One Book, One Philadelphia is my favorite Free Library of Philadelphia program. I love that the program builds community through reading. For two months every winter, Philly becomes one giant book club. The programming is as diverse as the city itself, ranging from traditional book discussions and author events to themed workshops and cooking classes.
This year’s selection, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is a National Book Award winner about one family’s road trip from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to the state penitentiary in Northern Mississippi. The book explores the connections between the legacy of the Jim Crow South and the present African American experience.
Ward uses three first-person narratives to tell the story. We hear from Jojo, a boy just celebrating his 13th birthday, his mother Leonie, and Richie, a ghost whose presence helps the family reconcile past pain with their present experience. The multiple narrator approach reminds me of The Sound and The Fury, one of my favorite books. I love how Ward creates such distinct voices in first person.
Jojo cares deeply for his family, especially his sister Kayla. His narrative gives us the best insights into the other characters and the Mississippi landscape. Leonie is a selfish, narcissistic addict. With Leonie, Ward takes us deep into the mind of an addict and shows the loneliness and isolation that often accompany it. Richie is my favorite narrator because while he died young, his ghost soul continued to grow and understand the world in a way that Jojo doesn’t yet. Richie gives us a glimpse into a possible afterlife dominated by song.
Cooking is a recurring theme in the book and takes three distinct forms: cooking that nourishes, cooking that heals and cooking that kills. Ward begins the story with Jojo’s experience slaughtering the family’s goat. The goat then boils on the stove for hours to feed the family over the next few days. Bacon and buttered biscuits become central to key scenes and help us connect to the characters. During the road trip, Leonie cooks medicine for Kayla. Those scenes show us the loss of family memory and knowledge as Leonie barely remembers her mother’s expert instruction from years ago. Although we don’t see anyone cooking meth, we feel the drug’s impact through Leonie’s story.
Over the next few weeks, One Book, One Philadelphia will feature more than 100 events across the library system.
You can explore how cooking nourishes by attending the Creole Cooking Class at the Culinary Literacy Center at the Parkway Central branch. The Logan branch will offer multiple discussions on Food, Ritual, and Community just for teens based on the companion book Ghost Boys.
You can learn about how food heals by attending one of the Urban Medicine Cabinet workshops that will take place at several library locations.
Finally, you can reflect on the impact of addiction by attending a panel discussion titled From Bois Sauvage to Philadelphia: The Impacts of Addiction on Families hosted by Drexel University.
In addition to Sing, Unburied, Sing, the program features three companion books targeted to different age groups. You can learn about all the books here. The books are available in multiple formats, so check them out!