November 18, 2016 | By Jake Weber
Award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia used personal experiences and her great gift of storytelling to help Albion celebrate the end of its 2016 community Big Read on November 1.
"I've never seen any program quite like this, and I spend a great deal of time meeting with young people and talking to literacy programs," Williams-Garcia said, referring to the 18 middle and high school students who were the core book discussion leaders for this year's book, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. "When I learned that this program carried on for so many weeks, I truly appreciate the work you put into this. I don't know if I could have done it when I was your age."
Williams-Garcia reflected on fear and fire in her address to the Big Read youth leaders and the Bohm Theatre audience. She noted that while her own books are not autobiographical, the characters sometimes share her own personal fears, especially those she felt as a young person.
I know you're in times of great adjustment and change, and through it all you're addressing fears and finding your way through change," Williams-Garcia remarked. "That can be very scary but here you are, doing it."
Williams-Garcia noted that in Fahrenheit 451 fire is feared for its destructive power. She urged the audience to realize that this fear—like most fears—looks different when it's examined more closely.
"Early humans feared fire because they couldn't control it," she said. "But when they learned about it, that it could give them heat and cook food and keep animals away, it became something of value."
"Sometimes fear tells us to burn books or ban books. The worst fear is to fear the ‘other side,' to fear hearing the words of the ‘other side,'" Williams-Garcia said. "When you question, when you engage in critical thought, you don't bow down to fear."
"I thought the month was a smashing success," said Albion College English professor Jess Roberts, organizer of Albion's Big Read. "I was struck by the amazing discussions that the Big Read leaders led, the quality of the writers and artists who visited our town, and the outpouring of support by members of our community."
Roberts continued: "It is hardly surprising that, to a person, the artists and writers who visited Albion commented on the richness and generosity of our community."
Hundreds of community members, along with Albion College faculty, staff and students, participated in dozens of events and several book discussions centered on Fahrenheit 451. Albion's Big Read is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest, and includes support from the Albion District Library, Marshall Public Schools, the Albion NAACP, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sisters Influencing Society, the Albion Historical Society, the Holland Park Transformation Team, the Bohm Theatre, Walk the Beat, the Albion Housing Commission, the Franke Center for the Arts, VISTA, AAUW, and more. The Marshall Community Foundation underwrote Williams-Garcia's keynote appearance.
Williams-Garcia's young adult novels explore the diversity of African-American life, at different times and places in the U.S. She has won some of the country's most prestigious book awards, including the Newbery Honor Award and the Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction (for 2011's One Crazy Summer). In 2016 she received her third Coretta Scott King Award, for Gone Crazy in Alabama. A lifelong resident of New York, Williams-Garcia teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Photos and descriptions of Albion Big Read 2016 events can be seen at http://albionbigread.org/gallery.