Story by Kirsten Cappy | Photos by Mark Mattos
The third annual Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival took place on September 17 and 18 at locations in Portland, Lewiston, and Rockland. Created by Marcia and Daniel Minter of Indigo Arts Alliance, and honoring the legacy of renowned artist, writer, and storyteller Ashley Bryan (who wrote the picture book Beautiful Blackbird), the festival was presented in partnership with I’m Your Neighbor Books and Diverse BookFinder. This year for the first time the festival was able to host live events.
Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival celebrates Black and Black immigrant children’s books and their creators. Seven children’s picture books are at the heart of this year’s festival, and all hold a mirror up to the lives of Black and Black immigrant children. In her poem “I Am a Mirror,” illustrated by Ashley Bryan for the book I Am Loved, Black poet Nikki Giovanni writes, “I reflect the strengths/Of my people/And for that alone/I am loved.” In Lewiston’s Kennedy Park, while Coach Malik Hall read Giovanni’s poems aloud, LA Arts led festival attendees in creating a mural of cut-paper shapes inspired by Ashley Bryan’s art. Anyone who missed this reading can hear those poems performed by Ridah Ridah Entertainment’s Atiim Chenzira at BeautifulBlackbird.com.
At the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine (CMTM), Sierra Leonean American Aminata Conteh held listeners rapt as she read the picture book Thank You, Omu! written and illustrated by Nigerian American Oge Mora. In the story, the smell of Omu’s stew brings the whole city to her door for a taste. When Omu finds the pot empty, everyone returns with food and the words, “We are here to give.” In Lewiston, the Mogadishu Store brought such giving to life, with free lunch for families in Kennedy Park.
In the picture book Black Is a Rainbow Color, written by Angela Joy and illustrated by Ekua Holmes, a girl laments that the color black does not appear in the rainbow, but eventually comes to understand the color and culture that black represents. Joseph Philippon, a detective with the Lewiston Police Department, read the book in Kennedy Park. The first lines are “Black is history. Black is family. Black is memory. Black is community.”
Two members of Maine’s Ghanaian community appeared at the festival to share Nana Akua Goes to School, written by Tricia Elam Walker and illustrated by April Harrison. Portland City Councilor Pious Ali read the story of a first-generation Ghanaian American girl who is afraid that children in her class might laugh at the facial markings of her Nana Akua. But when Nana visits, she tells the class that the marks are “gifts from her parents,” and offers to paint West African adinkra symbols on the faces of the children – to their delight. Ebenezer Akakpo, known for his art and design based on adinkra symbols, led 3D art activities for children at CMTM using symbols for strength, friendship, and hope.
Under blue skies in the courtyard of Rockland’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), artist Veronica Perez read, “It’s in the sea, but when you cup it,/it disappears.” Her reading of Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky, written by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and illustrated by Daniel Minter. Following the reading, CMCA and Farnsworth Museum educators led a weaving activity with blue paper that represented the interwoven global histories relating to the color.
The graphic novel New Kid by Jerry Craft appealed to older children, who were able to take home copies from the Lewiston Public Library’s table of Beautiful Blackbird books. The book follows Jordan as he transfers to a private school where he is one of the only children of color. Jordan code switches as he navigates life between his neighborhood friends and his mostly white school community – a phenomenon that will be familiar to most people of color in Maine.
Indigo Arts Alliance also hosted a panel of educators, moderated by Bates College Professor Marcelle M. Medford. The panelists considered the impact of The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, on education about the Black experience. Educator Rohan Henry read aloud the passage, “They say our people were born on the water,/but our people had a home, a place, a land/before we were sold.” Henry said he himself – and many of his Black students – grow up knowing, “my history was slavery,” but this book invites educators to teach the Black history of “before.” Colby College Professor Chandra D. Bhimull told the audience, “You have places to go to learn the truth. Read individually. Read collectively.” She gestured to the book and the gathered educators and audience members and said, “This is learning.”
Before and during the festival weekend, 1,000 Portland and Lewiston children received a bag of books telling stories of the African diaspora. In total, 4,500 copies of books are slated to be given to children served by Portland Public Housing, Portland Parks and Recreation, Lewiston Public Schools, and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) program. Although the live events are over for this year, the festival continues online with events and materials for children and adults alike.
Ashley Bryan, who passed away earlier this year, was known for his powerful readings and recitations. At events he led, he almost always closed out the occasion by reciting from his book, “Black is beautiful, Uh-huh!” The Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival presents the opportunity to keep the legacy of his voice and his vision alive.
Kirsten Cappy is the Executive Director of I’m Your Neighbor Books, a nonprofit that shares immigrant stories through children’s books. The organization is a founding partner of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival.