“This is where I bought most of my books,” Saraciea J. Fennell said, pointing out to East Fordham Road in the Bronx from the Starbucks where we met in April. Among the check cashing locations, pawn shops and bodegas that lined the commercial thoroughfare when she was growing up, she said, were street vendors selling an assortment of books — from urban fiction to dictionaries.
On Saturday, the Bronx Book Festival, a literary event organized by Ms. Fennell, will take place in that same neighborhood, at Fordham Plaza. The all-day event will bring writers, illustrators and industry professionals to the community, as well as a vendor to sell books on-site.
“I attended my first book festival as an adult in Brooklyn,” said Ms. Fennell, 29, who works as a publicist for Tor Books, an imprint of MacMillan. “I thought to myself, ‘This is amazing. Why doesn’t the Bronx have something like this?’”
The borough, which is home to 1.5 million people, has been a bookstore desert since 2016. That is when a Barnes & Noble once located in the Baychester neighborhood closed — leaving the Bronx without a single general interest bookstore — despite community efforts to save it. The shuttering of the store lit a fire under Ms. Fennell, who felt an urgent need for an infusion of literary influence in her hometown.
For Ms. Fennell, who was placed in foster care when she was 8, books were an escape. Though her caretakers were “lovely,” she said, “I felt lonely and alienated, because I was around strangers.” She spent most weekends at the library and bought books with her allowance, from Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach” to “Flower’s Bed” by Antoine Inch Thomas. By the time she was 13, she was again living with her mother, a Honduran immigrant Ms. Fennell calls an “oral storyteller,” whom she credits with instilling in her a love of stories.
But Ms. Fennell “didn’t even realize” publishing was an industry until a professor encouraged her to enroll in City College’s publishing certificate program.
“I remember attending school in the Bronx, there weren’t any authors, no illustrators,” she recalled. “There weren’t people coming to visit us and talk about their books.”
This observation was amplified when, as a publicist for Scholastic early in her career, she was charged with bringing authors to schools and realized the Bronx was largely neglected. To remedy this, she is launching The Bronx is Reading — a literacy program that will target those underserved schools — in tandem with the festival.
“I really want them to see that there are people of color writing books,” she said of the students. Young adult novelists Elizabeth Acevedo and Tracey Baptiste will be among the first visiting writers.
The vendor for the festival is Noelle Santos, who is preparing to open The Lit. Bar in the South Bronx, bringing a general interest bookstore to the borough once again. But Ms. Santos insists that the festival and her forthcoming shop will reveal rather than originate an already burgeoning literary scene.
“This festival and The Lit. Bar are important because we need to create intellectual visibility in the Bronx,” said Ms. Santos. “We have it here. We have intellectuals in the Bronx,” she explained, but she hopes the two initiatives will bring books and literature to the fore.
Ms. Fennell also calls the literary community “very invisible” — and that reality influenced her decision to establish the festival, which will consist of six panels featuring adult, young adult and middle grade authors, as an outdoor and free event. Next year, Ms. Fennell hopes to incorporate Spanish language programming, as well, to cater to the Bronx’s substantial Latinx community. Even for those who don’t read books, Ms. Fennell said, the festival could be the “small spark” they need to start.
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