USM, partners kick off community reading project

With a vast treasure hunt, large book donation, children’s activities, public discussions, and other events, the University of Southern Maine and its partners are bringing Patricia Engel’s novel “Infinite Country” to the greater Portland community as part of NEA Big Read: Portland, ME

Logo for National Endowment for the Arts Big Read, managed by Arts Midwest, visit online at

The National Endowment for the Arts Big Read is designed to broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. USM is one of 70-plus nonprofit organizations to receive a grant to host an NEA Big Read project.

The project’s goal: engage community members and encourage discussions about immigration, New Mainers, and interculturalism.

“We’re bringing together dozens of partners and thousands of people, shining a spotlight on Maine’s vibrant diversity in ways that haven’t been seen before,” said Dr. Kathleen McGovern, USM Assistant Professor in the Department of Literacy, Language and Culture and one of the project’s organizers.

The community reading project kicks off Sept. 15 with a donation of nearly 1,400 books to Portland Public Schools, including copies of “Infinite Country” and teachers’ guides. 

It will continue on Sept. 16, when NEA Big Read: Portland, ME begins placing free copies of “Infinite Country” in 25 locations throughout Greater Portland as part of a unique 25-day treasure hunt for the books. Organizers will provide new clues to the books’ whereabouts on Instagram and Facebook each day. The book hunt runs through Oct. 10. 

“Portlanders will be scouring parks, hunting through the city, and getting to know their communities better, and 25 lucky winners will find free copies of the book, ‘Infinite Country,’” McGovern said. 

Other events include:

Children’s Read Aloud and Writing Workshop, Oct. 1 at 10 a.m, Portland Public Library. Read-aloud of a children’s companion book, “Someone New” by Anne Sibley O’Brien, focusing on children’s experiences of immigration. The Telling Room, a literary arts education organization, will provide a follow-up writing workshop where children will be supported in telling their own stories. USM President Dr. Jacqueline Edmondson will be the reader.

President Jacqueline Edmondson shares a storybook with kids at Portland Public Library as part of the NEA Big Read event.
Kids lean in to hear President Edmondson read “Someone New.”

New Mainers: A Panel Discussion, Oct. 4, 6 p.m, to 7:30 p.m. via Zoom. A panel featuring local scholars whose work addresses topics related to immigration in the Maine context. Moderated by Reza Jalali, the Executive Director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center. Panelists include: Dr. Lance L. O. Gibbs of the History Major, Race and Ethnic Studies and Talbot Fellow at USM; Dr. Vaishali Mamgain, Associate Professor of Economics and Director of the Bertha C. Ball Center for Compassion;  Dr. Andrea Stairs-Davenport, Professor of Literacy, Language & Culture and Associate Dean of the School of Education & Human Development at USM. 

“Infinite Country” Book Club at Portland Public Library. Book Discussion, Oct. 6, 13, 20, 27 & Nov. 3, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Five facilitated discussions on “Infinite Country.” Each discussion will last 60-90 minutes and include a set of guiding questions that engage audience members in discussion of the book’s themes.

Performance of “Snow in the Jungle/ Nieve en la jungla,” Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, Oct. 8 to Nov. 13, Artistic Project. Free tickets will be distributed to low-income community members and New Mainers for performances of Ariane Hofmann-Maniyar’s bilingual children’s book, adapted by Nicole McNulty and Directed by Robbie Harrison. This story explores a child’s experience of immigration through the eyes of a polar bear in the jungle and is appropriate for third-graders  and younger. Performances are open to the public Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.. 

Pihcintu Choir Performance, Oct. 22 at 4 p.m., Hannaford Hall at USM. A free performance by Pihcintu, an all-girls choir of New Mainers, which has received international acclaim from Yo-Yo Ma, The UN High Commission for Refugees, Maine’s NAACP, and others. USM’s Department of Theatre, the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, and Office of Equity, Inclusion, & Community Impact are co-hosting this event. The performance will be followed by a reception.

Keynote Lecture: Dr. Suárez-Orozco, Oct. 26, 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. via Zoom. Dr. Carola Suárez-Orozco, a Professor in Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Director of the Immigration Initiative at Harvard, and author of “Children of Immigration,” is a seminal scholar in the field of immigration studies. She will speak on discourses informing immigration and strategies to combat anti-immigrant sentiment, focusing on the context of New England. 

Community partners include: I’m Your Neighbor Books, The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, Portland Public Library, and The Telling Room. 

“We are so excited to participate because we believe this project will encourage more conversations about what it means to create welcoming communities and will spark more interest in the incredible books featuring stories of migration, available for every age,” said Kirsten Cappy, Executive Director of I’m Your Neighbor Books.

A room full of kids crowded around President Jacqueline Edmondson as she shared a story as part of the NEA Big Read event at Portland Public Library.
Enough kids to fill a room turned out to hear President Edmondson read at the Portland Public Library.

USM contributors include: the Department of Literacy, Language and Culture, Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education, Department of Theatre, Office of Equity, Inclusion, & Community Impact, and the Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Council. 

NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.