Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, Write Out Loud talks empathetic programming, imagination in YA literature, and the power of a story read aloud.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
Write Out Loud was founded in 2007 to inspire, challenge, and entertain by reading literature aloud. Since then, we have participated in three NEA Big Reads, produced a Roald Dahl Centenary event and an annual literary festival, TwainFest, that celebrates the literature and culture of nineteenth-century America. We are also the regional coordinator of the National Endowment for the Arts’ national poetry recitation competition, Poetry Out Loud. We are passionate about people developing a love of literature and we believe that reading and stories inspire empathy, understanding, and tolerance in people of all ages.
Professional actors read student works out loud for Read Imagine Create. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
San Diego is a border city with many immigrants from all over the world. Our work in schools and libraries reaches a large, multi-cultural population: especially through the NEA Big Read, Poetry Out Loud, and Kamishibai (a Japanese storytelling form). We offer some Kamishibai stories in Spanish and we incorporate Spanish and Middle Eastern literature into our TwainFest performances. In our Story concerts, we read stories by authors from all over the world, presented at theaters and museums. We present a one-man play about Henry David Thoreau, “Ripples from Walden Pond,” in high schools, and we read to seniors in assisted living residences throughout the county.
Students reading together onstage at Read Imagine Create. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
What makes your NEA Big Read unique?
Our NEA Big Read is organized by theater artists, so we have a focus on all the art forms; we incorporate reading aloud and performance into as many events as we can. At book discussions, we typically begin with an actor reading aloud an excerpt from the story. Our work with students is all about inspiring them to express their experience of the book through any artform they choose. We are also able to bring our activities to a prison audience at an area correctional facility through a partnership with Playwrights Project. The experience of reading the book, writing an expression of the book, and having it performed for audiences outside the prison is a self worth and confidence builder for inmates.
Donovan Prison’s performance of plays and monologues written by inmates, inspired by Pretty Monsters. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
The heroes of the ten magical and macabre stories in Kelly Link’s collection Pretty Monsters are mostly teenagers in familiar settings grappling with angst and alienation, awkwardness and awakening desires. That they are also grappling with unexpected monsters, ghosts, dueling librarians, pirate-magicians, possibly carnivorous sofas, and undead babysitters should give readers a hint to keep their expectations in check.
Most of our regular programming involves reading short stories aloud. We had great success with our first Big Read, on the collection Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe, so we decided that a collection of short stories for YA readers would be a good choice again. We found that young people were especially keen on the stories in Pretty Monsters but that older folks were less enthusiastic. Many that read it for book clubs said it wasn’t a book they would have otherwise read, so they appreciated the exposure to it, but…an expression we heard more than once was “It’s not my cup of tea.” That said, one 85 year-old participant said, “This book is fantastic! So imaginative and magical.”
Book discussion at the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
What aspect of your programming do you feel has been the most impactful?
Read Imagine Create is definitely the most impactful aspect of our NEA Big Read. This was designed for middle and high school students when we did our first Big Read in 2011. Students are given a copy of the book to read and it is discussed in the classroom. Students are then assigned, or sometimes given the option, to create whatever they like, inspired by the book. Student creations are adjudicated by professionals in each field and given prizes in four categories: literary, visual, media, and performing arts. Students who are not involved in a partner classroom can also participate on their own.
In April, we host an event during which student work is presented by the students themselves for performance art and by professional actors for literary art. Media pieces are also shown and because the visual art is displayed that month at various libraries around the county, these creations are shown via a slide show at this event. We also provide visual art workshops at libraries and in classrooms. Teachers have told us again and again how important it is for students to be recognized for their creations, especially those not based in academics. One teacher tells us every year how important it is to put copies of the books into the hands of her students who, in many cases, have never owned a book of their own.
Students presenting their work. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
Seeing Double, by Ryan Pearce, inspired by The Specialist’s Hat. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
We believe that getting people of any age to read a book is a success. Reading for pleasure is on the decline in the US, so we are doing our best to help turn that around. More generally, we believe that connecting as many people as possible with a book, even if they only read one or two stories from it, is a good thing and that exposing folks to a book they wouldn’t otherwise have read is also success. Getting people to discuss a book with others can give them a new perspective about the book that they might have otherwise overlooked. Coming up with imaginative ways to get people excited about the book is important to reach new people, but only if people are engaged. We have found that people are the most responsive when there is an interaction beyond just reading the book, whether that is a discussion, hearing a reading, participating in a workshop, expressing themselves through writing or other creative outlets.
Pretty Monsters art workshop at Harriet Tubman Middle School. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
Our Read Imagine Create program and the residencies in local correctional facilities were certainly the most participatory but a few other engaging events include a writing contest with San Diego Writer’s INK. They conducted the contest of stories or poems based on Pretty Monsters and Write Out Loud read the top entries aloud in their studio. We have a kinship with vocabulary boutique, and they held a shopping party and story reading The Faery Handbag (of course). Shoppers listened to an excerpt of the story, had refreshments, and shopped! Several art workshops were held at libraries with teaching artists to help kids create something after hearing a story read aloud. The San Diego Public Library hosted a Community Read, with members of the community taking turns reading the book aloud. Naturally the book discussions were also participatory and we had a terrific facilitator at several of these that sparked very lively conversations.
Three students with their artwork at the Skyline Workshop. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
We held a “Meet the Artists” reception at each of the five libraries where we displayed student work, not just the winners but as many pieces as we could fit. It was terrific to have families attend these events and be so proud of their student’s creations, on display for thousands of people to see. One of our winning student entries was a protest song about being in AP English and being required to read this book. She sang and accompanied herself on the ukulele at our Read Imagine Create event and brought the house down. A film entry from a student from one of our special education classes was recognized by the judges and an excerpt was shown at the same event. His parents were so very proud of him; and he was beaming as he accepted his Special Recognition certificate.
The ninth grader who won first prize in the literature category for her story “Out of One’s Mind,” inspired by The Wizards of Perfil, turned out to be the younger sister of the then-thirteen year-old boy who won first prize in literature in our first NEA Big Read in 2011 with his hysterical poem, “The Orangutan,” (inspired by Poe’s “The Raven”). She then entered her story in the San Diego Writer’s INK NEA Big Read writing contest and surpassed all the adult contestants by going on to win the first prize again. This program reminds me time and again how imaginative, creative, inspired and talented our young people are and it is good to know that the future of our country will one day be in their hands.
Ozan of Bird, by Jasmine Tran, Inspired by Constable of Able, Special Recognition. Photo courtesy of Write Out Loud.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
This was crazy hard to choose, but I’ve settled on this one from The Wizards of Perfil because it depicts the feeling of so many of the stories:
“There was a feeling of watchfulness, and the cunning, curious stillness of something alive, something half-asleep and half-waiting, a hidden, invisible humming, as if even the air were saturated with magic.”
–Kelly Link, Pretty Monsters