Talking with librarian Andrea Gough about why The Turner House is the book all Seattle should read in 2017

In case you missed it when it was announced in late December, the 2017 Seattle Reads book selection is The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy. The Seattle Reads program (which used to be known by the name "If All Seattle Read the Same Book...") delivers hundreds of copies of a chosen book to libraries all around Seattle every spring. In May of this year, Flournoy will do a number of events around Seattle, discussing The Turner House in a series of readings and community events.

Andrea Gough is a reader services librarian at the Seattle Public Library who has been involved with the Seattle Reads program for three years. She answered our questions about the process of selecting a Seattle Reads book, about why she likes the The Turner House, and why she believes it's the right book for Seattle right now.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of choosing the book?

For the past few years, at least, we've started in the summertime and we do an open call to staff to suggest any books that they think might be interesting for the Seattle Reads program. We reiterate what the goals of the program are, and then ask people to suggest titles within that.

One of the things I love is how seriously staff takes this, how deeply they think about what books would really engage our city of readers, what different discussion topics might come up with the book, if it's a good read, and then just what they know of the author — how engaging the author's going to be, if they're available, that kind of stuff.

What do you ask for in the call specifically? Do you ask for novels? Do you ask for things with Seattle-centric topics?

Usually we just ask for the author, the title, why they think the book would fit, and then if they've seen any presentation by the author. We usually get a pretty good mix of fiction and nonfiction. There are some years where it's more specific. Last year we asked for people to consider female novelists because we had had two years of nonfiction, and two years of male authors. This year there was no guideline around it. We just wanted a good discussable book with a living author who would be available to come [to Seattle].

We take that staff suggestion box, and then there's a group of librarians who meet and discuss all the different suggestions and then narrow it down to a couple of choices.

Do you know how many books had to choose from this year?

Twenty-five titles were considered, and were then narrowed down to 12 options. From those 12 books, the selection group discussed and narrowed it down to six titles, which everyone read or re-read.

And who’s on the selection committee?

We draw librarians from the reader services department, and definitely a branch librarian. We were lucky this year to have a bookstore partner. That changes a little bit every year, and is definitely open to changing in the future. We just got a new project manager, so she'll kind of decide how that group goes ahead.

Who is the bookstore partner?

It was Karen [Maeda Allman] from Elliott Bay [Book Company].

Is it one meeting? Is it several meetings?

Oh, it's several meetings. I think we met once in August, and then we met a few times via email, and then we met once or twice more in the fall to discuss and kind of hash everything out.

Can you put us inside the room a little bit? I'm just curious about the selection process because it's such a huge idea, an entire city reading a book. I'm wondering if current events play into it, or if people have specific agendas for certain years or anything like that.

That's a really good question. The two main goals are to deepen engagement in literature through reading and discussion, and create connections between people through the shared foundation of reading the same book. Those are really the two primary criteria that we go in with. Any book we choose, since we start choosing in the summer and fall, even if we have timely considerations, we have to recognize that those conditions might be different by next May. That said, some years definitely tie into the current moment more than others.

Everyone comes with a book or two that they want to champion, whether it's from their own reading or from the staff suggestion list. A lot of times it's about themes that they think are interesting, or the way the book's written, or who they think it's going to appeal to. We're always trying to reach our core community of readers, but also draw in new communities. If we can do that through a shared book experience, all the better.

What kind of outreach do you do for this program? Because the goal is obviously to have all of Seattle involved in the conversation, so what do you do to to attract non-SPL readers?

It depends on the year, the book, and our staff resources. I actually just came from a meeting where a group of library stakeholders were talking about that. I know that in the coming month or two [new Literature & Humanities Program Manager] Stesha [Brandon] will be identifying some different community groups and different community stakeholders to meet with and kind of figure out how we can expand our marketing. I think our existing program reaches a lot of current library users, which is fantastic, and we always hope they will spread it to their friends who don't come to the library, but we are planning a more concentrated outreach effort as well.

Can you tell me about why you selected this book in particular?

Our 2017 selection is The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy. It's set in 2008, and the 13 Turner children have to decide what to do with their family home, which is suddenly worth one-tenth of its mortgage. What's fascinating is it's this huge family, they live in Detroit, it's immediately after the recession, and the reader gets to know this family really well through three of the Turner siblings.

You get to see this great kind of portrait of how a large family works. You get a great portrait of Detroit. It flashes back in time to when the Turner patriarch came north as part of the Great Migration, so you get to see Detroit as it was in the 1950's and post-war, as well as what Detroit is like for this African American family after the recession. It's beautifully written. They're great characters. That's my own bias — I love books with great characters.

Then we also felt like there were a lot of points of discussion. What's great is that it's a book with a lot of discussable moments, but it never feels super-heavy. There's discussion themes around unstable housing; impacts of the recession; how economic resurgence doesn't raise all groups equally; elder care; and, again, the workings of a large family.

We watched some videos of Angela Flournoy, and she's an engaging writer. She seems really warm, and like we'd love to bring her to groups of people. We thought that she's be a great author to relate to readers. It's her first novel, which is great. Any time we can highlight perhaps a lesser-known author or someone who's just getting their start, I think that's exciting.

Can you talk a little bit about why you think this book is important for Seattle right now, this year, 2017?

I think that this would always be a good book for Seattle. I think that on a very philosophical level, one of the great things about literature is that it exposes you to other experiences. They've done studies that have found that it grows empathy. I think it kind of serves a two-fold purpose in that I hope it resonates with our African-American community, and I hope that our other communities pick it up as well and read about an experience different from their own. I think there are a lot of ways that that's particularly valuable with the divisive rhetoric that's happening now, but I think that it's always important.

That said, if we hadn't chosen it this year, I would have loved to do it in five years or 10 years as well. One of the great things I love about this book is it's got, like I said, so many talking points, and discussion topics, and that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day it's the story of a happy family, and there's just a joy in reading the book.