MLK Books Fair and Writers Resist: Finding out how words can change the world

This February, people in many walks of life have been asking: Can words change the world, and if so, how? The question arises at Black History Month book fairs at schools throughout the Philadelphia area. And, in a different way, the question arose at the Institute for Contemporary Art on Febr. 4, when a meeting of Writers Resist gathered.

Out of the mouths of babes …

February is a very busy month for me. All month, I am going around to various elementary schools to run book fairs for Black History Month. I was at one such school recently in Cheltenham Township, and as each class came to visit the fair, I talked with the students about bookstores and libraries, books and reading. When you ask a group of first- or second-graders who loves reading, all the students in the class raise their hands. I asked them why we read books and received some smart but unsurprising replies: for information, for entertainment.

But in the “kids say the darndest things” department, here’s what I was told about why books are important:

“They take you on an adventure in your mind.”

“They give you energy.”

“You get knowledge and then you get more sleep.”

One child spoke to me about how books teach us history and how we need to learn that so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. That all sounds fairly profound when it’s coming from the mouth of a third-grader. And when I joked with the kids that I liked to read books, talk about books, and even eat books, one sagely replied: “We eat books to feed our imagination.” Love these kids!

I enjoyed sharing some of my favorite books with the kids. I especially like the children’s picture books, which have stunning art in them. My new favorite illustrator is Kadir Nelson, whose work is just spectacular, including his book Nelson Mandela, which has such gorgeous cover art that the publisher wisely chose not to cover it with words.

I like to hold it up to the kids and ask what’s missing; they quickly note that the title for this volume is on the back cover!








Here's a great interview with Kadir:

 At the other end of the spectrum (the grown-up end), on the weekend of Feb. 4-5 I attended the first organizing meeting of the local Writers Resist movement. (For a fuller description of last week’s meeting see this post by Beth Kephart.)

It was heartening to see such a large group convene to discuss what we can achieve with the power of words. (It was pointed out, however, that the group was not very diverse, so writers of color, please join in!)

At the meeting, the following group dialogue emerged:

  • Writers are observers and recorders.
  • So to what extent are writers protagonists in the resistance?
  • Each writer needs to work that out for her- or himself, and the group needs to resolve it collectively.
  • The group also needs to ask itself: “How do we go from being a force of resistance to being one that posits a more just society and actively works toward creating that more just society?”

It’s not news that writers get involved in political struggles, sometimes at great expense to their own safety, particularly in countries where political suppression is the norm, which we are not accustomed to in the United States. Philadelphia writers, and, indeed, writers across the country, are trying to determine what their course will be in our new political environment. And as this all takes shape, I will be sure to tell children who come to the book fair with a passionate and unequivocal love of books and reading never to forget that books can change the world.