Barbara Ballinger Lecture

Each fall we gather to celebrate and recognize former head librarian Barbara Ballinger and her many years of dedicated service to the library and to Oak Park. This annual event is sponsored by the Friends of the Oak Park Public Library.

2021 Presenter: Michelle Kuo

Author Michelle Kuo

Thank you for a wonderful event!

Thank you to everyone who was able to join us for the virtual lecture and Q&A with author Michelle Kuo. Her memoir, Reading With Patrick, discusses education, inequality, and incarceration, and asks, “What social transformation is necessary to change a life?”

About the author

Michelle Kuo is a writer, attorney, and professor. She is the author of Reading With Patrick, a memoir of mentoring and tutoring a former student in a rural Arkansas county jail.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Michelle has worked to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants, assist asylum seekers, and defend incarcerated people. She has taught in prisons in the United States, France, and Taiwan.

Michelle is interested in literacy, racial and socioeconomic equality, and abolitionist approaches toward prison and detention. She has published in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, Public Books, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Point, and other outlets. Recently, she and her husband Albert Wu started “A Broad and Ample Road,” a weekly newsletter on culture and politics.

Currently, she is an Associate Professor at the American University of Paris, where she works closely with college students on issues of social justice. She also is a pro bono lawyer for the Stanford Three Strikes Project and helped found Dialogue and Transformation, a global coalition advancing dialogues on peace, justice, and prisons. 

About the book

Reading With Patrick is a memoir of mentoring and tutoring a former student in a rural Arkansas county jail. It was a runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice.

As Pulitzer Prize–winning James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik write in The Atlantic, “Impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom set the book apart. … In all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.”

As Michelle puts it in The New York Times, her book is an “intimate story about the failure of the education and criminal justice systems and the legacy of slavery; about how literature is for everyone, how books connect people, and the hope that with enough openness and generosity we can do the hard work of knowing each other and ourselves.”

Digital and print copies are available through your library.

More titles like Reading With Patrick

David Seleb, Jose Olivarez, and Barbara Ballinger
Pictured, from left: Director David Seleb, author and poet José Oliverez, and Barbara Ballinger at the 2018 lecture.

About Barbara Ballinger

Born in Miami, Oklahoma, Ballinger began her library career with the Oklahoma City Public Library. After graduating from the University of Kansas, she received her chauffeur’s license to drive a bookmobile for the Topeka Public Library. She went on to earn her MSLS degree at the Graduate School of Library Science of the University of Illinois.

As an Oak Park librarian, Ballinger expected to stay in her position for only a few years. Instead, she retired after 32 years of library service in Oak Park, including her 24 years as head librarian at the Oak Park Public Library. Ballinger led the library during a period of extensive growth and change, a time that saw development of Illinois library resource sharing, the introduction of multiple new technologies, and the overall growth of the library's collection and use. She valued working with civic-minded library boards, dedicated staff members, and the ever-supportive Friends.

Today, Ballinger enjoys the services of our vibrant library community, one she was instrumental in helping create, and volunteers for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Archives, now housed in the Main Library.


2020 presenter: Claire Lombardo

Oak Park native Claire Lombardo is a novelist and teacher. Her first book, The Most Fun We Ever Had, was an instant New York Times bestseller and has been translated or is forthcoming in over a dozen languages. The novel is being adapted for a series on HBO to be written by Claire and co-produced by Amy Adams and Laura Dern.

Claire is a graduate of the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in, among others, Playboy, Barrelhouse Magazine, Little Fiction, and Longform. Her story "I Only Want to Talk About the Nice Things" was one of 2016's Best of the Net, and was #1 on Longform's 2015 fiction list.

Prior to writing The Most Fun We Ever Had, Claire spent several years working with homeless children and families in Chicago. A native of Oak Park, Illinois, she now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her dog, Renee. 


Alex Kotlowitz

2019 presenter: Alex Kotlowitz

For 40 years, Alex Kotlowitz has been telling stories from the heart of America, deeply intimate tales of struggle and perseverance.

Alex is the author of four books, including his most recent, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (available in print and on CD through the library catalog).

His other books include the national bestseller There Are No Children Here (available in multiple formats through the library catalog), which the New York Public Library selected as one of the 150 most important books of the twentieth century. It received the Helen B. Bernstein Award and was adapted as a television movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. It was selected by The New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year along with his second book, The Other Side of the River, which also received The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Nonfiction.

His book on Chicago, Never a City So Real (available in multiple formats through the library catalog), is available in paperback. Learn more about the author »


Jose Olivarez

2018 presenter: José Olivarez

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants, co-author of the book of poems Home Court, and co-host of the poetry podcast, The Poetry Gods.

He is a graduate of Harvard University and the Marketing Manager at Young Chicago Authors. He has received fellowships from CantoMundo, Poets House, the Bronx Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Conversation Literary Festival, and his work has been published in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and Hyperallergic, among other places.

His debut book of poems, Citizen Illegal, from Haymarket Books is out now.


Jane Hirshfield
Photo by Curt Richter.

2017 presenter: Jane Hirshfield

Award-winning poet, translator, and essayist Jane Hirshfield's poetry speaks to the central issues of human existence—desire and loss, impermanence and beauty, the many dimensions of our connection with others, and the wider community of creatures and objects with which we share our lives. Demonstrating with quiet authority what it means to awaken into the full capacities of attention, her work sets forth a hard-won affirmation of our human fate.

Described by The New York Times as “radiant and passionate” and by other reviewers as “ethically aware,” “insightful and eloquent,” and as conveying “succinct wisdom,” her subjects range from the metaphysical and passionate to the political, ecological, and scientific to subtle unfoldings of daily life and experience.

Her book of essays on the “mind of poetry” and her several collections presenting and co-translating the work of poets from the past have become classics in their fields. An intimate, profound, and generous master of her art, Hirshfield has taught at UC Berkeley, Duke University, Bennington College, and elsewhere, and her many appearances at writers’ conferences and literary festivals in this country and abroad have been highly acclaimed. Learn more about Jane »


Wendy McClure

2016 presenter: Wendy McClure

Born and raised in Oak Park, Wendy McClure is a woman of many talents. As the author of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, she won the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award for nonfiction in 2011, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick.

Her 2005 memoir, I’m Not the New Me, was featured in publications such as Time Magazine, USA Today, Elle, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her infamous online collection of vintage Weight Watcher recipe cards and commentary was published in the 2006 humor book The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan.

Since 2004 she has written the pop culture column for BUST Magazine. Her work has also appeared in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, the Chicago Sun-Times, and on the radio program This American Life. She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her work in children’s books includes her historical fiction series, Wanderville, and she has edited more than 50 novels and picture books for children as a senior editor at Albert Whitman & Company. McClure now lives in Chicago with her husband, Chris. Learn more about Wendy McClure »


Charles Dubow

2015 presenter: Charles Dubow

Author of Indiscretion, Charles DuBow is also a founding editor of, and a former editor at

With Girl in the Moonlight, Dubow created a searing tale of love, passion, and obsession—the story of one man's all-consuming desire for a beautiful, bewitching, and elusive woman. Spanning several decades, moving through the worlds of high society and art, and peopled with poignant characters, Girl in the Moonlight takes us from the wooded cottages of the Hamptons to the dining rooms of Upper East Side Manhattan to the glamorous nightlife of Paris and Barcelona. As Dubow vividly brings to life a couple's tempestuous, heart-wrenching affair, he probes the devastating depths of misguided passion and the nature of true love.


2014 presenter: Marilyn Johnson

Best-selling author Marilyn Johnson has a penchant for the unsung people who preserve our cultural memory.

Her two previous works are This Book is Overdue!, which upended the notion that librarians are obsolete in our digital age, and The Dead Beat, which is about a golden age of obituary writers in a time when newspapers are dying.

In Lives in Ruins, Johnson turns her trademark narrative perception and wit to the unglamorous, workaday archeologists who sift through the detritus of the past to explore our own connections with those who came before us—working not only in romantic landscapes like Greece or Machu Picchu, but more often in urban construction sites, forgotten graveyards, and even underwater.


John Searles
Photo by Thomas Caruso.

2013 presenter: John Searles

John Searles is the best-selling author of Help for the Haunted, Boy Still Missing, and Strange but True.

Born and raised in New England, the son of a truck-driver father and stay-at-home mom, John’s parents used their connections after his high school graduation to get him a job at the nearby Dupont factory, where he gathered parts for various job orders. It didn’t take him long to realize the place wasn’t for him. John set his sights on becoming the first person in his family to attend college. His personal story of becoming a best-selling author makes one truly believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it—and work very, very hard.

Today, John frequently appears as a book critic on NBC’s Today show and CBS’s The Early Show. He is the Editor-at-Large of Cosmopolitan. His essays appear in national publications including The New York Times. John lives in New York City.


Photo by Paul Emmel.

2012 presenter: Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is the author of 14 novels as well as volumes of poetry, short stories, children's books, and a memoir of early motherhood.

Her novel Love Medicine won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Much of her writing draws from the Ojibwe tribe of which she is a part, leading to authentic and beautiful levels of detail. Younger readers will find Erdrich’s Birchbark series appealing. The Round House is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family. Riveting, suspenseful, and arguably her most accessible novel to date, it won the 2012 National Book Award for fiction.

Erdrich lives in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore.


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