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Field Notes: A Family Affair: Connecting Community to Books

On a rainy day in July 2017, a group of teachers, librarians, and community activists gathered at Frugal Bookstore, Boston’s only Black-owned bookstore, to participate in a discussion of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (which would go on to be named a 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor Book). As co-chairs of the literacy subcommittee of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement (BNBSA), Dr. Kim Parker and Dr. Theresa Perry had called the group together to begin a conversation about how to implement robust literacy practices for Boston’s African American young people, as well as how to expose them to the rich legacy of the African American literary experience. Out of that meeting grew a new initiative: Book Clubs for Black Children and Youth. And in January 2018, in celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the two of us launched A Family Affair Book Club, to be held at Frugal Bookstore.

We decided on a family book club model that invited not only young people but also their parents, caregivers, and community members. An intergenerational model allowed us to open the book club to a wider segment of the community and tackle more challenging texts, while assuring that the youth were supported with guidance and discourse from caring adults. The book club focuses on middle grade to young adult literature written by African American writers (many of whom are Coretta Scott King Book Award winners and honorees); the books we choose fulfill the mission of the CSK Awards: “books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” These types of books, which often tackle sensitive material that is relevant to young people’s experiences, are frequently left out of school curricula. We believe that educating children is not solely the responsibility of schools, and we hope to reinforce the idea that families and community can have an impact on our children’s academic achievement in powerful ways with small investments of time.

Our book club meets one Saturday a month, when we settle into a comfortable nook in a circle (snacks are also provided!). We begin with an activation activity to help kick off the discussion. These activities are usually interactive and employ multimedia. For example, we created a PowerPoint presentation that included quotes and images from Malcolm X’s early life for the discussion of 2016 CSK Author Honor Book X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz, with Kekla Magoon; we simultaneously played a recording of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song that Malcolm is drawn to in the book. Portions of the story take place in Dudley Square — which is also where Frugal Bookstore is located!—adding another layer of connection.

Another important feature of the book club is the accompanying reading lists. The suggestions range from picture books to adult titles, and they correspond with the major themes of that month’s chosen book. For example, the wraparound list for The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton (called the GOAT or “Greatest of All Time” by one book club member) included Hamilton’s The People Could Fly (CSK Author winner in 1986 and Illustrator Honor in 2005), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (CSK Author Honor in 1971) as well as other books on African and African American folklore, fiction, and history. With the book club taking place in the bookstore, families often use the lists to make purchases on the spot. The lists have also been helpful for the educators in the group because it gives them new books to add to their classroom libraries.

In addition to the literacy objectives of the book club itself, there is a very clear social justice component in our work. As Black educators, administrators, and community members, we recognize a critical need to support African American writers as the narrators and truth-tellers of the African American experience. As of 2016 (according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center), only six percent of children’s books were authored by African American, Latinx, and Indigenous authors combined; in the same year, only 71 of the 278 books written about African Americans (25.5%) were authored by African Americans. Representation matters here, both in that the story gets told at all and that it is told through the lens of lived experience and cultural competency.

For five decades now, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards have been honoring and highlighting high-quality children’s and young adult literature written and illustrated by African American writers and illustrators. Systemic racism impacts every institution and industry in America, including the publishing industry, and one of the initiatives of the BNBSA was to commission a list of essential reading for Black youth from Dr. Jonda C. McNair, an expert in the field of African American children’s literature. (A poster featuring the list was designed by a renowned local artist, Rufus Faulk, and is available for purchase through Frugal Bookstore.) In recognizing and supporting African American authors, we are able to support these artists financially as well as send a clear message that there is a demand for the stories they choose to tell.

We also understand the importance of collective economics and ensuring that we help support the institutions and businesses in our community, including Frugal Bookstore. Black bookstores occupy a unique place as a clearinghouse for information and activism; they have been centers of resistance and protest, so much so that in 1968 J. Edgar Hoover, as part of the COINTELPRO operation, began to include Black bookstores among his targets. We want to support and uphold the revolutionary roots of Black bookstores and the bold literary heritage of African Americans dating back to the 1700s, when Phillis Wheatley published her first book of poetry. While Black bookstores would often be the only place for Black authors and illustrators to sell their books, a prestigious award like the Coretta Scott King provides visibility to stories that have been historically excluded from the mainstream. As social justice and educational activists, we continue the fight to have our stories told, and to create the spaces to share them while supporting the economic vitality of the African American community.

A Family Affair Book Club members, including co-founders Nicholl Montgomery and Monique Harris (fourth- and fifth from left), with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (third from left).

On March 10, 2018, the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement hosted a one-day community conference titled “Literacy Is Liberation,” where educators, librarians, community activists, school groups, and school administrators gathered to explore the expansive roots of African American literary heritage, share instructional best practices, and connect with others who understand the importance of countering the deficit narrative of African American achievement. Many are surprised to learn that African Americans have a long history of literary excellence when it was illegal for our ancestors to be literate. There was also deep resistance work embedded in literary texts and in schools and classrooms headed by African American teachers. Out of this resistance came a canon of work that reveals a strong connection to literacy and intellectual excellence — the same call that is answered by the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

These are the stories that our children (and those who care for and educate them) must be told in order to break stigmatizations around academic capacity and achievement and to recognize the richness of history and the artistry of books by African American creators. In June 2019, we plan to launch a summer reading program. The vision of the BNBSA is to see the family book club model occurring in as many community spaces as possible, ensuring that all students and families have increased access to African American literature written by African American authors and that the tradition of literacy and academic excellence is passed on to another generation.


Frugal Bookstore

In 2008 Leonard Egerton and his wife Clarrissa bought Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury, Massachusetts. They have since dedicated themselves to building a business that acts as a community gathering place and center of literacy.

The store hosts many book clubs, community events, and authors signings. In 2018, Frugal Bookstore was instrumental in the planning of the inaugural Roxbury location of the Boston Book Festival. As the only African American bookstore in Boston, Frugal’s mission is “Changing Minds One Book at a Time.” Visit frugalbookstore.net

 


From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

About Monique Harris and Nicholl Montgomery

Monique Harris is a public educator, reading specialist, and educational consultant. She holds an MS in education from Simmons University. Nicholl Montgomery is a PhD student at Boston College in the curriculum and instruction department. She is a former English teacher in the Boston Public Schools.

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