As authors, booksellers, and publishers grapple with the social and economic consequences of the pandemic, so too are the literary nonprofits that connect those groups with readers. The Massachusetts Center for the Book is one of them, adapting to offer its core programming digitally while waiting to hear whether the state funding on which it relies will remain intact in the face of significant budget shortfalls.
It is not the 20th anniversary year that the organization’s executive director Sharon Shaloo hoped to celebrate, but she believes the center’s extensive work to promote literacy proves its essential value in the commonwealth. Founded in 2000, the center is one of 52 affiliate Centers for the Book, each of which provides a local connection to the Library of Congress, which created the program in 1984. Each engages in robust literacy programming in its own state.
“The idea was that once the network of centers was established, we would be conduits for the national programs, but we would also feed back to the national program what was going on in the states,”
Shaloo said. In Massachusetts, those programs include the Massachusetts Book Awards, the Mass Book Trails tourism program, and the Letters About Literature program, among
others. According to participants and advocates, the center’s role in advancing literacy in the state is substantial.
Michelle Cuevas won the 2018 Massachusetts Book Award for Young Adult Fiction for her book The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole. “Most artists walk around with some level of imposter syndrome following us around like a little pet,” Cuevas said. “I think an award like this helps dissipate that fear. It helps an author say, ‘Okay, I’ll keep going working on this odd project I wasn’t sure about.’ ”
With the award also comes attention from new readers. For Cuevas, those things made her want to give back, and in 2020 she signed on as a judge for the year’s awards. Due to Covid-19-
related restrictions, the judges met entirely online, but she said the experience still reinforced a feeling that she is part of a group of Massachusetts writers, connected by place.
“The awards bring attention to authors in your state that are doing something people might not know about,” Cuevas said. That became particularly poignant for the author when she did school visits after winning the award. “It makes them think they can write a book, too, when you say, ‘I grew up a few towns over from here.’ ”
Veteran high school teacher Alison Whitebone sees the center’s impact through the Letters About Literature Program, which she credits with transforming her work with English Language Learners at Brookline High School in Brookline, a town at the edge of Boston. “It reinvigorated my teaching and taught me that it’s not the number of papers that they write but the quality of what they write,” she said.
Through the program, students read a book or poem and then write a letter to the author about how it relates to their own lives. Spearheaded by the Library of Congress, it is run in Massachusetts by the Center for the Book, which also coordinates an awards ceremony at the state level. “I have students who were practically illiterate when they got here and had no interest in telling their stories,” Whitebone said. Through the program, she added, students are transformed. “The writing, drafting, and editing is beautiful.”
Whitebone credits the Massachusetts Center for the Book’s staff of two—Shaloo and communications associate Ellen Flanagan Kenny—with doing the difficult work to ensure the program’s success, which culminates in a visit to the State House, where students visit the library and meet their legislators. The experience is so profound that Whitebone said students cried when they were told that the program—and the center’s survival—was at risk after the center’s $200,000 in state funding was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2016.
In the past two years, legislators have overridden the governor and reinstated the funding, which Rep. Paul McMurty, chairperson of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, said is vital to more than just literacy. “We’re concerned about the overall health and well-being of people, and some of that is satisfied through our cultural institutions, especially through literacy and books,” McMurtry said. “An investment in the Massachusetts Center for the Book could save the commonwealth thousands of dollars addressing those issues later if we don’t do it now. We can’t lose sight of that, and I’m confident my colleagues understand that fact.”
As PW went to press, Baker issued a proposed budget with the funding intact. While Shaloo and Kenny await word on whether the budget will pass, their work continues, with a focus on collaborative relationships with the state’s other literary organizations, and a dedication to serving the many groups and individuals who comprise the state’s literary communities.
“During this time of civic shutdown, it became really clear how much people needed books,” Shaloo said. “And we continue to make that case to the legislature to get them to understand this particular component of the creative economy as being a real hybrid of the commercial, the nonprofit, and the individual.”