While he was growing up, OD Bonny was not likely to find many books where the characters shared his story.

Bonny spent much of his childhood in refugee camps in Uganda after his family left war-torn South Sudan when he was 4. He eventually made it out of the camps and, in his early teens, settled with his older brother in Portland’s Kennedy Park.

Bonny, 32, is a writer and musician now based in the Midwest. On Saturday, he’ll be back in Portland to read from a children’s book he co-authored, “A Feast for Joseph.” The character Joseph, like Bonny, lived in a refugee camp in Africa, settled in Kennedy Park, and wanted to celebrate his culture and heritage.

Bonny’s reading will be part of the fourth annual Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival, celebrating the literature of the African Diaspora. Events will be held Friday through Sunday, Sept. 24, in Lewiston, Portland, and Rockland. The festival’s name comes from the book “Beautiful Blackbird,” written by groundbreaking Black children’s book author and illustrator Ashley Bryan, a longtime Little Cranberry Island resident who died in 2022. The book is based on a folk tale from Zambia about the importance of recognizing inner beauty.

OD Bonny will read and sing at this year’s festival. Photo courtesy of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival.

In addition to the readings, music, and activities happening at several locations – including the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine in Portland – festival organizers will be giving away more than 3,000 books to Maine children, through partner organizations like Portland Public Housing and Portland Parks and Recreation. There are also ongoing festival-related events beyond next weekend.

“To come back and be able to share my story at something like this is one of the most exciting things for me,” Bonny said.


The festival was started in 2020 by three Maine-based organizations aiming to draw attention to books where Black children could see themselves: Indigo Arts Alliance, I’m Your Neighbor Books, and Diverse BookFinder. It was a virtual event the first year, because of the pandemic.

All three of the festival’s founding groups have a focus on racial and cultural diversity. Indigo Arts Alliance, in Portland, works to bring Black and brown artists from diverse backgrounds together. Diverse BookFinder is a Maine-based group that created a searchable database of children’s picture books featuring Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. I’m Your Neighbor Books creates touring collections of books for and about recent immigrants and new citizens that can be sent to schools, libraries, or other groups, among other projects.

Marcia Minter, who founded Indigo Arts Alliance with her husband – artist and children’s book illustrator Daniel Minter – said organizers of the festival wanted to help all people become more aware of Black children’s literature, including stories that deal with the experience of recent immigrants, at a time when southern Maine continues to become increasingly diverse as more people from African countries settle here.

“It’s about recognizing the community and how it’s changed and who is living here and acknowledging the critical need for Black and brown children to be able to see themselves in books as they grow and develop,” said Minter. “It’s also important for white educators and white families, hungry to teach their children, to have access to these books.”

Kirsten Cappy, left, of I’m Your Neighbor Books, and Marcia Minter, right, co-founder of Indigo Arts Alliance, at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine in Portland. The museum will be one of the sites for this year’s Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The number of books about new immigrant children of color has increased dramatically over the past decade, helping to fuel demand for them, said Kirsten Cappy, executive director of I’m Your Neighbor Books. Cappy said when she started collecting titles of children’s books about new immigrants of color in 2012, she found about 30. Now she says that number has grown to about 1,700.

Both Cappy and Minter say an event like the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival is especially important now when conservatives in some states are acting to adopt laws or rules restricting the teaching of Black history.


“In this current environment, books about people of color are banned and challenged all over the country,” said Cappy. “But we’re in a position to be able to put these books into schools, libraries and the hands of families. ”

“Indigo Dreaming” is one of the featured books at this year’s festival and author Dinah Johnson will attend. Photo courtesy of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Festival

South Carolina author Dinah Johnson will read from her book “Indigo Dreaming” during the festival.  Johnson is a professor of English at the University of South Carolina who studies the history of Black children’s literature. She found that, over the years, many Black children have questions about their heritage and identity.

“So many Black children have questions about what it means to be Black or to be called African-American or the ways African culture has helped make America,” said Johnson. “It’s important for Black children to know about Black culture before being here.”

Johnson’s book focuses on two little girls – one on the coast of South Carolina and one in Africa – dreaming and wondering about distant relatives they might have in each place and what they’re like.

The festival events begin Friday at L/A Arts in Lewiston at 5:30 p.m., with the opening of the exhibit “A Blue: Daniel Minter and the Layered Narrative of Illustration,” which runs through Nov. 10. Each image invites readers to explore the depth of the Black experience.

On Saturday, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine in Portland will host events from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bonny will read from “A Feast for Joseph” in the theater at 9:30 a.m., which will be followed by a book signing with co-author Terry Farish. “A Feast for Joseph” is about Joseph wanting to share a meal of Acholi foods with friends in Portland, and another activity for kids at the museum will be to create food through art. The museum will also host story and music times focusing on some of the other seven books being highlighted by the festival.


This fourth annual Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival honors the legacy of the late Maine children’s author and illustrator Ashley Bryan. Press Herald photo by Gabe Souza

Families at the museum can experience the ongoing “Beautiful Blackbird” exhibit, which opened in 2021 and is based on Bryan’s book. There’s an interactive screen featuring images of birds flying. When a child stands in front of the screen, the image of a bird is then propelled by the child’s movements. Part of the exhibit includes works inspired by other illustrators were were mentored or inspired by Bryan, including Daniel Minter.

Admission to the museum during the festival hours will be $1, compared to the usual price of $16.

“Stuntboy: In the Meantime,’ is one of the featured books at this year’s festival.  Photo courtesy of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Festival

Also on Saturday, Johnson will read from her book “Indigo Dreaming” at 1 p.m. at Indigo Arts Alliance in Portland. On Sunday, Bonny will perform traditional Acholi and Afrobeat music at Mayo Street Arts in Portland at 1 p.m. Copies of his book will be given away while supplies last. The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland will also host a reading and signing by Johnson on Sunday, at 1 p.m., and free books will be available.

The festival highlights seven books and those are the titles that will make up the 3,000 individual books given out to Maine children this year. People can also shop for the featured books at Print: A Bookstore in Portland and get a free festival tote bag, or ask for the titles at their local library.

This year’s featured books are: “Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life,” written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan; “A Feast for Joseph” by OD Bonny and Terry Farish, illustrated by Ken Daley; “Indigo Dreaming” by Dinah Johnson, illustrated by Anna Cunha; “Moonflower” by Kacen Callender, illustrated by Daniel Minter, “Stuntboy, In the Meantime” by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Raul the Third; “The Year I Flew Away” by Marie Arnold; and “When I Get Older: The Story behind Wavin’ Flag” by K’Naan, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez.

June Gagnon, a retired special educator who lives in Westbrook, plans to attend the festival with some of her “surrogate grandchildren,” two girls ages 6 and 8 who are from a family that immigrated from Burundi. She said they’ve been to the festival before and especially enjoyed the “Beautiful Blackbird” interactive exhibit and seeing books with kids that look like them.

“They are very aware of race, and it makes them feel welcome to see characters who look like them,” said Gagnon.

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