Kelleys Island, Ohio, recently became the first community in the country to reach 100 percent participation in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program, saving the NEA’s literature director from having to eat his words—or, rather, Harper Lee’s words. In March, David Kipen challenged all 131 residents of the Lake Erie island community to read Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, promising to eat a copy of the 1960 classic if they failed. Instead, he ended up buying them pizza.
The initiative, which used NEA grant money and matching local funds to provide free copies of the book to residents, was organized by the Sandusky library system. Volunteer librarian Elaine Lickfelt said peer pressure in the four-square-mile community likely played a role in the program’s success there. “Everywhere that we went, we’d discuss the book,” she told the Toledo Blade. “So if you didn’t know about the discussion, then we’d know you weren’t reading the book.”
It took forty-seven days for every resident of Kelleys Island to start and finish To Kill a Mockingbird, with the last pages being turned on April 16. About a dozen islanders fulfilled the requirement by listening to an audio version of the book, while five elementary school students read Sarah Ferguson’s Tea for Ruby, the approved children’s substitute.
The Big Read program aims to address what the NEA’s Web site calls a crisis in American literacy by bringing communities together to read and discuss a single work. Of the approximately four hundred cities, towns, and municipalities that have hosted the project since its inception in 2006, Kelleys Island is the only one to have achieved complete participation.