Schools Will Lead Toms River in Discussion of Vietnam-Era Novel

June 5, 2018-- The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Arts Midwest have awarded Toms River Regional Schools a $15,000 grant to host NEA Big Read during the 2018-2019 school year.

Last year, the district became one of the first two public school districts ever to earn an NEA Big Read grant, which it used to build a month of activities around the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven. The success of that community-wide initiative invariably led to another selection for TRRS, one of only 79 institutions nationally to be granted in 2018.

“This past October, NEA Big Read proved to be not only a fun and engaging way to promote literacy, but a means of uniting people throughout Toms River,” said Superintendent David Healy. “This award for the coming year further cements our involvement in Big Read and our capacity to host wide-scale programs, and it’s also on the continuum of our efforts in student achievement, literacy, and community partnerships.”

From mid-February through March 29, 2019--Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day--the district will lead a discussion on The Things They Carried, a collection of interconnected Vietnam War short stories by author Tim O’Brien. The book has sold more than two million copies and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support opportunities for communities across the nation, both small and large, to take part in the NEA Big Read,” said NEA Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter. “This program encourages people not only to discuss a book together, but be introduced to new perspectives, discuss the issues at the forefront of our own lives, and connect with one another at events.”

For 2018-2019, the district will again be working alongside its primary partner, Ocean County Library, as well as Ocean County College, the Greater Toms River Chamber of Commerce, and Ocean County Health Department. The military element of the novel has helped pull in several other enthusiastic partners including a number of local veterans and TRRS alumni; NAVAIR, with which the district is already working on a three-year coding initiative funded by the Office of Naval Research; Ocean County Tourism, which boasts strong ties to many local veterans organizations; and Warrior Writers, a veteran poets organization the district has joined with thanks to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Toms River boasts the largest population of veterans in the state of New Jersey, and the school district plans to use this opportunity to establish intergenerational bonds between students and vets. But the program goes deeper than that, and aims to spark challenging and instructive conversations. In its application to host next year’s installment, the district wrote, “The book’s challenging themes and raw prose will help our students and families identify and confront the weights we all carry, and develop stronger literacy skills and deeper interpersonal connections.”

“What seems to appeal to the NEA and Arts Midwest about our approach is the fact that we really strive to relate our selected novel to Toms River,” said High School English Language Arts Supervisor Tonya Rivera. “This past year we successfully connected a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel to Superstorm Sandy, and next year we plan to use The Things They Carried not only to discuss the broader issue of war, but the figurative weights we carry as a township, and as classmates, families, and friends. This will open the door to exploring challenging and personal topics like mental health and addiction.”

Rivera and her Big Read co-director, Intermediate English Language Arts Supervisor Christy Downs, have already planned major components of the 2018-2019 project, which include a mini-poetry festival for students based on the novel, family book clubs, and collaborative events with OCL such as a “Music of the Vietnam Era” showcase.

“Toms River has almost 7,000 veterans,” said Emily Mazzoni, Ocean County Library’s principal librarian of teen services. “We look forward to this Big Read as a literary bridge between generations. Our programs will center around the parallels of the 1960s generation and today’s generation, including teen empowerment, engagement and advocacy.”

Through the grant and with additional financial backing from Ocean County College, the Ocean County College Foundation, and OCC’s Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, the district has secured an appearance and keynote address from the book’s award-winning author, Tim O’Brien.

“[W]e really strive to relate our selected novel to Toms River ... we plan to use The Things They Carried not only to discuss the broader issue of war, but the figurative weights we carry as a township." -TRRS High School English Language Arts Supervisor Tonya Rivera

Toms River Regional Schools was able to host the author of Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, for an intimate conversation with fans of the novel at the college this past October. Her keynote presentation proved to be powerful and enlightening, and helped convince the project team that securing the author-- though not required by the program-- adds depth, excitement, and a dose of celebrity to the experience.

Even more so when it comes to O’Brien, who is one of America’s most renowned scribes and foremost authorities on the Vietnam War and its lasting legacy. In 2005 the New York Times named The Things They Carried one of the 22 best books of the last quarter century. O’Brien’s novels have sold over six million copies and have been translated into more than 20 languages. The author, who appeared in Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War documentary PBS series, is slated to appear in Toms River and offer an NEA Big Read keynote presentation March 28, 2019, which will serve as the culminating event of the program. More details on the author’s appearance will be released in the coming months.

“From Toms River Mayor Tom Kellaher, to members of our Board of Education, to numerous district staff members, veterans comprise a large and extremely important element of our township’s makeup,” said Board of Education President Russell Corby. “Our board proudly supports a program that will spotlight our service members and veterans. NEA Big Read has proven to be a unique way to highlight student achievement while uniting this community, and it’s brought some well-deserved national attention to Toms River.”

Information about events and activities will be posted to the district’s NEA Big Read website, and will be shared via its social media channels and those of its project partners. Any institutions in Toms River interested in partnering with the district on this and other initiatives may contact grant writer Mike Kenny at 732-505-5500 ext. 500053.

About NEA Big Read

The NEA Big Read showcases a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, aiming to inspire conversation and discovery. The main feature of the initiative is a grants program, managed by Arts Midwest, which annually supports dynamic community reading programs, each designed around a single NEA Big Read selection.

Since 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts has funded more than 1,400 NEA Big Read programs, providing more than $19 million to organizations nationwide. In addition, Big Read activities have reached every Congressional district in the country. Over the past eleven years, grantees have leveraged more than $44 million in local funding to support their NEA Big Read programs. More than 4.9 million Americans have attended an NEA Big Read event, approximately 82,000 volunteers have participated at the local level, and 39,000 community organizations have partnered to make NEA Big Read activities possible. For more information about the NEA Big Read, please visit

About National Endowment for the Arts

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Visit to learn more about NEA.

About Arts Midwest

Arts Midwest promotes creativity, nurtures cultural leadership, and engages people in meaningful arts experiences, bringing vitality to Midwest communities and enriching people’s lives. Based in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United States, Arts Midwest’s history spans more than 25 years. For more information, please visit


Published in 1990 to vast critical acclaim and written with the help of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, The Things They Carried, a novel about author Tim O'Brien's experiences in that war, has sold well over two million copies worldwide and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. 
NEA Big Read logo

NEA Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest.
Tim OBrien

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, is a Vietnam veteran whose novels have sold more than six million copies. In 2013, O’Brien received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Literature from the Pritzker Military Library, and in 2018 he received the Mark Twain Award in literature. He will visit Toms River as part of NEA Big Read March 28, 2019.