Home News & Events NEA Big Read Survival Guide: Programming & Events (Part III)

NEA Big Read Survival Guide: Programming & Events (Part III)

Planning a community-wide arts engagement program can be challenging. To help ease the struggle, we’ve put together a series of posts which we’ve lovingly dub The NEA Big Read Survival Guide. Each post contains some of the best tips and tricks that NEA Big Read grantees have learned over their years. We kicked off the series with a focus on Partnerships that are at the center of every successful NEA Big Read. From there, we shifted to the Marketing & Promotion that guide your community outreach. For this series, we’re tackling Programming and Events. How do you plan events with both your book selection and your community in mind? What are some ways to reach lapsed or reluctant readers? What are some creative ways to host a book discussion?

Building creative programming and book discussions

There are multiple components to an NEA Big Read program: a kickoff to engage the entire community, a keynote presentation that showcases the book selection, special events to build enthusiasm for programming, and book discussions to delve deeper into a reading selection as a community. During their programming, NEA Big Read organizations encourage their community to engage with the reading selection in a number of creative ways. Here are just a few of the many programming ideas that our grantees have shared over the years:

Programming ideas for book discussion groups:

  • Encourage book groups to read beyond just your selection:
    • Explore books on related topics or themes.
    • Create library book displays showcasing similar titles.
    • Host film screenings in conjunction with book discussions to broaden the scope of the conversation.
  • Design panel discussions that dig deep into the book’s themes. Find local scholars and professors to help host these sessions.
    • During the NEA Big Read: Montgomery County, a panel of well-known Montgomery County community leaders convened to discuss their personal immigration experiences with acclaimed author and journalist Steve Roberts.
  • Give away free books on the bus, at a doctor’s office, the farmer’s market, local shops, and businesses.
    • During the NEA Big Read: New Haven, the New Haven Public Library gave out books in their “Bookmobile” in neighborhoods around town.
    • Michigan State University distributed copies of Into the Beautiful North at the Lansing Farmer’s Market during their NEA Big Read.


Book discussion group members holding up their NEA Big Read books at the Lansing Farmers Market. Photo courtesy of Michigan State University.

Programming ideas for community events:

  • Events that are related to the book
    • Host arts events related to themes or events from your book: create a community mural, hold an open mic, create a dance installation, host a variety show.
  • Use local lawyers, policemen, and judges. Hold mock trials, forums, or community-wide teach-ins that discuss context or events relevant to your selection.
    • During the Kansas City Public Library’s NEA Big Read for True Grit, U.S. Marshal Anthony Gasaway visited the Library to discuss the U.S. Marshal’s Service in relation to the novel’s fictional Rooster Cogburn.
    • The Waukesha Public Library hosted a forum by Judge Derek Mosley, who about enacting change and fostering “True Grit” in the criminal justice system
    • As part of a survival series during their programming around Station Eleven, The University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library held self-defense classes taught by the Kenosha police department.


UW-Parkside mascot “Ranger Bear” teaching self-defense with a police officer on a Survival Skills Friday. Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Library.

  • Think outside the box!
    • University of Southern Mississippi students filmed and edited a dramatic reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart collaborating across multiple departments to bring the project to life.
    • At the University of Central Florida, program coordinator Karen Poulsen writes a new play centered around the themes in their NEA Big Read reading selection every year.
    • In their NEA Big Read programming for Luís Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North, the Anaheim Public Library hosted a “Xicana Fashion Show” by local young artists in Orange County.

“The high schoolers were very interested in the apparel, the creative process and the “just do it” ethos, which encouraged spirited discussion of relevant topics like: entrepreneurship, the creative process, professional barriers, and what it means to DIY.”
Anaheim Public Library

  • For their final event during their NEA Big Read in Harrisburg, PA, Jump Street convened a New Orleans-style funeral procession in picturesque Fort Hunter Park exploring and exhuming the language in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
  • Consider your marketing and promotional plans. How will you share the results of your programming?
    • After their programming around Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying had concluded, NEA Big Read program leaders in Knoxville, Tennessee created an NEA Big Read anthology, asking their community to reflect and revisit the conversations that had begun during their NEA Big Read.
    • The Museum of Children’s Arts (MOCHA) created a short video chronicling their 2016 NEA Big Read for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.
    • The Writers Room filmed their NEA Big Read kickoff for Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, weaving together footage as well as interviews with their community.

Other posts in this series

Explore the full Survival Guide