Local literacy advocates bring Black Children’s Book Week to library

Black Children’s Book Week kicked off March 4 at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library. Photos courtesy of EBONY LAMAR.

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Three local literacy champions partnered to bring children and books together during Black Children’s Book Week at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library on Saturday, March 4.

Antonio Brown of Barbershop Book Club (BSBC), Lorielle Hollaway of Cultured Books Literacy Foundation (CBLF) and Always Truth Incorporated’s founder Tameka Harris joined forces for St. Pete’s first celebration of the annual literacy initiative with a read-in and book giveaway.

Black Children’s Book Week kicked off last year as a global celebration of the books and media that feature Black characters and offer a mirror to Black youth through relevant and relatable representation.

Black Children’s Book Week at the James Weldon Johnson Community Library on Saturday, March 4.

Started by Veronica N. Chapman, owner of Blackbabybooks.com, and author of two children’s books, “I Know I Can!” and “King Khalid is Proud,” the week-long celebration starts on the last Sunday in February every year.

“I think it’s so beautiful that the week begins at the end of February and ends at the beginning of March — so it begins in Black History Month and then kicks off reading month,” shared Hollaway, who opened her pop-up bookshop selling culturally relevant books on the Deuces in 2018.

Last November, Hollaway masterminded the inaugural St. Pete Reads! Lit Festival, partnering with Brown’s Barbershop Book Club.

“The St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest was an amazing festival. It was birthed out of the still ongoing family literacy engagement study,” Hollaway noted. Developed in concert with BSBC and Shaping the Early Mind, the study has been a way to “engage with our community, understand how can we help as literacy-based organizations, how can we support our community get involved with reading, stay involved, want to be involved?”

Hollaway wanted to discover what activities would appeal to families – “reading, literacy, writing activities based on their cultural needs, wants, and desires.”  Several parents mentioned wanting a localized literacy event, so the bookshop owner started contacting local literacy-based organizations and authors. St. Pete Reads! Lit Fest turned into this celebration of literacy.

Not long after, Mayor Ken Welch bestowed an official proclamation making the first Saturday in November St. Pete Reads Day. For Hollaway, the festival and the proclamation were an affirmation.

“Statistics show that 25 percent of Black children and Brown are reading on grade level. We’re not reading on grade level in our community,” stated Hollaway. “But we do read.”

She explained that Black children read rap lyrics, recipes, signs and captions when watching Anime that isn’t dubbed. “We read books we’re interested in, so I just wanted to share with our community that yes, we do read and showcase all the ways that we engage with literacy.”

Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library Vice President Kevin Johnson, Poet Miesha Brundridge, Lorielle Hollaway, Cultured Books Literacy Foundation, Antonio Brown, Barbershop Book Club

This year, Brown stumbled on the Black Children’s Book Week initiative and approached Hollaway about bringing it to St. Pete. Brown’s Barbershop Book Club has been giving youth free haircuts and books as they read while sitting in the barber chair since 2016.

“I was doing some research on literacy and Black children, and I came across Black Children’s Book Week and decided I would like to start something like that right here in St. Petersburg because it’s a global event that happens every year. I thought it would be a great opportunity to partner with literacy partners here in St. Petersburg and James Weldon Johnson Library to put on the event.”

Brown said they plan to continue the celebration. “We would like to put this type of event on every year. We have a great relationship with Cultured Books,” he shared. “Lorielle Hollaway does a great job with spreading awareness, and I believe she’s a great advocate for literacy in our community.”

The James Weldon Johnson Community Library has long been a site for encouraging literacy in south St. Pete. The Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library has a literacy festival each year, and this year’s event gets underway on March 18.

Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library Vice President Kevin Johnson and member Lynda Shorter were on hand for Black Children’s Book Week read-in; Johnson and Brown also hold regular Men of Literacy roundtables at the Enoch Davis Center.

Harris — an author, motivational speaker, certified teacher, assistant principal, poet, and educational rap artist – read from her book “Inspiration from A to Z” to an audience of enrapt children and youth.

Lorielle Hollaway, Cultured Books Literacy Foundation, Tameka Harris, Always Truth Incorporated and Antonio Brown, Barbershop Book Club

“I got invited by Cultural Books and Barbershop Book Club, and they’re always doing great things for the community. I felt it was important to partner with people who are doing great things in the community because we’re better together; it takes a village. And it was great to see Ms. Tweety B’s (Brandy Butler) bring out her students, and so many kids in the community can be involved in something positive.”

Always Truth Incorporated focuses on building confidence and character through motivational speaking, poetry, books and educational rap. Harris was extremely touched when one of the young students at the event told her how she’d read her book, “Destined for Greatness,” before taking an iReady test and went up 100 points in her score.

“Just to hear that, speaking those things — ‘I am destined for greatness!’ — reading those words gave her the boost that she needed to be successful. Because that’s what it’s about, and that’s why everything I do is about building confidence and character – those are the keys to lifetime success. All my products are grounded, building confidence in your character and inspiring youth and adults.”

Brandy Butler, owner of Tweety B’s, a childcare facility specializing in care for families with nontraditional work hour schedules, had brought a van full of her students, who all received Harris’ books thanks to the Barbershop Book Club.

She said it was important to her to support literacy for her students and to share opportunities for them to experience messages of inspiration.

Butler said bringing her students was about ensuring they read on grade level and how to be impactful in a community no matter their age. She wants to ensure they are encouraged on the inside so that they can reflect it outwardly.

To find Tameka Harris’ products, visit alwaystruthincorporated.com. Her music, animation and poetry videos are on her YouTube Channel.

2 Replies to “Local literacy advocates bring Black Children’s Book Week to library”

  1. S. Rose Smith-Hayes says:

    I am all for getting books into the hands of our children. Are they reading the books?? How do we know?? Have their reading scores improved based on the free books? We are too quick to applaud efforts and ‘photo ops’ when there are no real measurements as to the success of these projects. Are we ‘moving the needle’ ? I would love to see some numbers to show that these efforts are more than ‘photo ops’.

    1. Respectfully, did you even read the article?

      It’s so exhausting to read, hear and listen to this rhetoric in our community. Every day, every project, every organization, every person has the opportunity to “move the needle”, in the best and most authentic way they know or wish to.

      We, as in Black people are too quick to applaud efforts? I agree, photo ops are not a real measurement to the success of “these projects”. However, it’s been studied that a community who cultivates a culture of reading has a more literate community. May Black children engage with the literary arts for the sake that it’s literary arts? May a Black Owned newspaper report on community happenings so families can connect with orgs and authors for future events?

      Below is a list of organizations whom, from my knowledge track reading scores, maybe you’d like to support, volunteer, or listen in on how they are moving the needle:
      Phyllis Wheatley Rise To Read Campaign https://www.pwrtrc.org/
      Sing Out and Read (SOAR) https://www.singoutandread.org/
      REACH St. Pete https://reachstpete.org/literacy
      Y READS https://www.stpeteymca.org/yreads

      “Are you doing as much as you can for the struggle?”

      Peace, Love + Books!

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