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Ever since 2007 the Waukesha Public Library has worked with numerous community partners, including the City of Waukesha, the Waukesha school district and UW-Waukesha, to organize the entire city in spending time reading, discussing and enjoying one book.

Waukesha Reads is part of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Big Read program. According to the NEA, "Book clubs and community reading programs extend [reading and discussion group] benefits by creating opportunities to explore together the issues that are relevant to our lives."

Waukesha's pick for 2016, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is an obvious choice for exploring relevant issues -- racism, the importance of a rigorous defense in our justice system, and the necessity of standing up for what you believe in even when the odds are against you.

Community Unification

Community reading events and activities take place every year near the end of September through the first part of November.

The library's head of program development and community relations Kori Hall said, "When I moved here four years ago, I thought it was so amazing to see how many people come together to talk about the book and to do all the activities." She pointed out how inspiring it is that the community comes together, and for that month-and-a-half time period, they're all talking about the same book, the same lessons, the same issues.

The community's investment in the annual event is obvious from the pure number of players who are involved. There's Carroll University's sponsorship of a talk by Mary Badham, the Academy Award nominated actress who played Scout in the movie version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." There's the Wisconsin Humanities Council and Wisconsin Public Radio-sponsored talk by Officer Corey Saffold about the reality of being an African American police officer in today's society. There's the Civic Theatre's performance of the play based on the book. There's the Marcus Majestic Theater's themed dinner and a movie event paired with a cabaret performance. And, of course, there are the several book discussions in cafes, restaurants and bookstores throughout Waukesha.

Waukesha had some help this year in pulling off its annual events in the form of a $20,000 grant from the NEA. Hall said that Waukesha Reads organizers choose a book every year that is on the NEA list in the hopes of receiving the grant. She said, "NEA is very open to us using it for any variety of programs that we want."

Making sure the kids are involved

One great thing about Waukesha's program is that it gets the city's children involved. Most of the books on the NEA list are clearly for adults, and, considering that "To Kill a Mockingbird" revolves around defending against a rape charge, this year's book may not be appropriate for younger children to read. However, the lessons are valuable for all ages, and this is where head children's librarian Kerry Pinkner comes in.

Three years ago, Pinkner started a companion program to Waukesha Reads. She chooses a children's book that has a similar theme to the NEA selection, and organizes family discussions and activities around it. This year's selection, "The Watsons go to Birmingham," is a historical fiction novel told from the perspective of a ten-year-old child whose family has to deal with racism and segregation. Pinkner says, "The books have similar themes, and it's so exciting to have a companion book that we can share with younger children as well."

Through the companion book program, children are included in a family book discussion that gets parents and their kids reading the same book. But they're also given the opportunity to have a little independence too, as Pinkner makes sure to schedule kids-only book discussions of their companion book.

Also, although the youngest kids are too young to read either the main book or the companion book, they're included in the community event as well through plenty of family activities planned around the themes that are explored in both books. For 2016, those activities include making bird feeders out of recycled materials and supplies, and wishing tree and treasure box scavenger hunts. Pinkner explained, "In 'To kill a mockingbird', Boo Radley shared gifts with Scout and Jem in a tree. We have a wishing tree which allows families to write wishes for their children or people around the world in general. There's also a book of treasures in the book, so we have families decorate their own treasure box and then have a scavenger hunt through the library to find treasures to put in their newly decorated box."

For more information about Waukesha Reads events and activities, visit their website at waukeshareads.org. To learn about the NEA Big Read, visit neabigread.org.

Amy Schwabe lives in Franklin with her husband, two daughters and thousands of books.

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