Authors, poets and readers turn out for Sacramento Black Book Fair

Lolonyo Teasley, 7, picks out a free book at The Brickhouse art gallery on Sunday during the Sacramento Black Book Fair.
Lolonyo Teasley, 7, picks out a free book at The Brickhouse art gallery on Sunday during the Sacramento Black Book Fair. lsterling@sacbee.com

Micah Reed emerged from The Brickhouse gallery on Sunday thumbing through a children’s copy of “The Lion King,” one with a yellow stuffed lion attached to the cover. The contented 2-year-old was one of hundreds of African American children who left the second annual Sacramento Black Book Fair with a free book over the weekend.

“There’s not a lot of access to black books, and nearly every book here’s by an African American author,” said Micah’s dad, Michael Reed, a CSU Sacramento communications major.

“Reading opens doors to writing,” added Micah’s mom, Chanel Reed.

The Reeds – who said they read to Micah and his 1-year-old sister, Caiyah, every night – were among dozens of book lovers who visited nine Oak Park venues on Sunday afternoon, part of a three-day event designed to help close the African American literacy gap.

Community sponsors, including the Black Parallel School Board, the Sacramento Public Library, Blue Nile Press, Underground Books and the city of Sacramento, turned Oak Park into a celebration of words and culture. On the final day, a procession of children and their parents poured into the Kid Zone at the Brickhouse for drumming, sketching, games and storytelling.

“We’re going to try and make sure each child and each family walks away with a free book,” event coordinator Faye Kennedy said. “If they’re not able to master reading by third grade, research says they’re not going to be very successful in school no matter what color they are.”

Despite Sacramento’s emergence as a city of black empowerment, starting with elected officials such as Mayor Kevin Johnson and reaching into the state Legislature, poor children – many of them of African American descent – are lagging behind academically, said Kennedy, a member of the Black Parallel School Board, which focuses on improving children’s academic performance in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

“Oftentimes poor children come to school without a very large vocabulary because many of their parents don’t have the rich vocabulary to engage their kids verbally,” Kennedy said. “That’s why parents need to engage their children pre-kindergarten because reading at a young age improves their school performance.”

Kakwasi Sopmadhi, an author and educator who was collecting donated books by or about African Americans at the Women’s Civic Improvement Center, said the Black Book Fair comes at a critical time, “when African American kids are behind statistically in test scores, and our American culture is moving away from sitting quietly and reading a book. We hope to foster not only more readers and writers, but more thinkers.”

Georgia West, owner of Underground Books in Oak Park and mother of Mayor Johnson, said she sold more than 100 books Saturday as people streamed in to hear Sopmadhi and others read their works. “Books can take you anywhere in the world,” West said. “The secret is starting young. My youngest son had to read 30 minutes a day.”

Hajir Johnson, 9, said that’s her daily regimen, too. “If you don’t read, you’re not going to know how to write, and you get cash (from your parents) when you read,” the fourth-grader explained as she left the fair with Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.” Toure’ Hendrick, 11, said he’s halfway through “Bone,” a cartoon novel by Jeff Smith that’s one in a series.

Another fourth-grader, Master Jeremiah Aiden Parrish, took the stage at the Brickhouse and read from his essay on kindness: “A time someone was kind to me was when I was feeling sad and my friend Natalie cheered me up ... ”

For fun, he said he’s reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Ugly Truth.” “He has a sucky life,” Master Jeremiah said of the main character. “Now I want the whole series.”

Master Jeremiah said he also enjoyed “The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963,” a work of historical fiction by Christopher Paul Curtis about the civil rights movement. “The main character gets his lips stuck kissing a frozen window,” he said, adding that the secret of getting kids to read – or do anything – is to be funny.

Stephen Magagnini: (916) 321-1072, @StephenMagagnini