To a Writer of Color--Finding a Place at the Table
After visiting two popular children’s book festivals, I was struck by how frenetic they were. Children rushed from one author to another, collecting autographs, stickers, grabbing candy or other small items on the author’s table designed to catch the child’s attention. If there were authors whom the children knew (usually older children with authors who were writing Young Adult literature), then they seemed to linger and ask the author thoughtful questions. If the author were a lesser known individual, then it was often up to the parents to slow the children down and help them take new information in more slowly. In the festival aisles, under breezy white tents, one might hear a parent say: "Oh Lindsey, let’s look at this book. This one has an interesting cover.”
I could see the author of "X" book perk up and get ready to make a quick pitch to the parent or ask the child in tow a question that might entice him or her to linger for just a few minutes. As I looked out at the set up of authors at tables, I felt as if I were looking at a sea of fishermen/women who were waiting quietly for children come by and to nibble on their product ( a book) and hoping that this interaction might translate into a sale.
René Saldaña addresses a different issue in his post in Kids in L@tino Lit about the challenges for writers of color when they attend book festivals. They often experience a kind of invisibility, as if they were not sitting amongst the other writers, playing this waiting game. Saldaña honestly and as he says "bluntly" sorts through a variety of questions as to why he is deemed "invisible" at certain book festivals. I could imagine, if I were him, I might begin to ask myself a variety of questions: Is no one coming to my table because my book isn’t interesting? Is it because I’m not getting my ideas across to the right age group? Or perhaps, as Saldana suggests, is no one coming to my table because I’m a writer of color?
I was therefore especially glad to turn a corner and meet Eric Velasquez, a children’s book writer and illustrator for over twenty-five years.
He was presenting a number of books at the festival---one on Houdini, another about his Grandmother and a third about a young Ethiopian girl who is adopted into a new family. Obviously, these were not easy topics to address and I appreciated Eric’s sensitive voice and illustrations. In fact, the book about his Grandmother brought me to tears, standing right in the middle of the festival. He saw the impact that his book had on me and we began to talk about the power of storytelling and how important it is for children to see themselves in stories like "Grandma's Gift", which won the Pura Belpre Award in 2011.
The story is about the loving relationship between a boy and his Grandmother. They live in the lively, colorful community of El Barrio in New York City. Together they run errands all around the neighborhood, greeting shop owners, finding the freshest vegetables or the special spices for the pasteles she will make for the upcoming holiday dinner. One day, his Grandmother tells her grandson that they will go together to the Museum of Modern Art, so that he can get his homework assignment done before the winter holidays begin. At the museum, they see a portrait by the 17th century Spanish painter Diego Velasquez of a black man of African descent, named Juan de Pareja. Pareja was born a slave in 1610. He worked as an assistant in Diego Velasquez's studio and in fact, upon gaining his freedom, became an accomplished painter himself.
In the author's note, at the end of Grandma's Gift, Eric states that Diego Velasquez's portrait of Juan de Pareja had a profound and lasting effect on him. He continues:
"I grew up in a time when there were very few images of people of African
descent in children's books. All of my heroes, sadly, did not look like me."
I bought two copies of Grandma's Gift--one for myself andone for CentroNia's Community Library. I know children at my schoolwill enhoy his books and will appreciate the sensitive depiction of his Grandmother and the lively portraits of people of color in the market and streets of El Barrio in New York City.
As I left the book festival grounds, I looked back at all the children, racing around from table to table and asked myself, how can we organize these kinds of events so that children have more time to explore and learn about what the author is trying to communicate? Do these festivals always have to be so frenetic and fast paced, as if they were competing with television for children’s attention? And most important, how do we bring children and families of color together with the talented myriad of authors of color we know are out there?
As always, share your thoughts or ideas---feedback welcome!