Artist Ashley Bryan makes his way through the dining room of his home on Isleford in July 2014. Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland is beginning a book festival in his honor. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

As a year-old arts nonprofit, Indigo Arts Alliance had found a comfortable stride when the coronavirus forced all public activity to a halt. Dedicated to supporting artists of color, the community art space in East Bayside was making plans for its inaugural Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival to honor Maine children’s book author and artist Ashley Bryan.

Bryan’s book “Beautiful Blackbird,” published in 2003, celebrates the beauty of blackness through the story of a blackbird, who teaches other birds they’re more beautiful when they add black to their feathers. Bryan, 96, lives on Little Cranberry Island and won a Coretta Scott King Award for illustration for the book in 2004, one of many honors he’s won over his long career as a writer and artist.

Ashley Bryan’s “Beautiful Blackbird,” published in 2003. Courtesy of Indigo Arts Alliance

The festival was shaping up to be a big deal. Indigo had received permission to close Cove Street to vehicles and envisioned a day-long street fair on the third Saturday in August with readings, workshops, performances and art activities. Because of the pandemic, the street festival is postponed until 2021, but Indigo has created a virtual edition of the inaugural event to celebrate authors and illustrators who explore roots, identity and resiliency in their work, said Marcia Minter, co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance.

As a virtual event, the festival begins this month and continues through July with the distribution of books, read-along videos and art activities created by Portland artists to accompany the books. Indigo is presenting the festival in partnership with the Portland Parks and Recreation Department, I’m Your Neighbor Books and Diverse BookFinder.

The goals of the festival are to celebrate Bryan’s legacy and the contribution of other children’s book authors and illustrators of color, entertain and empower kids through literature, and build the libraries of hundreds of local kids by giving away 750 books, the centerpiece of the festival.

“We see this as a way, during this time of the virus, to really help parents and kids have some more fun activities and educational ways to stay engaged over the summer,” Minter said. “We do intend to host the festival in 2021, but with this virtual festival, we have an opportunity to have an impact in kids lives now.”

Also featured will be Indigo co-founder Daniel Minter and his book “Going Down Home with Daddy,” a 2020 Caldecott Honor Book. Other artists and their books include Francie Latour, “Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings”; James E. Ransome and Lesa Cline-Ransome, “Overground Railroad”; Kelly Starlings Lyons, “Sing a Song”; Munir D. Modammed, “Wherever I Go”; Omar Mohamed, “When Stars Are Scattered”; Samara Cole Doyon, “Magnificent Homespun Brown: A Celebration.”

The virtual festival will consist of a nine-part series of videos, created in Portland by the Knack Factory and released sequentially over several weeks, beginning May 25. The videos will be available on Indigo’s website and distributed through its email and social media networks. Minter said Indigo is looking for other community partners to help distribute content.

The first video will introduce the festival, and others will highlight the lives of the authors and illustrators who created the books, with readings, animation and graphics. Rene Goddess Johnson, a Portland-area theater artist, will create a video for “Show Claws Slide,” a dance referenced in Bryan’s “Beautiful Blackbird.” She will challenge kids to do the dance at home and share it on social media.

Portland artist Daniel Minter will create art projects for the festival, and a book he illustrated, “Going Down Home with Daddy,” will be featured. Photo by C. Daniel Dawson, courtesy of Indigo Arts Alliance

Daniel Minter will teach kids how to make costumes to go along with “Beautiful Blackbird,” and other artists will demonstrate how to make a crown and begin a family tree, echoing themes from “Wherever I Go” and “Going Down Home with Daddy.”

Ashley Mills, who is helping Indigo manage the event, said the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival will give young children of color the chance to see themselves in popular literature. “For the first time, kiddos will be able to pick up a book and have a character that looks like them or experiences something they have experienced, like migration or just that they have black or brown skin,” Mills said. “That doesn’t happen often enough, and it’s not on the radar of all teachers or all parents.”

Most importantly, the festival will put books in the hands of hundreds of kids in Portland. “We are giving kids who are historically underserved something as magical as a book and a story. It gives them something they can carry around and look at and get creative and imaginative with. That’s exciting,” Mills said.

Indigo’s East Bayside neighborhood is home to several immigrant communities from Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda and elsewhere. Those are the people the festival hopes to reach, Marcia Minter said. “Research shows that when kids of color as early as infancy see themselves in books, literacy rates improve. Kids learn to read fast, they have a stronger sense of confidence and family dynamics are improved. We want to make an impact on the lives and the quality of lives of people of color and on the community at large.”


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