Collingswood Book Festival offers educators resources statewide

Highlights diversity in children’s literature

By Wanda Swanson

Diversity in children’s books is one of the best ways to foster respect from an early age. Accordingly, the 18th annual Collingswood Book Festival includes a Diversity Panel that focuses on children’s books that highlight race, gender, sexual orientation, and special needs. Also featured at the festival are dozens of children’s book authors, a virtual poetry tent, a special appearance by Philadelphia meteorologist Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, and a prerecorded Diversity Panel, with a special reading by Drag Queen Harmonica Sunbeam.

To accommodate social distancing efforts, the entire festival is virtual, and most of it will remain available for participation throughout the school year. To attend the festival at any time, visit collingswoodbookfestival.com.

The goal of the Diversity Panel is to provide parents, caregivers and educators with books and resources that promote love, awareness and acceptance of all people; encourage adults to discuss diversity and the value of people’s differences with children through books; and recognize inequities experienced through personal and systemic discrimination.

“The idea of the Diversity Panel is a reflection of the times and the need for these types of discussions right now,” according to Lisa Steinhauer, the children’s literature co-chair of the Collingswood Book Festival. “The pandemic opened up opportunities to think outside the box and reach out to experts outside of our geographic area.”

The panel includes Angela Joy, Frank Murphy, Shenita Agee and Farrah Jenkins. They provide a variety of perspectives to discuss in children’s books from the viewpoints of authors, educators, advocates, parents and their lived experiences.

Drag Queen Story Hour

In addition to the Diversity Panel, the Collingswood Book Festival features Harmonica Sunbeam reading books for children. Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) is just what it sounds like—drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools and other community spaces. After the performance, Miss Sunbeam talks about her experiences with DQSH and why she promotes love and support of the LGBTQ community.

Since the inception of DQSH in the New York area, Miss Sunbeam has been featured in the New York Times and Buzzfeed. She also brings DQSH to children with special needs. Recently she became the North Jersey coordinator and is working to bring DQSH to as many people as possible.

“The goal,” according to Miss Sunbeam, “is to develop empathy, learn about gender diversity and tap into their own creativity.” She said it can also be life-changing and ultimately lifesaving for LGBTQ kids and teens.

Author Lisa Funari Willever, a former Trenton educator and NJEA member, at the 2019 Collingswood Book Festival.

Children’s books, the poetry tent and more

The Diversity Panel and Drag Queen Story Hour are just two parts of the massive Collingswood Book Festival. In the children’s section, nearly 30 featured authors read portions of their books. The public can purchase books online through Inkwood, a bookstore in Haddonfield.

The Collingswood Book Festival’s 2020 poetry tent, available for viewing at collingswoodbookfestival.com, includes the Walt Howat Youth Poetry Contest winners and pandemic Haiku hosted by the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association. You will also hear a poetic tribute to poetry tent founder Walt Howat. And Sol Chyld, Reet Starwind, and Anna Evans read their latest works. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Greg Pardlo, the 2019 NJEA Awards for Excellence

Wanda Swanson is a retired NJEA staff member who served NJEA members as the executive producer of “Classroom Close-up NJ.”
She can be reached at wandajoyceswanson@gmail.com.

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