Greenwich Reads Together unveils 2013 selection

Greenwich Library started a new chapter in its Greenwich Reads Together (GRT) program Tuesday morning, unveiling When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka as the 2013 GRT selection.

The program is now entering its third year, continuing its mission to unite the town with a communitywide reading experience that engages Greenwich residents of all ages and backgrounds in exploring a single book.

Last spring, almost 20 community organizations participated in GRT and more than 3,000 town residents participated in events related to the program, including numerous adult, children and teen book discussions held across Greenwich.

In 2013, the library hopes to get even more residents involved, fostering communication and sparking ideas across town, said Kate Petrov, the library’s public relations officer. In times like these, it is important to unite the town and to openly discuss ideas, Ms. Petrov said, referencing the tragic shooting in Newtown last Friday.

Selecting one book for an entire community, however, is no easy task.

Residents were able to nominate GRT books via the library’s website, in schools and at other places around town, eventually suggesting more than 40 titles for the nomination process, covering a wide range of genres.

According to Marianne Weill, the library’s selection and acquisition coordinator, a nine-person selection committee was formed, comprised of library staff members, reading volunteers and a high school student, in order to make the GRT selection for 2013. Each committee member was tasked with reading nine or 10 of the nominated books, searching for a selection that tackled universal themes, could generate thought-provoking discussions and would appeal to a diverse population, Ms. Weill said.

After stumbling upon When the Emperor Was Divine, the committee unanimously voted to elect it as the 2013 pick, Ms. Weill said. The novel is heartbreaking and sentimental, speaks to all ages and follows characters that could have been any of thousands during World War II, when the story takes place, she said. Although it is a quick read at 143 pages, the book “packs a punch” and spoke to everyone on the selection committee, she said.

The story of When the Emperor Was Divine begins in Berkeley, Calif., in 1942 when a woman sees a sign in a post office window and promptly returns home and begins packing her family’s possessions. Like thousands of other Japanese Americans, they have been reclassified, essentially overnight, as enemy aliens and are about to be uprooted from their homes and sent to an internment camp in the Utah desert.

In what the library described as a “devastatingly evocative novel,” When the Emperor Was Divine follows a tragic period of United States history from the point of view of five characters who detail their turbulent experience at a brutal internment camp.

The author, Julie Otsuka, is an accomplished writer, having been the recipient of the Asian American Literary Award, the American Library Association Alex Award and a Guggenheim fellowship. Additionally, her book The Buddha in the Attic won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Ms. Otsuka is not the only author involved in the upcoming GRT program, however. In order to keep the town’s younger readers involved in the project, two similarly themed companion books, Best Friends Forever: a World War II Scrapbook by Beverly Patt and The Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury, were also announced at Tuesday’s GRT unveiling.

According to Ms. Petrov, GRT’s most important objective is uniting the community, and the way to do so is through programming related to When the Emperor Was Divine. While Greenwich has a wide variety of programs and organizations that serve the community, GRT unites those groups by allowing participants to explore topics in depth and having conversations about specific themes, she said. Accordingly, the library is preparing lectures, discussion groups, a visit from Ms. Otsuka, and other programs related to the novel for residents to attend this spring.

Although the 2013 GRT book was unveiled this week, the program officially takes place April 22 through May 3, Ms. Petrov said. By announcing the book early the hope is that more community members will have a chance to read it and suggest the types of programs they would like to coordinate with it, she said. With plenty of time for residents to reflect on the book’s messages and themes, the library hopes the town will help develop engaging and innovative programming related to a common reading experience.

For those interested in participating in the 2013 GRT project, When the Emperor Was Divine is available in multiple formats at each of Greenwich’s libraries, and some of the town’s schools will provide copies. Additionally, the novel will be available for purchase at local bookstores, including Diane’s Books.

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