Heavy Hitters vs. Lite Lit:

Selecting A Common Reads Title for Students

BIC Director Christie Hinrichs
BIC Director Christie Hinrichs
For many Common Reads program coordinators on college campuses, First Year Experience departments, and in public/private high schools, the pressures of meeting upper administrative demands while keeping students enthused and engaged can be daunting. Sometimes it may feel like these closed-door committee members are out of touch. Other times, tension originates from over-enthusiastic coordinators who prefer beach books to the literary canon. Striking the right balance when selecting a Common Reads text for students is absolutely crucial to the continued success of the program—and can mean the difference between a program that falls flat, and one that students will remember for the rest of their lives.

First and foremost, we must examine our goals. Without knowing what you want out of the program, it’s very difficult to establish success!  For the vast majority of our academic venues, the #1 goal of a Common Reads program is to encourage community among a diverse student body by giving them something in common they can gather around. In fact, this was the original purpose of the campus Common Reads movement that began some 40 years ago, and continues to be the primary goal for most programs. For this reason, it’s vital that the selected title be something a wide variety of students will enthusiastically read, that sparks conversation, and begins a dialogue that will allow students to interact socially and intellectually.      

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A Look At: Danville - San Ramone CityRead

Seng Lovan, organizer for Danville-San Ramon CityRead, talks with Books in Common about how the program has evolved throughout the last 10 years.

Would you tell us a bit about your program?  For instance how long have Danville and San Ramon been hosting a Community Reads event, how did it get started, and how has it changed over the years?
The Danville-San Ramon CityRead is our community-wide reads event for the neighboring communities of the town of Danville and city of San Ramon. In 2014, we celebrated the program's 10th anniversary with a very special historical fiction book, Orphan Train, by the wonderful Christina Baker Kline. She is an incredibly knowledgeable and engaging speaker whose presentation and book resonated tremendously well with our communities in Danville and San Ramon. It was a truly special event that was open to all readers throughout the San Ramon Valley and beyond. 

We started CityRead in 2004 as community-wide reading events were just gaining momentum in many cities throughout the country.  As we are neighboring communities, the librarian at the San Ramon Library and I really felt this would be a great opportunity to work together on an amazing community- building literary event for the entire San Ramon Valley. 

CityRead has very much grown over the years to the point where we've had to move the culminating author event to a larger venue to accommodate as many readers as possible. The closing program  attracts not only residents from our communities, but also neighboring cities! As the event grew, we were also able to incorporate more and more suggestions from local readers. We've had some wonderful author and book ideas that have come directly from patrons and participants of CityRead.

2014 was your special 10th Anniversary program: did you do anything out of the ordinary to celebrate?
Books in Common really worked with our libraries and understood that we wanted to do something special. They were able to confirm a wonderful author, Christina Baker Kline, bestselling author of Orphan Train, for CityRead's Tenth Anniversary. Throughout CityReads, historical fiction has always seemed to be a genre that our readers really respond to and has sparked good conversations. That dialogue and community discussion is the heart of our program. In order to keep the momentum of our five-week program and further foster discussion, we also added smaller programs leading up to the author event. With Orphan Train, the San Ramon Library hosted a speaker panel about transitioning from foster care, and the Danville Library brought in the historian and chair of archives at the Western Railway Museum to do a visual and informative presentation about the role trains/rails have played throughout history.  


A Look At: Edgewood College

Lisa St. John Allaman, coordinator for Edgewood College Siena/Common Reads, explains how the program is organized and the lessons they have learned to increase participation.

Would you tell us a bit about your program?  For instance how long has Edgewood College been hosting the Siena/Common Reads event, how did it get started, and how has it changed over the years?
I think we have had the Common Reading program for the last several years. The Siena Lecture has been around a lot longer than that. The Siena Lecture was started by the Dominican sisters, and was named after St. Catherine of Siena, who was a philosopher and theologian during the 14th Century. Every year, there is a main event that brings new thought and ideas to campus. Last year, we combined the Common Reading main event with the Siena main event to pool funds and promote this event as widely as possible.

What have you found are the keys to choosing a book that interests students, while at the same time allows them to find valuable lessons they can take with them in and out of the classroom?
We try to pick books that are not really long, or they won’t read the whole thing. Also, we try to choose books that have a relevant topic, or a topic that can be made relevant to them. We open up the selection process by allowing anyone to nominate a book, and then a committee narrows it, and then everyone is eligible to vote for it.  (see editorial on voting systems)

What did you learn from last year’s program that is helping you this year?  What are you changing, what worked well?
Connecting with Books in Common has helped! You guys are so organized and made the visit much easier to plan. We need to plan ahead, pool resources when possible, and get as many community organizations involved as possible.

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Author Interview: Peter Stark

Looking for a title that weaves together history, adventure, the origins of America and the perils of globalism?  Peter Stark's Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire makes for a great Common Reads selection.  It addresses issues such as adventure, exploration and taking risks; leadership and vision; globalization and colonization; Pacific Northwest history and landscape; and especially, how to dream big and make your dreams a reality, even if it takes a lifetime.

What are some of the "teachable" moments in your book that make it work well for a speaking engagement?
My book contains many moments of crisis, when a leader has to make a crucial decision:

When young New Jersey businessman Wilson Price Hunt — a neophyte to the wilderness — leading a large party, has to decide whether to follow the “known” route up the Missouri River and into a sure and bloody confrontation with the Blackfeet Indians, or strike out into 1,000 miles of unknown terrain, which should he choose: sure trouble or total unknown? Later in the expedition across the Rocky Mountains, Hunt blunders into the deepest canyon in North America in the middle of winter and his 50-person party runs out of food. Does he stay with his loyal and dying men who are dropping beside the trail? Or does he abandon his collapsing friends to try to lead the rest of the expedition to safety?

Yet a third “teachable moment” of character and leadership comes with Captain Jonathan Thorn, through arrogance, cultural insensitivity, and ignorance, he believes his ship armed with 10 cannons and 8,000 pounds of gunpowder is immune from any retaliation from the Coastal Indians after he has just rubbed a sea otter fur in a chief’s face. He turns out to be very wrong.

Would you share some notable experiences you've had at your speaking events?
I've had some tremendously rewarding moments seeing the enthusiasm of the listeners. This story is a part of American history and culture that is so unknown, that it almost inevitably surprises people.  People really want to know more. I was especially pleased during my reading at Powell’s, taped by C-Span for Book TV, that there were so many people trying to crowd in that heads were poking from behind bookshelves. People had great questions, and they seem to love the wild differences in the characters of the leaders.

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Author Interview: Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Guadalupe Garcia McCall, author of Under the Mesquite and Summer of the Mariposa, discusses the inspiration for her books and experience with speaking engagements. April is National Poetry Month, so start planning now to book Guadalupe for next year's celebration.

What inspired you to write Under the Mesquite? Why did you choose to write in verse?
I was inspired to write Under the Mesquite by my students, who didn't know how to write poetry and wanted me to "show them" how I did it. The original manuscript for the novel was a collection of poems I had written in my class, modeling for my students how to use memories to write narrative poems. I didn't know I was writing a novel in verse until my editor at Lee & Low Books, Emily Hazel, suggested that I turn the collection of poems into a longer narrative, essentially a novel in verse in the style of Out of the Dust. Once I turned it into a narrative, then came the difficult task of addressing the theme of loss. I didn't know if I could write that book, the one in which the main character's mother died, because I had lost my mother when I was 17, and it changed me in a way I couldn't quite explain. But in taking that step, in creating this fictionalized retelling of my own family's struggle, I was able to gain fresh perspective, to understand that losing my mother had both devastated and strengthened us as a family and me, personally, as a young woman, that I still carried my mother's love with me, and it was that love that had saved me. Together, Emily and I decided to tell the story of Lupita's loss in the most authentic, most truthful way, so that others who are struggling with loss might be helped by it. 

Would you share some notable experiences you've had at your speaking events?
There have been many moments when students, parents, 
even faculty members and staff have been moved to tears by the story of Lupita and often they come by and want to hug me or share their story with me after the presentations. But there was one young man last year, who, during the question and answer session, raised his hand and said, "You are my hero." His teacher, who was sitting beside him that evening, raised her hand and said that he had a similar story to mine. He was an immigrant child who had recently lost a parent and he was still trying to overcome the loss and find the courage to move forward and make the dream that his lost parent had for him come true. He was hurting and he just didn't know if he would ever heal. Well, it both broke and touched my heart to hear it, to know that this young man who was looking up at me had found hope in my book and my presentation that night. The experience was humbling as I realized how much the book meant to him, but it also made me want to keep doing these presentations even more. It made me want to reach all the others who are hurting, to extend that little leaf, to tell them that there is light in that darkness, that there is healing after loss, that love and faith will see them through, and that their spirit is strong enough to make beauty and art out of that pain. 

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Books In Common Supported Events

Christina Baker Kline at Community Reads in Indiana
"Everything went well, Christina was personable and engaging," said Trisha, program chairperson.

Reyna Grande at Los Angeles Charter School
"Everyone LOVED Reyna’s address. She ranked a 4.8 out of 5. She was able to weave her story together with humor and heartstrings to impress the need for supporting newcomer students. Additionally, the parent group loved having the opportunity for an intimate conversation with her. They commented that they felt inspired and connected," said Suzanne, director of academic services.

Garth Stein at Common Reads event in Oregon
"Garth was charming and had the audience engaged throughout his presentation," –audience member. 

Peter Heller at a city-wide author series in Minnesota
"(Peter) chose great passages, and his delivery was funny and memorable. Our crowd loved it." – David, program coordinator.

Bee Ridgeway at a private high school in Connecticut
"Everyone enjoyed Bee's presentation, her discussion of writing as art, and learning the story behind writing the book," said Deb, programming coordinator.

Marja Mills at Literary Society in Florida
“Everyone loved her... she was so personable and informative... and the subject matter was incredibly interesting to everyone. Her PowerPoint presentation and humor kept everyone attentive throughout the hour,“ said Darilyn, program coordinator.

Click here for more Books in Common Events

Book Reviews

We've identified these books as particularly well suited for your Community / Campus reading event!

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
With the increasing diversity of America’s communities, it can be challenging to find a book that speaks to the experiences of all community members, regardless of age, gender, background, and ethnicity. There are some out there, and a terrific title that fits the bill is One Amazing Thing, by New York Times bestseller Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. When a natural disaster traps nine people of drastically different backgrounds, families, ages, and origins in a damaged building, they discover that telling their personal stories to each other brings them together as they hope and pray for rescue.

One Amazing Thing celebrates how the common human experiences of love, failure, and hope can cross any boundary or differences separating each of us. This page-turner of a novel also inspires heartfelt, thought-provoking discussions among readers of all ages. Furthermore, its focus on storytelling as a cohesive force encourages communities to share, listen to, and seek out the unique experiences of their own neighbors and community members. Themes such as prejudice, mental health awareness, cultural misunderstandings, disaster preparedness, community building, dreams, hopes, and relationships provide a wealth of tie-in program opportunities. One Amazing Thing brings dignity and value to the stories of each and every person, no matter how different, and teaches us to understand how each person enriches the community they join.

“Everyone has a story,” said Uma… “I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.”

The Secret Side of Empty by Maria Andreu
Inspired by the author’s own experiences, Maria Andreu’s novel, The Secret Side of Empty, explores the heavy emotional, mental, and relationship toll of being an illegal immigrant raised in the U.S. Coming of age is never easy, and MT, who is about to graduate from high school, must deal with the added burden of being American in all but legal status. What does it mean to be American? How do people cope—or not cope—with insufferable emotional burdens when they can’t seek help from friends, family members, and teachers in their community?

This compassionate story challenges readers, especially teens and college students, to consider the experiences of a young person who is very much like them, who could very well be their own neighbor or best friend, but is not a US citizen because they were brought illegally into the country as a child. The Secret Side of Empty tackles important topics such as alienation, the burden of keeping secrets, coming-of-age, domestic violence, mental health, and immigration. Readers come to a deeper understanding of how important one’s community is while sharing the experiences of someone who wants to be part of a community, but who might always be an outsider.

 “I will always be a stranger everywhere. With my parents, I am too American. With Americans, I am a spectator with my nose pressed against their windowpanes, watching their weird rituals and rites of passage, never quite understanding them completely.”
Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shepard
Is the American Dream dead? Adam Shepard challenged himself to build a successful, working-class life when starting homeless with $25 in his pocket. His story appeals to a wide range of readers: from teenagers worrying about what lies ahead, to college students planning for the future, and mature adults and senior citizens wondering how American values and economic opportunity have changed.

Scratch Beginnings raises timely questions about social mobility in our communities: what does it take to climb out of poverty? Is it possible to succeed financially in working-class jobs? Is it impossible to better your position in life if you start out at the bottom? Adam’s experiment touches on financial responsibility, grit, perseverance, and the examples of acquaintances who succeeded or failed at their own attempts. Adam's experiences illuminate how poverty requires both individual and community solutions–and how the public institutions and programs he encountered along the way helped or hindered people in their quest to attain the American Dream.

 “I recognized early on that everyone belongs there. For a moment lower, middle, and upper classes all blend into the same intellectual melting pot. Whether surfing the Internet or perusing the bookshelves, everyone can find something to do at the library.”

Book Reviews on Books In Common

The Books In Common Newsletter
April 2015
Peter Stark, author of Astoria, discusses the teachable topics within his book and his experiences at literary events.
Check out these Upcoming Events Arranged by 
Books in Common  

  March 31st - April 1st, 2015:

Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train, will present at a Community Reads in Kentucky.


April 2nd, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will present at a Common Reading event in Kentucky.


April 6th, 2015:

Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars and The Painter, will present at a library author series in Colorado.

 April 8-9th, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will present at a Common Reading event in Texas.

Laura McBride, author of We Are Called to Rise, will deliver a presentation to a county college in Texas.


 April 10th, 2015:

Michael Hingson, author of Thunderdog, will present at a fundraiser in Alabama.

April 13th, 2015:

Peter Heller will present to a library in Washington.

 April 14th, 2015:

Sonia Taitz, author of The Watchmaker's Daughter, will present to a literary luncheon in Florida.


Regina Calcaterra, author of Etched in Sand, will deliver a presentation for a fundraiser in North Carolina.

Garth Stein, author of the New York Times bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain and A Sudden Light, will present at a private club in Washington.


April 15th, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will visit a a private school in Massachusetts.


April 16th, 2015:

Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating, will present at a One Book, One City event in Michigan.


Peter Heller will present to a private college in Oregon.

Lisa Genova, author of the New York Times bestseller Still Alice, will present at a One Book, One City program in Massachusetts.

Regina Calcaterra will present at an author luncheon in New Jersey.

April 17th, 2015:

Garth Stein will present at an author dinner in Virginia.

April 18th, 2015:

Christina Baker Kline will visit a public library in New York.


April 19th, 2015:

Sonia Taitz will visit a literary organization in Illinois.


April 20th, 2015:

Garth Stein will present at a community author series in Minnesota.


April 20-21st, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will present at a common reads program in Wisconsin.

April 20-26th, 2015:

Lauranie Snelling, author of the Songs of Blessing series, will visit a library system in Minnesota.


April 25th, 2015:

Sonia Nazario, author of Enrique's Journey, will present at a One Book, One City program in Minnesota.


April 26th, 2015:

Regina Calcaterra will present at a national association meeting in Florida.


April 27th, 2015:

Sonia Nazario will present at a community author series in Minnesota.


April 28th, 2015:

Regina Calcaterra will present for a library in New York.


April 30th, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will present at an author luncheon in New Jersey.

May 5th, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will present at a high school in New Jersey.

May 7th, 2015:
Christina Baker Kline will visit a charity fundraiser in New York.

May 12th, 2015:

Christina Baker Kline will present at a common reads program in Pennsylvania.

Garth Stein will present for a private luncheon in New York.

May 13th, 2015:
Molly Gloss, author of Falling From Horses, will present for a community reads in California.


May 16th, 2015:
Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, will visit a library in Colorado.

Lisa Genova will present at a library in Missouri.

May 17th, 2015:
Amanda Ward, author of The Same Sky, will present at a library in Arkansas.

May 21st, 2015:
Regina Calcaterra will visit a high school in New York.

May 31st, 2015:
Michael Hingson will present a church in California.


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