Building Blocks for Global Citizens of Tomorrow: Mahogany L. Browne on Her Woke Baby Book Fair
Poet Rico Frederick interviews poet, educator, and organizer Mahogany L. Browne about her new children’s book, Woke Baby, and her program Woke Baby Book Fair, a celebration of social justice–oriented books for kids with readings, music, and other festivities, taking place next at Poets House on Saturday, November 9, at 2pm.
Mahogany L. Browne is an influential powerhouse dedicated to creativity, community, and literacy. This incomparable writer, whom I am blessed to call Sister, is now expanding her vision of legacy from poetry and books to include this amazing family-friendly reading experience called Woke Baby Book Fair (WBBF), which celebrates us all here at Poets House and throughout the world. Here are a few questions I had for Mahogany about her work and the experience of creating Woke Baby and the Woke Baby Book Fair.
RF: Can you put into words what the Woke Baby book is about and what inspired you to write it?
MB: I wanted to create a time stamp of what was on the minds of our parents today. I wanted Woke Baby to rest next to Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love and Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day and Natasha Anastasia Tarpley’s I Love My Hair!. I thought, if there was a moment to rage against the machine, what would our young readers need in their tool kits? Sure, they don’t know all of what this is or means now—but it can be a part of the building blocks for how they become global citizens tomorrow.
RF: As an author focused on children’s literacy, what was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
MB: I realized the power of words when working with young mothers in 2001. The teenage mothers thought the creative writing class was a waste of time until I walked in and read poems that had their words and stories and faces attached. Then, again, my understanding was fortified when facilitating workshops for young teen poets in New York City back in 2003 as a teaching artist with Urban Word NYC. Watching the power unfold when these young people stood up and spoke for themselves reminded me of the necessity of this art form. This is not just power. This is the truth. And with truth comes liberation.
RF: How did the Woke Baby Book Fair idea come about?
MB: I was in love with the Scholastic Book Fair as a young reader. The little ‘zine they gave us at the beginning of the week featured new books—and I would froth over the possibilities of how to spend my lunch money!
I wanted to put together an homage to that idea but with books that would build the libraries of the next community activists, political leaders, and educators. Woke Baby Book Fair offers diversity in language, ability, and story. Because there isn’t one kind of reader, Woke Baby Book Fair aims to engage through traditional and experimental storytelling modes. There is music and face painting; there is arts and crafts and song.
RF: Where else have you presented this Woke Baby Book Fair? Is this part of your mission of social justice to continue to present it?
MB: This is a traveling community-focused project. I have over 30 books for all levels of readers featuring the work of the most well-known authors to up-and-coming voices in the young adult world. I have presented at the Schomburg Literary Festival and The Center for Fiction and look forward to bringing this one-day event to independent bookstores and cultural centers nationwide!
RF: Can you describe the responses or one meaningful moment that you’ve received?
MB: The best response is still coming!
But I love inviting poets to read to babies and musicians to play for young kids and the face-painting line that happens and the possibility of it all!
It’s harrowing to put together because there are so many parts to the building of the Woke Baby Book Fair experience. Yet the face-painting and bookmark-making stations and dancing and singing and book signing and sing-along readings culminate in an amazing and one-of-a-kind experience. Everyone leaves feeling fed and full of joy.
It is so worth it to see the parents buy books they would’ve never bought before, all because they witnessed a new way of taking in stories! It’s so worth it to see the little ones pitch a pillow on the floor and turn their ear towards the story being shared.
Mahogany L. Browne creates a vibrant space for youth between the page and spoken word as Artistic Director at Urban Word NYC. Browne is an educator and spoken-word poet, as well as the author of several books, including Black Girl Magic and her new book, Woke Baby, written for children ages zero to five. She has been featured on the PBS NewsHour, and her honors include a Cave Canem fellowship and a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellowship.
Rico Frederick is a graphic designer and the author of the book Broken Calypsonian (Penmanship Books, 2014). He has been a Cave Canem Fellow, a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow, and the first poet to represent all four original New York City poetry venues at the National Poetry Slam.