On Saturday, February 1, literary consultant and multicultural children’s literature advocate Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati will host the 22nd African American Children’s Book Fair at the Community College of Philadelphia. It’s a stand-out event that attracts thousands of readers who want to celebrate black children’s book creators and purchase books for their schools, libraries and homes. We are honored that four on our Brown Bookshelf team will be there – Don Tate, Crystal Allen, Tameka Fryer Brown and Kelly Starling Lyons. Big thanks to Vanesse for including us in this amazing celebration.
Here, Vanesse, founder of the African American Children’s Book Project, talks about the African American Children’s Book Fair:
Please share how the book fair has grown. What challenges did you face in the beginning? What obstacles do you face now?
The African American Children’s Book Project, which serves to promote and preserve children’s books, hosts the largest and oldest single day literary event for African American children in the world. The event is held the first Saturday in February in Philadelphia, PA. We’d like to think it kicks off the cultural national Black history calendar.
Our first event was held in a reception room at a local department store. The public relations representative reached out to me for an activity that would drive traffic into the store during Black History Month.
I’m a literary consultant and have extensive experience in doing book-driven events. My company, The Literary Media and Publishing Consultants, has produced events all around the country under the banner of The Literary Café™ for adult authors. I looked around the community and saw wonderful book-driven events for adults, but nothing for our children. I asked around town and kept hearing that Black people don’t buy books for their children. I was horrified because I knew that in my circle, people bought books for their kids. This simply wasn’t true. I was on a mission . . .
So on a cold, frosty morning we produced the first event and they came – I counted them – 250 strong. Marie Brown, a literary agent, helped me put together my line-up of authors and illustrators. Most came from her client list. People bought books, not one but numerous copies. On the way out, they kept asking me when the next event was. So here we are twenty-two years later and still going strong. On average more than 3,500 people pass through our doors at Community College of Philadelphia.
Today many of those same people attend the event with their grandchildren. Children who developed a love of reading at our event are now adults bringing their own children.
We quickly outgrew our original space and thanks to Lynette Brown Sow, Vice President of Marketing and Government Relations, opened the doors of our program into Community College of Philadelphia. Her team led by Erica Harrison takes away some of the stress of finding a location to host the event. We also now partner with the school’s Early Childhood Education Department who are training the next generation of educators.
From the start of this journey, we found an eager audience who loved books and demonstrated that love by buying. Our mantra is: “Preserve A Legacy, And Buy A Book.”
However, my biggest challenge from the beginning and even today is making publishers understand that there is an audience who will buy books. The number of African-American children’s books is shrinking. In 1985, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison began to document the number of books published in the United States for children which were written and/or illustrated by African Americans. In 1992, the year our organization was founded, out of 4500 books published, only 94 were African American. The center’s most recent published study indicated that while they received 3,600 children’s books in 2012 only 119 “had significant African or African American” content. Of that number, only 68 were written or illustrated by African Americans. (Keep in mind that these numbers do not factor in self-published or smaller publishers which have had a mega boom in the African American community).
But there is a need. Anyone who has attended the African American Children’s Book Fair is surprised at the audience who comes with the purpose of spending money on books. Not music, but books.
Funding is always taxing. We make this event happen on a wing and a prayer. Even though we have demonstrated a successful track record, we have not been able to attract the major funders. I’d like to get a MacArthur grant to plant these literary seeds around the country. I am the unofficial Literary Ambassador traveling around the world CELEBRATING READING.
Why does the book fair continue to be important?
Children need to see images of themselves in books – positive images. They need to see our stories, our history in books. I attended the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which is a publishing trade show in Italy, last year. More than 1,200 exhibitors from 75 countries participated with 25,000 attendees. Children’s books from every continent were represented. But I didn’t see any African-American books from the United States. Granted there were not a lot of U.S. publishers participating in the event, but there is a global curiosity to know more about African Americans.
I also travel to a lot of international book events and the question that always comes up is what do we read – what type of books do we like. Many are trying to get their books into our community. Let’s reciprocate. The more we know about each other, the better we co-exist. This goes for all us. Make sure your child’s library is multicultural.
Another issue is this myth that African Americans don’t read and won’t buy books for their children – especially hard cover. This is totally absurd. Access is the issue. Publishers and booksellers have to think out of the box. Go to the people – church bookstores, social and civic organizations. Here you will find a willing audience – willing to invest in their children.
African American consumers also need to be pro-active. When you walk into your local bookstore, if you don’t see African-American children’s titles on the shelves ask for some recommendations. Publishing is a business. Get your family and friends to buy at the location. If the bookstore knows they have an audience for African-American children’s books, you’ll see the difference. Don’t know where to start – The Brown Bookshelf is a great starting point or the African American Children’s Book Project website – http://theafricanamericanchildrensbookproject.org/. The authors and illustrators on these sites are the cream of the crop. And of course you can reach out to me.
What are the constants you’ve kept over the years? What are some new features you’ve added?
The event is FREE. Did I mention the event is FREE? Also the authors and illustrators are a very important part of the success of the event. They are the hallmark of this event. For some children, this is the first time they will meet an author or illustrator. This encounter opens the door to a life-long love of reading. Attendees get the opportunity to interact.
Three years ago, we added workshops. Syndicated cartoonist Jerry Craft is hosting a cartoon workshop sponsored by PECO in the Literary Salon. The PECO LITERARY SALON is a new feature at the event. NBC10, a local television affiliate, continues to support the event by purchasing books of our guest authors and illustrators to give to children who attend the event. They also host our reading circle. The authors/illustrators know that they’ve pre-sold books and we get these great books into the hands of the attendees.
Another highlight of the event is our Educator Book-Give Away program. Early on, I recognized that many of our educators didn’t have the funding to buy new books to use in their classrooms. So I reached out to sponsors again to buy books of our authors and illustrators to give-away. McDonald’s is a long-time sponsor of this initiative. HealthPartners Foundation, Health Partners Plans and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson sponsor our Parents Book-Give Away program. The Literary Media and Publishing Consultants pull all of the elements together.
And of course, the book fair is a highlight. First time attendees are surprised at people standing in lines to buy books, waiting patiently to buy books. These consumers understand the importance that books have on their children’s overall upbringing. We sell more books in three hours than any other African-American retailer in the country.
Please talk about the line-up. What should people expect when they attend the book fair? How can they get the most out of it?
More than 21 nationally known bestselling authors/illustrators will participate. Many have won the American Library Association Coretta Scott King award. These authors/illustrators have produced some of the best books of our generation.
The afternoon is packed with activities that promote the power and joy of reading. Authors and illustrators will make presentations from their books. The Literary Row distributes book-related promotional materials free of charge. Our Educator Book-Giveaway distributes brand new books to teachers and librarians to use in their classrooms. This event reinforces our slogan “A BOOK OPENS A WORLD OF OPPORTUNITIES.”
Featured authors and illustrators:
TAMEKA FRYER BROWN
CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY
E. B. LEWIS
KELLY STARLING LYONS
PAULA YOUNG SHELTON
22nd Annual African American Children’s Book Fair:
Saturday, February 1, 2014, 1-3 p.m.
Community College of Philadelphia (Gymnasium)
17th Spring Garden Street
Free and open to the public
Find out more about the African American Children’s Book Fair at http://theafricanamericanchildrensbookproject.org/.