Literary heavyweights and Virginia natives Adriana Trigiani and David Baldacci will be part of the Ashland Theater Foundation’s first book festival, called Read Broadly, happening May 6-7 at the historic Ashland Theatre.
They’ll be joined by another author – Zetta Elliott, a 2021 Randolph Caldecott Medal honoree – whose book, “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart,” was publicly singled out as “garbage” by Hanover County Supervisor Michael Herzberg in February following a complaint he received from the parent of a Cold Harbor Elementary School student. In the book, a young Black boy deals with the news of the death of a Black woman at the hands of police.
On Friday, May 6, Elliott will read with Richmond Public School students during the school day. She’ll then participate in a Q-and-A at the Ashland Theater that night, which will be moderated by Michael Paul Williams, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
On Saturday, New York Times best sellers Trigiani and Baldacci will take to the theatre’s stage to discuss Trigiani’s new book, “The Good Left Undone,” which comes out April 26. Trigiani, from Big Stone Gap, is co-founder of the Origin Project, an in-school writing program that serves more than 1,500 students in Appalachia. Richmond native Baldacci and his wife also work with family and adult literacy through their Wish You Well Foundation.
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The two-day festival is in partnership with two Richmond-area bookstores, Fountain Bookstore and The Book Bar.
Clark Mercer, Ashland Theater Foundation president, said Friday that this festival furthers the spirit of the theater and its mission to engage the community through speakers, panels, talks and events that “entertain, educate, inspire and are welcoming to all.”
With regards to Elliott, Mercer said he reached out to her following the February incident, for which he was “disappointed and a bit embarrassed.”
Upon hearing from a parent, Herzberg, of the Cold Harbor District, took to social media about two specific pages in Elliott’s book. One page included illustrative images of a crowd of people and a “Black Lives Matter” sign, and five faceless police officers, one holding a baton, in front of them. The accompanying page reads: “There is anger inside of me/ a fury deep down inside of me/ that is sharp enough to slice through air/ flesh/ bone & concrete,” along with an illustration of an angry boy.
Herzberg said Elliott’s book encouraged violence toward police officers and was not appropriate for elementary students, and called it “garbage” on his Facebook page. Herzberg said back then that he wanted Hanover’s School Board to change its policy regarding book removal so that the school board could get involved more quickly in removing books deemed inappropriate. Currently there’s a multi-level process for parents that starts with the school principal and moves through school division administrators before reaching the school board.
Mercer said he recalled he was somewhat surprised back then that the subject of Herzberg’s ire was Elliott’s book, and not other books that were getting national attention in school divisions elsewhere as being offensive.
“We encourage folks to read books, don’t ban them,” Mercer said. The festival is an opportunity for the Ashland Theater community “to throw our arms around Zetta” and provide her the opportunity to talk with both students and the community.
By phone from her Chicago home Friday, Elliott said as a Black woman, educator, writer and scholar, she’s keenly aware that for many Black students she encounters when she visits schools, “I’m the first Black woman author they’ve seen. “
“I never met an author when I was a child,” she said, and she now feels a sense of responsibility to dedicate her “author life” to showing students that being a writer is possible, that writers are members of a community just like them. She said she was honored to be asked to be part of the festival, and she’s looking forward to visiting students in Richmond and reading to them. She also plans to stop by The Book Bar, a woman-owned bookstore and wine bar that opened earlier this year and highlights Black, Indigenous and people of color authors.
She said she heard about Herzberg’s issue with her book. While another of her books by Ella was included within a broad list of banned resources in a York, Pennsylvania, school division earlier this year, she said she’s never known anyone else to specifically challenge or try to ban anything she’s written.
“This is for children,” she said about her books, “and children are being harmed when books are challenged or banned from libraries.”
Ashland District Supervisor Faye Prichard said Friday “it makes all the sense…in the world” that Ashland, affectionately known locally to residents as the Center of the Universe, would be a place for a festival that not only celebrates books and art and culture, but celebrates the idea of critical thinking and coming together “to get the answers to the hard questions.”
As a mother of grown children and a grandmother, “I do believe it is my responsibility…to read hard things and talk about them with our children,” she said. “Even if I was disturbed by a book, I would want to read it and understand where it was coming from.”
Festival tickets are $10 for students, $20 for Friday night general admission and $32.50 for Saturday night general admission. Friday tickets include one of two Elliott books, either “A Place Inside of Me” or her newest book, “Moonwalking.” Saturday night’s ticket includes a copy of Trigiani’s “The Good Left Undone.” For more information or to purchase tickets, visit ashlandtheatre.org.
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