A ‘Tale’ is turning 10

Saturday, January 7, 2012
By Ben Beagle bbeagle@batavianews.com

Ten years ago, the idea that a rural area could support a community reading project was a novel idea.

Nearby, Buffalo and Rochester had been doing one-city, one-book projects for a couple of years. But they were able to draw from a population several times larger than Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties — the trio of largely agricultural counties whose public libraries came together to form “A Tale for Three Counties.”

Even the librarian who has led from the beginning the “A Tale for Three Counties” reading project — which will feature Yannick Murphy’s “The Call” as the project’s 10th title in 2012 — acknowledges she had her doubts.

“I can vividly remember the first couple of meetings and wondering if we could actually pull this idea off,” said Leslie DeLooze, reference and community services librarian at Richmond Memorial Library, Batavia. “There was definitely no thought at all of continuing for 10 years. I think that by the fourth year, I was pretty confident that we could continue.”

The gift of readers

Librarians first meet in 2002 and presented its first book, Leif Enger’s mystical debut “Peace Like a River,” in 2003. Those first nine programs have created a community of readers, inspired local writers and changed careers.

” ‘Tale’ was a bit of a turning point for me,” says Jennifer Donnelly, featured in 2006 with her award-winning young adult novel, “A Northern Light.”

“I wasn’t a confident public speaker when I signed up for the program. In fact, I was pretty terrified of public speaking,” Donnelly says. “I tried my best to hide it, but believe me, the fear was there.

“The encouragement and approval I received from the ‘Tale’ participants helped to change that,” she says. “It was a gift. It means a lot when people make time in their busy lives to come out for you. To listen to your work and ask questions and share their own stories, to respond to your words and give you a pat on the back. It’s touching and bolstering, and it meant — and still means — a lot to me.”

Thomas Mullen, whose sometimes graphic novel of the 1918 flu pandemic, “The Last Town on Earth,” was the 2008 Tale selection, credits the Tale project with helping bring greater awareness to his work. The novel has been chosen by a number of colleges for freshmen reading programs and other communities for one-book projects since it was featured in the Tale project.

“I think (the Tale) choice helped pave the way for other schools and libraries to discover and embrace the book, which I deeply appreciate,” says Mullen, who has published two novels in three post-Tale years.

Community bonds

Past ‘A Tale for Three Counties” authors

Yannick Murphy’s novel “The Call” will be the 10th selection in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading program organized by libraries in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.

Past “Tale” authors and their featured books:

2011: Hillary Jordan, “Mudbound.”

2010: Garth Stein, “The Art of Racing in the Rain.”

2009: P.L. Gaus, “Separate From the World.”

2008: Thomas Mullen, “The Last Town on Earth.”

2007: Mark Spragg, “An Unfinished Life.”

2006: Jennifer Donnelly, “A Northern Light.”

2005: Julia Spencer-Fleming, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

2004: Howard Frank Mosher, “Northern Borders.”

2003: Leif Enger, “Peace Like a River.”

The idea of one community, one book started in Seattle in 1998 and spread to every state in the country and beyond. The idea is to get a community reading a single book and then participate in discussion groups and other programs to create a bond among strangers from the normally solitary endeavor of reading.

“It’s exciting to find someone who has read the same book, and Tale makes the possibility of those chance encounters and discussions that much more possible,” said Meghan Hauser of Perry, a regular Tale participant. “I have discussed Tale books with professors, fellow farmers, college students, babysitters and business owners — what a unique and rewarding experience — to bring all aspects of our community together through reading.”

‘Something to say’

The Center for the Book at the Library of Congress maintains a database of “one book” projects. A quick review of the states shows that many locations held one-book programs during the 2000s, though many also appeared to have ended around 2007 or 2008. (It is difficult to know for certain, however, as the database relies on the programs themselves to provide updates.) Some projects have a distinctly local flavor and feature authors of their area.

In New York State, Tale appears to be among the longest continuing one-book programs. Only three programs that started a year or so before Tale — “Central New York Reads” in the Syracuse area, “Woodbury Reads” in Central Valley and “Long Island Reads” in Nassau and Suffolk counties — have listings to 2011.

“It’s a huge accomplishment to maintain that enthusiam in a community for so long, not to mention for the people doig the planning. It’s phenomenal,” says Nancy Pearl, the retired Seattle librarian often credited with with introducing the one city, one book concept.

Pearl says it is important to select books that are rich for discussion, not necessarily best sellers.

“I think it’s paralyzing if you look for books that everyone will like. What you want is to pick books that people will think about and respond too,” Pearl says. “That says, as a library and a reader, that they’re looking for authors that have something to say.”

For example, 2005 Tale author Julia Spencer-Fleming writes a mystery series that is seven books deep. But beyond mysteries, Pearl says, Spencer-Fleming’s books “also deal with human emotions and characteristics.”

“When we began, we wanted to build community through reading and discussion,” Pearl says. “Those two aspects are still the most important consideration. Maybe even more so as we’ve become a more fragmented society.”

Achieving success, reaching readers

Tale was started to foster literacy, promote discussion among all kinds of people and create a positive experience for the community.

At that, it has succeeded.

“The community is really on board now, understands the whole concept of ‘one book, one community,’ and looks forward to the project,” DeLooze says. “I feel like we have to spend a little less time explaining what this project is and can take more time thinking about new and different ways to bring in new readers.”

Sue Chiddy, a reading instructor at Genesee Community College, Batavia, which joined the Tale project in 2005, recalls that after reading “A Northern Light” a student told her “she was hooked on reading” and proceeded to read Donnelly’s other book and several read-a-likes recommended by Tale. Another student, Chiddy says, “commented that participating in the program has turned her into a reader.”

“It’s significant that this program is impacting individuals by opening doors to lifetime reading habits,” Chiddy says.

Even regular readers are finding new experiences through Tale titles.

“I really like that each book is different. It brings people out to discuss books that I know I normally wouldn’t have read,” says Linda Daviau, a Tale regular from Batavia.

“It forces you out of your comfort zone,” she says, noting the descriptions Mullen wrote of people dying from the flu were unsettling. “When I read ‘The Last Town on Earth’? Wow!”

After reading P.L. Gaus’ “Separate from the World” in 2009, Daviau said she sought out the five earlier books in the author’s Ohio-Amish mystery series. She did the same with Spencer-Fleming, a popular Maine author who has made a couple return appearances in Batavia. “I enjoyed all her books,” Daviau says. “I can never wait for the next one to come out.”

The project has fostered regular discussion groups across each of the counties. Hauser says the group she participates in at Perry Public Library “swells to 2-3 times its normal size” when each year’s Tale book is discussed.

Bonnie Bowman of Wyoming is a patron of one of the project’s smallest libraries. Wyoming Free Library hosted a book discussion for the first Tale book in 2003 and participants decided they wanted to continue. The group started meeting quarterly “and have been doing so ever since,” Bowman says. Next month, they will be discussing “The Call.”

Meeting authors

It is important to the Tale project that the author be available to participate in a series of talks and booksignings. (It should be noted that not all programs have an author visit associated with their project, nor do all programs choose the work of contemporary, living authors.)

The author visit provides an exciting experience for the readers who are also able to learn first-hand how the author developed — and changed — ideas or struggled to get the first book published. The authors have been engaging, colorful and often humorous.

“The Tale program allows the average person to meet a real author on a more personal level and to make a real connection,” says Joyce Thompson Hovey of Pavilion, a retired teacher.

Thompson-Hovey says she is passionate about reading, meeting authors and getting their books signed. She has put together “a vast collection” but says her most prized one is the book signed by Julia Spencer-Fleming during the book review winners’ luncheon in 2005. Thompson-Hovey went on to read Spencer-Fleming’s other works and when the author returned a couple years later for a Tale fundraiser, so did Thompson-Hovey — with copies of all of Spencer-Fleming’s books to be signed.

“The thing that impressed me the most was she actually remembered me!” Thompson-Hovey said.

Writing lessons

Local writers have also found inspiration from listening to the Tale authors talk about their own writing experiences — both success and the failures that came first.

Julie B. Caton of Oakfield wrote the first draft of her historical fiction novel “White Heart” in 2003. She saw it published last spring. Tale authors, she said, “reinforced the importance of discipline in the writing life and perseverance in getting the book out to readers.”

“I had thought ‘authors’ were some kind of ‘special people,’ but over the course of at least five years of the Tale I learned ‘they’ were human beings like me with a passion to write and excite their reader. They worked hard at their craft. That fact encouraged me to keep going,” says Caton, who has started a second novel.

“The authors taught me that the only difference between an amateur writer and a published author is perseverance,” Caton says.

A rewarding challenge

The Tale for Three Counties Council, the non-profit group that selects the author and organizes the program, follows several criteria in choosing a book each year. The Tale book is chosen based on acclaim received from reviews or awards, an accessibility to readers of many ages, a story that encourages discussion of literature and a theme that includes small town or rural life.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“A lot of communities find they have a real easy time picking the first book,” Pearl says. “It’s the second book that’s really hard. You’re trying to keep people really excited.”

Tale librarians spend much of the year reading and considering books. They seek out up-and-coming authors or authors that are not as well known among area readers. Months of back-and-forth discussion usually follows before a consensus is reached.

“The hardest part of keeping Tale going is finding the book. It’s quite a task,” says Sue Border, director of Woodward Memorial Library, Le Roy. “But is is also the most enjoyable part of continuing with Tale.”

The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress: http://read.gov/resources
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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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