Need a summer read? Join this basin-wide book club


Book club participants will read Sally Cole-Misch’s fictional novel The Best Part of Us, which takes place on an inland lake near Lake Huron. Image: Glasshouse/Eric Schwortz.

By Kayla Nelsen

Readers across the Great Lakes states and Canada this year will participate in a basin-wide book club.

Michigan author Sally Cole-Misch said her background in environmental communication taught her that story-telling is a powerful educational tool. Her novel, The Best Part of Us, deals with family history, heritage and place-based attachment in the Great Lakes. Image: Susan Adams.

From now until September 2025 participants will read Michigan author Sally Cole-Misch’s The Best Part of Us and Ontario author Joanne Robertson’s children’s book, The Water Walker. The inaugural Great Lakes Great Read program is similar to community reading programs like Michigan Reads. This time the invitation is extended beyond state lines to the entire Great Lakes region.

The effort is co-hosted by the Wisconsin Water Library, local libraries across the region, Great Lakes Odyssey, Biinaagami Project and the Library of the Great Lakes.

“We’re working to develop a Great Lakes identity,” said Inger Schultz, co-founder of the non-profit Library of the Great Lakes. “We’re asking what it means to live in the Great Lakes, how we can connect people to the water and to each other. Someone in Buffalo could be connected with someone in Milwaukee because they’re reading the same thing. It’s one big book club.”

The Library of the Great Lakes was founded in 2016 to connect local libraries in the region on a foundation of watershed education. It is the only U.S. public library organization that does basin-wide programming.

“The concept for the Library of the Great Lakes was to become a nexus where librarians across the region could talk to each other and share materials,” Schultz said.

Author and illustrator Joanne Robertson is a member of the Anishinaabe kwe bald eagle clan and was adopted as a baby by French and German parents. She was raised on a farm in Southern Ontario and now lives beside the Goulais River in Ontario, Canada. Image: Ben Jonah.

The library will supply programming ideas and materials to libraries across the region to accompany reading the two selected books. On September 25 it will host a webinar discussion with Cole-Misch and Robertson in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Everyone is invited to the table there.” Schultz said. “That will help us create some dialogue.”

Communication through story-sharing is an impactful environmental education strategy, said Cole-Misch, an environmental journalist and former public affairs officer for the U.S./Canada International Joint Commission.

“Escaping into another world helps you emotionally connect with other people, other places and other experiences,” Cole-Misch said. “It broadens your horizons. Novels really touch people in a whole different emotional way.”

Cole-Misch’s fictional novel explores the intersection between family, historical culture and the environment. The story takes place on a Canadian inland lake north of Lake Huron – a setting with which many Great Lakes readers are familiar.

“So many residents in the Great Lakes region enjoy family cottages on inland lakes,” Cole-Misch said. “Whether you’re on a Great Lake or an inland lake, you’re still part of the Great Lakes region and you have similar topography. I felt that would be a relatable place.”

The goal of the book is to tell a story that presents the intergenerational value of nature, Cole-Misch said.

“We live in such an amazing region of water and natural resources that are just going to become more and more valuable and threatened in the years to come,” she said. “People are going to want our water. I felt it was really urgent to try and connect with people to help them enhance their understanding and value of the lakes.”

States in the Great Lakes region have long been known as part of the manufacturing ‘Blue Belt’ of the country. An identity shift within the Great Lakes region is necessary to gain greater appreciation for the watershed, Cole-Misch said.

“The more that we collectively see the value of the lakes to our region and the gifts that they give us, the more that we will see ourselves that way rather than as the leading industrial sector of the country,” Cole-Misch said.

Robertson’s children’s book is an illustrated true story of an Ojibwe family in the Great Lakes region. The characters in the book reflect Robertson’s Anishinaabe and European heritage. As a baby, the author was adopted into a French and German family in Canada. The Water Walker tells the story of the intersection between European and Indigenous heritage in protecting the Great Lakes.

Canadian author and illustrator Joanne Robertson incorporated her Anishinaabe heritage in her children’s book, The Water Walker, which tells the story of an Ojibwe family in the Great Lakes region. Image: Second Story Press.

Libraries across the region can contact the Library of the Great Lakes for toolkits and programming ideas to organize educational sessions in their communities about the Great Lakes watershed. Two additional webinars with Cole-Misch and Robertson will take place in October. Community members can register for events online and through their local libraries.

“We are all one community and are crazily diverse,” Schultz said. “There are so many histories in the Great Lakes region and this is who we are. We wouldn’t be here without the water – it’s something to be cherished.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 16, 2024 to correct the spelling of Schultz, identify all of the hosts and clarify that the Great Lakes Library is a non-profit organization.

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