MAINE, USA — A children's book festival starting Sept. 23 will highlight the work of Black creators in Maine.
The Beautiful Blackbird Children's Book Festival will have live events in Portland, Lewiston, and Rockland, as well as book giveaways and activities. The festival is in its fourth year and is named after the book created by Ashley Bryan, a longtime Cranberry Island resident who died in 2022. The festival is in honor of what would be Bryan's 100th birthday.
One goal of the festival is to build the home libraries of Black children, filling those homes with books that represent their lives and experiences. In the past three years, the festival distributed a total of over 8,500 books. This year's Beautiful Blackbird Children's Book Festival will provide and facilitate the distribution of nearly 3,000 books.
"Each featured book and event will provide an opportunity for young readers of color to see themselves reflected in literature created with them in mind and to interact with the authors and illustrators as role models and storytellers," according to Daniel Minter, co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance, a Black artist collaborative located in Portland's Bayside neighborhood.
The festival features books by several Black and Brown authors with connections to Maine in the pages. "A Feast For Joseph" is set in both a refugee camp in Uganda and Portland's Kennedy Park.
In that neighborhood, in front of IAA, is a quote from Bryan's book, "Beautiful Blackbird." Painted on the asphalt of Cove Street is "Black is Beautiful."
"It says that this community is predominantly seen and occupied and lived in by Black bodies and so they need to feel their presence," Jordia Benjamin said, the executive director of IAA. "Their uniqueness is seen as truly beautiful."
Benjamin said she encourages people of all races and ethnicities to attend the festival to spread the message more widely to people who do not know the struggles that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) face on a daily basis.
"I think in some areas we've made beautiful strides, and I think other areas we haven't touched," Benjamin said. "This festival is created for everyone. Black history, Black culture is everyday culture. It's a part of American history and so you can't separate and remove yourself out of the conversation."
The festival will feature several Black-created books, including "Indigo Dreaming" by Dinah Johnson. The IAA will host Johnson at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23 for a read-aloud of the story, and guests will receive a free copy of their own "Indigo Dreaming." On Sunday, Johnson will read her book at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland at 1 p.m., followed by a collage art-making activity in the Gamble Education Center from 2-3 p.m., where free copies of "Indigo Dreaming" will be given away. Admission to the Farnsworth is free from 1-3 p.m.
The Children's Museum & Theater of Maine will host a day full of activities on Saturday, Sept. 23. One of the exhibits at the museum is "Beautiful Blackbird!", an interactive, multimedia installation as you dance with a bird on the screen that dances with you and moves as you move. Its centerpiece is a giant projection screen animated with birds from Bryan's picture book.
"We really want to make this type of program accessible to as many people as possible," CMTM Executive Director Julie Butcher Pezzino said. "What I hope children and families get out of Saturday is the opportunity to experience these books through a wide variety of mediums. Through art, through hearing a book reading. I hope it gives them a really diverse way to access these incredible books and to interact with them."
Maine is nearly 94 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That statistic is changing, as more families seeking asylum come to Maine from war-torn countries.
The nonprofit I'm Your Neighbor Books, located within walking distance from IAA, curates diverse collections for school libraries and gifts these books to new families arriving in Maine.
"Home has been such a complex issue for them, right? It has changed and they have moved and it has changed languages, cultures have shifted," Kirsten Cappy said, the executive director of I'm Your Neighbor Books. "You've arrived home. This book grounds you here. We have libraries, but owning books makes all the difference."
"We all as human beings want to feel love. We want to feel accepted. We want to feel as if we belong," Benjamin said. "If you truly read these stories, it's talking about all of what we search for as human beings, as individuals. And so I think the earliest we can start creating socially engaged citizens of the world."
Program Timeline: Sept. 23 | Doors open at 9 a.m., Events begin at 9:30 a.m.
- 9:30 a.m. - "A Feast for Joseph" Read-Aloud featuring author OD Bonny
- 10 a.m. - "A Feast for Joseph" book signing with authors OD Bonny and Terry Farish
- 10 a.m. - Create An Artistic Feast!: Celebrating "A Feast for Joseph"
- 10:30 a.m. - Blackbird Beats: Music & Story
- 11:30 a.m. - "When I Get Older" Read-Aloud
- 12:30 p.m. - Blackbird Beats: Music & Story
- 1 p.m. - Poem of Courage: "When I Get Older" Art & Poetry
- 1:30 p.m. - "Indigo Dreaming" Read-Aloud
- 2 p.m. - Incredible Indigo: Symmetry in Art/ The Greatest Superhero You’ve Never Ever Heard Of, based on the books "Indigo Dreaming" and "Stuntboy, in the Meantime"
- 2:30 p.m. - Blackbird Beats: Music & Story
Black and African American children are less likely to encounter books that depict their own life experiences, said Jordia Benjamin, executive director of the Indigo Arts Alliance. This is a critical gap since children are better able to retain and recall plot and character information after reading books featuring characters that mirror themselves, she said. The Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival addresses this gap.
- Indigo Arts Alliance: 1 p.m. - "Indigo Dreaming" with Dinah Johnson
- CMTM: 9:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. - Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival + Dollar Day at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine
- Mayo Street Arts Alliance: 1 p.m. - Acholi Music! Afrobeat!: OD Bonny Family Performance
- The Farnsworth: 1 p.m. - 3 p.m. - Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival in Rockland, Maine