Hello, Santa Monica. In the off chance you’ve not stopped by the Main Library and met me, my name is Jennifer and I’m one of the newer Librarians at Santa Monica Public Library. I love my job and getting to interact with the community, so I jumped at the opportunity when I was asked to write this column and promote one of our most successful programs. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

On my first day as a Librarian at SMPL, the first thing I was met with was a short stack of new books at my desk with a post-it note that read, “For the new Public Services Librarian.” Now, before I continue, let me just preface this with a full disclaimer: as a Librarian and a life-long bibliophile, there are few things in the world that excite me more than a fresh stack of books. I did not know why the books were there, nor what purpose they served, but I was most definitely intrigued. When my supervisor arrived, she told me I would need to read the books, as all of our Public Services Librarians serve on the selection committee for our Santa Monica Reads program. “The Santa Monica…what?” I asked. And so began my initiation into one of the most successful, continuously-running community reading programs in the country.

Some of the books were easier to read than others. I found myself quickly making my way through one, not particularly impressed with it, but I found it a pleasant enough read. Another I thoroughly enjoyed—so much so that I actually read it twice—and knew that it would be a contender. The third literally made my chest hurt to read, and it brought me to tears multiple times. The last was a chore for me to read, and I’m happy to say that I was not alone in that feeling. Truth be told, just the process of reading the books was a bit nerve-wracking. Every book I read, I spent a lot of time thinking about. I considered how much I was enjoying it; whether or not I would recommend it to a friend—let alone an entire city; if it was interesting and thought-provoking enough while still being accessible to a wide variety of readers; and how the community would receive it. I took copious notes, as I figured they would help me in the selection meeting.

When I arrived at the meeting, I was happy to find that the selection committee consists of incredibly smart, well-read, educated people, with a wide variety of work and life experiences. They would make a dinner party thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable, I’m sure. For a fairly new Librarian who is still in her first year at a new place of employment and would have to be explaining and defending her thoughts and decisions about books she had just read, it was slightly (read: highly) intimidating. It reminded me a bit of my first semester at college, when I was walking around campus thinking about the class I had just left and the conversations I was hearing people have. While I knew I was intelligent and had been admitted on my own strengths, I was paranoid that some official would chase after me and say, “Ms. Ullrich, I’m afraid there’s been a mistake.”

As the meeting wore on however, much like that first semester, I felt more confident in my ability to hold my own. The conversation that ensued was invigorating, in every sense of the word. Committee members are fierce in defending their beliefs and reasoning behind their choices, incredibly passionate about choosing the best book for the community, and they’re committed to staying in the meeting as long as necessary to make the best selection possible. They seek to find a “challenging, but not exclusive” book that encourages critical-thinking and fosters open-dialogue about the book and its themes. While their selection criteria may vary, the committee members consistently aim to choose a book that will appeal to many and offer the reader a wider world to explore. Each member has a chance to give their initial opinions about each book, then the free-wheeling discussion begins—and boy, does it ever! It was truly something to be a part of and witness firsthand. By the end of the meeting, the committee had come to a consensus and we’re proud to finally announce the fifteenth anniversary selection for Santa Monica Reads 2017 is Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

Once the book was selected, we got to work brainstorming programming ideas that would complement the biographical comic, and that was a lot of fun as well. Probably the most prestigious highlight this year is an afternoon with author Alison Bechdel—which coincidentally falls just as the Ahmanson Theatre debuts the Tony-winning Broadway musical version of Fun Home. Other highlights include a fast-paced visual lecture from bestselling cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics and The Sculptor), a lecture by CSUN Professor and comics expert Charles Hatfield, a panel discussion feature five leading women comics writers and illustrators, another panel discussion by women filmmakers on The Bechdel-Wallace Test, plus many opportunities to discuss the book with your friends and neighbors.

Whether you’ve participated since the beginning of Santa Monica Reads, or are new to the program like me, I hope you’ll find this year’s selection to be powerful, provocative, and something you’ll be excited to talk about with other readers. This year’s program runs from February 25 through March 30, and is free and open to all. To find out how to participate, drop by any Santa Monica Public Library location and pick up a copy of the book. For more information on the book, the author, or any of this year’s special events and book discussions, visit the Santa Monica Reads website at http://smpl.org/FunHome.

 

Jennifer Ullrich
Public Services Librarian

 

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