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Writers appeal to save Center for the Book

  • Winners of 2016 book awards gather at the Statehouse.



Staff Writer
Thursday, July 14, 2016

Valley writers are protesting Gov. Charlie Baker’s veto of funding for a state book program, saying the move will save little money and will hurt efforts to promote literature and literacy across the commonwealth.

Baker’s decision to defund the Massachusetts Center for the Book, formerly located in the Valley, would also leave Massachusetts as the only state in the country without such a center, supporters say.

“If every other state in the country finds a way to fund its center for the book, why can’t we?” asked poet and children’s author Richard Michelson, a former poet laureate for Northampton.

Michelson, who owns Michelson Galleries at 132 Main St., Northampton, said the savings the state would reap from cutting center’s budget — $200,000 — would be more than canceled by lost monies generated by production, sales and other activities related to books.

“Mostly is it bad economics and incredibly shortsighted,” he wrote in an email. “The amount of money that the Book Arts bring into communities and the state is substantial.”

The center had been located in the Valley — first at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, then at Hampshire College and in Northampton — from 2000 until 2008, when it moved to free space made available at Simmons College in Boston. Begun as a collaborative organization that included funding from Five Colleges Inc., today it is a public-private partnership.

Like the book centers in all other states, this one is affiliated with a national book center overseen by the Library of Congress in Washington, which sponsors programs to support reading, literacy and libraries.

Among the center’s programs is “Letters About Literature,” in which students in Grades 4 to 12 are invited to write a letter to an author, alive or deceased, of a book that had a significant impact on them. The center, which receives 3,000 to 5,000 such letters a year, hosts an annual contest for the most eloquent student writers; some are honored at a ceremony at the Statehouse.

“It’s a wonderful way to get students really engaged in books and reading and to think about them in a serious way,” said Ellen Flanagan Kenny, communications associate for the center. “Every year there’s a great story (from a student): ‘This book spoke to me.’ ”

In addition, the center sponsors what Kenny calls the largest state book award program in the country, honoring books by Massachusetts writers or about subjects in the commonwealth. Along with winners from each of five different categories, the center compiles a wider annual list of “must-read” book award winners.

For 2015, a number of Valley writers, including Michelson,  Jane Yolen of Hatfield, and Burleigh Muten of Amherst, were honored for their work for young readers. Several others — Christian Appy, George Howe Colt, Joseph Ellis, Aaron Lansky and Grace Linn — previously won Massachusetts Book Awards.

Michelson notes that the center does a number of other things, such as sponsoring literacy programs for immigrants and people in poorer communities, often with volunteers.

“(Director) Sharon Shaloo runs a tight ship,” he said. “It is amazing to me how many programming services she oversees with just a half-time program director. Our libraries and schools can assist on a local level, but we need a statewide center that helps bring all communities together.”

Indeed, added Kenny, if the center has to close its doors, “I don’t see how we can keep promoting book culture on a statewide basis.”

She added that the center has been in contact with leaders of the state Legislature about this issue. A vote to override Baker’s veto requires a two-thirds majority.

In an email from Scotland, Yolen, the prolific children’s writer and poet, said she had already fired off a letter to her local legislators, strongly urging them to override the governor’s veto and restore what she calls the “minuscule” budget for the Center for the Book.

Letting the veto stand, she notes, “would leave the home of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, the Transcendentalists, Louisa May Alcott, not to mention hundreds and hundreds of well-published writers from the last century and this, without representation.”

Michelson agrees. Cutting funding for the center undermines the state’s long contribution to literature and other writing and its strong emphasis on higher education, he said.

“When I travel the country talking in schools and conferences, the one thing that many folks know (and envy) about our state is its strong emphasis on books and culture,” Michelson said.