art and culture

Educaton

St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature

An interview with Julius B. Anthony , President

 

Did you have books in your home growing up? 

Did you see yourself in the characters and stories taught to you in school?

 

For black and brown children in Saint Louis, the answer to both of those questions is too often “no.” 

But hopefully not for much longer, thanks to the insight, innovation, and hard work of  Julius B. Anthony. He grew up in Saint Louis and has been an educator for 20 years, doing everything from teaching first grade to being a principal, and even starting City Academy inside Mathews-Dickey.

How it started:

As an educator working with primarily black communities, Julius saw a pattern in both middle class and working poor families. “What I’ve discovered is that their situation in education is the same. They struggle. They struggle whether they are attending a school out in Clayton, and they struggle whether they’re attending a school in Saint Louis Public School System. And they struggle particularly around reading and literacy skills. Why is that the case?”

As a teacher, Julius would begin the day reciting some piece of poetry or literature for his students. Sometimes this would be his own poetry. When he would introduce stories and poems by black authors to his students, they would get excited about reading. “They saw a connectedness to the text…they become more confident in themselves.” 

That’s what his work is about: “to prove that Black Children’s Literature is a definitive strategy for making sure that black children become successful readers.”

 

The next steps: 

Forming a non-profit wasn’t in Julius’s head when he was at home one day, reading children’s literature for inspiration and creativity. Rather, the vision Julius had was to create his own published children’s book. He had never published before, but he “did what most Gen-x and millennials do, we go to YouTube school, and we look up what we want to learn.” So he published a book of his poetry. Through the process, he met many other black authors who were struggling with distribution. So he began a series of for-profit events, bringing them together to get more of their works sold. 

But, says Julius, “the educator in me wouldn’t let it just be that, I really want children to read,” and so he began leading reading activities for kids at the History Museum.

The events were well attended, and for one event  focused on black protagonists, and featuring “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, more than 300 people showed up. “What it said is that there is a need for this work. There is a need for people to have connection to diverse literature.” 

 

The Believe Project

As with many steps in Julius’ life, the non-profit developed when he saw a need as an educator and moved to fill it. Third grade reading level competency is a determining factor in 9th grade dropout rates, achievement in school, and rates of students going on to college or university. In the Saint Louis region, 75% of black students fail the 3rd grade reading examination annually. 

With these shocking statistics, and the knowledge that kids feel inspired by stories that look like them, Julius formed The St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature with the goal of “ensuring all children are confident and competent readers by the end of 3rd grade.” Now in its 3rd year, St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature is in the process of opening a fifth literacy location geared towards black and brown kids. Called “The Believe Project,” it focuses on creating reading libraries in different spaces around the city. The first four sites opened in Fall 2019, across different community centers and schools, and the fifth is set to open sometime this year. 

This project is not for adults.  It is kid-centered, creating “a yes space for children,” designed to look and feel like home, with books, arts and crafts materials, chalkboards, and murals to inspire all 6 of the components of literacy.

 More than 80% of the titles in the Believe libraries tell the stories of black children. The center is geared towards kids in kindergarten to 3rd grade, but the reading level of the books ranges up through 8th grade — because for some kids, just holding a chapter book gives them excitement and motivation to continue their literacy journey. And for kids who read well beyond their level, there are enough stories to engage and inspire them. “It’s about allowing kids to choose and pick and develop their own facilities for learning.”

 

How can you help?

Donations! The best bed is to make a tax-deductible gift, or purchase books listed on their website here. And you can buy books about black stories and share them to the children (and adults!) in your life.

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