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Charlotte Book Fair expands perspectives on literacy

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This fall, Charlotte has seen no lack of literary events. Bibliophiles had a smorgasbord to choose from: the Book Smarts author showcase at Dupp & Swatt, theatrical readings of Jeff Jackson's Mira Corpora novel and the Rock & Read 5k in Plaza Midwood, sponsored by the Women's National Book Association, to name a few. But none are quite like the Charlotte Book Fair.

The Charlotte Book Fair was started last year, in order to showcase the Queen City's talented writers and spark the imaginations of the city's youth. About 300 attendees came out for workshops, storytellers and author presentations. Now in its second year, the fair has grown considerably, with more authors, musical performances, dancers and the like. It takes place Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights. The Charlotte Book Fair board's goal is to promote literacy, but they are viewing literacy beyond traditional reading and writing, to encompass civic, digital and financial literacy.

"[These components] are all necessary to become active, engaged and productive citizens," says Thomas Clark, founder and co-chair of the CBF. Voter registration volunteers will help prepare attendees for November voting, and financial advisors will weigh in on building wealth.

Clark, a retired banker, built a successful career in New York and on his downtime was a voracious reader. He regularly attended the Harlem Book Fair, the largest literary festival of its kind, which draws around 50,000 visitors each year to discover hundreds of authors and cultural creatives. Clark also loves travel, and had been taking annual trips to the CIAA even before Charlotte began hosting the African-American collegiate tournament. On one of those trips, friend and Mount Vernon Mayor Ernest Davis, a native Charlottean, introduced Clark to Shirley Fulton, then-superior court judge of the 26th District.

Not too long before, Fulton had purchased a stately antebellum-style mansion in Wesley Heights, on Charlotte's west side. She hadn't thought about what she would do with it when she bought the house, but felt compelled to do so anyway. Named after George Wadsworth, the estate's original owner, the house was built in 1911. Back then, the neighborhood was all white and owners had exclusion covenants in the deeds, to ensure that it would stay that way. But by the mid-'90s, when Fulton bought it, the neighborhood was almost entirely African-American, and Wadsworth was one of the few examples of plantation-style housing near the city's center.

"Wadsworth just stuck in my mind. I didn't know of too many Wadsworths in urban areas," Clark says. Fulton and Clark developed a rapport, and when Clark eventually moved to Charlotte to care for his ailing mother, contacting Fulton about a literary event seemed only natural.

"Thomas kept talking about what they did in New York, and how there was a gap in that kind of activity in Charlotte," Fulton says. So the two joined forces with other like-minded people, and an inner-city book festival was born.

Last year's debut was a modest success, with Q.C. culinary fixture Mert's Heart and Soul sponsoring food for the event, and a roster of local and national authors giving talks. Rob Hillman, an MIT-educated electrical engineer, says it was a no-brainer when Clark asked him to join the CBF board.

Hillman says he owes his entire career path to the way reading was promoted in his home. His sister taught him to read at a young age, and his mother was always bringing him books. "I was into science, so my mother bought me a lot of science fiction books — actually, it may have been the other way around. I don't know which came first, but reading sparked my imagination and caused me to think about the future and new ways of doing things. I saw that no matter your interest, if it's in a book, you can figure it out."

This year, CBF has added more programming and additional resources from the Arts and Science Council, Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Mecklenburg Parks and Rec and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Authors Sam Wazan (The Last Moderate Muslim), Heather D. Lee (Love Letters to My Sisters) and Jerrard K. Polk (Welcome Home Pops — The Story of Louis Armstrong) are among the many who will be presenting, and dancers from the Sycamore Project, spoken word artists and a wider selection of craft and food vendors — including Mert's, their first supporters — will be there. A "Literacy through Art" presentation by Tommie L. Robinson, Charlotte's preeminent muralist, is one of the highlights of the event.

Clark has even bigger hopes for next year's festival, setting his sights on expanding the digital literacy aspect. "I'd like to see the Apples and Microsofts of the world doing demonstrations of new technology; I'd like to have the people behind Black Girls Code [a national initiative that sets up summer camps to foster more minority women in tech] say, 'We've got to come to Charlotte,'" he says with infectious enthusiasm.

Being able to read, write and communicate are key to bridging the digital divide — the knowledge gap between lower-income youth of color and their white counterparts who are more affluent. Board members hope next year's fair can include more technological aspects that encourage kids to be creators and not just end users of technology.

Hillman agrees. He worries that, despite the preponderance of technology, true literacy is losing ground. "In society at large, not just Charlotte, kids and adults watch movies and play video games. They don't read as much. I'm a huge TV watcher," he confesses, "but I don't know that TV stimulates the mind as well [as reading]; it's there and instantly gratifying and you don't need to use your imagination as much."

But at the end of the day, they'll be satisfied if just one kid picks up a book and finds a new favorite pastime. "It's pretty basic: Kids need to know to read, write and do math," Hillman says. "It's a simple formula that's worked for thousands of years. We abandon it from time-to-time at our own peril."