By Jake-ann Jones
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Local Literacy Advocates Bring
Black Children’s Book Week to Library
NEA/Pinellas Recovers Grant Update
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Three local literacy champions partnered to bring children and books together during Black Children’s Book Week at St. Petersburg’s James Weldon Johnson Community Library on Saturday, March 4.
Antonio Brown of Barbershop Book Club, Lorielle Hollaway of Cultured Books Literacy Foundation and Always Truth Incorporated’s founder Tameka Harris joined forces for St. Pete’s first celebration of this 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.
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: Encouraging Confidence and Creativity in Children, 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,” shares 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 notes.
Developed in concert with Barbershop Book Club and the STEM education group 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?”
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,” states Hollaway. “But we do read.”
She explains 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.”
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 says 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 shares. “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 have a literacy festival each year, and this year’s event got underway on March 18.
Friends of James Weldon Johnson Library Vice President Kevin Johnson and member Lynda Shorter were on hand for the Black Children’s Book Week read-in. Johnson and Brown also hold regular Men of Literacy roundtables at St. Pete’s 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.
“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’s books thanks to the Barbershop Book Club.
She says it was important to her to support literacy for her students and to share opportunities for them to experience messages of inspiration.
Butler says bringing her students was about ensuring they read on grade level and know 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.
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Cultured Books is a recipient of the Pinellas Recovers Grant,
provided by Creative Pinellas through a grant from the
National Endowment of the Arts American Rescue Plan.
Originally published in The Weekly Challenger