The A Is For Anansi conference was outstanding. Congratulations and thank you to the organizers (Jaira Placide and Rashidah Ismaili) who worked for almost two years to pull it off. Here are some of my random observations of the event. (I’m a lousy note taker so my apologies to the speakers for any inaccuracies and for being vague. Most of what follows is purely from memory.)
First of all, I was really excited to see the range of attendees — students, teachers, librarians, parents, editors, writers, and more. Given that it was a long holiday weekend it was fantastic to see so many there, passionately involved in this important topic. Secondly, I was impressed by the interesting variety of speakers — children, parents, teachers, academics, writers, reviewers and others — a very interesting and broad range of viewpoints. Thirdly, the venue, food and drink were great too! And, finally, there were just the small touches that were so moving, say organizer Rashidah ordering all of us (gently, but firmly) to come to the mike and say one word before leaving for the final reception. Mine was “hope.”
The conference began on Friday evening with a keynote speech by Andrea Davis Pinkney, writer, editor, and a leading light in publishing for a long time. She spoke of us being a “hallelujah choir” as we, in our varied roles, worked to bring books to this important group of children.
This was followed by a panel on “History/Significance/Meaning of Writing/Publishing/Selling Literature for and about Children of African Descent” moderated by Cheryl Willis Hudson of Just Us Books. Agent Joe Monti, a former buyer at Barnes & Noble, jumped in with some points about hot topics such as covers, book placement, numbers of books, and more. Serendipity Literary Agency founder Regina Books gave a bit of her background and also spoke bluntly about what she is able to sell, what not, and why. CCBC’s K. T. Horning spoke of history, of numbers too (say the percentage of books by people of color or about people of color over the years), and more. Lee & Low‘s Hannah Ehrlich spoke about her company’s efforts and challenges. Colin Bootman gave us his unique perspective as a veteran illustrator. I had to leave after after this, but the other scheduled speakers that evening were Color-Bridge Book‘s founder Bernette Ford and Professor Nancy D. Tolson.
I was unable to attend the Saturday morning’s sessions, but heard that they were excellent. (Moderator of the morning session, Zetta Elliot, has blogged about it and the conference here.) I returned in time to hear a panel on “Critiquing & Evaluating the Books/Content” moderated by Laura Atkins. Wanda M. Brooks gave us an overview of an important study she did with Jonda C. McNair on representation in children’s books. ( “This story of mine is not unique:” A review of research on African Americans in children’s literature. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 125-162.) The dynamic activist librarian Andrew P Jackson gave a rousing call to arms. Oralia Garza de Cortes gave us more disturbing information and Publishers Weekly‘s John Sellers discussed how African-American children’s literature is reviewed in his publication. Last, but definitely not least, we heard from Summer Edward, creator of Anansesem, who provided us with an important presentation of the issues around Caribbean children’s literature.
Next was a panel on “Literacy & Education for/of the Black Male” moderated by Clairesa Clay. It opened with a moving speech by Elan Watson, a student at the Academy of Business and Community Development, an all-boys school in Brooklyn. Later his father, Keenan Watson, the PTA president of the school, read an incredibly powerful and moving speech about young black men today and what he is trying to do as a father for his son. Katie Sciurba gave us some of the results of her research on boys and their reading — most intriguingly about the connections between Harry Potter and Malcolm X. The passionate Tony Medina gave us a poem and spoke movingly about his own work and experiences. Scholar C. Jama Adams was fierce in stating his perspectives, often differing strongly from some others on the panel. It was a completely absorbing and incredibly moving session.
The conference ended with a reception honoring Virginia Hamilton, Tom Feelings, and Leo and Diane Dillon. While I was unable to stay for the presentations I was delighted to have time to chat with Diane Dillon, old friend Michael Patrick Hearn, and other attendees.
Bravo to the remarkable folks who put together this very fine event.