One book carries discussions beyond classroom

by Michele Coffill

photos by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

Think of it as an intimate book club with thousands of members.

Each year for nearly the past decade, the campus community has read, discussed and studied one book. Book club meetings conclude with a bonus when the author visits West Michigan for presentations. (Few club members dare miss that meeting.)

Grand Valley’s Community Reading Project was established in 2005 to expand the common reading program used by Housing and Residence Life into a university-wide program. Having a common read is not unusual for a campus or community, and it is a charge that the book selection committee takes very seriously.

Brian Jbara, director of Integrative Learning and Advising, said the process of selecting a CRP book begins in the fall after soliciting suggestions from the campus community. “We received 100-plus suggestions last year,” Jbara said.

Reyna Grande speaking

Reyna Grande gives a presentation in the Kirkhof Center as part of the Community Reading Project.

He and other committee members divide suggestions into themes, and are always mindful of the CRP’s criteria when selecting a book. Standards include choosing a book with wide appeal, one that resonates with Grand Valley’s mission and offers a moral or humanistic vision.

Jbara and others on the book selection committee are well aware that one title is not going to satisfy all the readers in the campus community.

“We know we’ve picked another memoir with this book,” Jbara said, referring to The Distance Between Us. “Faculty members have said that non-fiction works tend to offer lessons and a deeper sense of learning.” Suggestions for future books are welcome; send an email to [email protected].

Jbara added that it’s a good thing when a book creates discussions or debates. This year’s book was no exception as it touches on immigration, domestic violence and substance abuse.

Reyna Grande’s memoir, The Distance Between Us, details her tumultuous childhood spent torn between two parents and two countries. Grande’s Mexican parents leave their children behind to make the dangerous trek across the border in search of a better life. When Grande arrives in California at age 9, she adjusts to life as an undocumented immigrant and learns that life in America is far from perfect. Published in 2012, The Distance Between Us was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Grande received the American Book Award for her first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains. She also earned the El Premio Aztlán Literary Award and the Latino Book Award.

Her memoir was used in about 40 courses, and its reach extended beyond the classroom. Several campus departments and many living centers held book discussion groups and, keeping with the CRP’s mission, local programming was built around Grande’s book in the Hispanic communities in Grand Rapids and Holland.

The Herrick District Library in Holland has been a long-standing CRP partner. Sara DeVries, public relations manager, said the collaboration affords the library a great opportunity to host a national author.


“The book is interesting as it unfolds and Reyna questions where she belongs. ... Everyone has a different version of that story...” Maureen Wolverton, affiliate faculty of liberal studies


CRP presentation

A student asks Grande a question during her presentation. She also signed books after the event.

Grande’s presentation in Holland drew about 100 people. Herrick’s other collaborative programming included partnering with Holland social justice organizations that assist undocumented immigrants and hosting a panel discussion in which community members shared stories of leaving their countries behind.

Many West Michigan residents, including a large Spanish-speaking contingent, attended Grande’s Grand Valley presentation. Past CRP authors also drew large crowds. Sir Ken Robinson, author of The Element, spoke in 2013 before a Fieldhouse audience that included many from the K-12 community. (Robinson’s visit was a partnership with the Meijer Lecture Series.) Rebecca Skloot filled Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids when she visited in 2011 to discuss The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

For faculty members who incorporate the CRP selection into their courses, the author visit enriches conversations that began in the classroom. Maureen Wolverton, affiliate faculty of liberal studies, used the book in two of her courses. “The students loved the book and they were excited for her to come to campus so they could ask follow-up questions,” said Wolverton, who also serves on the CRP book selection committee.

She added that the book fit well in her Liberal Studies “Life Journeys” courses. “The book is interesting as it unfolds and Reyna questions where she belongs. Is she Mexican, is she American?” Wolverton said. “Everyone has a different version of that story and it creates good, rich class discussions.”

The Distance Between Us was also chosen as the “One Book/One Community” read for Monroe County in southeast Michigan. After her late March presentation at Grand Valley, Grande visited Monroe County Community College.

Grande said she tried writing this memoir while still a student at the University of California-Santa Cruz. “I was 21 and I found I hadn’t given myself enough time to have the distance from my experience to be able to tackle it in a book,” she said. “I was a beginning writer.”

During the early stages of writing Across a Hundred Mountains, Grande received a fellowship from PEN Center USA to join Emerging Voices, a mentorship program for new writers. She has served as a judge with Emerging Voices to select new fellows. Grande teaches at UCLA and is active in nonprofit organizations that work with undocumented youth. She was politically active when California voters passed the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which allows undocumented students who meet certain criteria to apply for college financial aid.

She enjoys visiting campuses and said she brings an important message for students. “I want to inspire students to pursue their own dreams by showing them that while life puts a lot of obstacles in the way, you need to keep striving toward your dream,” Grande said.

Past CRP selections


  • 2005-2006: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • 2006-2007: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • 2007-2008: The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
  • 2008-2009: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  • 2009-2010: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson
  • 2010-2011: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • 2011-2012: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  • 2012-2013: The Element by Sir Ken Robinson

Page last modified July 2, 2014