In 1939 at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, if you had happened to drop into an assembly, you might have come across any of the following students: the iconic author James Baldwin; comic book writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee; longtime New York Times executive editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal; or the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Richard Avedon would also have been there — before he took up photography while serving in the merchant marine during World War II, Avedon edited the high school’s prestigious literary magazine, The Magpie, with Baldwin. In fact, in 1941, Avedon was named “Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools.”
Though these men were wordsmiths in different ways, their presence at Clinton some eighty years ago is emblematic of the borough’s rich cultural history with respect to the written word. It also highlights how far things have fallen: By 2016 Clinton was in danger of closing. But if young Bronx students are not aware of this history, that, too, is emblematic of the Bronx literary renaissance. Perhaps the distant past feels so easy to forget because the future is finally looking up.
In recent years, a book scene has been slowly but steadily evolving in the boogie down borough. The Bronx Book Fair, led by Poets Network & Exchange executive director Lorraine Currelley and backed by several nonprofit institutions, started in 2013; this year, it was held at the Bronx Library Center and featured writing workshops, panels, and a keynote from Noëlle Santos, a Bronx native and entrepreneur who is planning to open the Lit. Bar, a wine and bookstore, this summer. And Rebekah Shoaf, a former public school teacher, recently launched her start-up Boogie Down Books, “a bookstore-without-walls for Bronx kids, teens, families, and educators.”
In 2016, when the last general interest bookstore in the Bronx — a Barnes & Noble in Co-Op City — shut its doors, Saraciea Fennell’s response was to fill in the gap. Fennell, 29, is a book publicist for MacMillan, and she has worked with young adult and children’s authors for several years. She also grew up in the Bronx and knows what it’s like to live in a literary desert, a place where authors never come to your classroom to visit. A former foster care kid like me, Fennell read books to escape the kind of circumstances that force a girl to become mature before her time. In the stacks of the New York Public Library, she cultivated a love for the works of authors such as Octavia Butler, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl.
When the Barnes & Noble closed, Fennell accelerated her long-held dream of launching a literacy program. That ambition came to fruition this month when her new program, The Bronx is Reading, brought New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X) to select Title 1 schools in the borough on May 18. She simultaneously organized the inaugural Bronx Book Festival, which brought 36 authors and illustrators to Fordham Plaza on May 19.
Frequent statistics about the borough note that there are 1.5 million Bronx residents and more than a quarter-million public school students; the majority of these students have difficulty reading, so they often do not. Students who don’t read well by third grade are at the highest risk of dropping out of high school. This is particularly true for Black and Latinx students from low-income households, whose average reading scores have consistently ranked far below their white peers in New York State. At Clinton the four-year graduation rate was less than 50 percent in 2016.
A former eighth-grade teacher in Maryland, Acevedo said at the start of the festival that a book should be “a mirror and a window,” especially for struggling or resistant readers. The majority of her students were Latinx. “They would ask, ‘Where are books about us? Isn’t this the work of artists?’ This is my work. I write what I know,” said Acevedo, the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants who was born and raised in New York City. “I write my people.”
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowhouse Fall, warned festivalgoers not to create a hierarchy of literature that makes some books better than others. That means not shaming kids for reading graphic novels instead of literary ones, or engaging with audiobooks instead of physical ones. “There should be no politics of respectability in literature,” he said. Older, who is working on a novel about the Civil War due in the fall, says the cultural moment we’re in now is one we’ll look back on. “We’ll say, ‘This is when kids started to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories and then say, ‘Now I’ll go on to write my own story.’ ”
Panels included exploration of the immigrant experience featuring authors Ibi Zoboi and Rakesh Satyal, as well as Bronx stories featuring Just Kids From the Bronx author Arlene Alda and Chulito author Charles Rice-Gonzalez. Zoboi, author of last year’s critically acclaimed American Street, had a ready answer for wary young readers. “I ask them if they like gossip,” she said. “It’s the original form of storytelling.”
Between panels, I stopped Taina Coleman to hear why other Bronx residents were motivated to come to the festival, even on a rainy Saturday. Coleman, a literacy specialist, grew up in Harlem and East Tremont. She’d been looking forward to the festival because she’s pursuing a career in writing and wants to tell the stories of people of color.
“I’m impressed by the authors who are here; they’re the writers I admire and so generous with their time and resources,” Coleman said. “I knew it would rain, but I had to come because it’s something I’ve been longing to see. I feel like we’re building a community for kids that need to see themselves reflected in literature.”
It was the energy of intentional community building that set the Bronx Book Festival apart from some of its larger, more established counterparts, such as the Texas Book Festival or the Brooklyn Book Festival. The message, in each reading, panel, presentation, and giveaway, was that Black and brown people’s stories matter as much as their lives. Because their lives matter, we gathered to celebrate the stories we tell that reflect them as they are.
Patrice Caldwell, founder of People of Color in Publishing, moderated a panel composed exclusively of queer authors of color, including Adam Silvera, author of More Happy Than Not, which explores his experience of toxic masculinity in the Bronx as a gay Puerto Rican youth.
One festivalgoer who works in the publishing industry noted that buying books by authors of color is a political act, because it sends a message to the publishing industry that the myths about the lack of audiences for works that center on diverse voices won’t sell well. Particularly in young adult fiction, Women of Color are dominating the New York Times bestseller list in a way that doesn’t show any signs of stopping; this began with Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and now extends to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.
The Bronx has a rich cultural past, but Fennell and Santos, along with the rest of us in the literary community here, are invested in cultivating an even richer cultural future. As the Lit. Bar is poised to open its doors, and Fennell pursues nonprofit status to keep the Bronx Book Festival and the Bronx is Reading program sustainable for years to come, it feels like a renaissance for literature in the Bronx is underway.
James Baldwin, for one, knew well the power reading has to open up one’s world: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.