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3,000-Book Giveaway Earns An ​"A"

"This is mystery, this is history, this is sports, and this is romance, but she’s probably too young for that.” 


That was the charming pitch from Bayan Albakkhour, a Metropolitan Business Academy sophomore, to a New Haven Public Schools parent and her curious 8‑year-old daughter — one of hundreds of students with their families who filled the lobby of Wilbur Cross High School for a ​“festival of books.”


They were there on Wednesday evening to avail themselves of 3,000 free new books, literacy tips from 30 volunteering teachers and coaches, reading suggestions from some 50 student high school volunteers, tasty food, and good joyful book fun.


The festive scene was the second annual Festival of Books, this year called ​“Reading Opens the World,” a system-wide event sponsored by the New Haven Federation of Teachers (NHFT) and local partner organizations with a grant from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) .



The AFT established the program last year ​“to create a nation of joyful and confident readers,” and New Haven’s edition appeared to embrace those goals, and more.


Like raising awareness of the ongoing censorship initiatives across the country to ban books and, very locally, pressing a campaign to provide a librarian/media specialist in every school in the NHPS system.


Currently, according to NHFT Education Justice Organizer Megan Fountain, who was gathering signatures for a petition while doing book-talk, the system has nine schools that have no librarian at all and another 14 that have only a half-time librarian.


The festival isn’t just about reading to do well on tests, said NHFT President Leslie Blatteau, but about joyful literary experience. 


But how can we do that and then not have libraries in the schools fully staffed? she asked rhetorically.


When a parent, who preferred not to be identified, stepped up to the table where Fountain was standing, and offered that her kids attend ESUMS, Fountain pointed out it is one of the nine that has no librarian. 


The mom, who appeared nonplussed, did not know that, and in short order Fountain asked for her signature, ​“So I can follow up with you if we go to the mayor’s office, for future action.”


The parent signed. 

Another joyful reader on hand, busily asking the student volunteers for their reading suggestions, was none other than the AFT’s No. 2, Vice President Evelyn DeJesus. (Click here to read about a September visit to Wilbur Cross by AFT President Randi Weingarten.)


“We want [to put books in kids’ hands] to get them back from the virtual,” said DeJesus, referring to the across-the-board national literacy decline as a result of pandemic-caused remote learning.


To get kids ​“lost” in books in the positive sense of deep engagement, DeJesus said kids need more than just books in their hands. Kids also must see themselves in the characters, situations, and worlds, she added.


That’s in part why the tables filling the high school lobby featured many multilingual books, comics, graphic novels, and stories to appeal to LGBTQ+ kids, she said.


When DeJesus approached the table where Career High School senior Janine Sanchez was working, Sanchez told her how much she enjoyed I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, in part, she said, because the book breaks stereotypes. DeJesus grabbed a copy of that book to read herself (and then pass along).

Sanchez also told her she had enjoyed reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and DeJesus accepted that recommendation too. 


A little later, DeJesus tracked down this reporter, as he was prowling about a table featuring a middle-school biography of one of my heroes, barrier-breaking New York politician Shirley Chisholm, and wanted to make sure I knew about yet another book by an author she loves: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo.


“Did you know that’s a tradition in Puerto Rico?” she said, but the book is about much more than that, focusing on the difficult subject of a plane crash, an actual one, and how the young characters deal with it.


Blatteau said the city school district had early dismissal Wednesday to permit the volunteer students to get to Cross, unpack and organize the books, prepare the food, the bags, and good cheer. In addition to everything else, she said, the festival was importantly building community.


Among other of NHFT’s partners at the event, who all had tables deployed about the lobby and yet more stuff to read, were the local chapter of the NAACP; New Haven Reads; and the college-planning organization Higher Heights.


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