History of The Big Read, Sonoma County
The Big Read, Sonoma County began as “Sonoma County Reads” in 2002. Co-founded by Melissa Kelley, then-chair of the Sonoma County Public Library Foundation, and Santa Rosa City Councilmember Steve Rabinowitsh, Sonoma County Reads was part of the California Council for the Humanities’ initial foray into communitywide reading events. Adults in Sonoma County and throughout the state joined together to read John Steinbeck’s moving tale of the Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. KRCB joined the effort as a partner from the very beginning. Santa Rosa Junior College was a significant collaborator in this inaugural reading, with 55 classes at the junior college featuring the book.
Following the immense popularity of Sonoma County Reads in 2002, the organizing committee in 2003 sought to select a book that could be enjoyed by younger readers as well as adults. The committee agreed on a work by native son Jack London, The Call of the Wild. Highlights of the 2003 Sonoma County Reads event included a Jack London Lecture Series at Sonoma State University; events at Jack London State Park, including a Jack London impersonator; a special Call of the Wild Girl Scout badge; and a “Literary Iditarod,” where volunteers throughout Sonoma County read aloud passages from the novel. As a result of Sonoma County Reads, The Call of the Wild was the most popular book circulated through the Sonoma County Library system in fall 2003. Its 1,300 checkouts topped even Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!
In 2004, Sonoma County Reads committee members sought to reach more of Sonoma County’s Latino audience, selecting The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Programming featured bilingual book discussions and an immensely popular readers’ theater – Mango Street Live! – that traveled to local senior centers and low-income housing complexes.
A particularly noteworthy event during this Sonoma County Reads happened in Cloverdale. A group of teen mothers participating in the Even Start program read the entire book aloud in Spanish. After reading the book, they wrote a letter to author Sandra Cisneros, and her written reply brought tears of joy to many who read it. An excerpt from her letter of October 28, 2004, follows:
I want to thank all of you who have moved me so emotionally with your notes about how much you loved my book. So I write. To do something for peace in these times of destruction. You have encouraged me more than ever and thus I send you much affection and wish you many blessings. This convinces me of the power of the book and confirms for me too of my path as a writer. A thousand thanks for your gift….
The following year, the California Council for the Humanities introduced an interesting twist, inviting Californians not only to read stories together, but also to tell their own stories. Sonoma County Reads sponsored the “Students to Seniors History Contest,” inviting students to interview local seniors, who talked about their life stories. Each student wrote an essay about a senior’s experience, and the winning essays were published in a book, Tell Me More: An Anthology of Oral Histories by Sonoma County Students. Local residents also joined together to read the Council for the Humanities’ collection, California Uncovered.
In 2006, Sonoma County Reads turned to an exciting, action-adventure novel with the reading of Zorro by Northern California author Isabel Allende. Programming included a live display of sword fighting techniques at the Sonoma County Book Festival!
The year 2007 marked the first year that Sonoma County’s communitywide reading event became part of the larger effort sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Sonoma County Reads organizers believe that Dana Goia – a Sonoma County resident who became executive director of the National Endowment for the Arts – took the idea of a communitywide reading event with him when he was tapped to head the NEA. In any case, KRCB Public Radio & Television became one of the first communities to participate in The Big Read, with a countywide reading of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Local programming focused on banned books and censorship, with dozens of banned book displays throughout the county and presentations by authors such as cartoonist Tom Tomorrow.
In 2008, the NEA again funded participation by KRCB in The Big Read – this time for a joint reading of the Harper Lee classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. A key feature of the programming was the collaboration with the City of Santa Rosa’s Race Equality Week and Race Equality Festival. Readers also benefitted from a “Migration of Mockingbirds,” where copies of the book, along with a schedule of events for The Big Read, were dispersed at convenient locations throughout Sonoma County.
In 2009, Melissa Kelley returned to the project she originated, serving as project coordinator for The Big Read, Sonoma County as the community explored The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Fence-paintings dotted the landscape from Guerneville to Rohnert Park and many points in between, while the Sonoma County Free Bookmobile featured a “Mark Twain Exchange,” where readers could donate books by the famed author or pick up new ones to read. A highlight of the 2009 event was the premiere of “Is He Dead?” – a play originally written by Mark Twain and adapted by David Ives – at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.
Finally, in 2011, the NEA once again selected KRCB to participate in The Big Read. Preparations are underway, and in spring 2012, residents throughout Sonoma County will join together to read Rudolfo Anaya’s coming-of-age novel, Bless Me, Ultima.