The books featured in Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival represent many aspects of the African diaspora. Each week the virtual festival will feature an online read-along, activity and interview with the book’s author or illustrator. Courtesy / Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival

PORTLAND — It isn’t the festival that Indigo Arts Alliance co-founder and Executive Director Marcia Minter originally had in mind, but the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival couldn’t have come at a better time.

Minter’s original intent was to close off Cove Street, where Indigo Arts Alliance is located, for a block party of live readings, performances and arts and crafts to celebrate the roots, identity and resilience of Black people.

The Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival is named after a popular book by Little Cranberry Island resident and children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan. Courtesy / Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival

“We were halfway through planning when the pandemic hit, but we were committed at that point to the festival and its mission to address the representation of Black and brown people in all ways, but in particular children’s books,” Minter said.

They planned instead for a virtual festival, and then the Black Lives Matter movement resurged and the festival’s mission took on greater importance and has gained national attention.

“The books featured in the Beautiful Blackbird Book Festival all depict a particular cultural experience and teach that experience not only by mirroring for a child who shares in that experience, but also as a window for a child who may not otherwise understand,” said Krista Aronson, a psychology professor at Bates College and director of Diverse Book Finder.

“When children of color see themselves depicted in stories, characters and artwork at a really early age, even infancy, it has a life-long positive impact,”Minter  said.

The festival, presented by Indigo Arts Alliance, Diverse Book Finder, I’m Your Neighbor Books and volunteers from Indigo Arts Alliance’s advisory circle, is named in honor of “Beautiful Blackbird,” a book written by Maine author Ashley Bryan, who Minter called a “living legend” that helped pave the way for future Black authors and illustrators.

“Through the festival we hope to inspire children to read, illustrate and create, by giving them access to books by artist and creators who look like them. It is our commitment to raise readers who see themselves reflected in literature,” said Daniel Minter, co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance and illustrator of “Going Down Home with Daddy” by Kelly Starling Lyons, one of the books featured in the festival and a 2020 Caldecott Medal Honor book.

In addition, “when a Black or brown child sees a book written by someone like them, it opens up their mind to who can be a writer, who is worthy of being a writer and what constitutes literature,” said Aronson, who collects collecting children’s books featuring Black, Indigenous and other people of color and making them available to children statewide through interlibrary loan.

Each of the nine featured books was carefully selected.

“We were trying to make sure the full depth and breadth of our heritage was represented in these narratives,” Marcia Minter said.

Each Friday a new book is featured on beautifulblackbird.com, along with a read-aloud, special activity and interview with the author or illustrator. This Friday’s book will be “Wherever I Go,” the fictional story of of a young girl in the Shimelba Refugee Camp, written by Mary Wagley Copp and illustrated by Munir D. Mohammed.

Through the help of  the Portland Housing Authority, Lewiston Housing Authority, Portland Parks and Recreation and LearningWorks, the festival will hand out 1,700 books to children in the two cities, along with Beautiful Blackbird tote bags with stickers inspired by the books and art supplies for the craft activities.

While the festival is aimed at getting books in the hands of  young children of color, Marcia Minter said “this is important for everyone.”

“We knew that before the recent Black Lives Matter movement took off. We knew that before COVID. We know these stories matter, for everyone,” she said.

Two groups have already taken note of the festival. The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn and a community center in Vero Beach, Florida, have contacted Indigo Arts Alliance about offering festival content to their communities.

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