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In addition to the lively and spirited activity outdoors on Robert Crown Community Center’s athletic fields May 8, there was another inviting, free event indoors on the center’s second floor: From 9 a.m. until noon, children and their parents were invited to The Child in You, a literacy carnival rooted in equity and empowerment.
The event was the brainchild of three local authors who have recently published books: brothers Michael and Gilbert Allen and Juleya Woodson.
There was no roller-coaster or cotton candy at this carnival, but there were lots of enticements. Members of the public were invited to enjoy breakfast or an early lunch of fruit and bagels before stopping by the tables to meet and chat with the authors and get free copies of their books signed.
Additional tables with displays of books featuring diversity in characters, themes and grade levels occupied one side of the spacious room. Most of the books, selected as volumes that affirm Black children and other students of color, were free for the taking.
The tables were hosted by the staff from Evanston Public Library, Childcare Network of Evanston and Young, Black & Lit. Other sponsors and supporters of the event include Northwestern University, the Evanston Arts Council, Chessmen Club, Cradle to Career and Foundation 65.
An adjoining room with long tables held colorful and well-appointed art kits designed by Woodson and illustrated by Michelle Wang. Children were invited to use the art materials inside the box to create a self-portrait and then could take the kit home. Because mentoring is important to the Allens, a raffle was held to select scholarships for a 10-week remote and in-person cohort mentoring project that Gilbert Allen will lead.
Michael Allen said any leftover books by the attending authors will be donated and delivered to District 65 schools. The three authors are hoping the literacy carnival will be an annual event.
According to Michael Allen, former Principal of Oakton Elementary School and currently a professional equity coach, the book he and his brother Gilbert wrote was motivated by a desire to encourage kids and let them know that despite adversities, they unconditionally have what it takes to succeed.
“My brother and I wrote the chapter book Brotherly Love to tell the story of our very different adolescent experiences,” Michael Allen said. “We both experienced poverty, intermittent homelessness and our parents’ addictions; but Gilbert as a 10th grader read at only a fourth grade level, was failing and without any support at school, or from available parents.”
Brotherly Love tells how Michael Allen, then a college sophomore and member of the college football team, moved his desperate brother to his college apartment in Valparaiso, Indiana, and became his advocate, mentor and finally his legal guardian.
Michael Allen said that the education system his brother experienced, like many across the country, wasn’t equipped to help students overcome academic deficiencies, racism, trauma and depression.
The book tells of Gilbert Allen’s journey to a stable and successful life. He’s earned a master’s degree in social work, supervises social workers and is working on a doctorate degree. “I realize what Michael did for me was amazing,” Gilbert said. “I want to pay it forward.”
As Gilbert Allen began to thrive, his successes were a catalyst for his brother to want to write about their transformational journey together. The brothers wrote the book during the pandemic.
Michael Allen said he hopes their book will reach readers who looked like him and his brother, an audience who may not frequently have the opportunity to read books by Black authors about Black people.
Woodson, the other organizer of the literacy carnival, published her children’s book, I Hope You Can Understand, in 2021. She attended ETHS, has used her social work skills at a variety of local nonprofit organizations, and with her husband is raising her young children in Evanston.
“As a child, I wondered why none of the books I read had characters in them that looked like me,” Woodson said. “Did that mean I wasn’t worthy? Not attractive enough? I thought I’d like to write a book, but the idea became a strong one when I was very affected by the injustices surrounding George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.”
She wrote I Hope You Can Understand in praise and admiration of the different skin tones, facial features and hair texture often associated with Black people. Her message about beauty in diversity is a strong one.
“I want children to see the beauty in themselves as well as the beauty in others who have different skin types and features,” she said.