The self-proclaimed adopted daughter of Ward 8 grew tired of being shunned from mainstream literary festivals and decided to start her own with indie authors, all while busting myths about literacy in the Black community.
Founded by Dr. Courtney Davis, the fourth annual East of the River Book Festival took place on Saturday, Oct. 14 at Rocketship Rise Academy in Southeast in an effort to bring books directly to the community.
“This is a great venue to connect families to books,” Davis said. “You’re not going to always find these books in Barnes & Noble — some you will, but not all the time. It was important for me to make sure that there were books that reflect the community and people who look like us. That means people of color, more girls and diverse topics.”
As a self-published author, Davis wanted to give other independent writers a platform to showcase their work that they don’t often get in mainstream literary circles.
“I am a self-published author and a resident of Anacostia as well,” she said. “In the beginning of a writing career, you go to book festivals and there are some that just don’t include indie authors and I didn’t understand.
“There is still a negative stigma attached to being an indie author,” she said. “It’s more diminished now than 10 years ago, but that said I tried to be a part of the festivals and felt shunned. I thought, ‘One day I’m going to have my own book festival.’ That was the seed planted of what you see today.”
Story-time presentations, workshops and literary panels were some of the features at the festival. For aspiring writers, the self-publishing panel featured lawyers, literary agents and other authorities with tips on how to successfully launch a writing career.
“Last year we had one panel discussion about being self-published, and this year we have six,” Davis said. “We’re really giving the books that are traditionally published a run for their money, because this is some good, high-quality reading material that you should have access to.”
In 2010, as a former educator at Moten Elementary School at Wilkinson in Southeast, Davis worked with pre-K children on citywide assessments and said they weren’t doing well at the time.
“I started going to libraries to find books on Anacostia that would be on a younger students level and I couldn’t find anything,” she said. “So I did what teachers do — I created it. I got an idea, I knew what I wanted didn’t exist and I just started to write.
“The purpose of it was to connect what they knew to something they did not know,” she said. “If we are not being successful with the alphabet but you know ‘B is for big chair,’ then we’re going to make this alphabet work.”
In 2013, she held her first gathering of what would come to be known as the East of the River Book Festival.
“It was a homemade book festival, but I called some friends and said hey let’s have our own little thing, like reading times, you can sell your books and read to the kids,” she said.
Davis, a Chicago native, asserts she has seen the impact her children’s book and the festival has had on kids in her neighborhood.
“I think we’re planting the seeds, some kids are, like, ‘This is kind of cool,’” she said. “My students are now ringing my door, like, ‘Here, I brought you my story.’ I want to show them that look an author lives right next to you.”
Davis wants to continue to dispel the myths that people in her Southeast community don’t care about reading or education by being intentional.
“It had to be called the East of the River Book Festival, because when there is a book festival it’s not in our community,” she said. “And that like going to get food, amenities for my home or going to get most things that I need, I have to leave Anacostia and go over the bridge to go get it.
“So often, neighbors, residents and anybody who lives in Southeast, they catch it,” Davis said. “They catch the negative messaging that’s on TV, radio and we’re constantly bombarded for generations that we don’t read or want education.
“This is us,” she said. “We are writers, readers and we want to be in control of our narratives and this is our way of doing that.”