Since coming to college, Providence has become a beloved second home. But as a newly minted book blogger, I often find myself longing to be in New York, the storied center-of-it-all where everyone seems to be brushing shoulders, having deep and impassioned conversations beside a cupcake spread.
But this weekend, Providence showed its love for children’s books in this city’s own, quietly eminent ways. Read on for more about the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books Authors and Illustrators and a reading from an author who brings authentic, diverse stories to children’s bookshelves across the country.
On Saturday, the Rhode Island Festival of Children’s Books Authors and Illustrators drew a crowd of teachers and families to the Lincoln School.
I was most excited to meet illustrator Bryan Collier, whose most recent work in Trombone Shorty earned him his fourth Coretta Scott King Award. His depictions of the untold histories of African Americans and contemporary Black boyhood carry the story with dignity, depth, and nuance. His surreal collages compel the reader to look for those meaningfully interwoven elaborations on reality: human faces imprinted in buildings, the particular cut of light. As he liked to say about his artwork in Knock Knock, “It’s all in the details.”
On Sunday, the Books on the Square bookstore hosted author and illustrator Grace Lin! Ms. Lin’s books, from early readers to middle grade, are cherished parts of any child’s bookshelf. They’re the books with complex Asian American protagonists that I would’ve wanted, too. From her work to her powerful words in her TED Talk, she’s an author who is truly making strides for inclusivity in children’s literature.
And of course she’s a joy to meet. Her effervescence is contagious, and she truly got all of the kids involved in sharing her story for her latest book, When the Sea Turned to Silver. A Rhode Island School of Design grad, she even showed us how to draw a lucky dragon!
If Providence excels at anything, it’s creating intimate, personal encounters. Ms. Lin and the artists at the festival took the time to share their craft with young readers, to make them feel special, bringing the world of imagination and possibility close to children’s own realities.
As much as I enjoyed these festivities, I couldn’t fully expel the abiding concern throughout the weekend: Where are the children of color at these events? I was easily the only person of color in the room at several instances.
In some spaces, I was the only person of color in a room. This was particularly disconcerting because 91% of students in Providence Public Schools are students of color. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised because the structural barriers were clear: Both of these events took place on the east side, an affluent neighborhood situated on the hill that overlooks downcity Providence. Housing segregation is clear. Full disclosure, my college, which is considered an elite university, is on the east side. This is also probably how the information reached me. It’s great that the events were free, but they were markedly more difficult to reach for a family living downcity. It’s worth questioning, too, the avenues through which these events were advertised, and who that message reaches.
So who gets have books written about them, and who has the opportunity to see the magic of books up close? I grew up lucky enough to have parents who were able to drive me to the UCLA Festival of Books every year, where I met authors who helped me believe that I could achieve important things with my words. They made me believe that I could be a part of this world, the world of loving literature and creating literature, too. It’s an opportunity and a gift that all children deserve.
So book events are not all about the glamorous book release parties in New York, or the cupcake spreads. Celebrating books should be about making sure that up-close encounters with the craft of story reaches every child. The systemic issue of children’s compromised access to books that reflect their experiences extends beyond the publication of a single book – a barrier to entry still stands when book festivals, author events do not reach children of color, particularly low-income children of color. It’s a barrier that invites further investigation that implicates not only authors, but publicists, publishing companies, and school and library budgets.
Even so, this literary weekend showed me that I need to look harder for these spaces where low-income children of color are more explicitly invited to the conversation. We need to honor what’s going on at the Providence Public libraries. Or a school. Or a downcity bookstore that intimately knows its patrons and tries to bring immersive literary experiences to children. Book festivals and author visits are valuable and memorable for all students – let’s make sure we’re inviting every student to the table.