National Grant Brings Schools and Communities Together for a Big Read

by Katherine DeMarco
The Scotch Plains Public Library is one of only 78 organizations in the country to win a Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The library will work closely with the school district and other groups to present a variety of Big Read activities for students and community members centered on the historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez.

The kick-off event is a free concert featuring the 14-piece Tropyband Orquestra to be held in the high school auditorium on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. Reflecting the culture depicted in Alvarez’s novel about three sisters living in the Dominican Republic, the band will play merenque, salsa and other types of music from the Caribbean and Latin America.
The Big Read program is designed to restore reading to the center of American culture by funding events that help communities share great works of literature and memorable experiences.  The local choice of In the Time of the Butterflies, from a list of 21 possible books, was influenced by the needs of students in Scotch Plains and Fanwood.
“We feel that it makes the best connection to the global education goal at the high school, which is to broaden people’s knowledge and understanding about issues, cultures and perspectives from around the world,” said Noel Baxter, supervisor of social studies for the school district and a liaison to the library’s board of trustees.
The novel is based on the efforts of the Mirabal sisters to end the murderous Trujillo dictatorship that ruled the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years. High school students will read the novel in social studies classes in April.
“It’s very inspirational because it is just regular people who saw a problem and did something about it,” said Baxter. “It should make students realize that they can find the strength inside themselves to make a change.”
Following the concert in November, several events will help students and community members learn about the culture and history related to the novel in preparation for the Big Read.
The library will sponsor a series of lectures (see box for subjects and dates), including a talk about protest art by social studies teacher Andrea Karanik, and a discussion of Dominican baseball by sportswriter Eric Fisher.
As students gain knowledge about the program and the activities, interest in taking part in this national initiative is growing. “I would love to attend these events,” said freshman Nimit Patel. “I want to salsa like Victor Cruz!”
The benefits of participation go beyond learning about Latino culture and bringing different facets of the community together, according to Meg Kolaya, director of the Scotch Plains Public Library and coordinator of the local Big Read.
“The program is full of great service activities that, if students get involved, will set them apart on their college applications,” said Kolaya, explaining that students will be invited to usher, man booths at various events, hold their own poster or essay contests, and help to assemble a bean mosaic for example. “It is definitely something that sounds like fun,” said sophomore Renee Bercher about the activities.
Additionally, students can make pledges to read as part of the library’s Readathon on Jan. 21, the Martin Luther King Day of Service. The pledges are designed to raise funds for two organizations: the Mariposa Foundation, which seeks to empower young girls in the Dominican Republic through education, and the Literacy Volunteers of Union County, which teaches English to those who want to learn the language or improve their speaking skills.
Culminating activities include an outdoor Festival of Hispanic Cultures on May 13, with music, food and dancing, and live video chats with author Julia Alvarez on May 20.