Santa Cruz community members gather at the Santa Cruz Public Library for “Why Teach Steinbeck,” one of The Big Read’s many events. Photo by Jessica Tran.
Santa Cruz community members gather at the Santa Cruz Public Library for “Why Teach Steinbeck,” one of The Big Read’s many events. Photo by Jessica Tran.

The Great Depression has fallen hard on America, causing the Joads — a poor family of farmers — to leave their Oklahoma home for the promise of California. And so begins John Steinbeck’s classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” a book you’ll be frequently seeing around town for the next month as the official selection for Santa Cruz’s The Big Read.

Every year since 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has awarded grants to organizations across the country to bring communities together to read, discuss and celebrate literature. This year, Santa Cruz Reads — a partnership of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries and Santa Cruz Writes — received one of the largest grants in the nation to produce a month-long series of events engaging with Steinbeck’s life and work.

Ira Silverberg, the NEA’s director of literature, is responsible for deciding how much funding an organization will receive. The impressive proposal from the Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries ensured their $20,000 award.

“When determining the size of a Big Read grant, two of the main factors are the size of the community the organization plans to reach with its programming as well as the number of activities it has planned,” Silverberg said. “Friends of the Santa Cruz Library put together a very impressive application for making their Big Read truly a community-wide event. Their plans made great use of local resources and showed both an impressive range of partnerships and support from the community.”

The grant was awarded in June 2012 and Santa Cruz Reads has been planning The Big Read for over six months, collaborating with local theater groups, professors, politicians and artists to re-imagine “The Grapes of Wrath” and celebrate the legacy of John Steinbeck. Thirty events spanning 28 days have been scheduled all over the county in each of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries. Some events will take place in larger venues such as the Nickelodeon Theatre, Kuumbwa Jazz Center and the Museum of Art & History, which hosted the Big Read’s kick-off celebration on Feb. 27, Steinbeck’s 111th birthday.

Janis O’Driscoll, programs manager of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, has played an integral role in bringing various creative communities together in conversation with Steinbeck’s work. She’s “most proud” of how these events utilize various art forms to reinterpret “The Grapes of Wrath.”

One highlight is “Visualizing the Depression,” a photo exhibition on display in the downtown library from March 7–9, which explores how the visual representation of that era can shed light on current social conditions. In various libraries and centers across the county, performances from the Willing Suspension Armchair Theater will provide readings and dramatic interpretations of selections from Steinbeck’s magnum opus.

“We want to talk not only about Steinbeck’s writing but also about the social issues surrounding the life of a farm worker in California,” O’Driscoll said. “It’s unfortunate but true that these labor issues and the influence of big business and corporations on everyday people still exist.”

Santa Cruz Reads’ social media coordinator Emily Huscher said the social issues in the novel were important as well.

“I think the social aspect of Steinbeck’s work is most interesting,” she said. “Literature is really influential in social activism because you can look at how issues were dealt with when they were written about before and how we can deal with them now.”

In a world of constantly advancing technologies, some may fear that the art of the printed book is in danger of extinction. However, events like The Big Read provides a space to freely discuss the unique value that text continues to hold in our modern society. O’Driscoll also remains confident that the written word is here to stay.

“I’m still finding a lot of people reading and a lot of people eager to read,” she said. “As a librarian, I’m not worried about people reading at all.”

The Big Read has events scheduled around Santa Cruz through March 27. Visit for a complete list of upcoming discussions, performances and lectures. 

Additionally, the 33rd annual Steinbeck Festival will be held May 3–5 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, featuring talks, tours and arts exploring the author’s home, from Cannery Row to the Pastures of Heaven.