Harold Washington College Professor Reflects on Citywide Campaign to Get All Chicagoans to Read the Same Book


What if all of Chicago read the same book?

It’s a simple question that inspired an outstanding initiative—“One Book, One Chicago.” The annual citywide literacy campaign aims to unite Chicagoans through the power of books. From October to February each year, the Office of the Mayor and the Chicago Public Library encourage Chicagoans to read, discuss, and celebrate the same book title and a related theme.

I joined Harold Washington College’s English, Theater, and Speech Department in 2004 as an English professor just three years after the program began. At that time, the Chicago Public Library had just chosen a fantastic book by author Julia Alvarez called In the Time of the Butterflies. My former department chair knew that I had written about Julia Alvarez in my PhD dissertation, and he asked if I wanted to get involved in helping bring OBOC to Harold Washington College. I’ve been an active member of the city’s OBOC committee ever since.

This year’s book selection is the graphic biography Maus by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman, a non-fiction story depicting Spiegelman interviewing his Jewish father about his experiences during the Holocaust. Chicagoans are encouraged to read it while reflecting on the importance of being able to read freely. I’ve read it twice already, and I made sure that all five classes I’m teaching this semester are reading it, too. I can’t wait to read the book a third time with my students.

Chicago chose this year’s theme—Freedom to Read—in response to the rising number of books being banned or challenged across the country. Maus itself was banned by a Tennessee school district, leading to national discussions about censorship and intellectual freedom. Sadly, the book carries additional importance in light of recent anti-semitic attacks against the Jewish community.

The truth is we can’t sugar coat what happened in the past, and ignorance doesn’t make hard topics like the Holocaust go away. That’s why I’m proud that Harold Washington College is going all in to celebrate and promote the “One Book, One Chicago” this year, as we have every year. For nearly two decades, we’ve hosted book talks, tours, and other engaging events related to the chosen text. Many professors have even integrated the book into their Fall semester courses.

On November 17, 2022, at 12:30 p.m., we are hosting a special hybrid discussion about Spiegelman’s Maus. Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to join the event in person at Harold Washington College in room 102 or virtually via Zoom. It’s one of many events planned here and across the city to celebrate our freedom to read.

Growing up, I was told that my high school diploma was far too much learning for a girl like me, but I’m here today because I pushed past that belief. I am a proud graduate of a community college that opened intellectual doors for me, and it’s important to me that City Colleges students have the opportunity to learn to think, read, and write critically, too. Our participation in “One Book, One Chicago” has the power to increase our students’ growth in these areas, and it’s an honor to be a part of the initiative.

Judy Rivera Van Schagen joined the Harold Washington College community in 2004. She is a proud community college graduate and fierce advocate for two-year schools, having attended Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio as a non-traditional student. Rivera Van Schagen received her bachelor’s degree in English with minors in philosophy and history and her master’s degree in English literature at the University of Dayton. She later earned her doctorate in literature and criticism with a concentration in ethnic literature from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.