Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Quietly Creating a Literary Community in Nashville

Excerpt: Women in the Literary Landscape: A Centennial Publication of the Women’s National Book Association

[Editor’s note: In honor of the centennial year of the Women’s National Book Association, Chapter 16 is publishing an excerpt from Women in the Literary Landscape, which includes a history of the organization’s Nashville chapter by Carolyn T. Wilson. The WNBA will host its annual Coffee with Authors on October 13 as part of the Southern Festival of Books. But this program is one of only many crucial contributions that the WNBA’s Nashville chapter has made to the Nashville literary community over more than six decades.]

The Nashville chapter had its beginning with an organizational meeting on May 20, 1955, with twenty-seven people attending. Earlier, a larger group had heard Anne Richter, from the New York chapter, speak about the organization. At the May meeting, officers were elected. Mary Kate Ellen Gruver, juvenile editor at Broadman Press, was the first president. Nashville was the fourth WNBA chapter established.

In the early years chapter members were educators (primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities), librarians, authors, members of the local publishing community, and book lovers. In the ensuing years, members came from many other areas of the book community.

In 1986 and 1987 the chapter participated in the Tennessee Literary Homecoming Celebration, an event that eventually became the Southern Festival of Books. From the early years of the festival, chapter members formed a core group of volunteers; participation has grown into major support in all areas of this notable October event. In recent years, the chapter has hosted one of the signature events at the festival, “Coffee with Authors”-its panel of high-profile authors always attracts a large audience.

In 1990, the chapter formed the Tennessee Writers Alliance, assuming oversight of the group until it became a more self-sufficient body in 1994. Many WNBA members served as members of the TWA Board of Directors through the years.

In an effort to provide children’s materials on Tennessee history, the chapter published Tennessee Trailblazers, written by Nashville natives Patricia and Frederick McKissack and published by March Media, owned by board member Etta Wilson. It has become a staple across Tennessee in libraries and through book sales. In another publishing venture, the chapter produced the Literary Allusions Cookbook in 1982.

Another chapter activity of long-standing is the Summer Reading and Book Discussion Series, held for twenty-six years at Lipscomb University. It features six weeks of book discussions facilitated by scholars from local school and colleges. The series initially highlighted books from the WNBA’s “75th Anniversary List of Books by Women Authors,” and its popularity led to a recurring summer event directed by member Carolyn Wilson. Popular themes for the series have included Southern literature, humor, writing about food, international writers, and books into movies. The program was renamed the Willodene Scott Summer Reading and Discussion Series, honoring Willodene Scott, a charter member of the chapter. Building on the success of the summer reading and discussion series, a smaller book group began meeting at a branch library, which initially focused on the Great Group Reads selections.

In 1995 the chapter joined with the Tennessee Bicentennial Committee and the Tennessee Council of Teachers of English to produce a literary map of Tennessee. This map hangs in the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress along with other state literary maps. For many years the chapter has participated in the ATHENA Awards, considered the highest recognition of women of achievement in Nashville. Chapter members Donna Paz and Sue Bredensteiner were WNBA representatives to the awards committee. Each year the chapter nominates an outstanding member for the award.

Many programs have been developed to promote the value of books and reading to youth audiences. “Books Change the World” was a Saturday discussion at public libraries featuring successful Nashville women sharing the importance of reading in their lives. In the spring of 2005, a day focusing on writing, “Connecting: A Day for Readers and Writers,” was held at Hume Fogg Academic Magnet High School. Fourteen writers joined in this effort with keynote addresses presented by authors John Egerton, Tony Earley, and storyteller Estelle Condra. This was directed by WNBA member Alice Sanford, with proceeds from the event providing scholarships for the Tennessee Young Writers’ Workshops. This program has continued and expanded in subsequent years.

For many years, the chapter has supported Book’em, a local incentive directed by WNBA member Lee Fairbend that provides disadvantaged children with books of their own. Each year volunteers go into the public schools in metropolitan Nashville to read to children. Honoring a commitment to education, scholarships are offered to young students pursuing careers in books, libraries, and writing. Currently scholarships are given to attendees of the Young Writers Workshops, held each summer by Humanities Tennessee.

When the new downtown Nashville Public Library opened in 1998, an event was held to raise money for the library featuring Tennessee writers Ronald Kidd, Cherie Bennett, and Patricia C. McKissack . In 2002, to further support the new Nashville Public Library, the chapter donated two original watercolors by Caldecott award winner Jerry Pinkney from Patricia C. McKissack’s book about the old Nashville Public Library, Goin’ Someplace Special. In 2005, chapter member Kathy Gore led the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the chapter, which included an exhibit of chapter history at the new public library, an anniversary dinner with guest author Jeanne Ray, and a commemorative poster created by Nashville artist Gary Gore.

The Nashville chapter remains a vital force in Nashville and the surrounding areas with diverse programs, cooperative ventures with other book-related groups to promote the value of books and reading, educational activities through schools and libraries, and efforts to raise the recognition of outstanding women who have been part of the book community. We consist of a widely diverse membership bringing much expertise and enthusiasm to our planning, programs, and mission.

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