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How Saraciea Fennell Morphed Literary Passion Into Essential Bronx Book Festival

NYC native Saraciea Fennell speaks on how the festival came to be.

Saraciea Fennell's journey with literature has been an integral part of her life since she was a child. During her time in foster care, the NYC native turned to books in order to get lost in an alternate universe while the world continued to press on around her.

"I read books to basically escape real life," Fennell says. "Being in a different environment with strangers, away from family, it was a place that felt like home away from home." Roald Dahl's James And The Giant Peach, and Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret opened up Fennell's imaginative scope which later turned into her love for graphic novels and fantasy passages; Octavia Butler's sci-fi work reserves a special place on Fennell's bookshelf, and she still re-reads The Baby-Sitters Club (but the graphic novel version by Raina Telgemeier, with text adapted from the originals written by Ann M. Martin).

That literary refuge continued to grow in meaning to Fennell's journey and has turned into an event that puts literacy at the forefront for the BX's youth. After closing out a successful Kickstarter to raise funding for Saturday's Bronx Book Festival (May 19), Fennell's idea is within reach, nearly two years after the borough's only Barnes & Noble closed down in Bay Plaza.

Despite this dismal decision, Fennell saw the birth of not only the Bronx Book Festival, but the Bronx Is Reading campaign as a way to deeply engage with her community and provide a space for children and adults to explore literature by authors of color. Since 2012, Fennell, 29, envisioned an outlet that supports the statement "reading is fundamental," but the road to this moment was met with opposition.

"Even though [crowdfunding] was super fast, I really have been working on the seed since 2012, and between 2015 and 2016," she says, "after being hit by several companies and organizations saying, ‘This is a great idea, but we only give money to nonprofits,' which was discouraging, but I decided crowdfunding was the best way to do it and I’m so happy I did it because now the festival is coming."

The event will feature keynote roundtable discussions with authors Daniel Jose Older (Salsa Nocturna) and Elizabeth Acevedo (Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths), writing workshops, a spotlight on young adult writers and queer authors of color plus live readings of works by Wendy Xu (Mooncakes), Sharee Miller (Princess Hair) and others. Before Saturday arrives and Fordham Plaza fills with eager attendees, here's how the festival came to be.

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VIBE: Tell me about your path that has led to this moment of the festival?
Saraciea Fennell: I attended my first book festival as an adult in Brooklyn and I thought it was mind-blowing. I wondered why something like that couldn’t take place in the Bronx. As time went on I kept asking myself, 'Why are all of these really cool literary events happening all around New York City but nothing is really happening in the Bronx?' That was the seed of the idea for the festival and after the Barnes & Noble closed, I decided it was time to do it now. Everyone needs to have literature in their lives and it was important for people of color because the Bronx has a very large population of diverse people and immigrants. I thought it was important to invite authors and creators of color to be a part of this festival so that people who look like me that are brown, black, Latinx, that they can see that this industry exists. People of color are writing books, you can make a career out of this. I also want more people of color to work in book publishing. It’s a very white industry so it would be an excellent opportunity for people in the community to come out, learn more about book publishing and to also support authors of color. I think just to see that representation will open up so many doors for so many people.

I also came across your Bronx Is Reading initiative. How will this festival combat the notion that the borough's residents have no interest in reading given the lack of bookstores in certain communities?
With the Bronx Is Reading program, that program is only open to Title 1 schools. Through the application process, we had so many schools that applied. We had to turn them down so we’re hoping that they apply again for next year. This year we’re going to have three authors visiting three to four Title 1 schools. That’s 600 kids that are about to get books for free. I’m super pleased and so thankful to the authors for coming out. The festival purchased 200 copies of each of those authors’ books to give away to these students. It’s just a way to reimagine my past because I never had a school visit from an author or illustrator so this program is really special to me because I want children of color who come from really tough circumstances and maybe have never been in a bookstore and have only seen books in a library and can’t afford to buy books, I want them to see that this is something special for them and they don’t have to worry about the cost of it. It’s all paid for and handled through the festival and the icing on the cake is they get to also meet a real-life author.

The Barnes & Noble store in Baychester closed due to high rent and may be replaced by a Saks Off 5th. Is there a connection between literature or its lack thereof in marginalized communities and increased costs of living in NYC?
I agree 100 percent. I think that you see nothing but clothing stores and liquor stores and all of these non-educational things popping up in a lot of marginalized communities. It makes it seem like that’s all we care about, that we don’t care about reading or other cultural things that other affluent communities have and it’s just not true. You can just see from this festival, hundreds of people have been sending me messages saying thank you for doing this, this is something the borough has needed, I’m happy to have something in my backyard and not have to go into another borough to get it. I think there’s a direct correlation there. I’m sad to hear that the Barnes & Noble closed and it’s being replaced by a clothing store. It’s like do you really need another one of those?

What were your thoughts on this decision? Did you feel like you ultimately had a responsibility to stress that literacy is fundamental to the youth?
When I heard about it, there was someone who started a petition. I signed the petition and spoke about it to people in my community, like ‘We cannot let this happen.’ From my end, working in publishing as a publicist I tried to get more events confirmed in the Bronx, to get authors in there to speak to people. Unfortunately, the event person who works there was very resistant to confirming authors because they thought no one is going to show up. I’m said, ‘If you book it, maybe people will show up’ because hundreds of people signed that petition to keep the store open. I really wished that they would have upped their events after that because there was so much attention there but unfortunately I couldn’t book anything and I was really bummed by that. So having this festival really makes me excited because I’m like here is the community, these people are here for it. The festival is free but I did an Eventbrite and there are about 500 people confirmed saying that they’re coming. That’s an amazing number for a festival. I had that link up for two and a half weeks.

What’s the significance of holding the festival in Fordham Plaza?
That’s one of my favorite places in the Bronx. That’s where I bought a lot of my books because there weren’t any bookstores. I would buy them from the street vendors that were showcasing their work on the sidewalk when I would walk down the hill from school. It’s also the location of one of my favorite libraries which is the Bronx Public Library Center and then also it’s central to the Bronx. The Metro-North stops there, there’s some Westchester County buses that stop there. There’s some express buses from all over the Bronx that stop there from the North and South Bronx. That was really important to me to give access to everyone in the Bronx, not to cater just to the North or South Bronx, but the entire Bronx. It’s really accessible and easy for people to get to.

Do you think given the recent closures of Barnes & Noble stores across the country, that independent bookstores will begin to see an increase in foot traffic?
I think so. Indies already have a very strong following and it’s because they’re so engaged in the community. At this point, Barnes & Noble is sort of like an independent bookstore because they’re in jeopardy. I think they need to actually start to think like an independent bookstore and rebuild those partnerships with their community. That actually might make a change.

In 2013, the New York Post wrote an article stating 79.3 percent of NYC's high school students entering CUNY schools lacked basic reading skills. In terms of this city's education system, what do you think could've been the cause of that statistic?
Speaking in the Bronx in particular, schools not having fleshed out libraries is an issue. The Common Core thing was an issue where they were having people graduate just because they couldn’t hold them back anymore. There were just so many things that played a part in it, but as far as having access to books, in particular, I think that was probably one of the huge impacts in the Bronx. Not having a bookstore or having one, which was the Barnes & Noble all the way in the North Bronx that many people didn’t visit was a huge issue. The Bronx is made up of mostly Title 1 schools and Title 1 schools have really slim pickings in their school libraries. There are teachers that are going out to buy books for their students because there is no funding. Books and reading are really important and we need to fix this issue. The only way to do that is exposure and showing representation because there’s literally a book out there for every type of person. People who say they don’t like to read, I get it, but reading is fundamental. We need to get people out of that mindset and to get them reading.

It’s interesting that you said there’s a book out there for everyone. There's a professor who said to The Atlantic that instead of teachers assigning general reading requirements, they should assign texts or passages according to each student's reading level. What are your thoughts on that idea?
I think that’s interesting, that might work. I know that there are a lot people who feel discouraged if they can’t read at the same level as their peers. It could be heartbreaking for you to realize you’re reading on a fifth grade level if you’re in eleventh grade and the things that are being assigned to you, you can’t really read and digest them. Instead of forcing someone to read something they can’t digest, giving them something that’s more guided to their reading level is smart.

Visit The Bronx Book Festival webpage here for more information.

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