In just three years, Holland’s Big Read event has put on book discussions in hop-scented bars and cozy church basements. The community-wide book club has connected nearly 900 area students with literature and art and has also hosted authors, such as Tim O’Brien of “The Things They Carried.” The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has noticed the community’s enthusiasm for the program, award ing it funding for the past three years; however, none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the help of Professor Deb Van Duinen of Hope College.
A Canadian-bred Calvin graduate, it may seem odd that Van Duinen made the move to Holland in the first place; how ever, what may seem more surprising is that she didn’t used to read for pleasure often. She de scribes that while teaching high school English for six years, she felt too busy to pick up a book. “My now husband, who’s an engineer, read far more than I did,” Van Duinen says.
The incident prompted Van Duinen to explore what makes good literature. The experience has led her to a variety of genres. For example, she cites young reader classics like “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Because of Winn-Dixie” as some of her fa vorite stories. She’s also taken a liking to graphic novels, such as Victoria Jamieson’s “Roller Girl”, and books for adolescent audiences, such as Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray.” Fans of Marissa Meyers’ “The Lunar Chronicles” will also recognize “Scarlet”’s red spine peeking out from Van Duinen’s crowded of fice bookshelf.
“Some people think that young adult lit is too immature or simple, and I just say that a good author is a good author,” she says.
This is a motto she took with her while developing The Big Read Holland Area, for which she serves as program director. The large book discussion, which occurs every fall, chooses one novel for community members to read. Holland Big Read Committee members must choose this from a list of 35 books put out by the NEA. Selections are meant to connect readers to literary classics and diverse voices.
For example, last fall Van Duinen and her committee chose “Brother, I’m Dying” written by HaitianAmerican novelist Ed widge Danticat, which tells the story of Danticat’s journey to the United States. The selection got area students buzzing, much to Van Duinen’s delight. In an attempt to connect the community with the work, high school students even put together an art piece made up of anonymous immigrant stories.
“It was cool to see students taking responsibility for a project like that to enrich their community,” said Lauren Sweers (’18), Van Duinen’s student assistant for the Big Read Holland Area. “It brought people together that might have not come. You had parents of students and random community members who had read the book. It was a cool collection of people who probably wouldn’t have gotten together for an art project otherwise.”
The event served as a great example for what Van Duinen says is The Big Read Holland Area’s goal: to foster a culture of listening and learning with each other. Van Duinen promotes this by intentionally including new businesses, organizations and schools in the program.
“Within the structure of The Big Read, she’s always asking, ‘Well, who else can we bring in?’” said Connie Locker, Education Outreach Manager at the Holland Museum, about Van Duinen. Locker also serves as a Big Read Committee member. “In that way it’s gone far beyond The Big Read Holland Area and has been more about the community getting to know one an other and organizations getting to know one another.”
Sweers also appreciates Van Duinen’s desire to connect the community: “She’s passionate about bringing together parents, students, community members and all these people across the board when it comes to economic status. It’s an amazing vi sion that she has.”
Van Duinen explains that her desire to foster community relationships comes from her children, as she not only teaches education at Hope, but runs mother-daughter and mother son book clubs for her kids and their friends. These book clubs have seemingly influenced how she organizes The Big Read Holland Area.
“We come together as readers,” Van Duinen said of her children. “They teach me new things about the books we read. It’s very similar to the Big Read, as I want to listen to them and hear from them.”
Van Duinen put this into practice with the Big Read Holland Area in 2015, when its selected book was Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” In spired by the work’s raw exploration of the Vietnam War, Van Duinen asked area veterans to get involved in the book discus sion and visit high school class rooms.
“They were amazing,” Van Duinen said. “One of the veterans had never told his story before reading O’Brien’s book.
He said that being a part of the Big Read was therapeutic, so there’s power in a community surrounding and saying, ‘We want to listen.’”
The community has certainly done just that, and Van Duinen’s efforts helped the Holland Big Read grow to include 10,000 participants last year. Accord- ing to the Holland Sentinal, the NEA boosted its funding for the program from $16,000 to over $60,000. This upcoming fall pro-gram looks promising. The Big Read Holland Area’s Title Selection Committee already chose a book, and Van Duinen hopes to announce the title next month. For now, she’s excited to prepare for another great season.
“It has truly become this community thing, and I love that,” she says about the program. “I was a former high school teacher, I live next to the library and now I’m in this university position, so it’s kind of this extension of who I am and all my different roles here in Holland,” Van Duinen said.
Therefore, with her passion for community engagement and literature, The Big Read Holland Area seems like one book Van Duinen won’t be closing any time soon.