African American Children’s Book Fair to spotlight some of the biggest stars in children’s literature

Ellis McGruder Jr., 4, and his dad attended the 26th annual African-American Children’s Book Fair at the Community College of Philadelphia. They are starting a YouTube channel to post videos of them reading together. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ellis McGruder Jr., 4, and his dad attended the 26th annual African-American Children’s Book Fair at the Community College of Philadelphia. They are starting a YouTube channel to post videos of them reading together. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This weekend, dozens of nationally acclaimed children’s book authors and illustrators will showcase their work during the African American Children’s Book Fair in Philadelphia.

One of the oldest and largest single-day events for African American children’s books in the country, the goal of the fair is to “enlighten, enrich and empower” African American children to read outside of their normal schoolwork. Seven of the 13 African American authors who appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers list will be presenting their books.

Tonya Bolden has co-authored books with Cokie Roberts, Henry Louis Gates, Eartha Kitt, and Chaka Khan, among many others. She participated in the first iteration of the fair in the 1990s, and will promote her young adult novel, “Saving Savannah,” about the class struggles experienced by an African American girl growing up in Washington, D.C., in 1919.

Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden (Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

“Saving Savannah” is set against the backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement, the Red Summer, and numerous racially based attacks on African Americans in the area. Bolden said she wants the book to teach children how to make a difference in their communities.

“There are many ways to be the change, to be an activist. You will probably be most successful if you choose to be the change in a way that is organic and authentic. People survived 1919. We will survive the chaos of this current era.”

Bolden said African American literature is steadily becoming more diverse in subject matter than it has been in the past.

“I think we have much more depth in terms of biographies. Now, we go deeper into lives and into eras of history because now we know more, the nuances. We know things aren’t black and white. There’s gray in history,” Bolden said.

New York Times best-selling author and illustrator Vashti Harrison will also be in attendance. She was just awarded a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for illustrating Sulwe, a children’s book written by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.

Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison. (Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

The book tells the story of a young girl who goes on a magical journey in the night sky and learns to feel comfortable in her dark skin, described in the book as “the color of midnight.”

“Sulwe is such a beautiful and tough story. It’s Lupita’s personal story about how she learned to love her very dark skin,” Harrison said. “I really want young readers to know that this is an experience that exists. If you don’t already love your skin, here is a story of how you can enter on that journey. Most of all, I want kids to know they’re special the way they are.”

Other authors and illustrators featured at this year’s book fair include Daniel Minter, who this week won a 2020 Caldecott Honor for “Going Down Home with Daddy.” The book tells the story of Lil’ Alan, who hears stories of his ancestors and visits the land in the American South that has meant so much to his family.

Jerry Pinkney and his granddaughter, Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, will participate in their first event together to promote their work. Pinkney has illustrated over 100 books since 1964, including picture books, nonfiction titles and novels. Barlow, a Georgia-based illustrator, has an MFA in illustration from the School of Visual Arts and a BFA in illustration from University of the Arts.

Parker and Jessica Curry will present their book, “Parker Looks Up,” based on how seeing former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery forever altered Parker Curry’s young life.

The book fair is a part of the African American Children’s Book Project’s initiative to “promote and preserve multicultural children’s literature.”

The event takes place Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. at Community College of Philadelphia, 17th and Spring Garden streets. It is free and open to the public.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.