The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, the nonprofit organization responsible for fundraising initiatives benefitting Minnesota’s capital city’s central library and 12 neighborhood branches, is sponsoring in partnership with the city’s government a community reading program that extends far beyond one book. Read Brave St. Paul, which launched before Thanksgiving and continues through late February, is an intergenerational, citywide reading program focusing upon the issue of housing insecurity.

“Housing is a critical issue in St. Paul, where thousands of people struggle to afford it,” notes Kim Horton, FSPPL’s marketing and communications director, explaining that the city library system’s new director, Catherine Penkert, “wanted a bigger project” than simply a common book that community members would read and discuss, as St. Paul residents did through the library system's previous community reading program, Read Brave.

The featured book for Read Brave St. Paul’s inaugural year is Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina (Candlewick, 2016), a YA novel about a New York City teenager coming of age during the summer of 1977, whose problems include needing to help her single mother make rent each month. Medina will visit St. Paul the week of February 18 to discuss her novel at schools, libraries, and other venues throughout the city; 4,000 special editions of Burn Baby Burn, created specifically for the St. Paul Read Brave program with its logo on the cover, are being distributed free to schools, libraries, and local organizations partnering with FSPPL.

While Burn Baby Burn is the main selection for this year’s Read Brave St. Paul, adult participants are also encouraged to read Evicted by Matthew Desmond (Crown, 2016), which explores the impact of evictions] upon Milwaukee residents, and landlords; 1,000 copies of Evicted are being made available at no cost to St. Paul residents.

Even young children can participate in Read Brave St. Paul with age-appropriate reads selected for the program: Shelter by Claire Céline, illustrated by Qin Leng (Kids Can, 2017); Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (Candlewick, 2015); Rich: A Dyamonde Daniel Book by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Putnam, 2009); and Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (Feiwel and Friends, 2015). One thousand in total of these four books will be distributed free to libraries and organizations to pass on to families.

St. Paul Public Library staff chose a YA novel to most effectively engage readers around a difficult topic, Horton says, “but the extra books are to engage families. We’re trying to get everybody at every age level to engage. After all, housing affects everyone.” For the next three months, the various library branches will sponsor special activities for children and teens around the topic, such as building gingerbread houses and acting out scenes from the selected books.

The topic of housing insecurity for this year’s program was prompted by Mayor Melvin Carter, who allocated $10 million in this year’s budget for affordable housing, as of the 120,000 housing units in St. Paul, 50% are renter-occupied, and 50% of those households pay more than 30% of their monthly income in rent.

Carter, the city’s first African-American mayor, who resigned from the FSPPL board of directors when he was elected last year, solicited Penkert shortly after she was hired in January, wanting to “address this topic together,” Horton says. “The mayor was the champion in taking this city-wide.”

Carter announced during his public budget address in August that the city was allocating $10,000 to launch Read Brave St. Paul, declaring that “thousands of people in our community face serious housing challenges. Lifting housing as [Read Brave St. Paul’s] theme will help us develop common understanding about our housing crisis and its impacts on our collective future.”

More recently, Carter told PW, “Through focused conversations, Read Brave St. Paul helps us better understand the challenges our children and families face, so we can address those challenges together. Because no institution embodies the free exchange of ideas and information more so than public libraries; our library is the natural convener of these discussions.”

For her part, although she expressed some trepidation about visiting Minnesota in the dead of winter, Medina is looking forward to leading discussions about Burn Baby Burn in such a context. “I love the idea of using literature to get people to talk about an issue that’s critical to them,” she says. “That’s how it should be: a story that helps you name what you are living. And I love the idea that people are reading picture books all the way up to Evicted. That’s really wise: everyone is being enabled to participate in the conversation with what they bring. Something smart is happening in St. Paul.”