This article was written by Jessica McCann.
There are few things I enjoy more than reading a good book and sharing it with others. When I first learned about World Book Night, an annual event in which 25,000 volunteers hand out 500,000 free books across the United States, I was tickled that such an event existed. When I learned I could apply to become a book-giving volunteer, I was thrilled at the opportunity. And when the email arrived saying I had been selected to give out 20 special-edition copies of Mudbound, I was over the moon.
The idea behind World Book Night is to spread the love of reading, person to person, with light or non-readers. I had read accounts from previous volunteers who handed out their books to 20 random people at doctor’s office waiting rooms, coffee shop patios, addiction rehab centers or small town taverns. All great ideas. After much thought and deliberation, I decided to go a little different route. I wanted to give all 20 copies to a small charter high school for “at-risk” students in Phoenix.
Accelerated Learning Center (ALC) provides an alternative, individualized education option designed to help students earn their high school diplomas. Being “at risk” can mean any number of things for these teens. Whether they have a difficult home environment, were bullied at their traditional school, have made poor choices with drugs or alcohol, or have a learning disability or other personal challenge, most just want to finish high school and get on with their lives. The goal of the school is not only to help students earn their diplomas, but also to help them grow and feel successful, and to nurture a desire within each to reach his or her maximum potential.
These young people are probably among the least likely to pick up a novel and just read. Yet they are among those with the most to gain from doing so. In a blog post for Psychology Today, titled Want a Better Life? Read a Book, Eastern Kentucky University Professor Michael Austin asserts why reading — books specifically — is so important.
“Acquiring a deeper understanding about ourselves and the world we live in and applying it to life is conducive to building a better life and a better world,” he writes.
I couldn’t agree more. One of the best ways to do this is by reading a challenging book, one that requires a little effort, one that engages the mind and inspires conversation. Austin also refers to Mortimer Adler’s 1940s classic, How to Read a Book, and highlights this excerpt:
“A good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. … You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable — books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan is such a book. The chapters rotate among first-person accounts from a variety of characters, telling the story of two American farming families (one black, one white) struggling to survive in a small Southern town just after World War II. Each character tells his or her version of the events — colored by his or her own experiences, desires and prejudices — without being preachy or stereotypical. It was published in 2008 and was awarded the Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction.
I approached the principal with the idea of 20 free books, a classroom set that could impact a new group of students year after year. But Mudbound is not your typical high school required reading. This novel explores some mature topics, I warned the principal and gave him my personal copy to borrow. He said he would read it and let me know.
The book ended up making the rounds among the school’s teachers for about six weeks.
“They all really liked it,” the principal said when returning the book to me. He rubbed the now-crinkled cover sheepishly and apologized for the newly-worn spine. “I hope they weren’t too rough with it. Everyone kept talking about it and asking to read it next.”
A few weeks later, I picked up my box of special-edition books from the local Barnes & Noble and printed off about a hundred World Book Night bookmarks emblazoned with the ALC logo. The drop-off at the school was low-key. With the academic year winding down, students may not even get a chance to read the book until next year. That’s OK with me. Knowing it has already initiated spirited conversation among ALC’s teachers is a great start. And I know their dedication and enthusiasm for teaching will help keep the spirit of World Book Night alive all year long.
Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist, lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. Her nonfiction work has been published in Business Week, The Writer and Phoenix magazines, among others. All Different Kinds of Free (http://www.AllDifferentKindsOfFree.com) is her award-winning debut novel. She welcomes interaction with readers and writers at her website (http://www.jessicamccann.com) and on Twitter (@JMcCannWriter).