Matt de la Pena warned students that the image they were about to see wasn’t pretty, at least not in his eyes.
“I have to warn you about something,” he told a group of second, third and fourth graders Wednesday at The James and Grace Lee Boggs School on Detroit’s east side. “This is not the best picture I’ve ever taken. I kinda look like an angry old man.
“You know what? We can skip that picture,” he added.
“Nooo!” the students shout in protest.
“Why does every school want to see the ugly picture?” de la Pena said.
The children’s and young adult author eventually projects a photo of himself and his mother when he was baby, frowning at the camera. His family grew up poor in National City, California, near San Diego, he said. But money wasn’t as important as having a caring mother by his side.
“I always tell people looking back, I had the most important thing you could have as a child; somebody in your life who cares so much about you, who thinks you’re special,” de la Pena said.
The sharing of his family history led into a reading of one of his picture books, “Milo Imagines the World.” His presentation at the K-8 charter school is part of the program, Authors: In Detroit, which connects national authors and illustrators with students in the city to promote literacy and imagination. The initiative is operated by Literacy For Kids (LFK), a nonprofit that promotes reading to children across metro Detroit.
Award-winning authors Lesa Cline-Ransome and Kenneth Kraegel also visited the Boggs school Wednesday, with the three stopping by the Golightly Education Center later and a planned trip Thursday to University Preparatory Science and Math Elementary School.
Authors: In Detroit will resume in November, with a stop at a high school in the city, said executive director Heather Mertz.
LFK founder Jayne Rose-Vallee, launched the organization in 2019 and knows firsthand how reading to students can make an impact. The children’s author has visited schools across the country and saw the way she was able to connect with students through her books.
“I felt like Detroit was a great place to bring nationally acclaimed, diverse authors to talk about storytelling,” Rose-Vallee said. “And then we buy a book from each of the authors and they sign for every student. So, it’s like a memento that they take home to represent what happened that day.”
One of the kids that enjoyed de la Pena’s presentation was third grader Jude McCloud. The nine-year-old said he loves to read manga, which are Japanese comic books and graphic novels.
“My favorite part was when we talked about the pictures,” McCloud said about the presentation.
Connecting the past and the present through literature
Meanwhile, in a classroom down the hall, Cline-Ransome was telling fourth and fifth grade students about the research she delved into for her novel, “Finding Langston,” a fictionalized account of writer Langston Hughes’ move from Alabama to Chicago when he was a child. Her research methods included reading books about The Great Migration and making a visit to the George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library.
“I found poems from Langston Hughes about leaving the south and coming north and how difficult that was,” Cline-Ransome told the students. “Then I found a picture of the George Cleveland Hall library branch and I thought about my own library where I felt at home. I thought, ‘There’s the place this young Langston can find a sense of home.’”
Cline-Ransome, who has also written books about Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong and Venus and Serena Williams, told BridgeDetroit she often writes about Black historical figures because their stories haven’t been celebrated enough.
As a two-time participant of LFK, Cline-Ransome enjoys the Detroit program because she gets to see how her books have made an impact on her young readers.
“As a kid, I never really loved history and biographies in part, because the people that they highlighted never looked like me and I love being able to tell stories about people whose work and whose worlds have changed ours,” she said. “People of color who have changed our worlds.”
“I love going to different areas and seeing kids in different school systems and school environments,” she said. “And I am a former educator, so…writing is a form of teaching and telling these stories.”