Every year, Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati comes up with a new angle to promote the African American Children’s Book Fair, but, truth be told, she usually has two or three. After 27 years, the event’s creator and producer still finds novel pitches and plugs.
Lloyd-Sgambati declared the fair’s theme this year is icons. She noted three recent releases — T.R. Simon’s Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, a fictionalized account of Zora Neale Hurston as a child; Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Finding Langston, a mid-20th-century tale of a boy named Langston who comes across Langston Hughes’ poetry in a Chicago library; and Tonya Bolden’s nonfiction No Small Potatoes: Junius G. Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas — can inspire youngsters to research real historical figures kids might otherwise not know.
“A child starts reading these books, and starts googling who these people are,” she said.
She also mentioned 2019 as the year the United States officially commemorates 400 years of African American history. Here’s another reason to dig into the fair’s volumes and volumes on black history. “Congress passed a resolution. The president signed off on it. The National Park Service is leading it,” she said, adding, “And we’re jumping into it.”
She’s also touting the fair’s new art-making station, created by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and a new knitting workshop. Also, did she mention her sponsors?
After nearly three decades, Lloyd-Sgambati — fast-talking, fast-moving, ever phone-calling — has become synonymous with her three-hour event. She moves mountains for the fair, and for the hundreds of kids — overwhelmingly African American — who attend. She feels she owes it to them.
“Most of the black kids who are attending [the fair] have never had a school visit from these authors,” she said. “[The children’s authors at my fair] do school visits all the time, but 95 percent of the time, they’re going to white schools, because that’s who has the budgets.”
Year after year, Lloyd-Sgambati brings in preeminent black authors and illustrators, who, she said, “come to my event for free.” This year, Kwame Alexander will be there. So will Sharon M. Draper, Derrick Barnes, Marietta Collins, Bolden, Simon, Cline-Ransome, and about two-dozen more past, current, and future literary award-winners. It also attracts a crowd of 3,500 — a crowd who knows.
Regulars arrive early in order to receive one of 500 complimentary, first-come, first-served books. Educators instinctively head to a far corner of the Community College of Philadelphia’s all-purpose room to pick up their gratis literary stashes. Littler kids flop down criss-cross applesauce in the center back to hear and watch storytellers read their own stories. Bigger kids tentatively approach writers and artists who are standing behind folding tables on the periphery, poised to answer questions and shake hands.
At one point or another during the three-hour event, just about every attendee crowds around a set of center tables to peruse stacks and stacks of thousands of books for sale, before patiently waiting in checkout lines, arms full of knowledge and fun and art and history.
This is the moment — busy, packed, upbeat — that Lloyd-Sgambati lives for every year. Next year won’t be exactly the same. But then again, it will, and that will be awesome.