Connecting Communities: Tommy Orange at Community Reads in Maryland and Chicago


In the fall of 2023, PRHSB speaker and bestselling author Tommy Orange traveled to Chicago and across Maryland as part of Community Reads programs. Orange’s 2018 Pulitzer Prize-finalist and national bestseller There There was read by thousands and inspired accompanying programming and discussion groups.

What if everyone read one book at the same time? That is the question at the heart of Community Reads or One Book programs that take place in communities across the country every year. The idea to connect people through books came from Nancy Pearl, former executive director of the Washington Center for the Book in the Seattle Public Library in 1998. Since then, the concept has been adopted by hundreds of libraries, cities, and communities.

From Philadelphia to San Francisco and Santa Fe to Bismarck, Tommy Orange’s bestseller There There has inspired numerous Community Reads programs since its publication in 2018. This fall, Tommy Orange participated in two standout programs that underline the importance and impact of the One Book movement.


One Book One Maryland is the flagship program of Maryland Humanities. For their 2023 program, Maryland Humanities chose the theme Connection, citing: “As our world feels more scattered, we continue to look for shared values, ideas, and goals with people, places, and times. We desire to see and be seen, to be heard and understood, and to find the familiar in the unexpected. In connecting, we imagine different and better futures.” 

Through a public call for titles which was then reviewed by a selection committee comprised of librarians, teachers, writers, editors, and community workers from across the state, Maryland Humanities selected There There as their 2023 One Book One Maryland read. As part of their Community Reads programming, Maryland Humanities collaborated with libraries, schools, universities, book clubs, and local Native organizations.

In September 2023, Tommy Orange spoke at a virtual kick-off event attended by over 250 readers. In October, Orange came to Maryland for a Q&A session, VIP reception, and book signing and closed out the successful program with 200 readers. Orange also spoke to students at Salisbury University—a major highlight for the campus near the Chesapeake Bay, and a great example of how One Book programs can bring authors to cities outside of metro areas.

Tommy Orange Community Reads Salisbury University

Tommy Orange speaking to students at Salisbury University (Photo credit: Howard Korn)

In choosing There There, Maryland Humanities knew they were selecting a book that would amaze and would have a strong impact, making readers aware of the modern Native American experience.

Tommy Orange Community Reads Maryland

Tommy Orange with Shelly Lowe (Navajo) Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Photo credit: Howard Korn)

Asked about Orange’s virtual and in-person events, Maryland Humanities raved: “The event was amazing! We had no doubt Tommy would be an amazing speaker, and he delivered to each and every audience member. He is really great with connecting to people in a down to earth way, no matter who approached him. Whether speaking to a crowd or conversing one-on-one, he’s been nothing but delightful.”


There There was also the 2023 selection for One Book One Chicago. Library commissioner Chris Brown noted that city readers really embraced the book for its story about the complexity of identity and the changing Native American experience.

For Tommy Orange, coming to Chicago was a full circle moment since a trip to Chicago’s American Indian Center in the early 2000s set him off on a journey to writing about the urban experience of Native Americans. “16 years ago, finding out, in Chicago, that this was a reality across the country, was a revelation to me,” Tommy Orange told Chicago Public Television in a media appearance as part of One Book One Chicago. “It was the beginning of my deeper understanding of Native life in this country.”

For the season finale, the Chicago Public Library Foundation brought Tommy Orange to Chicago for an onstage interview about his work, followed by a book signing, and a private donor reception. Over 400 people squeezed into the Harold Washington Library Center with an additional 80 listeners in an overflow room and 300 readers following the live stream. In true One Book spirit, the whole community got involved and Orange also met informally with DePaul students for a Q&A.

Tommy Orange Community Reads Chicago

Tommy Orange speaks to a packed auditorium in Chicago (Photo credit: City of Chicago/Patrick L. Pyszka)

Asked about what One Book One Chicago means to him, Orange said: “I felt completely honored and amazed that this far into the book’s life, it’s still getting people excited to read.”

And the team behind One Book One Chicago was equally amazed, noting that their event with Tommy Orange was “the best event we had all year.” Summarizing the One Book One Chicago program around There There, Jennifer Lizak, Coordinator of Special Projects and Adult Services at the Chicago Public Library, said: “Tommy was a delight every moment.… So thoughtful, funny, kind, and gracious with the patrons and students. Many people really felt a personal/emotional connection to the book, especially many of our Native American community members here, and he was just so kind and lovely to every single person in our book signing line and audience.” Highlighting the unique story of There There, Lizak went on to say, “I’ve been trying for years to have the One Book One Chicago selection be by a Native author, and it was really great to have Tommy be the first. We were able to really do so much important programming here about Native issues and our local community because of this book, that will hopefully reverberate not only in people’s minds and hearts but in our future programming plans as well.”

Thank you to our partners in Maryland and Chicago for welcoming Tommy Orange into your communities and working with us to foster dialogue and connection!

If you are planning a One Book program in your city or state, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Consider picking a theme for your One Book program. This will help narrow down your selection process and align your selection committee around a common goal.
  • Embrace different formats as part of your Community Reads programming, including virtual events.
  • Get your community involved and pool together for events at different venues, especially outside of metro areas.
  • One Book selections serve as a great launching point for conversations. Embrace books and themes that help your community tackle current topics, even difficult ones, and have meaningful conversations across generations.

You can find a selection of popular Common Reads speakers and books here. Additional resources from the Penguin Random House Library team can be found here.

Please contact us for more advice on putting together an impactful Community Reads program and author visit. We are happy to help.