2021 NEA Big Read Books: Webinar Recap

NEA Big Read 2021

The NEA Narrows Down Big Read Library to 6 Titles for 2021

Every year, we look forward to partnering with various organizations and their Big Read programs. We truly believe in the power of books to ignite continuous learning and growth—something we see happening year after year with these programs. Earlier this month, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Arts Midwest hosted a webinar where they discussed the new titles for the 2021 Big Read program and answered questions about the application process. 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 $22 million in grants have been awarded to more than 1,600 Big Read programs in every district in the country.  The 14-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 between $5,000 and $20,000 each to run their respective 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 books available this year?

This year, the NEA Big Read Library consists of six titles. This isn’t the first time the list of books has been small. In fact, when the Big Read program first launched, there were only four books on the list! By limiting the selection to six titles, the NEA hopes grantees will be able to focus on key themes of American history and culture while inciting lively and engaging discussions. As always, grantees are encouraged to select supplemental titles to aid in their programs. Read more about these titles below:

An American SunriseAn American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

In her eighth collection of poems, 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.

This is the second year this title has been on the Big Read list.

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison

First published in 1987, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave living in Ohio. Eighteen years later, Sethe is still held captive by memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And on top of it all, her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

This is the first year this title has been featured on the Big Read list.

The Best We Could DoThe Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, debut author Thi Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

This is the first year this title has been featured on the Big Read list.

The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other StoriesThe Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories by Jack London

This collection of stories by Jack London includes his popular canine-centric wilderness adventures, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. You’ll also find an early feminist story “The Night-Born” and a pro-labor story “South of the Slot”. London’s narratives in this volume focus on issues of continuing relevance to readers, including the value of the wilderness, animal rights, socioeconomic oppression, and gender inequity.

This title has been featured on the Big Read list previously, but this is the first year with this collection of stories.

The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinback

John Steinbeck tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, this novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.

This title has been featured on the Big Read list previously.

The House on Mango StreetThe House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Told in a series of vignettes, the critically acclaimed novel The House on Mango Street follows Esperanza Cordero, a young girl growing up in the Latino section of Chicago. Esperanza doesn’t want to belong—not to her rundown neighborhood, and not to the low expectations the world has for her. Sandra Cisneros eloquently crafts a story about a young girl coming into her power and inventing for herself what she will become.

This is the first year this title has been featured on the Big Read list.


Who is Eligible?

As always, the Big Read grant is open nationwide to 501(c)(3) non-profits, divisions of state, local, or tribal government, or tax-exempt public libraries. Not eligible? Consider partnering with an eligible organization to help host your Big Read program. Visit here for a full list of guidelines.


Required Events

Though each Big Read program is different, there are a few events that are required: one kick-off event, at least five book discussions, two presentations, and two projects inviting a community response to the book. That being said, these requirements can overlap—meaning, one event can hold more than one requirement. For programming ideas from past grantees, visit the NEA Big Read blog or the community stories section on each book page of the NEA website.


Next Steps

Interested in applying for the grant? Here are a few deadlines to keep in mind:

January 27, 2021: Application deadline (Need a book quote to include in your application? Email stefanie@bookpal.com)
Late April 2021: Grantees are announced
Fall 2021: Program starts; applications open for 2022-2023 Big Read programs



NEA website: arts.gov/neabigread
Intent to apply form: artsmidwest.org/programs/neabigread
Finding local writers:
Looking for ideas?
      • artsmidwest.org: blog posts, news items
      • arts.gov: stories from the community
      • Online community (available after you submit intent to apply form): discussion boards, resources, training

Social Media: @NEABigRead on Twitter or search #NEABigRead


For more details, examples from past grantees, and to watch the full webinar, visit the NEA website.

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 Future is Faster Than You Think by Peter H. Diamandis & Steven Kotler.

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