A book fair with multicultural appeal

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s uncommon for children of color to learn whole truths about their history in school. Finding books about it on their own is another challenge, but the community wants to fill this gap.

To jump start Black History Month, the African American Children’s Book Project will host its annual African-American Children’s Book Fair this Saturday, Feb. 6.

The event, which will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Community College of Philadelphia, is free and open to the public.

The fair’s mission is to preserve and promote multicultural literature and foster a joy of reading within children in the community.

“Books empower our children,” said Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, founder of the African-American Children’s Book Project. “But children have to read books that reflect their image. And they have to read outside of their normal school coursework.”

Children of color make up about 85 percent of students in the School District of Philadelphia, where 51 percent of students in the 3rd grade could not read at grade level in 2012.

The Book Project’s response? Introduce children to books that can mean something to them. Nationally, there is no concerted effort to assure the inclusion of culturally relevant literature in school curricula, and there are still reports of books that give children misleading and sanitized accounts of history.

“Our children need to find books with stories about themselves and about the people who made them,” said Lloyd-Sgambati. “The past does dictate the future, and this doesn’t always have to be negative. They need to know about their ancestors.”

The book fair, attended by about 3,500 each year on average, will give attendees free books and the opportunity to purchase affordable books from the largest selection of African-American children’s books in the country.

“We put the books at eye level, because we want everyone to feel comfortable. We don’t want them to feel intimidated when they walk in,” said Lloyd-Sgambati.

Children will get free books through activities like a reading circle hosted by NBC10 and TELEMUNDO62, and a literary salon hosted by PECO.

Over 20 renowned authors and illustrators will have their work featured. And award-winning illustrator will lead children in a book illustration workshop and David Miller, author of Khalil’s Way, a book about facing challenges, will host a bullying workshop. Karen Thompson, author of Crocheting with Lucy Loop will teach attendees how to crochet using the story she tells in her book.

The educator’s book giveaway — sponsored by Wells Fargo, Health Partners Plans, Health Partners Foundation, Always Best Care Senior Services, and Tierney — will donate books to teachers and librarians who present identification at the fair.

This is an opportunity for educators to learn about the multicultural books they can bring into their classrooms, said Lloyd-Sgambati, citing Ira’s Shakespeare Dream by Glenda Armand and illustrator Floyd Cooper, a book about 19th century Black American and British actor and playwright Ira Aldridge.

This is a great way to connect children of color children to Shakespeare and theater, Lloyd-Sgambati said.

For parents, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, and Universal Companies have sponsored a book-giveaway that will take place at the fair. The Book Project’s Preserve a Legacy, Buy a Book campaign aims to ensure that children have books to read at home.

Lloyd-Sgambati stressed the importance of giving books that present children with possibilities.

“When a child reads something they are not interested in, it discourages them from reading. We need to put more thought into what we have them read.”