New Philly children’s literacy event puts Juneteenth on the books

“Juneteenth - Celebrating Literary and Artistic Freedom” looks to the legacy of Black literacy.

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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)

This weekend there are at least 27 Juneteenth events planned in Philadelphia, according to Visit Philly, a number that has grown sharply since commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation became a national holiday two years ago.

Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati was determined to make one of those events about books and the struggles Black Americans have had to overcome to learn how to read: Before the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, several states passed anti-literacy laws that made it illegal to teach a Black person to read or write.

“I was really driven when I was in the dollar store and I saw paper plates, napkins, and signs that say Happy Juneteenth,” she said. “I thought to myself: If the dollar store is jumping on board this, I need to step in and bring some perspective to this holiday.”

Lloyd-Sgambati is the creator of the annual African American Children’s Book Fair, one of the largest events of its kind now in its 31st year. This weekend she is organizing the first “Juneteenth – Celebrating Literary and Artistic Freedom,” a family event on Saturday, June 17, wherein Lloyd-Sgambati will host three children’s book authors and illustrators in discussions about their work, and the history of Black literacy.

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The guests will be Gordon C. James, illustrator of such titles as “I Am Every Good Thing,” “Crown,” and “Let ‘Er Buck” about the Black rodeo cowboy George Fletcher; Shadra Strickland, illustrator of “Please, Louise,” by Toni Morrison, and author and illustrator of “Jump In” about double-dutch jump roping; and EB Lewis, an award-winning artist who has illustrated books by Jacqueline Woodson and “Preaching to the Chickens: the Story of Young John Lewis.”

“It’s going to be fun. It’s not going to be heavy,” Lloyd-Sgambati said. “It’s a teachable moment for these kids, but I don’t do heavy. I like joy. I look good for my age and I try to get no wrinkles up in here. No craziness.”

The participating authors and illustrators plan to talk about the path they took to being creators. Gordon C. James, who has won both the Caldecott medal and the Coretta Scott King Award (two highly prestigious awards in the world of children’s books), said everybody draws when they are young. The difference with him is he never stopped.

“I want the kids to see that a lot of this is practice and just not stopping,” James said. “I feel like I’m what happens if you just keep going.”

Both Lewis and Strickland do a lot of school visits and come prepared to pivot their presentations into whatever direction the people in the room respond to. Strickland has a role-playing game where she takes young people through the process of getting a book published.

“I have a publisher who calls, on a fake phone, a writer, who writes a book and throws it to the publisher, who throws fake money at them,” Strickland said. “We hire an illustrator. We hire an art director. We go to China to get our book printed, and bring it back and throw books at the kids who throw money at the publisher. It’s a lot of fun.”

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Underpinning the event will be discussions about Black literacy, increasingly one of the concerns of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which is attempting to strengthen equitable early reading education as a social justice cause. Local chapters of the NAACP are demanding school districts improve reading instruction, which is sometimes inadequate, resulting in a comprehension gap between children whose families can afford tutors, and those who cannot.

Even if a child knows how to read, access to books is being challenged. Pennsylvania is among the states with the most books banned or challenged. Such bans have impacted the event’s participating authors.

“Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” illustrated by James and written by Derrick Barnes, is about a young Black boy getting a haircut at a barbershop. It was among a set of donated books turned away by the Northampton School District in Pennsylvania after parents complained, citing a “Marxist agenda.” In Alabama, Barnes’ visits to three suburban schools and a library were canceled after a parent complained about his book.

One of the goals of the Juneteenth reading event is to make children the owners of books, and be less reliant on the availability of borrowed books in schools and libraries.

“They can’t ban a book if you buy the book,” Lloyd-Sgambati said. “I think it’s important to make sure we’re not only having those conversations, but we’re also supporting the literary community. If you buy a book, no matter how many people ban it in their communities, publishers will continue to publish those types of books.”

Recognizing that some families may not have the financial resources to buy as many books as they like, Lloyd-Sgambati is making softcover books available for as little as $5, and will see to it that every young person who attends the event will go away with a free book.

“One of the myths that they tell us is: Black people don’t read books,” said Strickland. “This is one of the events that speaks to the truth, which is: Yes, we do.”

“Juneteenth – Celebrating Literary and Artistic Freedom,” will be held from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 219 S Sixth Street. The event is free.

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