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'Mockingbird' will take over St. Louis as the Big Read selection

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2009 - In 1960, Atticus Finch. Jem and Scout helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement. Today the characters of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” promote another cause: literary reading.

On Jan. 6, The Big Read 2009, a National Endowment for the Arts initiative to promote community literacy, kicks off with a live reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Missouri History Museum. Local television personalities Christine Buck of CW11 and Summer Knowles of Fox 2, will voice excerpts from Lee’s story of a girl who witnesses the trial of an African-American man falsely accused of rape in 1950s Alabama. A book discussion will follow.

Washington University collaborated with the city of St. Louis, the Regional Arts Commission, the St. Louis Public Library, the Metro Theater Company, the Edison Theatre of Washington University and numerous other organizations to sponsor the St. Louis chapter of The Big Read 2009.

Throughout the month of January, these organizations will host public book discussions, art exhibits and film screenings that incorporate themes in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

One of the highlights of these events will be the theatrical production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” adapted by Christopher Sergel, directed by Carol North, and performed by The Metro Theater Company, opens on Jan. 9 at Edison Theatre. Another will take place on Jan. 10 and 11, as Mary Badham, who played Scout in the 1962 film, will attend screenings of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and discuss her experience making the movie.

When the Big Read previewed its events in October at a Clayton literary festival of the same name, it  had panelists who discussed the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis as well as the importance of reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” today. As part of the January focus, Rep. William Clay St. will talk about his experiences and his new book on the Jefferson Bank sit-in.

In addition to community events, The Big Read 2009 donates copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” theater tickets and reading guides to students at such schools as Cleveland Junior Naval Academy, Soldan International Studies High School, Gateway Institute of Technology High School and McKinley Classical Jr. Academy Middle School. Two charter schools -- Lift for Life and Confluence Academies -- and University City High, Brittany Woods Middle School and Delmar-Harvard elementary school also participate in the program.

The NEA started The Big Read after its 2004 survey indicated a drop in literacy rates in every demographic and age group. In 2007, St. Louis participated in the first Big Read initiative, reading “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury.

The application process for The Big Read is extensive, Cheryl Adelstein, director of community relations and local government affairs at Washington University said. To receive the NEA grant for the program, a community must demonstrate that it has a variety of sponsors and organizations willing to put on The Big Read.

There is another restriction: only museums, libraries, art organizations and institutions of higher education can apply for the grant. Once the community receives the grant, it selects its book from a list of 30 classic works. Washington University facilitated the NEA grant for 2007, but did not apply in 2008.

Adelstein applied for 2009, with a push from the theater people.

In the spring, Edison Theatre and Metro Theater agreed to a collaboration so Metro Theater could put on “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Edison. North said she has always wanted to do the production and felt with the results from the primaries that “the time was right.”

“We knew ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was on that NEA list, and we went to Wash U to ask them to submit a proposal,” North said.

If the student matinee performances are any indication, participation in The Big Read 2009 will be high. The eight student-only performances, each seating 650, are already sold out.

Related links

NEA’s Big Read:  www.neabigread.org

NEA’s Reading List: www.neabigread.org/books

Participating communities map: www.neabigread.org/communities

St. Louis Big Read Web site: bigread.wustl.edu

What others are reading

St. Joseph: The Great Gatsby

Springfield, MO: To Kill a Mockingbird 

St. Charles: Call of the Wild 

Kansas City: Old School

West Plains: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Springfield, IL: Farenheit 451

Rend Lake:   The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Jennifer Gordon in a student in the journalism school at the University of Missouri and an intern with the Beacon.