennis careers. The girls grew up playing in Compton, California on broken courts. Their father-coach pleaded with country clubs to donate throw-away tennis balls so his girls could practice. At times, the young athletes were taunted with racist catcalls from the stands and unfairly criticized by opponents for every look, comment, or outfit. The documentary shows every obstacle they overcame.

The determination and resiliency of Venus and Serena in the face of criticism, injuries, illnesses, family challenges, and other obstacles will leave viewers in awe. This documentary provides a private view into the world of the Olympic stars’ lives. Players, tennis fans, and those with very little hand-eye coordination will enjoy this movie. (I’m among the latter and I loved it.) Available on Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other sources. Rated PG-13.

Women Talking (2022)-While all five of the films above are incredible in their own way, in the end, one movie really stuck with me. If you only have time to watch one film this spring, I recommend Women Talking (2022), directed by Sarah Polley. It is based on the novel Women Talking (2018) by Miriam Toews, which is loosely based on a real story, one that is horrifying. 

Between 2005-2009, 150 women and young girls were drugged and then raped by men in their secluded Mennonite community. The movie captures the women’s response while they meet in a barn to discuss their options: 1) Do nothing. 2) Stay and fight. 3) Leave the community.

None of the women can read or write, so the ballot they use to vote is drawn in pictures. Each woman makes a single mark to signify her vote. The debate to break a tie after the votes are tallied is raw, layered, nuanced, and ultimately gut-wrenching. The talented actresses drive the storyline and convey the heavy emotions as “women talking.” Oh, the places you will go during this film. What do they decide and why? Watch. It is a movie I cannot stop thinking about. If I had an Oscar to give, Women Talking would win. Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and other sources. Rated PG-13.