WriterHouse and the NEA Big Read Finale

writer-605764_640Throughout the month of March, JMRL has offered events for all ages based on the themes of this year’s NEA Big Read selection: Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. In addition to her acclaimed work as an author, Tayari Jones supports the development of young writers. She has served on the Board of Directors for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs high school girls with women writers and digital media professionals in one-on-one mentorship program. Inspired by this, JMRL has partnered with WriterHouse to offer a similar program for several middle school aged girls in Charlottesville.

These students will read from their work during the NEA Big Read Finale at CitySpace this Wednesday evening, March 29th, at 6:30. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.

In advance of the reading, we asked one mentor and student pair to reflect on their experiences writing.

“What Inspired You to Start Writing?”

Hannah Russell, 8th grader & Mentee at The Village School
Jess Brophy, poet & Hannah’s mentor with WriterHouse

 Working with Hannah has shown me that writing can be fun, silly, and a great way to build friendships. She has shown me that I have made my writing life too serious! Hannah was excited to write about her early memories of being a writer in this blog post, so I followed her lead and explored this topic too. I am so pleased that her early writing life was influenced by a positive female teacher who instilled the value of creative expression. Her post made me want to immediately go back to third grade and write about Mrs. Bazarewsky!

Hannah writes:

Having a very wide imagination, I always loved to make up stories in my head when I was younger. Sometimes my friends and I would act them out, but usually they’d stay locked in my mind, their beginnings, endings and middles always twisting with my memory. In third grade, my amazing teacher, Ms. Brandt, had my class decorate compositions notebooks with felt and buttons during the first week of school. For the rest of the year, we would open them up daily and be given free time to write whatever we wanted. This was the first time I ever put one of my stories onto paper. As an avid reader, the idea of one day becoming a published author made me giddy. I desperately wanted to write a book that a younger me would’ve spent hours reading, and felt just a small amount of sadness after finishing. In third grade, most of my stories were inspired by things I had read. Mythology, Warriors, Harry Potter, and other various series I had eaten through like a bookworm. Of course my first compositions were far from perfect, but they were still stories that I was very proud of and held close to my heart. Over six years, my writing style has improved and become much less erratic (or so I hope), but it was during those fifteen minutes of each school day that I kindled my love of writing. Continue reading

A Discussion of Silver Sparrow

Written by Stella Pool, Monticello Avenue Coordinator

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Like many book clubs in the JMRL area, my book group often reads the title for the NEA Big Read. We’ve been together as a group for 15 years and have a diverse reading list of both fiction and non-fiction. We routinely collect a quarter from each member at our monthly meetings and over the years, have donated several books to JMRL. We chose to read Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones this month and as a result, had a lively discussion at our meeting.

Instead of a discussion of who did what in the book, our discussion of Silver Sparrow focused on the relationship between fathers and daughters. We talked about our own fathers and how that relationship affected us as girls and the women we eventually became. Characteristics including displaying affection and our general sense of self-worth were influenced by how we were raised. Some of us are stronger women because of our fathers while others succeeded in spite of them.

Our discussion also touched on whether a man should be judged by the good he does in his lifetime or by his “bad” behavior. Could you excuse James Witherspoon’s infidelity because otherwise he was a good son, husband, father, and friend? Our group was divided over the question while some felt we shouldn’t judge him at all.

I recommend Silver Sparrow if you’re looking for a thought-provoking book for your book club. If you aren’t a member of a book group, join in the discussion at several JMRL branches in March. Just check jmrl.org/bigread for the dates/times.

“Some Men Are Attracted To That”

51k4tgddlulBooks on Tap read Silver Sparrow  by Tayari Jones at  Champion Brewery on March 1 as part of the NEA Big Read. Due to a high turnout and a crowded room (both good problems to have), we divided into three groups for discussion so that we could hear each other. Most of us agreed that Jones told a good story with moments of beautiful writing, but that we wouldn’t have read this book if not for the NEA Big Read.

I can’t improve on this synopsis from the NEA Big Read website:

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon’s daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives.

Dana, the “secret” sister, knows far more about the situation than Chaurisse, the “legitimate” sister who has been kept in the dark. Without a shared history, can they truly call themselves sisters? People in the group with experience thought they could have developed a relationship as adults, but that’s not how the novel unspools. The favoritism that each felt the other received from the adults in their lives (and the examples they set) proved insurmountable.  Ironically, it seems Dana, whose fate was determined by Chaurisse’s casts-offs, was made stronger by her father’s cruel insistence on independence and the web of her relationships instead of reliance on a nuclear family. Interestingly, many of us thought the portions of the book that Dana narrated were more compelling than those in Chaurisse’s voice.

Their shared father James impregnated Laverne, his first wife, when she was 14 and he was approximately 19. He and his foster brother Raleigh were left to raise themselves. Laverne moves in and the trio reach adulthood as a tight unit. James decides to become a chauffeur, taking money from both of them, thus ending Raleigh’s dreams of becoming a photographer and Laverne’s formal education. This selfishness crops up again and again (both mothers and daughters wait on him hand and foot), although it could be defended as a reflection of the seriousness with which James takes his responsibility to all the members of his families. It also protects James’ self-image.

James, Raleigh and Laverne are all abandoned by parents. James, Laverne and Chaurisse are the first nuclear family in generations. Their jump to middle-class Atlanta, with access to education and security, is something to be defended fiercely, regardless of James and Laverne’s feelings about each other personally (frankly, James is not a physically attractive specimen).  However, no one can escape him, and perhaps the male influence on these largely matrilineal families. Gwen and Raleigh’s abandonments stand out. Raleigh looks so white that he scares black people – including his own mother. Gwen is disowned by her father after leaving her first husband, proving that she can  leave a relationship.

The secret cracks when Gwen and Dana visit Laverne’s beauty shop. We discussed why they would have done this and if Dana ever made a conscious decision to befriend Chaurisse. Did they want to change the unfair dynamic and thought this was they way they could do it with the power available to them?

Jones portrays her hometown of Atlanta, the City Too Busy to Hate,  almost entirely peopled by African Americans. James and Laverne’s customers, the girls friends, Gwen’s neighbors depict the diversity of experience that is often ignored in outsiders’ depictions. The Civil Rights movement is obliquely referenced, which seems fitting for a novel that focuses so tightly on one extended family’s experience over a short amount of time.

More Information:
Learn more about the NEA Big Read and JMRL’s programs
About the author
Other works
Secret children in the news: Strom Thurmond, Charles Kuralt, John Edwards

Books on Tap Information:

We will be choosing titles for the summer at the April 6 meeting. Add suggestions you have to this list.

Previous titles