When the African American Children’s Book Fair started in Philadelphia 28 years ago, Tonya Bolden was among the authors who was there, then a fledgling writer with only a couple of books.

A little boy named Edward in a black leather jacket showed up and stood beside her. She remembers him well, because he came back year after year and stood by her. Until one year, he just didn’t. He’d outgrown the fair, she thought.

Then a few years ago, she mentioned him on a radio show just before the fair. His mother heard. And at that year’s event, in walked Edward, now a grown man, carrying a book she had autographed for him all those years ago. And he brought his child, too.

“It’s that kind of connection you establish with people," said Bolden, a New York City-based author, who has written more than 40 books. "The people who come, I often feel like they’re family. They come year after year.”

And they did again on Saturday, lining up down the street and flooding the multipurpose room at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Folks waited in long lines just to get into the book fair at the Community College of Phila. on Feb. 1, 2020.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Folks waited in long lines just to get into the book fair at the Community College of Phila. on Feb. 1, 2020.

‘He needs books that reflect his skin color’

It makes a difference when children pick up a book and see an illustration of someone who looks like them, said Briana Sanders, 29, a program coordinator at Bustleton Learning Center, who brought her son, Drew Stevenson, 3.

“He is a young black boy in the city of Philadelphia and needs to know not only his history, but he needs books that reflect his skin color, his lifestyle, what he sees every day,” she said. “It’s important to how he grows and develops and the way he sees the world, and that’s important to me as a mother.”

The book fair was scheduled to run three hours, but was still going strong 3½ hours later. It draws about 3,500 students, parents, and educators each year with one of the largest selections of African American children’s books in one place. The first 500 children got a free book and there were other giveaways, too. Generations have come to the fair to purchase books and meet dozens of award-winning authors and illustrators.

Some attendees view the fair not just as a place to buy books, but a celebration of black history, fitting for the start of Black History Month.

“We’ve got the most amazing lineup of African American children’s books that you can imagine," said Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati, founder and producer of the fair. “It’s all about getting books into the hands of children.”

A young reader examines a book at the book fair at the Community College of Phila. on Feb.1, 2020.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
A young reader examines a book at the book fair at the Community College of Phila. on Feb.1, 2020.

Nurturing a love of reading

As she walked down a crowded aisle on Saturday, Lloyd-Sgambati pointed out the distinguished authors, who have works on the bestseller list and who have won national awards. Among them: Jessica Curry, who cowrote a book with her daughter, Parker, called Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment, about the moment Parker first saw former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait in Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.

There, too, was Joshunda Sanders, who was born in Chester and who has family in Philadelphia. She was promoting her fifth book, I Can Write the World, about a black woman who doesn’t see her neighborhood reflected in the news, so she decides to become a journalist.

Lined up in a row were New York illustrator Jerry Pinkney, his wife, author Gloria Jean Pinkney, and their granddaughter, Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, also an illustrator, who is from Atlanta. Jerry Pinkney’s first book, The Adventures of Spider, published in 1964, is still in print, he said. Seven members of the Pinkney family are writers or illustrators, he said.

Chris Gibson and Lisa Hindmarsh, of Manayunk, marveled at the illustrations on Pinkney’s book covers as they passed. They were glad they came.

“Fabulous, so much to take in, and it’s great to get to talk to the authors,” said Gibson, who came with his daughter, Kacia, 9.

Jarrod Green, a preschool director from West Philadelphia, was there to get books for his school and for his toddler at home. He’s been coming for several years.

Bolden has been to almost every book fair except for a couple, one because of a blizzard. The book fair is one of her favorite events to attend, she said, noting that it has a regional draw, but also a national one. She comes to support Lloyd-Sgambati, too, she said.

“Vanesse took a chance on me when I didn’t have much going for myself,” Bolden said, recalling the earlier fairs when she was just beginning her book career.

Those who attend are passionate about nurturing a love of reading for children, she said.

“People will say, ‘This is for my grandchild who is not yet born or for my grandchild who is 6 years old, and I’m building a library,’ ” she said.

Natalie Price brought her granddaughter and her brother’s three granddaughters, spanning ages 7 to 12, to the fair last year and spent hours browsing the collection. They left with 10 books.

“I let everyone pick out their books until their budget was used up,” said Price, an administrative specialist at the Community College of Philadelphia. “They loved it.”

She couldn’t make it to the fair this year, but no matter. Lloyd-Sgambati says the next one’s only a year away.

“It’s the 28th anniversary,” she said. “Why would we stop?”