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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Statewide book festival aims to improve childhood literacy rates in Alachua County

Sunshine State Book Festival addressed county’s largest discrepancy in language arts achievement

Sunshine State Book Festival on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.
Sunshine State Book Festival on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

On Jan. 27, the ground floor of the Hilton Conference Center filled with lines of eager readers waiting to meet and greet more than 200 authors from across Florida promoting their most prized literary pieces.  

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Writers Alliance of Gainesville hosted the Sunshine State Book Festival at 1714 SW 34th St. Writers were invited who are famed for their homage to Black history.   

Barnard Sims was one of the authors promoting his book at the festival. His novel, “The Southern Awakening: A Black Man’s Guide to Liberating the Rural South,” won the Best Book award at the American Book Festival. 

Wearing a t-shirt that read “Black Authors Matter,” Sims said he is passionate about addressing racial inequalities in the United States and empowering marginalized communities. 

“One of those ways [to liberation] that I’ve found is through writing and reading,” Sims said. “We have some challenges in our community with literacy.”

Alachua County Public Schools has the largest racial discrepancy in language arts achievement rate among public school systems in the state, according to the Florida Department of Education’s 2023 report

Between white and Black students, there exists a 45% gap in English Language Arts Achievement, at 70% for white students and 25% for Black students in the county. This gap is 17% larger than Florida’s total gap

Sims said much of the literature provided to children by schools isn’t inclusive to children of color.  

“When I was growing up, I wasn’t a great reader either,” he said. “But what happened was I started being exposed to books where I could see myself in the literature.”

He said when he was in school, the books in the curriculum either had no Black characters or used the trope of the “submissive slave.” He believes schools fail to give Black children stories that empower and center them. 

“I’m exhibit A,” he said. “When I was a kid, I had trouble reading because I was given literature that only portrayed me as a slave.” 

He said the story of Osbourn Dorsey, the 16-year-old inventor of the doorknob, particularly inspired him, as it demonstrated a Black male overcoming racial oppression rather than being held back by it. 

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“[Black students] need to be able to put themselves in the narrator’s seat so they can take the ride on the journey of the protagonist,” he said. “If we just continue to give them stories about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree … I’m not going to be able to make the connection.” 

Sims said the lack of Black characters in children's and young adults' books affects a child’s learning regardless of race. 

“We shouldn't be excluding people in these stories,” he said. “[This] does more damage to people in other demographics too because it doesn't allow all the demographics of people to see the empathy.”

Sims also noted close to 85% of juvenile defendants in the U.S. can’t read. Three out of five adult males incarcerated in their lifetimes develop lower literacy rates, he added. 

“The great crime of our time is not to address the gap of literacy, and it starts with early intervention,” Sims said. “For me, [reading] is therapy, and it gives us a path to liberation.” 

E. Stanley Richardson is an Alachua County poet laureate. At the Sunshine State Book Festival, he performed a 40-minute play titled “A Conversation with Frederick Douglass and Captain John Brown” with award-winning actor, director and playwright Timothy McShane and television host and author Pamela Marshall-Koons. 

Richardson uses his poetry to express his social and political beliefs. His debut poetry collection, “Hip Hop Is Dead — Long Live Hip Hop, The Birth, Death And Resurrection Of Hip Hop Activism,” focuses on the value of music and literature in the Black community. 

He founded ARTSPEAKS, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting youth literacy and supporting writers in North Central Florida. It will host its tenth annual “Courageous Young Voices” teen poetry contest March 10. 

“The thing that I really love doing is … creating platforms for other people to perform their stuff,” he said. 

Both Sims and Richardson are dedicated to improving literacy rates among children, citing the book festival as a way to connect with the community. 

Alachua County is striving to close the gap in language arts achievement through events like the book festival and increased funding for places such as Gainesville For All’s Empowerment Zone Family Learning Center. 

Contact Emilia Cardenas-Perez at ecardenas-perez@alligator.org. Follow her on X @emiliaandreaa. 


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