An ‘imperative’ event, the African American Children’s Book Fair is back Feb. 3 with renowned Black authors and more

Founder Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati said the book fair is a testament to what the Philadelphia community needs and wants.

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The 28th annual African American Children's Book Fair at the Community College of Philadelphia was held pre-pandemic on Feb. 8, 2020

File photo: The 28th annual African American Children's Book Fair at the Community College of Philadelphia was held pre-pandemic on Feb. 1, 2020. The fair is organized by Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, who is organizing the inaugural "Juneteenth - Celebrating Literary and Artistic Freedom," on Saturday. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

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The African American Children’s Book Fair, one of the oldest and largest literary events dedicated to Black literature and creators, is back at the Pennsylvania Convention Center this year.

The free event has grown in popularity since its launch 32 years ago, which Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, its founder, said is a testament to what the Philadelphia community needs and wants.

“A book opens up a world of possibilities. A book gives you the opportunity to see the world beyond you,” Lloyd-Sgambati said.

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Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati
Founder of the African American Children’s Book Fair Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati said this event fills a need for the community. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY News)

She said that access to books — whatever their contents — gives children permission to dream, dare and discover, and builds confidence. Lloyd-Sgambati used her own life as an example.

Before traveling to Moscow, she pored over books that described important sites and landmarks. She recalled the freedom of recognizing in real life what she had seen only on the pages.

Freedom is more important these days.

Book bans have become increasingly common in recent years. There were approximately 644 instances of book bans in Pennsylvania from July 2021 to July 2023, according to Pen America.

“In this age of banned books, you can’t ban a book if you buy a book,” Lloyd-Sgambati said in response.

She added that this book fair affords families the chance to see themselves represented. The core mission is to give attendees not only an opportunity to see work by Black authors and creators but also to give them a chance to meet these talented individuals in person.

Among the illustrious guests gracing the event this year is the celebrated comic book illustrator and author Shawn Martinbrough, who is joining as a featured artist for the first time.

Martinbrough is best known for comics such as “Batman: Detective Comics,” “Luke Cage Noir,” “The Black Panther: Man Without Fear” and “Hellboy.” But his newest work released this week is the second edition of “DC Power Anthology,” a joint effort among Black creators.

Shawn Martinbrough
Author and illustrator Shawn Martinbrough will be a first-time guest at this year’s event, and says representation can spark creativity. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

Martinbrough brought back a character he co-created 20 years ago, Crispus Allen, and paired him with a Latina superhero, Renee Montoya. Raised in New York, he said exposure to people from different backgrounds is essential. So, he portrays that in his work.

He hopes that his creativity can inspire other fledgling creatives.

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“I really believe that art creates art; creativity sparks creativity,” Martinbrough said.

He will present three books at the book fair, including the “DC Power Anthology.” Another book, just nominated for an NAACP Image Award, entitled “Like Lava in My Veins,” written by Derrick Barnes,” tackles emotional well-being, empathy and mentorship. The last “Judge Kim and the Kids’ Court,” which Martinbrough co-authored with Milo Stone and Joseph P. Illidge and illustrated by Christopher Jordan, tells the story of a young Black girl whose mom is a judge.

“We describe it as Judge Judy meets The Little Rascals,” he said. “It’s a fun book really designed to teach kids and their parents about the law.”

The book fair will also feature newly minted American Library Association Youth Award winners such as Vashti Harrison, the first Black woman to be awarded the Caldecott Medal for “Big” and Ibi Zoboi, author of “Nigeria Jones” and winner of the 2024 Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Award.

Other authors will include Dare Coulter, illustrator of “An American Story,” which won the 2024 Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Award, and Carole Boston Weatherford, another CSK award winner for “How Do You Spell Unfair? MacNolia Cox and the National Spelling Bee and Kin,” which was illustrated by her son Jeffrey Boston Weatherford, according to a press release.

For families like Sister Taleah Taylor’s, being in a room full of families and Black authors changes what their children’s future looks like. Taylor has attended AABF for the past 15 years, ever since her first son was five years old.

“It was a joy to see, to go somewhere where [there’s] books from people that look like us that can engage with us,” she said.

She wants more community members to be aware of this book fair because she believes events like these help build solidarity and teach children critical thinking skills. That is why she plans to go again this year.

She is most focused on the book fair’s impact on children like her youngest, who is six years old.

“This is imperative for them to see … all these Black authors that you can do it too,” Taylor said. “You can be a writer too.”

The African American Children’s Book Fair is on Feb. 3 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center between 12th and Arch streets from 1-4 p.m. The event is free and no registration is required.

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