Bloomington Reads: Annual Community Reading

By Olivia Buck

At Bloomington Public Library, we put together an annual community reading event in which we select a spotlight title and create a programming series based upon the themes within the book. The series culminates in an author visit taking place during National Library Week. We have done this annually for several years and past authors include Jamie Ford and Erik Larson.

I personally have had the privilege of working on the committee that plans our Bloomington Reads programming series both this year and last year. Selecting an author can be quite a process. First our committee discusses the budget for that year’s series and possible themes that we would like the spotlight title to incorporate. Once we know the kinds of titles we are looking for, we brainstorm potential titles and authors. Then, we send out speaking engagement inquiries to the authors or their agents. Sending inquiries felt awkward to me at first. You simultaneously have to ask about the availability of the author and their speaking fee, express your excitement about their work, and not make any promises until you have the information and the vote from the committee.

Once the book is selected, the committee moves on to planning a series of programs based on themes found within the book. For example, last year’s title Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. For this spotlight title, we hosted the following series of programs:

Letter Writing
In one of the short stories in the Heads of the Colored People collection, the story was
written in the form of letter correspondence between to parents of school-age students. In order to reflect the format of this story, we held a letter writing workshop in which participants learned about the art, gathered tips, and were encouraged to continue the craft. The workshop was lead by Michael Theune, an Illinois Wesleyan University professor and a co-editor of the Keats Letters Project.

The Hate U Give
We offered a showing of the movie The Hate U Give based on the book of the same title
by Angie Thomas.

● Book Discussions
Of course we also held book discussions for readers to participate in. We hosted two
separate groups, one at the library and the other as a part of our “Books on Tap” group
which meets at a local restaurant.

● Creating a Vision Board
A vision board is a guide to help attain a goal or set a life path to follow. Participants got
to learn about these boards and how to create one of their own. Supplies were provided
and attendees left with their own boards to take home.

● Next to Normal Story Slam
During the programming series, we wanted to reflect the prevalent theme of identity
found within the book. One of the ways we thought to do this was by partnering with a
local storytelling group. During Next to Normal Story Slams, people share with an audience personal stories that revolve around a chosen theme. Participants joined us to hear stories answering the question: “The Real You: Who Does the World See and Who is the Real You?”

● Self-Portrait Collages
Mixed-media artist Trish Williams shared and discussed her work before leading a
workshop in which each person created a self-portrait collage using various textiles. From Williams’ website: “I bring together the rhythm of hand dyed, painted, and commercially made fabrics with the syncopated lines of my quilting to tell stories about the African Diaspora and my community.”

● Graphic Novel Design
Within one of the short stories in the collection, one of the main characters was a graphic novel artist. As a result, we had local graphic novelist Anthony Feinman come in to lead a class about writing and designing graphic novels. Participants had a chance to look at his work and try out using WACOM tablets and various techniques discussed throughout.

● Social Justice and Racial Identity
Nathan Stephens, Director of the Nesbitt African American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana offered a thought-provoking presentation regarding social justice, racial identity, racial stress, trauma, and Nesbitt African American Cultural Center.

● Portrait Drawing
Doug Johnson, Director of the McLean County Arts Center lead a skills class on sketching portraits.

● Short Story Writing
Since the selected book was a short story collection, we wanted to offer a short story writing workshop. Illinois Wesleyan University Prof. Brandi Reissenweber came to teach the art of writing short stories. Participants learned about the components of a great story and how to write one.

● Author Presentation by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
Every year, the Bloomington Reads programming series finale is an author visit. During
the 2019 programming series, author Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Ph.D., came from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to share her experiences writing the stories in the book, her inspiration for the book, and her writing process. Following her presentation, the library hosted a Q&A session and book signing. The library invited Barnes & Noble to sell Thompson-Spires’ book as well as other related titles.

During our Bloomington Reads programming series we have great turnouts and participation in our programs. We also buy 50 or so extra copies of the title to ensure that we have enough. During last year’s programming series, even with over 50 copies of the book, a couple copies of the audiobook, as well as having the title available on Libby and Hoopla, the books were flying off the shelf and had several hold requests.


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