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Summer Reading at Juniata: Discussing 'The Color of Water'

(Posted August 29, 2001)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Read any good books lately? If you've specifically read "The Color of Water," by James McBride, Juniata College would like to hear from you.
For the second year in a row, Juniata College has asked its incoming freshman class, the rest of its student body, its faculty, all of the college's other employees and interested members of the community around Huntingdon to read an assigned book and take part in a panel discussion of the book at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 in Alumni Hall in the Brumbaugh Science Center on the Juniata campus.

The event is free and open to the public.

"Many colleges and high schools have an assigned summer reading program for freshmen or just for students, but at Juniata we want everyone on campus to read the book and then come in and talk about it," explains Sarah May Clarkson, director of academic support services and the organizational wizard behind the reading project. "Last year, we had a large number of faculty, many upperclassmen, staff and members of the community come to a great discussion of the book we selected. There were less freshman that I expected, but I think we will improve on that this year."

Last year, Juniata assigned "Into The Wild," by Jon Krakauer, a nonfiction story of a young man who decided to strike out alone into the Alaska wilderness. Ill-prepared and somewhat naive, the young man died during his attempt to find a new frontier.
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"One of the things that surprised me about the discussion of 'Into the Wild' was the intensity level on the part of students and other readers," recalls James Lakso, Juniata College provost and the moderator of last year's "Into the Wild" panel. "There were strongly positive and negative feelings about the book and the young man who was the focus of the book. There were very few people in the middle in their opinions."

This year's choice also is nonfiction. "The Color of Water" is McBride's memoir of his life as one of 12 children in a mixed-race family, and of his mother's life as the wife of an African-American man and the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.

Clarkson says wide-ranging book discussions in communities are becoming more common. Seattle has sponsored a citywide reading project for the last four years and this year Chicago readers are tackling Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Juniata students are not required to read the book and participate in the discussion, although Clarkson said "The Color of Water" will be used for some assignments in Juniata's College Writing Seminar classes. "I don't want the reading program to be something that people have to grind through," she says. "If the kids and readers are taken to places that they wouldn't have gone to otherwise through this book, then that's a good thing."

During the book discussion evening , which lasts approximately 90 minutes, Clarkson organizes a panel of Juniata faculty, staff, students and a moderator. The discussion opens with each panelist offering an opinion on the book. Members of the audience are then encouraged to lend an opinion, ask questions or offer reactions to the discussion.

Each year the book is chosen through a nomination process. Anyone can nominate a book by e-mailing Clarkson at clarkss@juniata.edu. She then forms an informal committee to winnow the nominated books down to five or six finalists. Another committee picks the final book. The choice is announced before the students leave school in May. Incoming freshman are assigned the book when they visit the campus for summer orientation.

"It can be fiction or nonfiction," Clarkson says of the book choice. "We try not to be too ambitious and make sure what we choose is accessible. We also don't want to pick an obscure book that would be hard for everybody to buy. We want to end up with a book everybody will read."

For the past two years, Clarkson has invited both Krakauer and McBride to join the panel discussion, but neither writer could make it. "The idea is to pick a book that will provoke thoughts, create an exchange of ideas and start dialogues about books," she says. "Whether the author is there or not is really secondary."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.