Programs and Series

Centre County Reads

Centre County Reads

As part of the Center for American Literary Studies’s commitment to public reading, CALS proudly partners with the Centre County Library system to sponsor a joint CALS/Centre County Reads community read annually. Information about each year’s book choice and events can be found in the links below.

Shared texts constitute a key form of community building. Whether readers agree or disagree about the interpretation of a given text, the act of discussing a text, offering cogent arguments about a text, and negotiating what a text might mean brings them together.

2023 Centre County Reads

For 2023, the Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read features Shelby Van Pelt and her novel Remarkably Bright Creatures. Our programming this year is inspired by the novel’s central theme of human-animal interactions, focusing on academic and artistic representations of nonhuman subjects (like Marcellus, the octopus-narrator of Remarkably Bright Creatures) and the attendant ethical considerations of such work. A roundtable discussion and writing contest organized by CALS will precede a virtual author visit from Van Pelt herself, held via Zoom on March 14.

Details for these and other events will be posted below as they are determined. Be sure to check out the Centre County Reads website for additional info. All events are free and open to the public.

For an in-depth review of this year’s programming, read undergraduate intern Julia Mertes’s recap of the events.

Remarkably Bright Creatures

December 2022

Launch of “Who Knows?” Writing Contest

All entries due March 1, 2023.

This contest is part of the 2023 Centre County Reads/CALS Community Read of Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures, a novel narrated in part by a giant Pacific octopus named Marcellus, who laments his captivity in a small-town aquarium a pier’s-length away from Puget Sound. As the plaque in front of Marcellus’s tank notes, octopuses are remarkably bright creatures—and throughout Van Pelt’s novel, readers discover the secret intelligence and unexpected wisdom that resides not only in Marcellus, but also in his human caretakers, who include a 70-year-old widow and a 30-year-old college dropout. Remarkably Bright Creatures demonstrates how knowledge transcends age, formal education, and even species, asking readers to reimagine what “knowing” really means.

Following the example of Van Pelt’s novel, enter your best work of writing that engages with the issue of intelligence—human, animal, even artificial—and what it means to truly know anything. Submit your piece of 7,500 words or less for competition in one of the following categories: Best Short Fiction, Best Nonfiction, Best Poetry, and Best Entry for a Writer Under 18. $300 Grand Prize winner and additional prizes for winners in each category.

Please send entries to and include a cover letter with your name, address, contact information, a brief biography, and contest category. Winning entries will be displayed at Schlow Centre Region Library and on the CALS website.

Congratulations to all of our contest winners! Read the winning entries below.

Grand Prize: Annie Sidransky, “The Craziest Thought”

Short Fiction: Christina Taheri, “Know Inc.”

Non-fiction: Karly Mozdzen,“Cats & Kids: A Reflection on What it Means to Know”

Poetry: Angela Haake, “Potential

Under 18: Elliot Mathews, “The Project”

Who Knows Writing Contest

January 2023

Book Discussion
Wednesday, January 25, 7-8 p.m. | Schlow Library Zoom

February 2023

Book Discussion
Wednesday, February 15, 1-2 p.m. | Centre County Library & Historical Museum
(Registration Required)


CALS Roundtable: “Giving Voice to Animals”
Wednesday, February 15, 4-5 p.m. EST | Zoom

Shelby Van Pelt’s bestselling novel Remarkably Bright Creatures (2022) focuses on an unlikely friendship between a widow working the night shift at a West Coast aquarium and one of the animals kept “captive” there, a curmudgeonly but remarkably intelligent Pacific octopus named Marcellus. Readers have been especially moved by Marcellus’s deeds and his words, as he is afforded a human-like voice across the narrative. The panelists on this roundtable discussion will use Van Pelt’s novel, this year’s Centre County Reads selection, as a launch point for a broader discussion about depictions of animals in literature and other media, and the possibilities and limitations of giving voice to nonhuman creatures.

Featured Panelists:

  • Nigel Rothfels, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Nigel Rothfels is an historian of animals and cultures. He is author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (2002), co-author of Elephant House (2015), an exploration of the lives of elephants and keepers in a contemporary American Zoo, and editor of the cross-disciplinary collection Representing Animals (2002), one of the foundational works in Animal Studies. He is the General Editor of the series Animalia: Of Animals and Cultures, published by Penn State University Press. His most recent book is Elephant Trails: A History of Animals and Cultures (2021).
  • Benjamin Hale, Writer in Residence, Bard College. Benjamin Hale is the author of the novels The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011), and The Grid (forthcoming from Simon & Schuster), and the story collection The Fat Artist and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster, 2016). His writing has appeared, among other places, in Harper’s Magazine, the Paris Review, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. He teaches at Bard College and Columbia University, serves as a Senior Editor at Conjunctions, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
  • Jessica Myrick, Professor of Media Studies, Penn State. Jessica Gall Myrick’s work examines our emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to media messages including those featuring animals such as cat videos, “Shark Week,” and internet memes, to name a few.


  • Jess Rafalko, Graduate Student in English, Penn State.

Following the panelists’ opening statements there will be ample time for questions and answer with the audience.


Book Discussion
Tuesday, February 21, 5:30-6:30 p.m. | Schlow Library, Sun Room


Craft and Chat
Wednesday, February 22, 5:30 p.m. | Centre County Library
(Registration Required)

March 2023

“My Octopus Teacher” Film Talk
Friday, March 3, 1 p.m. | Centre County Library & Historical Museum Zoom
(Registration Required)


Book Discussion
Wednesday, March 8, 12:15-1 p.m. | Centre Region Active Adult Center, Nittany Mall (for 55+)


An Evening With Shelby Van Pelt
Tuesday, March 14, 7-8 p.m. | Schlow Library Zoom

Pre-register at or catch the live stream on Schlow Library Facebook the night of the event.

Join Akash Belsare (Assistant Professor of English, University of Illinois Springfield) in conversation with Shelby Van Pelt, author of this year’s Center County Reads pick, Remarkably Bright Creatures. The novel centers on Tova, an older woman still mourning the mysterious death of her son three decades earlier. Tova works the night shift cleaning up at a local aquarium; here, she becomes acquainted with Marcellus, a giant pacific octopus, and forms a special bond with him. Marcellus must help Tova learn what happened the night her son disappeared before it’s too late.


Book Discussion
Wednesday, March 15, 6:30-7:30 p.m. | Centre County Library & Historical Museum Zoom
(Registration Required)


Book Discussion
Monday, March 20, 6-7 p.m. | Holt Memorial Library
Register by calling 814.342.1987


Yarn Octopus Take and Make (For Teens)
March 20-25 | Holt Memorial Library


Family Storytime
Wednesday, March 22, 10:30 a.m. | Holt Memorial Library