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Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing,’ a tale of history, violence, and identity, is the featured selection for 2018-19 One Book, One Philadelphia program

It's a bold choice, a decidedly adult book, encompassing drug abuse, violence and death, the prison-industrial complex, and broken familial relationships.

Jesmyn Ward, author of "Sing, Unburied, Sing," the featured selection for One Book, One Philadelphia 2018-2019.
Jesmyn Ward, author of "Sing, Unburied, Sing," the featured selection for One Book, One Philadelphia 2018-2019.Read moreLeft: Beowulf Sheehan

Sing, Unburied, Sing, the National Book Award-winning 2017 novel by Jesmyn Ward, is the featured selection for the One Book, One Philadelphia program for the 2018-19 school year. From Jan. 16 to March 13, Sing, Unburied, Sing will take center stage in approximately 100 discussions, performances, and projects throughout city schools.

Administered by the Free Library of Philadelphia, One Book is now in its 16th year; it began in 2003 with The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary. One Book promotes reading, literacy, library use, and community building through a common experience in reading.

Ward's memoir Men We Reaped, about the deaths of five young men close to her, is a companion book, a category new this year to further conversation on the themes of Ward's work and to give students and teachers more opportunity for discussion and group projects. Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, about a 12-year-old shot by a police officer, is the middle school companion book, and the Newbery Award-winning The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, about an African American boy and his Nana taking the bus, is the grade school companion book.

Sing, Unburied, Sing combines a ghost story of sorts with a mixed-race family's road trip from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to Parchman Farm penitentiary in the state's upper northwest. It's a bold choice, a decidedly adult book, encompassing drug abuse, violence and death, the prison-industrial complex, and broken familial relationships. In recent years, such bold choices have characterized One Book, trusting that teachers and students alike can fruitfully explore and discuss such topics.

If any theme ties all these titles together, it is empathy, the need to understand the lives of people very different from ourselves.

In a statement, Reardon said that although Sing, Unburied, Sing is "set in the rural South and recent past, [the book's] concerns and messages resonate with every facet of contemporary America." Marie Field, chair of One Book, called it "a really important book with ties to America today and America as it's been. By drawing us into this family's story, she is teaching us to be more empathetic, which perhaps can help us discuss these issues more openly."

Ward, from her home in Mississippi,  called the selection "amazing. It means the book will reach so many more people, and the story and characters will live with so many more readers. And hopefully those readers will be able to make it part of their lives and take it new places."

The announcement was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, in the lobby of the Free Library Parkway Central Library. Mayor Kenney was set to be on hand, along with Siobhan Reardon, director and president of the Free Library; Field; and singer Rieko Copeland, who will perform.

The official One Book kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 16. Ward will be there for a reading, interview, and book signing, and musicians from the Curtis Institute will perform original music inspired by Sing, Unburied, Sing. Rhodes will also be coming to visit Philly schools.

Ward,  a graduate of Stanford and Michigan Universities, is an associate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. She's fast becoming one of this country's foremost literary figures; she is the only woman to win two National Book Awards in fiction, having also won in 2011 for Salvage the Bones. She is also a 2017 MacArthur Fellow.

Was Ward surprised her book was selected? "I recently met an 8-year-old who is reading it," she said. "That was surprising, but younger people may read my work and maybe they won't fully understand the darker elements of the work, but they'll find the elements that will speak to them. And maybe in a couple more years, they'll reread it, and new layers of meaning will open up for them."

She said she sees classroom potential in Sing, Unburied, Sing: "There's a lot there for teachers to teach their students. They can talk about prisons, how incarceration affects the families of the incarcerated. They can talk about intergenerational trauma, experiences your grandparents had may affect their children and their children's children. It might be interesting for kids to talk about grief and loss. I had my first personal brush with death at 6, when my grandmother died, and then my grandfather died soon after. These are not foreign concepts to a lot of kids."

Ward believes her home state of Mississippi has been the birthplace of many American writers for a specific reason. "This is a place where the past feels very present," she said. "Our particular past is violent and bloody, with slavery and the dark days of Jim Crow. Polite Southern society, on the other hand, was all about presenting a façade of propriety, tradition, etiquette, ignoring what enabled that façade to exist — slavery, and the underlying belief, that is still with us, far outliving slavery, that black people are not fully human and do not deserve equality. I and a lot of other Mississippi writers have been wrestling with that tension for a long time."