Plattsburgh, one of 75 communities across the country to receive a $13,000 National Endowment of the Arts Big Read Grant, kicked off its month-long celebration based on the novel “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich this week.

Plattsburgh State Center for Community Engagement, along with more than 20 other partners, will host 25 events highlighting Native American culture, sexual assault awareness, community and the joy of reading throughout April.

“Through the NEA Big Read, we are bringing contemporary works to communities across the country, helping us better understand the diverse voices and perspectives that come with it,” said Jane Chu, NEA Chairman, in a press release. “These 75 organizations have developed unique plans to celebrate these works, including numerous opportunities for exploration and conversation.”

“The Round House” follows the story of 13-year-old Joe Coutts and his struggles on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in the spring of 1988. Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012, author Louise Erdrich is best known for her work featuring Native American characters, settings and ideas.

Each April event is inspired by Native American culture and sexual assault awareness to parallel the major themes of the novel. Film screenings, panel discussions, speaker presentations and art displays are a few activities the CCE has planned.

One major partner helping to celebrate the Big Read Festival is the Plattsburgh Public Library downtown.

Outreach Librarian Sarah Spanburgh coordinated with Julia Devine to promote the novel creatively.

The library serves as a drop-off and pick-up location for “The Round House,” offering more than 200 free copies available to library visitors. Spanburgh helped create a “family book bundle,” where the novel was packaged with other free books for children and teens.

“They can come in, pick up a set and participate [in the Big Read] as a family,” Spanburgh said.

The library’s book club will explore the Big Read novel this month and host two book discussions on April 18 at 6 p.m. and April 21 at 1 p.m., which are open to the public.
“It’s a chance for people in the community to come in and talk about what they read and what it means to them,” Spanburgh said.

Spanburgh said one of the great things about the NEA Big Read is the funding that gets the book out into the community, which increases engagement.

“It’s been wonderful working with the [CCE],” Spanburgh said. “You can only do so much by yourself. It’s partnerships [like these] that create the more amazing moments.”
Youth Services Librarian Ben Carman has worked at library for more than two years.

“I love working in a space that brings families and communities together,” Carman said.

Carman usually holds storytime for children and their families at the library on Saturday mornings. Yesterday, he held the first Big Read storytime, where he read children’s books featuring indigenous characters and themes, such as “My Heart Fills with Happiness” by Monique Gray Smith and “Wild Berries” by Julie Flett.

“In terms of fiction published in this country overall, I think Native Americans are the most underrepresented group in children’s literature,” Carman said, explaining it was a challenge to find materials that are engaging for every child.

Carman emphasized his familiarization with children’s books by Joseph Bruchac, a local Native American writer from Saratoga Springs. During today’s storytime, Carman will read “Many Nations: An Alphabet of Native America” by Joseph Bruchac, “Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale” by Gerald Mcdermott and “Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie.

Bruchac will also be part of the Plattsburgh Big Read by reading his children’s book, “How the Chipmunk Got Its Stripes” at the Cadyville Recreation Park on April 8 from 2 to 4 p.m and starring in “An Evening with Joseph Bruchac,” where he will share his stories and thoughts on “The Round House” at the Winkel Sculpture Center on April 20 at 7 p.m.

“It’s cool to see the tradition of storytelling is still alive,” Carman said, pointing out the makeshift faux campfire that sits on the children’s rug. “[The festival] is a learning experience for me too.”
Spanburgh shared her hopes for what the Big Read will do for the Plattsburgh community.

“Any time you read a [diverse] book, you’re opening yourself up to a new perspective,” Spanburgh said. “You offer as much as possible for as many different people [as you can].”
Although she struggles with the concept of assigned reading, Spanburgh emphasized the Big Read should be anything but that.

“It’s not a required reading kind of thing,” Spanburgh said. “It’s something you do to connect with people because you just love reading.”

Carman hopes that children with Native American backgrounds become further aware of their culture when they attend his storytimes during the Big Read Festival.

“I think it’s essential that we promote those opportunities to [discuss] the culture that was here first,” Carman said. “Things like [the Big Read] are [for] those voices that get lost in history.”

Email Emma Vallelunga at news@cardinalpointsonline.com

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