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Virtual statewide book club targets fans of middle-grade fiction
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Books have the power to break boundaries, and an online discussion group can take it a step further by literally getting readers on the same page.

A statewide book club called One Book | One Minnesota allows Minnesotans to access the same book for free online, without a library card, and participate in online discussions arranged by local libraries. Because the entire program is online, the program is accessible to patrons across the state whether or not their local library participates.

Buckham Memorial Library is among several libraries in the state participating in the program, which Children’s Librarian Deni Buendorf offered for the first time last year. “Because of Winn Dixie” by Kate DiCamillo was the first book featured in 2020.

This time, the selected book is “Slider” by Minnesota author Paul Hautman. A middle-grade novel with comedic elements, the story follows a character named David who sets out to win a food-eating contest. David’s little brother, Mal, who is on the autism spectrum, also plays an important role in the story.

“It’s a funny book; I enjoy it,” said Buendorf, who has been reading the book for the first time along with participants. “And it’s neat to read it at the same time as everybody else, to think of how many people have been reading it.”

In his welcome video to the One Book One Minnesota community, Hautman said, “My book ‘Slider’ is about eating contests, sure, but mostly it’s about family dynamics, about a kid named David who discovers he’s not just the invisible middle kid in his family; he’s the linchpin, the one who holds it all together like the beef in a White Castle slider.”

As libraries across the state participate in the reading program, Ebooks Minnesota is offering the book for free through May 9. Hard copies are also available through independent book sellers throughout the state and at libraries.

Using One Book One Minnesota resources, librarians have several options for connecting “Slider” readers.

So far, Buendorf has created events on Facebook for two types of virtual discussions. One is a discussion board, where readers can post their comments in response to the provided prompts. The other, a virtual discussion scheduled for 4:30 p.m. May 3, will follow a conversation guide. A few families have already signed up to attend this discussion, Buendorf said.

A major event of One Book One Minnesota is a statewide online conversation with the author himself, Pete Hautman. While the author event isn’t interactive, but instead similar to a webinar, participants have the opportunity to submit questions in advance when they sign up for the Zoom link. The free event is 1 p.m. Wednesday, April 21.

Buendorf also decided to record herself reading a few chapters out loud at a time and posting the videos on the Buckham Memorial Library YouTube Channel. Viewers can read along while listening, since Buendorf includes the pages in the video clips.

“I’m really glad they’re doing this,” Buendorf said of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, which made One Book One Minnesota possible. “It took a pandemic to get it going, but I hope we keep it; I think it’s cool that it exists. Even some towns will have just their own book clubs where they read the whole book as a group.”

One Book One Minnesota isn’t the only online book group offered at Buckham Memorial Library. Two other book clubs, Pizza and Pages for upper grades and Books and Brownies for lower grades, have been meeting via virtual platform during the pandemic.

The Owatonna Public Library, which participated in One Book One Minnesota last year, is instead gearing up for mostly virtual programming during the summer months. Children’s Librarian Darla Lager said four performers will visit the library over the summer, but children will have to watch the entertainers virtually due to COVID-19. While various book groups met at the library prior to COVID-19, Lager said the library itself did not host these clubs.

Both the Buckham Library and the Owatonna Public Library continue offering story time for young children virtually.

Another event Buendorf recommends to fans of Minnesota authors is the 2021 Minnesota Book Awards Virtual Ceremony. The event is 7 p.m. Thursday, April 29 via an online platform. The advantage to having the event online is that anyone can attend without paying a fee, but Buendorf said, “That is a really fun event to go to in person if you ever get the chance.”

Easter brings joy as churches begin to move beyond COVID
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After a year of virtual services and limited in-person attendance, success in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine locally helped to bring Christians back into area churches just in time for Easter.

While social distancing and masking are still expected, local churches have seen steady increases in traffic over the last several months. Easter saw the largest gatherings yet, making the most important festival of the year even more special for Christians.

“We had a lot of folks get really emotional back as they came back into the building,” said Pastor Todd Buegler of Owatonna’s Trinity Lutheran Church.

At Buegler’s church, four separate Easter services were held, complete with masking, social distancing and limited capacity. The sanctuary was cleaned between each service, and hymnals were removed from the pews to prevent people from handling them.

For the last several months, Buegler said that just one regular Sunday service has been held at Trinity, accommodating just a fraction of the Church’s pre-pandemic attendance. On Sunday, a second will be added as worshippers “ease back” into church.

Trinity has continued to carry out its mission work during the pandemic, including by providing food for area residents in need. Food boxes from the Wildcat Pantry, focused on providing ingredients for a family meal along with basic staples, are now distributed through a drive-up. The Church’s Meals of Hope, which traditionally provide free food and fellowship on Sunday nights, are now takeout only. Buegler says that while he looks forward to sharing Meals of Hope with community members in need again, it will likely be several months before that can restart.

After nearly a year of livestreamed services, worshippers finally made their way back into the pews Feb. 7 at Fourth Avenue United Methodist Church in Faribault. To stay safe, Pastor Greg Ciesluk’s congregation eschewed singing at first — but they were still excited to return.

“It was a long break, but for a lot of people it prodded their desire to be back in church to worship God,” Ciesluk said.

While Ciesluk saw a big increase in attendance for Palm Sunday services, Rick Nelson, who serves as outreach minister at St. Dominic’s in Northfield, said that the increase he’s seen has been slowly building up since the beginning of Lent.

Nelson said he’s seen a particularly significant increase in seniors attending Mass. In addition to the availability of vaccines, he attributed the attendance boost to the importance of Easter in the church year and a sense that the worst of COVID is over. While they’re willing to come back, Nelson has heard from many seniors who take great comfort in the church’s rigorous COVID safety protocols. Even as the state has relaxed capacity restrictions, St. Dominic’s hasn’t budged on its maximum capacity of 250 worshippers.

While the church might still be heavily socially distanced, St. Dominic’s has begun holding Communion again. But instead of parishioners coming to the front of the church for bread and wine, Nelson said priests have taken the somewhat novel approach of bringing the bread and wine to the pews.

At Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Faribault, some services now have up to 600 worshippers, though every other pew must still remain vacant. Even with such large crowds, Parish Administrator Phillip Parrish said he’s heard few complaints.

“People have done a good job of spreading out,” Parrish said. “At the door, I see a wide mix of people, of all ages … yet in the last few weeks, I’ve only had one negative conversation.”

Even though they’re glad to be able to return to in-person worship, local worship leaders don’t anticipate leaving behind virtual worship services all together. In fact, Ciesluk partnered with several other Faribault area pastors to organize an all-virtual Good Friday service.

Pastor Jeff Sandgren at Our Savior’s Lutheran in Faribault said that the virtual option has been particularly great news for shut-ins and residents of senior care facilities, who pre-pandemic weren’t able to attend services at their longtime houses of worship at all.

Sandgren added that virtual services will continue to have appeal for at least several more months, because the pandemic isn’t truly over even as the number of vaccinated Minnesotans rises each day.

“We’re very concerned about the COVID numbers across our state,” he said.

Variances on Western Ave. property lapse; study of busy intersection underway
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Variances from setback and flood buffer requirements are being allowed to expire on an awkward but centrally located west side property largely due to a study of one of the city’s busiest intersections.

The variances for the 400 Western Ave. property — between Morristown Boulevard and Grant Street — were first approved by the Faribault’s City Council in 2018, when it seemed the parcel would soon be home to a phone retailer. Agreements were signed but included several exit clauses, one which the retailer reportedly utilized.

For the last several years, Tristan Cox has been trying to sell the .59-acre property on behalf of his late father Raymond’s trust. Ray initially bought the property with the intent of developing a jewelry store on the site, but the agreement fell through at the last minute.

Over the roughly 15 years that the Coxes have owned the property since then, Tristan Cox said that they have come extremely close to selling it on four or five separate occasions, the most recent being the phone store proposed in 2018. In addition to those negotiations, there’s been many more times that developers have drawn up plans for the site and shared them with the city. However, Cox himself conceded that the triangle-shaped property brings challenges that have proven dealbreakers time and again.

Drawings provided to the council show the possibility of a drive-thru on the property. That would make plenty of sense, given that the location sits in close proximity to I-35 and two of the city’s major thoroughfares.

Ironically, the unusually shaped site’s central location is both its biggest asset and drawback. Located at one of the city’s busiest intersections, it could be extremely difficult to get in and out of during peak traffic times.

Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said that the biggest reason the variances are being allowed to lapse is because now, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is studying ways to improve traffic at that intersection.

The study is in extremely early stages, and little information is available on it from either the Rice County Highway Department or MnDOT. However, one option under consideration is adding a turn lane that would take up part of the property. If the study does result in any alterations to the property, the property would once again have to go through the process of seeking variances. In addition, Kuennen said that the variance extensions granted by the council in recent years should not be considered regular practice.

Given its challenges, Mayor Kevin Voracek said that it would take a special business to invest in the property to make it work. For his part, Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Nort Johnson encouraged the city to think outside the box.

“While the location is prime, the size of the lot and access near the intersection make it awkward,” he said. “(But) it could have a wonderful informational stand for the (Sakatah) trail.”