The Evanston community is poised to become a book group. On Sept. 19, the Evanston Public Library will kick off Evanston’s version of The Big Read, encouraging everyone in the community to read and discuss “Into the Beautiful North” by Luis Alberto Urrea. More than 20 discussions of the book are planned, and the hope is that informal disucssions will pop up across the community.

The National Endowment for the Arts says its Big Read program, “broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.” Literature does that. It can open minds and hearts, expand our worlds and re-humanize us in this increasingly sharp and bitter world.

The Big Read dovetails nicely with the Joint Literacy Goal adopted by School Districts 65 and 202 in January of last year. That goal provides that Districts 65 and 202 “will ensure that all students are proficient readers and college and career ready by the time they reach the 12th grade.”

But reading is not merely for those who already understand words and letters. It is a vital component of early childhood development. In June, 2014,  the American Academy of Pediatrics  issued the policy statement “Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice.” The abstract to the statement says parents and caregivers should be reading to infants from birth on: “Reading regularly with young children stimulates optimal patterns of brain development and strengthens parent-child relationships at a critical time in child development, which, in turn, builds language, literacy, and social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.”

In “Bedtime Stories for Young Brains,” an Aug. 17 article in the New York Times, Dr. Perri Klass, who wrote the AAP policy statement with  Dr. Pamela C. High, said the statement included “a review of the extensive research on the links between growing up with books and reading aloud, and later language development and school success.”

Dr. Klass cited research by Dr. John Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, that showed “Children whose parents reported more reading at home and more books in the home showed significantly greater activation of brain areas in a region of the … brain that is ‘a watershed region, all about multisensory integration, integrating sound and then visual stimulation.” The region of the brain that is active when older children read to themselves also lights up when other children are hearing stories, Dr. Hutton found.

Thus what might seem only a delightful experience – reading to a child or an infant – is in fact a brain-building exercise. The synapses – or connections – in an infant’s brain double almost daily, and the spoken work – whether in conversation or reading a book – build these connections in ways that screens cannot.

The Big Read is a Big Opportunity for Evanstonians of all ages to make connections – connections to each other, to the art of storytelling, to the common threads to be found in diverse cultures. It is a chance for adults to model for youth the importance – and joy – they find in reading.