Reading Together 2012 Blog

A message from Luis Alberto Urrea...

Dear Kalamazoo:

Ever since leaving your fine city and your excellent Reading Together program events, my wife and I have been talking about you. To each other. To bookstores. To other writers. We hold you up as a model to other all-city read programs. No question Kalamazoo does it right.

It's a rare and wonderful thing for an author to share his work with such a cross-section of a community as I did with Kalamazoo. To be able to meet with readers is always grand, but to be welcomed as a friend by so many, across such different platforms was an incredible experience. I know you appreciate the amazing work of your librarians and the Reading Together committee that made it all possible because you were so warm and responsive. We never ran out of things to talk about! I was only disappointed to not be able to attend ALL the events.

I was especially touched by the artwork done by the high school students and showcased in your spectacular library. I will be posting pictures of some of that work. As an artist, to inspire other artists is a dream come true. It also meant so much to me to have the support of my friend (and your own literary heroine) Bonnie Jo Campbell. A special thanks to you for inviting her to be involved with your program. That shows a great literary commitment all the way through your community.

I was especially heartened by the fact that you forged a bond with Kankakee, IL. I think the the future is being written by towns like Kankakee and Kalamazoo and I am so honored that my novel could play a part.

On a personal note, I just have to say that your librarians and staff people were spectacular. I enjoyed every minute of your company. I deeply appreciated your generosity and I have to say doing an event in front of a few hundred kindergartners was probably the coolest tour experience of the last year!

Thank you to Karen Santamaria and everyone on the Reading Together committee. Thank you for selecting my novel Into the Beautiful North, thank you for reading, and most of all, thank you for your friendship and support. Hope to see you again soon!

Luis Alberto Urrea

P.S. Oh yeah, best donuts we ever had, too!


Luis Alberto Urrea at Kalamazoo Public Library

Magnificent Screening

As one who hasn't watched many classic Westerns, I didn't have set expectations about Friday’s screening of the 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum’s Stryker Theater. However, from the first strains of the iconic soundtrack’s main theme, I was 100 percent on board with the story and soon, understood how the movie inspired the characters of Into the Beautiful North.

The film’s simple storyline is captivating, but add to it Yul Brynner’s unflinching gaze, stage presence and solid stature buttoned into his close-cut black denim-and-leather western wear, I understood Aunt Irma’s infatuation with “Mexico’s greatest film star.” Steve McQueen held his own with his sapphire blue eyes, confident wily smile and social-justice motivations.

For me, viewing the film after reading Into the Beautiful North added to my enjoyment of both film and novel. I recommend this PG-rated film to anyone looking for an escapist classic Western adventure, but especially to those who have read Into the Beautiful North. Check your library’s catalog for the DVD of The Magnificent Seven and invite a friend over to watch it.

~ Jim Ratliff, Librarian, Arcadia Commons Campus Kalamazoo Valley Community College


Magnificent Seven


Basking in the glow

If you were not able to attend Luis Urrea’s presentation last week, you missed a wonderfully engaging evening of storytelling and music provided by Kalamazoo’s own Los Bandits de Michigan. Fear not, however. Thanks to our friends at Public Media Network, we are pleased to offer four opportunities to watch the rebroadcast of the evening on channel 95. Here is the schedule: 

  • Tuesday, March 13 7 pm
  • Wednesday, March 14 1 pm
  • Monday, March 19 9 pm
  • Thursday, March 22 7 pm


Whether or not you’ve read Into the Beautiful North, you are bound to enjoy Urrea’s easy-going manner and his humorous yet poignant remarks. In fact, if you’re like many people I’ve spoken to since, chances are you’ll be inspired to check out several of his award-winning titles.


Luis Urrea in Kalamazoo

Urrea’s Visit is Timely

When I came to Kalamazoo twelve years ago, I knew it was a special place. We are lucky to have so many arts organizations, cultural events, and an award-winning public library that sponsors Reading Together! We are even luckier that this year’s Reading Together author, Luis Urrea, visits Kalamazoo next week.

Urrea will speak on Tuesday, March 6, at 7 pm in the Kalamazoo Central High School Auditorium. This is a free event, and all are invited to hear Urrea speak about Into the Beautiful North, writing, and being “dual culture.” Come listen to the music of local Tex-Mex band Los Bandits de Michigan and even have a book signed by the author!

You will also have a chance to meet Urrea on Wednesday, March 7 at noon in Kalamazoo College’s Light Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. Urrea will be working with a Kalamazoo College class, talking about the craft of writing, and exploring issues of crossing borders. He will also address the recent “Librotraficante” movement and the banning of his books from the Tucson, Arizona Unified School District. This event is free, open to the public, and snacks will be provided after the class.

Urrea’s visit is timely. With the controversy over prohibiting ethnic studies in Arizona (HB 2281), Urrea can give us a “banned author’s” perspective on the issue. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to interact with the author, ask questions, and explore border crossings of your own.

~Dr. Stacy Nowicki, Library Director, Kalamazoo College Library


Luis Alberto Urrea

Universal One-liners

One of the things that amazes me about Into the Beautiful North, that I really only paid a lot of attention to on my third reading of the book, is the wonderful, philosophical one-liners that are sprinkled throughout the book. They’re so easy to miss, so I thought I would note a few of them here, just in case others missed them. The page number that follows is the page number in the paperback version of the book.

Here they come:

  • Mostly they did what Mexicans in every small town in Mexico did: they circled their own history (15).
  • (Of Yolo’s brother, Tlacloc) he changed the name to Lalo before he went north with his father to become nameless (20).
  • (On immigration into Mexico) “Go back where you came from!” Irma bellowed, “Mexico is for Mexicans” (36).
  • “The Americans are kind. Friendly people. Generous people. They have quaint customs—they aren’t really, shall we say, sophisticated like we are. You can’t drink the water—it will give you diarrhea” (62)
  • (The tweakers) never made it all the way to the top, so they never saw the view (from the garbage heap (124).
  • What made them different from her? She could not tell (155).
  • Nayeli wanted what they (Americans) had, but she did not know what that was (169).
  • (Nayeli) could not comprehend where she’d been, what she’d seen, who she’d met, or what she’d lost (259).
  • “This is Kankakee, morra! They like Mexicans here (317).
  • “Our town has seen some hard times. But it’s a wonderful place. We’re bringing it back.” (Of Kankakee, 321).

There are many more, but these particularly struck me because of the universality of them all. The last two, in particular, I hope people can say more readily about Kalamazoo following our Reading Together experience this year.

Another thing I found in the “joining unlike groups of people together” is the mention that Arnold Davis, border patrol, wants to escape, as does Matt, the former missionary. We are all so much more alike than different! If you talk with someone not like you who has read the book, you’ll probably discover the same thing—we’re all so much alike and our differences are very interesting.


~ Sherry Ransford-Ramsdell, Reading Together Steering Committee


Into the Beautiful North

The Truth Behind the Fiction

 The first several chapters of Into the Beautiful North hint at the violent realities of modern day Mexico. In the first chapter we witness the menace of the bandidos and the result of their work is what ultimately sends Nayeli and her friends on their journey north. A desire to learn more about the effect that drug cartel violence is having on daily life in Mexico led me to a number of accounts that depicted such shocking violence and brutality they seemed fictional. Yet further reading revealed nothing but more complexity, corruption, fear and unbelievably horrific human behavior. Two stories related to the border town of Juarez, Mexico have resonated with me ever since. Sarah Hill’s 2010 story The War For Drugs from the Boston Review is an unflinching account of life in Juarez, showing how the traffickers, U.S. and Mexican politics, and mainly U.S. demand for illegal drugs have brought that city to its knees. Finding this story led to the wonderful discovery that Sarah Hill is in fact a faculty member with the Department of Anthropology at WMU and will present a program titled Modern Mexican Reality on Tuesday, March 13 at 6:30 at the Oshtemo Branch Library as a part of this year’s Reading Together programming. Please plan to attend, it is sure to be interesting. The other story Angels Send Message of Peace to Juarez Mexico is an amazing story about the powerful and artistic reaction of a group of teens in Juarez to the drug violence they witness daily in their city. When I first heard this incredible story I was immediately reminded of Nayeli and the group of teens that Luis Alberto Urrea invented to tell the story in Into the Beautiful North; and I was happy to find a glimmer of youthful hope in the otherwise grim picture of life in Mexico today.


Into the Beautiful North

Podcasts: More from (and about) Kankakee

Luis Urrea is a compelling speaker. His style is frank and unassuming, yet modest and refreshingly upbeat. Last time, I wrote about hearing a conversation with Urrea on the National Endowment for the Arts blog, “Art Works.

Here are some follow-up podcasts that should help provide a little additional context for his upcoming appearance(s) in Kalamazoo… Enjoy.

Podcast: Kankakee Public Library, January 26, 2006


Kankakee Public Library (another KPL!) in Kankakee, Illinois, offers the audio portion of Luis Urrea’s program when he first visited the library on January 26, 2006. Urrea discusses his early writings; The Devil’s Highway and Hummingbird’s Daughter, along with then (and still) timely issues of immigration and growing up in a Mexican family. Urrea was so moved by this visit to Kankakee and the story of its library that it prompted him to write an article for the New York Times, “Kankakee Gets Its Groove Back.”

Podcast: Kankakee Public Library, May 20, 2009


Urrea returned to Kankakee Public Library on May 20, 2009 for the launch of his (then) latest novel, Into the Beautiful North. During this discussion, Urrea speaks about Kankakee’s place in Into the Beautiful North and reads excerpts from the book. The program includes an introduction by Julia Sandstrom, whose mother, Mary Jo Johnston, was the Kankakee librarian who so inspired Urrea. Urrea shares more about his first experiences in Kankakee, his resulting friendship with Mary Jo, and how Kankakee found its place in his writing.

Podcast: BlogTalkRadio, November 29, 2011


During this half-hour podcast/radio show recorded for BlogTalkRadio in November 2011, Luis Urrea discusses his current book, Queen of America. Urrea tells listeners about his great aunt, who happens to be the main character of the book, and her experiences as a “back door” immigrant in New York City during the early 20th century. One caller during the program was Miriam Downey, a Kalamazoo-based blogger (The Cyberlibrarian Reads) who added a nice plug for Urrea’s Kalamazoo visit. The program is an interesting and timely conversation about the immigrant experience, writing, getting his first book published, and even Mexican food!

Don’t miss your chance to see and hear Luis Urrea in person, Tuesday, March 6th.


Luis Urrea at Kankakee Public Library

Podcast: Discovering Kankakee

Reading about an author or artist is one sure way to gain insight into that person’s creative process, but hearing authors tell about their work in their own words often seems to add a new dimension to our understanding. With that in mind I headed out for a dog hike yesterday and quickly grabbed a couple of podcasts to listen to along the way. I was interested to learn more about Reading Together author Luis Alberto Urrea; here’s some of what I what I found.

One standout was an interesting interview with Urrea from January 2011 that was posted by the National Endowment for the Arts on its blog called “Art Works.” Interestingly, Urrea talks about getting to know the town of Kankakee, Illinois, (important in Into the Beautiful North) and his discovery of the public library there.

According to Urrea, the Kankakee Public Library had become the cultural centerpiece of a citywide revitalization project. “They made the library a highly computerized, safe open-late-at-night haven for kids go to, free of gang violence,” says Urrea. “It was an amazing turnaround of a town who figured it out on their own.” (The story, it seems, is not at all unlike the recent revitalization of downtown Kalamazoo, where our own world class library is a community centerpiece.) “This new public library has become the cultural hub of the city,” Urrea later wrote in the New York Times, “crucial to its downtown revitalization.”

It’s an interesting story; give it a listen. You can download a copy for yourself and/or read a transcript on the Art Works blog.

Art Works Podcast: Discovering Kankakee


Next time, I’ll share more findings about Into the Beautiful North; including a recent podcast recorded last November that includes some discussion with Urrea about his upcoming visit to Kalamazoo on March 6th. Stay tuned.


Art Works Podcast: Discovering Kankakee

Meet the author - Luis Urrea

I have been trying to keep up with Luis Urrea's public life while he is on tour promoting his new book, Queen of America. He blogs regularly on his website and shares little snippets about his travels on Facebook and Twitter. The more I read, the more excited I get for his visit to Kalamazoo in March. Did you know there will be several opportunities, including one for a Spanish-speaking audience, to see/hear Urrea in person on March 6th and 7th? You can find all the details here.

In the meantime, you might be interested to read Urrea's own words about writing Into the Beautiful North (scroll down past the description of the book). I particularly enjoy his humility, his honesty and his sense of humor, and I so look forward to witnessing them in person in just a few short weeks.


Meet Luis Urrea

Kankakee to Kalamazoo

Have you noticed the great lineup of Reading Together programs for this year? I’m looking forward to “Kankakee to Kalamazoo.” Since moving to Kalamazoo, I’ve been intrigued by other places with unique names beginning with “Ka.” I always thought it would be fun to plan a road trip, from one “Ka” place to the next. We could start not too far away in Kalkaska, MI, pass by Kalamazoo, visit Kankakee and end up in Kalispell, MT, right near Glacier National Park.

Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that Kankakee is a primary destination for main character Nayeli, as she road trips Into the Beautiful North. She learns a lot on her long journey, even if some things she might rather not have discovered. Often when we travel, we learn so much from the people and places we encounter along the way. One could say the same about reading a well-written novel!

This April we have the chance to discover more about Kankakee directly from its residents, without ever leaving our dear town.


Into the Beautiful North