"The Super Bowl of African American children's books." That's how organizer Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati describes the event she's planning for Saturday.
Lloyd-Sgambati founded the African American Children's Book Fair in 1992, making it exactly half the age of NFL World Championship LII. Sure, there aren't players, but the fair's more than 30 authors and illustrators have won more than 1,000 awards for their work, making them the pro bowlers of what they do. Every year, it attracts a line out the door.
The comparison pretty much ends there.
The fair is free to attend. Each of the first 500 kids in receives a free book. Everyone shops. Everyone gets to meet the books' creators. Also, unlike on Sunday, everyone will go home happy.
"This event grew out of a need in the community — a need that still exists," said Lloyd-Sgambati. "Children need books that reflect their images. They need to know the real story."
Carole Boston Weatherford — who wrote Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library, Moses, Birmingham 1963, The Sound that Jazz Makes, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne, and more — will return to the fair for what she guessed would be the 18th time.
"Diverse books are needed now more than ever," said Boston Weatherford. "For one thing, kids need to be able to see themselves in books. In that regard, diverse books are mirrors. Kids also need to be seeing not only themselves in books, but also people who are not like them. Diverse books are windows to the world. They can cultivate empathy. They can stand in the gap."
In other words, the African American Book Fair was created for African American kids, but any kid might benefit from attending.
One of Boston Weatherford's newest books is In Your Hands, a black mother's poem to her infant son, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. "My son is 27 years old. He's a children's book illustrator. And I still fear for his life when he's back in the street," she said. (Brian Pinkney, son of Philadelphia author-illustrator Jerry Pinkney, illustrated In Your Hands.)
Boston Weatherford's other recent release is Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dream and You, a DIY guide for children to do good every day. It advises its readers to stand up to bullies, to say you're sorry, to be better people.
Jason Reynolds, author of best-selling young-adult and middle-grades books, has been doing the talk show circuit — The Early Show, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah — for his latest, Long Way Down. He will be making his first trip to the fair. Long Way Down, the 34-year-old's ninth book, tells the suspenseful, floor-by-floor, verse-by-verse story of 15-year-old Will as he takes an elevator down, intending to avenge his brother's murder.
Reynolds got his start writing as a young kid, when he "wrote this poem for my mother when she was grieving the death of my grandmother. Watching my mom be affected by this poem was enough to realize: This is something I want to do," he said, "I can bring representation. I can effect change. That sort of drove me. Every kid is the same: All you got to do is make one basket to want to be a basketball player."
He recommends Long Way Down for readers beginning at age 13 or 14. He said, "If you're a 10-year-old, start with Ghost," his National Book Award finalist about a middle school track star living through a traumatic childhood.
Reynolds said he writes for a young black audience to help mitigate the feeling of invisibility that comes with societal, cultural, and institutional marginalization. His goal in attending the book fair is along the same lines. "I show up to be myself. To show young people I am as normal as they are. I come from certain circumstances," he said. "I let them know they can do it, too."
Derrick Barnes, author of the Ruby and the Booker Boys series, is known for his books featuring black children in everyday life. His aim: "to paint positive, beautiful pictures of African American children, to tell positive, beautiful stories about my babies." He's the father of four boys, ages 6 to 17.
Barnes said his newest release, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Gordon C. James, illustrator) is "an homage to a black boy in this day and age." A Facebook post — a sketch of a teenager just home from the barber — inspired Barnes to write the poem that became Crown, which is told from the boy's point of view.
"The black barbershop in our community is probably the only place in America where black boys can go and get tended to," he said. "They place a cape over you, make sure your clothes stay clean, show you a mirror, make sure you like what you see … I'll spend about an hour in this safe haven, where people appreciate me. When I go out into the world, I have a higher view of myself, a higher idea of what I can become — all this from a haircut."
The idea here is similar to the idea for the fair itself. Books — unplugged, screenless, about things kids do — validate and empower their readers. Said Barnes, "We all have an important role to play. We all contribute to this tapestry that is America. We all have a hand in making this country beautiful."