KELLEYS ISLAND - When ferry service to and from this Lake Erie island came to a normal wintertime halt, its year-round residents chose to spend the time indoors with a good book.
Not just the usual bookworms, but everyone on the island.
Between March 1 and April 16, all 131 islanders started and finished To Kill A Mockingbird, the Harper Lee novel about race relations. Today, their island village will be honored as the first community in the country to achieve 100 percent participation in the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read program.
The national program aims to encourage reading by helping communities come together to read and discuss a common book. Of about 400 communities that have taken part in a Big Read effort since 2006, none managed total participation.
"Nobody ever really set it as a goal," said writer and critic David Kipen, director of The Big Read program, who is scheduled to present islanders this afternoon with a pizza party. "It was Kelleys Island and the Sandusky library system that took the challenge seriously and made it their goal."
The diligent readers included Jackie Finger, co-owner with husband Gary of the island watering hole, The Village Pump, where book discussions often overflowed during the seven-week effort.
"We're a really tight-knit community, so it was really neat for all of us in the middle of winter here to have something to all talk about," said Mrs. Finger, who devoured To Kill a Mockingbird in one early March sitting.
"I waited for a rainy day, and I began reading at 10 a.m. in the morning and I finished it at 10:30 p.m. that night," she recalled. "It's the kind of book that you don't want to put down."
Elaine Lickfelt, volunteer librarian at the Kelleys Island branch of the Sandusky Library, believes peer pressure helped get everyone on board. "Everywhere that we went, we'd discuss the book," Mrs. Lickfelt said. "So if you didn't know about the discussion, then we knew you weren't reading the book."
Mr. Kipen traced the Kelleys Island challenge to last summer's Big Read orientation in Minneapolis.
He shared his goal during the event of someday achieving 100 percent participation in a small town. In attendance was Terri Estel, assistant director of Sandusky Library, who stepped forward to explain that she had the perfect community.
Mr. Kipen recalled thinking: "Wow, a small town is good - an island would be even better."
Ms. Estel went on to nominate the island's residents to accept Mr. Kipen's challenge on behalf of Erie County Reads. To add a dash of drama, Mr. Kipen pledged to eat a copy of the book if islanders failed. Islanders signed up at the branch library or their general store, The Island Market, and received free book copies through National Endowment for the Arts grant money matched with local funds.
Mrs. Lickfelt said five elementary children met the goal by reading Tea for Ruby, the approved children's book for those too young to tackle To Kill a Mockingbird. About a dozen adults listened to audio book versions of To Kill a Mockingbird, which Mr. Kipen said count.
"Better they should listen closely on tape than skim the text on paper," Mr. Kipen said. "My preference, I suppose, would be for reading on paper, but I'm not about to be a snob about it."
Mrs. Lickfelt said verification of reading was based on the honor system, and she welcomes challenges. "You could ask any of us anything about To Kill a Mockingbird and we could tell you."
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