Immigrant Love Story Is Choice for 2017 Smith Reads

In helping to choose a book for this year’s Smith Reads program, Tanimola Somolu ’20 said she was hoping to find “one that would be most relevant to the times.”

After much discussion, Somolu—one of three students on the book selection committee—said the group chose a novel that met that goal: Cristina Henríquez’ The Book of Unknown Americans.

The love story about 15-year-old Maribel, who comes to the United States from Mexico hoping to recover from a terrible injury, “is told from the perspective of an entire neighborhood,” Somolu noted. “It’s a complex story told simply, and the characters are easy to relate to.”

In a book jacket “review,” Ruth Ozeki ’80, Smith’s Elizabeth Drew Professor of English Language and Literature and a member of the book selection committee, described the novel as being “full of the fiercest kinds of love—of a boy for a beautiful girl, of stricken parents for an injured daughter, of an immigrant community for an impossible America.” (Ozeki’s books have twice been chosen for Smith Reads).

Founded in 1999, Smith Reads is designed as a first-year reading experience for all students new to the college. Participants read the book selection before arriving on campus. At the start of fall semester, they attend a guest author’s talk, as well as faculty-led book discussions in their houses.

Henríquez will give a public address Monday, Sept. 4, at 3:30 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall. Book discussions in Smith houses will follow on Tuesday, Sept. 5, from 7 to 8 p.m.

Jane Stangl, dean of the first-year class, said Smith Reads is “a way to give new students an introduction to each other, both intellectually and socially.”

In choosing books for the collective reading, Stangl said the selection committee looks for works that “are compelling reads that hopefully appeal to students across different fields and disciplines.”

Somolu—a self-described “science person” who spent her first year at Smith exploring art and history classes—was initially worried that participating in Smith Reads would feel like another assignment.

Instead, it turned out to be a valuable way to launch her first semester. “The book discussions we had in our houses helped me hear the different perspectives people had,” said Somolu, who hails from Nigeria.

Reading the same book as other entering Smithies “made me feel like I was actually a student at this college” even before arriving on campus, Somolu added. “That was nice!”

Jaycee Greeley ’20—a first-generation student and a member of the 2017 Smith Reads selection committee—said the program helped introduce her to previously unknown aspects of college life.

“It was cool to be reading something a professor wrote and to have her here to talk about her book,” said Greeley, referring to Ozeki, whose 2013 novel, A Tale for the Time Being, was last year’s choice for Smith Reads.

This year, Greeley said the committee chose Henríquez’ novel because it addresses important issues in a way that might also motivate readers to act.

“We didn’t want this to be a book that people would open and then just toss aside,” she said.

Besides participating in Smith Reads, Greeley had this advice for entering Smithies: “Be active, and know that all of your perceptions about Smith are going to change. Be open to that!”