One Community, One Book: Mahaska Reads

This past Wednesday saw the conclusion to Mahaska Reads, the first “one community, one book” program I helped organize. This year’s series of events and discussions were based around Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. I’m pleased to say that it was very well received by the community, and I’m already looking forward to planning next year’s events.

In the past, Mahaska Reads was typically sponsored solely by the Oskaloosa Public Library. In order to reach a broader audience, I reached out to the manager of our local independent book store, Book Vault; the director of William Penn University’s Wilcox Library, and the teacher librarian at the local high school. We got together in March to decide on a title and met once a month from there to develop the series of events.

We kicked things off on September 15 with “Mahaska Book Night.” Inspired by World Book Night, I knew we could get people in the community excited about participating if they had the chance to receive a free copy of Twelve Years a Slave. The Oskaloosa Public Library Foundation graciously provided the funds to purchase 60 copies of the book. Members of the Mahaska Reads committee planned to hand thirty of those copies out at Smokey Row, a local coffee shop; Penn Central Mall; and The Cellar Peanut Pub.

I honestly was surprised at how quickly those books went – people were waiting at each of the locations! With poor planning on my part, I didn’t get to the pub until after the city council meeting, and there was a group of about ten who waited an hour before leaving disappointed. Fortunately, a few of them returned while I was there, and I still had copies for them.

The next evening we had our first program, Unconditional Surrender: A Visit with Ulysses S. Grant, and handed out the rest of our free copies of Twelve Years a Slave to the first 30 people who attended. We had 55 come! Marshalltown Community Theater actor Pete Grady offered a fantastic portrayal of the Civil War general and President. Mr. Grady’s knowledge of Grant’s life is extensive, and his presentation captured the attention and adoration of those in the audience. A great program!

Following events in the series included a book chat about titles with themes related to those in Twelve Years a Slave given by the high school librarian, the academic librarian and myself; a Community Discussion at a local assisted living facility; and a screening of Steve McQueen’s film adaptation at the library. Something I also didn’t expect was we had four book clubs in the community read and discuss the book!

Our final event took place at the Book Vault, a presentation on Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation given by Dr. Ron Rietveld, Lincoln scholar and professor emeritus of History at University of California-Fullerton. Knowledgeable and enlightening, Dr. Rietveld captured the attention of everyone in attendance and entertained several questions at the close of his presentation.

One of the participants said to me at the last book discussion that, as far as she could recall, this year’s Mahaska Reads was the most talked about in a long while. It wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration with those on the Mahaska Reads committee and the support of the Friends of the Library and the Library Foundation. I’m just happy that we were able to bring the community together and get them excited about reading, learning, and discussing issues with each other.

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