2020 NEA Big Read Program: What You Need to Know

2020 NEA Big Read

The NEA Adds 6 New Titles to its Big Read Library for 2020

It’s been an honor to partner with various organizations and their Big Read programs for the past 13 years. We truly believe in the power of books to ignite continuous learning and growth—something we see happening year after year with these programs. This year, six titles have been added to the 2020 NEA Big Read library, including classics from female authors in honor of the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage! Continue reading to learn more about these titles and how you can apply for the grant:


About the NEA Big Read Program:

Since 2006, more than $21 million in grants have been awarded to more than 1,500 Big Read programs in every district in the country.  The 13-year history of the NEA Big Read program boasts a staggering $50 million in local funding to make these programs a reality, with over 5.7 million Americans in attendance, over 91,000 volunteers, and more than 40,000 community partner organizations. Each year, the NEA Big Read program grants approximately 75 organizations nationwide with anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 each to run their respective month-long Big Read Programs. Communities then gather to host events and discussions surrounding the selected title.


How are books selected for the NEA Big Read library?

First, submitted books are judged on their capacity to:

• incite lively and deep discussion (if you know of a title to suggest, don’t hesitate to do so!)

• expand the range of voices, stories, and genres currently represented in Big Read library

• interest lapsed and/or reluctant readers, and to challenge avid readers and introduce them to new voices

• inspire innovative programming for communities

Once these criteria are assessed for each submitted title, the committee—made up of booksellers, librarians, and past grantees—read all of the submissions to further assess the titles. American authors are given some level of preference in order to reach the American communities and future readers these books will be serving in their Big Read programs.  It also helps if authors are willing and able to travel to some of the communities that will be choosing their titles for Big Read programming.


What are the new books added this year?

To honor the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, four classics by female writers have been added: My Ántonia by Willa Cather, The Essential Emily Dickinson with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. In addition, two popular titles have been added: Circe by Madeline Miller and An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo. Read more about these new titles below:


My Antonia

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Set in the plains of Nebraska, My Ántonia is an American classic with universal themes of friendship, love, family, and youth. Narrator Jim Burden, an orphan from Virginia, recalls his childhood in Nebraska where he meets and befriends Ántonia, a young girl from a poor Czech family. As Jim leaves to study law in New York, he can’t seem to forget Ántonia or the prairie. Years later, he makes it back to Nebraska to find out what really happened.

Read more about this title on the NEA website.

The Essential Emily DickensonThe Essential Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickenson, introduction by Joyce Carol Oates

Emily Dickinson is one of America’s most beloved poets. The Essential Emily Dickenson is a compact anthology of Dickinson’s poems, selected and introduced by Joyce Carol Oates. It contains over 100 poems that showcase Dickinson’s range and celebrate her craft. Both long-time fans and newcomers to Dickinson’s poems will find new appreciation with this collection.

Read more about this title on the NEA website.

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God chronicles the journey of Janie Mae Crawford, as she narrates it to her best friend Pheoby Watson. Forced to marry for money at 16, Janie discovers that love doesn’t appear with marriage. We follow Janie through three marriages, all the while witnessing the power of perseverance and self-discovery.

Read more about this title on the NEA website.

The Heart is a Lonely HunterThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter centers around deaf-mute John Singer, who becomes the confidant of four of the town’s misfits: Mick Kelly—a teenage girl who dreams of becoming a musician, Benedict Mady Copeland—the town’s black doctor, Jake Blount—an alcoholic socialist, and Biff Brannon—the owner of a local cafe. Over the course of a year, Singer provides solace to these characters as they slowly discover the importance he has in their lives.

Read more about this title on the NEA website.

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

Discover the story of the mythological Greek goddess Circe in Madeline Miller’s bestselling novel. Usually depicted as a minor character who is weak and evil, Miller reimagines Circe as a complex, strong-willed woman determined to chart her own course. Born the daughter of the sun god Helios, Circe discovers she possesses the power of witchcraft. Zeus, feeling threatened by her newfound power, banishes her to a deserted island. There, she hones her craft and must ultimately choose between a life with the gods or the mortals she has come to love.

Read more about this title on the NEA website.

An American SunriseAn American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

In her eighth collection of poems, An American Sunrise, Joy Harjo revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act. From memories of her mother’s death to her beginnings in the native rights movement, Harjo intertwines personal stories with tribal histories to highlight the power of nature, spirituality, memory, violence, and the splintered history of America’s indigenous peoples.

Read more about this title on the NEA website.


Will I have a better chance of receiving the grant if I choose a new title?

The current library of 32 titles is fair game and grantees will not be guaranteed to receive a grant by choosing one of the newest titles. The NEA encourages all grantees to select the title that they feel would be most appropriate, challenging, and inspiring to their respective communities.  Be willing to revisit titles that are still in the library—sometimes new themes become relevant again depending on cultural shifts in society and in your own community.

Take careful consideration of each of these new titles, as well as all of the amazing titles in the entire library. For your application timeline, please be sure to visit either of these sites to learn more: Arts.gov/partnerships/nea-big-read or artsmidwest.org/programs/neabigreadApplications for 2020 are due Wednesday, January 29, 2020!


What resources are available as I am applying for this grant?

There are lots of helpful questions and answers provided based on thousands of applications and questions asked in the process, and you can access examples of past recipients under the “Guidelines” page.

There is a survival guide that includes information about strategizing during the proposal phase.  Information centered around partnerships, marketing, and promotion are also provided here. Once you submit your intent to apply, potential grantees will gain access to the community discussion forum (another great community for connection and idea exchange for your Big Read program!).

Check out the NEA website for more information on partnerships you might consider for your upcoming Big Read Program.


We’d love to be of help to you in planning and ordering books for your upcoming NEA Big Read program. As a reminder, we offer special discounting for all NEA Big Read grantees! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a custom quote or to answer any questions you may have.

Shop NEA Big Read Books

This post was written by Megan Habel, the Brand Strategist at BookPal.  She is currently reading The Iconist by Jamie Mustard.

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