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2020 Common Read: "The Book of Unknown Americans"

The University of Idaho has chosen “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez as its Common Read for 2020-21.

“The Common Read committee, composed of students, faculty and community members, were both engaged and moved by Ms. Henriquez’s novel and the journey of her characters seeking community and citizenship,” said Dean Panttaja, U of I’s director of General Education.

“The Book of Unknown Americans” was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and one of Amazon’s Top 10 Books of the Year. It was the Daily Beast Novel of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, a Target Book of the Month selection and was chosen one of the best books of the year by BookPage, and School Library Journal. calls the book “a dazzling, heartbreaking page-turner destined for breakout status, a novel that gives voice to millions of Americans as it tells the story of the love between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl.”

Now in its 13th year, the Common Read is designed to engage the university and Moscow community in a unified intellectual activity, Panttaja said. First-year students will be assigned to read the book as part of their first-year studies courses and in English 101 and 102, all part of the General Education program.

The Common Read is partially supported by the Judith Runstad Lecture Series, which annually helps sponsor a keynote address by the book’s author or someone closely associated with the book. Henriquez, who lives in Chicago, Illinois, will host a digital community conversation on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

Other recent Common Reads and Runstad lecturers include: Anthony Doerr, author of “All the Light We Cannot See” in 2015; Sy Montgomery, author of “The Soul of an Octopus” in 2016;  Carol Tavris, author of “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)” in 2017;  Tara Westover, author of “Educated; A Memoir” in 2018; and Tommy Orange, author of “There, There” in 2019.

Copies of “The Book of Unknown Americans” will be available through the VandalStore and BookPeople of Moscow.

Author's Biography

Cristina Henriquez was born in Delaware and attended school in the United States but spent summers in Panama. She did not speak Spanish as a child. She majored in English at Northwestern University and graduated in 1999. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While in Iowa, she often spent her own time writing about Panama, which later became the setting for her first two books. Henriquez’s father is from Panama and migrated to the United States in 1971 for college. Her mother is from New Jersey and worked in Delaware public schools as a translator.

The Book of Unknown Americans cover art
Cover: "The Book of Unknown Americans"
Cristina Henriquez
Author: Cristina Henriquez (image credit Michael Lionstar)
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The Common Read is a program designed to engage the university and Moscow community, its students, staff, faculty and community members, in a unified intellectual activity. For first-year students it introduces them to academic expectations, respectful discourse, and community building. The Common Read is supported by the Judith M. Runstad Lecture Series, which sponsors a keynote address by the author of the Common Read, or someone closely associated with the book. The Common Read book is available through the U of I VandalStore.

This is a program sponsored through the General Education program, supported by the Office of Student Affairs, and a host of faculty, staff and student members on the Common Read Committee.

General Education

Physical Address:
Administration Building 104

Mailing Address:
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS 3154
Moscow, ID 83844-3154

Phone: 208-885-9025


Web: General Education