Bridging Stories and Communities: The Harlem Book Fair

summer internPia Ceres is LEE & LOW’s summer intern. She is a recipient of the We Need Diverse Books Internship Program grant. She’s a rising senior at Brown University, where she studies Education & Comparative Literature, with a focus in French literature. When she’s not reading, you can find her watching classic horror movies from under a blanket, strumming pop songs on her ukulele, and listening to her grandparents’ stories about the Philippines. In this blog post, she talks about her first book fair with LEE & LOW BOOKS.

By morning, a sticky summer swelter had set in, but the anticipation was unmistakable, electric in the air. They would be coming soon. Across two blocks, along 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, booksellers, authors, and representatives from nonprofits fussed with tents and paraphernalia. Somewhere I couldn’t see, a live jazz band began to practice; its strident trumpet blared the beginning of a celebration. In moments, the hot asphalt would be teeming with families and lovers of literature from around the country gathering for the Harlem Book Fair.

The Harlem Book Fair is the largest African-American book fair in the country. With the aim of celebrating literacy within the Black community, the fair, held annually, offers a full day of presentations and rows of exhibition booths. Although it kicked off its 18th successful year last Saturday, this was my very first time participating in a book fair. Helping Keilin and Jalissa represent LEE & LOW and sell some of our books, I was open to every possibility.

The challenge came early on: Someone asked me to find a book for her niece, then added, “She hates reading.” Yikes. Sounds like a tall order, but not surprising. Most of the educators and families who stopped by our booth were concerned that their kids didn’t see themselves in the books assigned at school. It reminded me of when I was a kid and had to read about primarily white boys and the wilderness or dogs or something. For this woman, I suggested The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen. Maybe, I hoped, this would be the book that would start to change things.

At a book fair, one sees firsthand that books, particularly children’s books, are a meaningful part of relationships – an aunt wishing her niece a story that reflects her. I spoke with a dad who wanted an exciting bedtime story; a soon-to-be teacher, eager to fill her first classroom with books as diverse as her students; a mom who wanted to share her native language, and her young daughter who wanted to read it. As I listened to people’s requests, the book fair revealed a striking truth: For a lot of folks, books are expressions of love.harlem book fair

Of course, the day ended with a sudden and cinematic downpour, with jabs of wind that caused our white tent to take to the air like a storm-battered sail and had Keilin, Jalissa, and I drenched, scrambling to protect the books! Because if any day reminded us that books are precious, it was this one.

If books bridge worlds, then book fairs are a space for bridging those connections. The Harlem Book Fair allows diverse stories to come into people’s hands and helps create a world-full of readers – reflected, interconnected, loving and loved.

 

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