While a blizzard assailed the Northeast last weekend, the Philadelphia region was spared, and several thousand area residents bundled up to attend the 21st Annual African American Children’s Book Fair. More than 21 nationally known authors and illustrators – among them Renee Watson, Margaree King Mitchell and Eric Velasquez – participated in the free two-hour event on Saturday, which is hailed as the oldest and largest single-day children’s literary event of its kind.
As the 2,500 people started filing into the Community College of Philadelphia site, there was a buzz as adults and children met the stars of the literary community. Traditional African drummers greeted guests and more than 700 books were given out as children entered the facility. There were long rows of tables stacked with hundreds of books for sale, while other tables boasted literary freebies, such as posters, bookmarks and more books. A festive sprit filled the air as squeals of delight accompanied hi-fives to the NBC Peacock mascot and the Ronald McDonald clown. Most importantly, all of the children seemed to have an armful of books that they were gleefully anticipating reading.
“This is by far the favorite event that I do,” said Renee Watson, author of Harlem's Little Blackbird. “I do school events, public schools workshops, and all of that, but I love coming to this event. Seeing families with their children and grandchildren, grandparents and teachers coming in and getting books – it's beautiful. It's a wonderful event.”
According to event producer Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, the goal is to provide parents, caregivers and educators from the Philadelphia region tools for children to read outside of their normal school coursework, and make more responsible decisions about their lifestyles.
“That's was so gratifying [that] there may be other students that each of us will reach that will never ever know and it will somehow enrich their lives and help them make wise decisions and choices – and this makes it all worthwhile,” said author Glennette Tilly-Turner.
Rhinebeck, New York-based author Lesa Cline Ransome and her husband, illustrator James Ransome (authors of Light In the Darkness: A Story About How Slaves Learned in Secret) took a moment to comment while autographing books. “It's really nice to see books authored by people of color in the hands of children,” said Lesa. “I think that is crucial and I think that is why we all do this: just to make sure our lives are reflected in literature and the kids have had a chance to really experience our lives and our stories.” James Ransome said, “I think it's a wonderful opportunity to meet the people who buy our books and who share our books with other people – especially teachers and librarians – to personalize it and make it more special.”
Margaree King Mitchell (When Grandma Sings) said, “I write historical picture books, and I try to inspire students with my books. In writing history I want them to know where they have come from to get where they are today, and so I just hope they may never forget their history.”
Eric Velasquez (The Price of Freedom) concurred, stating: “These books are also a way of preserving the legacy – our legacy – because a lot of the books are nonfiction. So, it's a nice way of introducing children to historical figures, some that have been unfortunately forgotten, but it is a nice way for the older generation to introduce the younger generation to their heroes or heroes that have passed.” He added, “Hopefully people are sharing their own personal history, like family stories as well with their children and grandchildren. I think that's very important. That's how I grew up. And that's why I'm here: because I believe in sharing our stories.”
In addition to children and their caretakers, there were literary hopefuls at the event seeking professional guidance. Author and agent Regina Brooks observed: “As a literary agent, someone who works with illustrators and authors, I am so pleased to see so many people come out to this event, every year consistently. It means a lot to me because it means that the people that I work with and their books are being seen by the audience they were originally designed for.”
After several minutes of providing advice to aspiring creators, author/illustrator Floyd Cooper said, “Believing in oneself is the key ingredient to making it, you know. You got to believe it – you got to believe in yourself!”