Community members invited to turn the page with Big Read Tucson

Book covers for "Postcolonial Love Poem" and "We are Water Protectors"

The University of Arizona, in partnership with several community groups, will present a series of public literary events focused on two award-winning books by Indigenous authors. At least 1,000 free copies of the books will be given out.

The programming, slated to take place January through March, is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, which, in partnership with Arts Midwest, awarded the University of Arizona a $19,900 Big Read grant for a community-wide reading program in Tucson.

Presented by the College of Education and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Big Read Tucson will center around two books: "Postcolonial Love Poem," a poetry collection by Natalie Diaz, and the children's book "We are Water Protectors," written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade.

NEA's Big Read program is meant to spark a love of reading across the U.S., with members of a community all reading and discussing the same books. The Big Read program "broadens our understanding of our world, our neighbors and ourselves through the power of a shared reading experience," the NEA Big Read website states.

Big Read Tucson will be directed by Sandra Soto, associate professor in the Department of Gender and Women's Studies, and Carol Brochin and Leah Durán, both associate professors in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Sociocultural Studies. Professor Kathy G. Short, director of the College of Education's Worlds of Words: Center for Global Literacies and Literatures, will also collaborate on the programming, which will include public readings, workshops, children's events and more.

Exploring the theme of water

"We decided to center Big Read Tucson around water because of the importance of water to our region," Soto said. "A primary reason that we selected Diaz's book is because so many of the poems feature water, the scarcity of which Diaz feels in a spiritual, urgent and embodied way."

"Postcolonial Love Poem" received a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2021. In the book, Diaz – the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University – reflects on her heritage and her life as an Indigenous person growing up in the Southwest. Diaz is Mojave and a member of the Gila River Indian Tribe.

"Natalie Diaz's 'Postcolonial Love Poem' provides an unusually rich opportunity to create locally meaningful, shared reading experiences," Brochin said. "Diaz's poetic sensibility is largely shaped by her experiences growing up on the border of California, Arizona and Nevada. Her references and landscapes will be recognizable and important to Tucson readers."

"We are Water Protectors" won the 2021 Caldecott Medal and is available in both English and Spanish. Author Lindstrom is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe Indians and illustrator Goade is a member of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

"Like Diaz's work, 'We are Water Protectors' addresses the importance of water within and beyond Indigenous communities," Short said. "This book is at once gorgeously accessible and a compelling pedagogical project educating young people about the necessity to protect water on behalf of animals, humans, plants and the earth."

"Our hope to reach an expansive, intergenerational audience who will engage with both books," Soto said.

Gathering as a community to discuss books

On Jan. 14, Big Read Tucson will kick off with an outdoor celebration, including readings, book giveaways and refreshments, at Mission Garden, a living agricultural museum at 946 W. Mission Lane.

The event will be followed by multiple book discussions and presentations of "Postcolonial Love Poem" and "We are Water Protectors" at various yet-to-be determined locations, including high school classrooms and libraries. One discussion will feature Regents Professor of Linguistics Ofelia Zepeda, a poet and O'odham language preservationist who writes about water. A professional development session for K-12 teachers will focus on Indigenous youth literature and water justice.

"Over the span of three months, we will host many interactive events, all with the aim of generating firsthand experiences with the imaginative power of literature and the pleasure of collective discussion," Durán said. "The focus on water also gives us a wonderful opportunity to host a number of water-based activities outdoors."

The programming will also include six projects centered on the books, including a podcast series run by Worlds of Words teen reading ambassadors, an art workshop and a walking tour of the Santa Cruz River Heritage Project. In addition, Goade will do an Imagination Friday virtual event for children in February. Imagination Fridays are Worlds of Words events in which an author or illustrator appears virtually to discuss their books live with children in classrooms and at home.   

The final events will be a featured appearance by Diaz at the Tucson Festival of Books on March 5 titled "Poetexts of Love: A Community Celebration," as well as a poetry reading on an outdoor stage. Big Read Tucson will be a central focus at the festival, with themes from Diaz's poems highlighted in multiple panel discussions throughout the event, Short said.    

Details on all Big Read Tucson events will be available on the program website as they are finalized.

Community partners are essential to Big Read Tucson and include early literacy nonprofit Make Way for Books, the College of Education's Indigenous Teacher Education Program, Tucson Water, the university's American Indian Language Development Institute, Sunnyside Unified School District, Mission Garden, Tucson Festival of Books and Pima County Public Library.