Stories Restore Community Wealth

First Book Festival a Step in Right Direction

Children choosing books to read at the festival.

Stories are the wealth of a community. They can add meaning to places and people. The stories that endure are captured in books and line library shelves. Unfortunately the books that sell don’t always include people and communities like those east of the river. As people travel and time passes, the unwritten and uncollected stories are lost to the detriment of whole generations, until the sense of community and togetherness unravels.    

To give voice to the writers and readers of these shared stories the River East Emerging Leaders (r.e.e.l.) and the Historic Anacostia Block Association (HABA) hosted the first East of the River Book Festival at the Gateway DC pavilion on the St. Elizabeths East Campus, featuring appearances by over 25 local and regional authors and six community organizations, including volunteers from three city libraries. The focus of the day was not only the importance of literacy but also the stories and images that reflected local residents.    

Courtney Davis, HABA member, Anacostia resident, educator, and author, led the onsite organization efforts at the festival and hopes the event will be an annual event, not only for Ward 7 and 8 residents but all city residents. “Both for local residents and others the festival works toward erasing negative thoughts rooted in history,” she said as part of the reasoning to organize the event. “A Is for Anacostia,” a children’s book by Davis, is designed for children to learn the alphabet by highlighting the different aspects of the Anacostia neighborhood in a way that is different from the crime-and-poverty-focus of front-page news.

Rendering diverse, whimsical images of children that look like kids found in the neighborhood elementary schools, Jerry Craft, a gifted illustrator, created the artwork for some of the children’s books available at the festival, including “A Is for Anacostia.” The children were able to find many examples of books that were inclusive of their realities, and perhaps learned lessons from the shared stories or planted a seed in their imaginations from which they can grow as people.   

The DC Public Library and a team of friendly staff helped area residents sign up for library cards and hosted readings for children. With youth volunteers on staff, the library helped convey a message that reading is socially acceptable for kids just as for festival participants. Leithia Wilson, from Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, provided information about the free services her organization offers to help adults learn to read and write, because literacy eludes many adults. Wilson shared that her organization is constantly in need of volunteers able to make a one-year commitment to the 200 learners. “The festival is an important community event that gives us the opportunity to expose others to our programs,” Wilson noted appreciatively. 

Stories sometimes teach you lessons. Many of the books displayed at the festival have lessons for their target readers. From teaching children about finances and entrepreneurship to teaching the broken-hearted to love again after a traumatic experience, almost every table had a book with lessons for young readers. Sandra Fleming, a self-published children’s book author who grew up in Ward 8, penned “An Unlikely Trio” about three different friends. “My hope is to teach kids to embrace their uniqueness,” said Fleming. Photographer Alyscia Cunningham imparts a similar message in “Feminine Transitions,” a photographic celebration of natural beauty. 

Playing with his giant puppet, Nabeel Bilal, illustrator for “Callaloo,” a children’s jazz folktale, has a similar message. In using a puppet, an African-American boy named Winston, who ends up on the island of Tobago, Bilal offers residents another image similar to local children and a lesson to take only what you need. “Events like the festival are great because they are a way to promote dialogue,” remarked Bilal. Having grown up in the neighborhood and come back after college, Bilal remembers a time when there were no opportunities to come out and meet other community members.       

Perhaps the most prolific author exhibiting at the festival was Ronald R. Hanna, who has published 15 books and countless articles and poems since he began writing as a student at Ballou High School. He used to think that the best invention was the correcting Selectric Typewriter made by IBM. Currently he is at work on a play and is definitely using a computer. Hanna writes stories about the city during his days as a drug addict, hoping that young people can learn from his books without having to learn by doing. “The most important thing is to read and then write,” he declared.    

The East of the River community must work hard to promote literacy and support local writers who safeguard these teaching stories for the next generation, so that future generations avoid reinventing the wheel or learning the hard way. Positive, diverse images will give children their role models, and teaching stories will help them grow. The First Book Festival is a step in the right direction.  

Almost every table offered stories with lessons and diverse images.
Children choosing books to read at the festival.

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