As soon as the door opened, a stream of adults and children rushed inside. Outside, a line snaked for more than a block. They were parents, students, teachers, librarians, community leaders, hard-working every-day folks. And they were all there to celebrate — and purchase — books by African-American children’s book authors and illustrators. It was inspiring and beautiful to see.
Over the past few years, stories about the closures of black-owned bookstores have become all too common. Schools and libraries struggle to cope with budget cuts. That may mean fewer kids of color get the chance to see the many wonderful books reflecting their images and voices. But in Philadelphia, the African-American children’s book reigns on one special day.
This year, on Feb. 7, Vanesse celebrates the 17th annual African-American Children’s Book Fair. It’s one of the nation’s oldest and largest single-day events for African American children’s books. (Details including time, location and featured authors and illustrators below.)
Here, Vanesse talks about African-American children’s books, her book fair and vision for the future:
What was your childhood experience with books? How did your interest in children’s literature grow?
As a child growing up in Elmwood, a section of Philadelphia, PA, we didn’t have a library or a bookstore. However, every week the city would send a bookmobile to my community. I looked forward to this experience because even as a child I understood that a book opened up a world of opportunities. I didn’t pick out the usual books of my peers (fiction), but sought out those that told stories about cities beyond my horizon.
I remembered taking out a photo/text book on Moscow, Russia. The kids in my community made fun of my choice. My dad who was a voracious reader said, “Never mind, keep reading.” A few years ago, I was in Moscow in Red Square and knew every inch of that historical land marker. I knew it not because it was taught to me in school, but I had read a book.
Why did you start your African-American Children’s Book Festival?
As a publicist for adult books, I saw heavy traffic of authors visiting my community, but the children’s publishing industry seemed to have forgotten Philadelphia. I was working on a project for a local department store and they requested a black history event. So I started calling around and Marie Brown, a well-known literary agent, was very helpful in guiding me in those early years to find authors/illustrators who would be willing to make the trip to Philadelphia. When I started the festival, my family was my rock. They supported my core volunteer outlet and made sure these ran smoothly
What was the industry like then?
I couldn’t get the stars of the industry, but I still had a lot to choose from. Being a novice, I was looking for quality, not just a name. Seventeen years later that mission continues.
Sadly many of the author/illustrators, only about 25%, are still being published. But that 25% represents some of the current stars of the current children’s book industry. Tonya Bolden, E.B. Lewis, Deborah Gregory, and R. Gregory Christie are a few of those who continue to stay on my roster for their outstanding work.
What changes have you seen over the years? in content? exposure?
One of the most significant changes, for me, has been the evolution of children’s book illustration….this is the age of the beautiful book. The artwork stands the test of time…the writing was and is still powerfull. But the books coming from illustrators today are classics that will surely ended up in a museum. I’m working on a tour to travel around the country that will spotlight the illustrator and his book. When you look at E.B. Lewis, Colin Bootman, Cozbi Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Sean Qualls, Christopher Myers, Kadir Nelson, Bryan Collier, Floyd Cooper, Eric Velasquez, Nancy Devard, Shadra Strickland’s book illustrations, you are looking at masterpieces.
Please tell us about your African American Children’s Book Project.
The African American Children’s Book Project serves to promote and preserve African American children’s literature. My long-range goal is to have a children’s book museum. But for now, I’m just happy to use the skills that I have crafted to lead a number of best-selling adult authors to promote children’s literature. The book project develops book tours, creates promotional events, serves as consultant to publishers/authors and corporate entities who are interested in literacy.
How has your festival grown?
The Book Fair started out on a cold frosty day at John Wanamaker Department Store with 250 attendees. Last year over 4,000 people attended the event at Community College of Philadelphia. The book fair is one of the nation’s oldest and largest single day events for African American children’s books.
What response do you get from people who attend your annual event? from children? from adults? What do you hope they take away from the experience?
The numbers speak for themselves. It is an annual event that the media loves and is marked on the calendar of folks around the region. I want children to appreciate our rich history. I want them to love to read. I want parents to go back to creating their own home libraries. In my generation every home had a book shelf….with books.
As a literary publicist, what are the challenges to getting exposure for your clients?
There is no marketing budget for literary talent, so I have to be creative in getting clients on the airwaves and in print. Knowing the media and how it functions is crucial. Know the FORMAT of the media. Understanding this will enable my clients to get airtime.
What can African-American children’s book authors do to get on the public radar? How can they increase their chances of making it onto library and bookstore shelves and staying in parents’ minds?
Quality should be the mantra of every author/illustrator. In adult books you can slip….a little…but everything has to be perfect in the children’s book world. Text, illustratrations, quality of paper….don’t take anything for granted.
Look within your immediate community to promote yourself….social, civic and religious organizations are always looking to do book events. But you’ve got to make sure that your books are getting into the hands of the consumer.
Ask questions…How many books sold at previous events? Is it possible to have the organizations pre-purchase books? You don’t have stand on the street to sell your book, but use your network to create book selling opportunities..
What is your dream for children’s books by black authors and illustrators? Please share your vision with us.
My mantra is PRESERVE A LEGACY, BUY A BOOK. Every time a book is sold that means a story is told. Telling those stories enables the African American book industry to grow. This growth will mean that our legacy, our history is preserve.
Please tell us about this year’s African-American Children’s Book Fair.
NBC 10, our title sponsor, will host the Reading Room. They will giveaway over 600 brand-new books of the guest authors and illustrators who attend the event. This donation offers children who attend the opportunity to own a brand-new book, but also to get their book personalized by the author/illustrator.
Our Educator’s book give-away, sponsored by URBAN GENESIS, PECO, The Philadelphia Daily News and THE LITERARY, offers brand-new books of guest authors and illustrators to teachers and librarians. Thousands of children will not only get a chance to read these books, but educators/librarians will be able to share the story behind the story from their encounters with the author and illustrators.
Thank you for your important work. We wish you continued success.
Saturday, February 7, 2009, 1-3 p.m.
Community College of Philadelphia (Gymnasium)
17th Spring Garden Street
Free and open to the public
For more information, please call 215-878-BOOK
Guest authors and illustrators include:
Cozbi A. Cabrera
R. Gregory Christie
Lorraine Dowdy Gordon
Tonya Cherie Hegamin
Cheryl Willis Hudson
Charisse Carney Nunes
Charles Smith, Jr.
Carole Boston Weatherford