NEA Big Read – Out in the Community

PVMA launched its 7th NEA BIG READ grant in 2021

Here you’ll find an overview of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s NEA Big Reads since our first award in 2007.

The Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association launched its 7th National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Big Read in Spring of 2021, in partnership with Tilton Library and more than 40 other organizations and businesses in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties. PVMA was one of 84 communities nationwide awarded an NEA Big Read grant for 2020-21. Our Big Read programs have reached and engaged diverse audiences—with titles chosen for their connection to our museum collection and educational programs, and relevance to our community.

Programming has included: art and interpretive exhibits; music, dance, and theater performances; Big Reads for Young Readers; book discussions; author talks–in-person and via zoom; and craft nights at local gathering spots. Our partners have ranged from libraries, museums, theater groups, restaurants, visual artists, state parks, public television, public and  alternative schools, community colleges, veteran’s groups, and literacy programs.

Each of our NEA Big Read programs, in its own unique way, has done just what the NEA says a Big Read can do—that is, “broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”

Each program is briefly summarized below, beginning with the most recent.


Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel is set in a dystopian post-pandemic world. As PVMA marked its 150th anniversary, we were drawn to “Station Eleven” in part because of the Museum of Civilization that emerges in one of the surviving communities . We thought about the artifacts in our Memorial Hall Museum and how many of them were once a vital part of everyday life, but are now obsolete–like the cell phones and credit cards in the Museum of Civilization.

We knew this novel would draw interest in our community. What we didn’t know when we chose the title in 2019, was that we would be facing an actual pandemic just a few months later! Launching a valley-wide Big Read in 2021 was a challenge, but strong partnerships made it possible. Learn about all the partners who contributed here, and the exceptional variety of programming offered here, including “A Conversation with Emily St. John Mandel” virtual visit.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

The NEA Big Read discussion guide describes Zora Neale Hurston’s novel as “vibrant and achingly human.” PVMA chose it, in part, to highlight a sometimes overlooked aspect of our collection—oral histories that recall 20th-century history, including African American experiences. Book discussion topics ranged from race, feminism, coming-of-age, the Harlem Renaissance, nature, and more.

A few highlights of this NEA Big Read included Zora Neale Hurston’s niece, Lucy Anne Huston, helping an appreciative audience of students and community members at Greenfield Community College get a deeper look into her aunt’s life, with local musicians honoring that life and her writing at a celebratory event afterwards. Elementary and middle school students explored African American quilting and the values of improvisation with contributions to a student art/history exhibit, including a visit by the middle school students to the exhibit venue and an Improv music lesson.

The Joy Luck Club

Amy Tan’s novel inspired programming focused on New England’s long-time fascination with China and the China Trade. Highlights included a full day of speakers, exploring historic connections, co-sponsored by the Pioneer Valley History Network, ending with a public dance and drum performance by the Chinese Folk Art Workshop at the Shea Theater.

Student art filled the venue for the Speaker Day at the Great Falls Discovery Center’s gallery with dragons, lanterns, and original board games; and friends met at a local pub to make Chinese-inspired accordion books and learn the game of Mahjong while sharing stories of their own mother-daughter relationships.

The Things They Carried

Exploring Tim O’Brien’s novel during this NEA Big Read deepened PVMA’s relationship with the Veterans Education Project and provided multiple opportunities for our community to come together in conversation about war’s impact.

Memorable programming included a photography exhibit with portraits of veterans—young and old—with something of their choosing representing “the things they carried” in combat. A short personal statement was displayed alongside each photo. An exhibit, “Told and Retold–A Conversation Starter,” in another venue featured pastel portraits created by middle school students of members of their own families who served in the military or local veterans they learned about through Memorial Hall Museum’s collection.

Old School

Memorial Hall Museum was built as Deerfield Academy in 1798 and today, Deerfield is home to several private schools, including Deerfield Academy. Exploring themes around education—private and public, formal and informal—was a perfect fit for our organization.

Highlights of this NEA Big Read included a traveling history and student art exhibit co-curated by high school students exploring the evolution of education in New England; a Museums a la Carte presentation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield; a Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustration panel discussion at the Eric Carle Museum titled “My Biggest Writing/Illustrating Challenge and How I Solved It”; and a Circa ’60s Music Madness karaoke event at the Academy of Music in nearby Northampton. Smaller events celebrated the art of writing with papermaking and bookmaking at a local pub.

My Ántonia

The themes of land, immigration, time, and change resonate well with western Massachusetts audiences, making Willa Cather’s novel a compelling choice for our second NEA Big Read award.

Highlights included a theatrical production of the play, a visit by Betty Jean Steinshouer to the Academy of Music and our regional high school depicting Willa Cather, and “Harvesting Yesterday, Cultivating Tomorrow,” an exhibit of adult and student art, along with reproductions of photographs of the farmed landscape from Memorial Hall Museum’s Frances and Mary Allen collection, co-curated by high school students.

Farenheit 451

Ray Bradbury’s classic and perennial bestseller was chosen for our first NEA Big Read as an opportunity to explore the Constitution’s First Amendment with educators in our Deerfield Teachers’ Center and middle and high school students at our regional high school.

Highlights included fire engines in four towns surprising students with a fire drill before an all-school assembly on Constitution Day with distribution of books and fire hats and community speakers exploring the topic of censorship, a full-day seminar for educators, and a showing of the 1966 film at the Academy of Music. Little did we know when we embarked on this first NEA Big Read that we’d have six more Big Read adventures!