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Dr. Neal-Vincent speaks boldy with the students in attempts to help them find hope and pride in who they are
In preparation for the Jackson Book Festival on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, Dr. Janice Neal-Vincent (pictured) has worked with students from Walton Elementary School in Jackson, Miss., to prepare them for a spoken-word performance at the event. Photo by Peter Kelly

‘Learning the Art of Reading’: Jackson Book Festival Fosters Growth Through Literature

JACKSON, Miss.—Growing up in Jackson in the 1970s, a young Meredith McGee frequently perused a shelf of books in her Pearl Street home that her parents and siblings all shared. She would often take a copy of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” from the shelf to admire the illustrations within, and she also became enamored with Richard Wright’s memoir, “Black Boy,” particularly his descriptions of walking down Capitol Street and other parts of Jackson.

For McGee, reading a story about life so close to her own home felt special.

McGee’s great-grandmother, Francis Brown Meredith, began her family’s tradition of being attached to the written word. Meredith, born in 1865, was the first person in McGee’s family to learn to read and write. Afterward, she became a teacher and made a priority of educating her family. Thanks to her efforts, McGee’s grandparents and parents became lifelong, avid readers, and both McGee and her siblings took up writing their own poetry as teenagers.

Today, McGee carries on her great-grandmother’s work of educating the next generation and introducing them to the world of literature. Since 2018, she has worked with the nonprofit organization Community Library Mississippi to host the annual Jackson Book Festival, which now takes place inside the Center Stage area at the Jackson Medical Mall (350 W. Woodrow Wilson Blvd., Jackson). This year’s festival is on Saturday, Feb. 11, from noon to 5 p.m.

The 2023 Jackson Book Festival will feature book sales and signings from at least a dozen authors and 20 vendors from across Mississippi, as well as live book talks, art and craft vendors, live entertainment, and more. The event, which the Mississippi Arts Commission and Mississippi Humanities Council helped fund this year, is free and open to the public.

Book covers for Where the Wild Things Are and Black Boy
As a child, Jackson Book Festival founder Meredith McGee would often read her family’s copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” and later developed a deep appreciation for Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” as sections of the memoir are set in her home city of Jackson, Miss. These books contributed to her love of reading. Covers courtesy Harper Collins

Participating authors in this year’s event include Gwendolyn Bell, Quineka Ragsdale, Earnice Thompson, Alice Walker, Lashontrei Henton, Khadiya Aziz, Jessica Meredith, Mary Hardy, Barbara Baugh, Phylicia Bell and Sonya Lee.

A highlight of the festival is its poetry competition, which contains separate divisions for elementary students, for middle-school students, and a third category for high-school students and adult contestants. Winners in each division receive cash prizes, trophies and other rewards.

Elementary-school participants in the contest must write a four-line stanza for their entries, while middle-school students are required to write two four-line stanzas. High-school students and adults participating in the competition must submit either a new poem with four mixed stanzas or a previously published poem they have written.

“What I’ve always had in mind with the poetry competition is giving local writers a stage and encouraging them to create something original,” McGee says. “I’ve seen a number of students in the Jackson Public Schools system who have entered the contest as many as three years in a row, and all of them have shown such amazing growth. They’re all writing content that only keeps getting stronger.”

‘An Intellectual Revolution’

The Jackson Book Festival has its origins in the Book Toasters, a social group for poets and authors that McGee first organized in 2018. The founding members of the group include Mary Harrison Coleman, William Trest Jr., Fan Camper and McGee’s mother, Hazel Janell Meredith. McGee founded the Book Toasters as part of what she calls an “intellectual revolution” for both Jackson and Mississippi, seeking to create a broader market for authors in the state.

After launching with a reading fair at Pearl Street AME Church in Jackson during its spring-break reading fair in 2018, the Book Toasters later merged with Community Library Mississippi, a charitable organization McGee chairs that aims to create small community library spaces in Mississippi and promote literacy and intellectual programs.

MizTiffany singing
Tiffany Coleman-McGee, a gospel and hip-hop recording artist who performs under the name Miz Tiffany, will sing at this year’s Jackson Book Festival, which takes place between noon and 5 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. Photo by Blaq Pearl Photography

In addition to organizing the Jackson Book Festival, CLM hosts spelling bees for children, a monthly reading event called the Learning Tree Book Club, and a virtual holiday book festival on the Saturday after each Thanksgiving that similarly includes a poetry contest.

“For me, being a part of an intellectual revolution means providing solutions to the problem of a heavy lack of intellectual activities in Mississippi,” McGee says. “A lot of kids entering our spelling bees have never been in one before, or been involved in any kind of reading club.”

“We’re providing something that’s new for a lot of our participants, some of whom may not even have that many books in their homes,” she adds. “Even for a number of authors taking part in the Jackson Book Festival, it’ll either be their first time publishing a book or their first time doing a book talk in front of a live audience.”

Miz Tiffany’s Music and Children’s Books

Mississippi native gospel and hip-hop artist Tiffany Coleman-McGee, who sings and records under the name Miz Tiffany, will headline the festival, performing new songs at 4 p.m. from her recently released second album, “He’s Been Good.”

Tiffany took up singing as a teenager and began recording her own songs by the time she was 18. She began performing professionally as a gospel, hip-hop artist in 2013 and released her first album, “I Ain’t Preaching to the Choir,” in 2017.

In addition to her music career, Tiffany has published three books. Her first, “Hippos Downtown,” is a children’s book set at the Jackson Zoo. Tiffany published it in 2017 in part to assist the zoo, which was facing ongoing budgetary problems. After publishing the book to create awareness for the zoo, Tiffany also established a partnership with its management to distribute copies of “Hippos Downtown” and donate a portion of the proceeds to help maintain the facility.

Hippos Downtown bookcover
Tiffany Coleman-McGee published her first children’s book, “Hippos Downtown,” in 2017 to create awareness of the Jackson Zoo and donated a portion of the book’s proceeds to the zoo so that it could better manage its financial needs. Cover courtesy Tiffany Coleman-McGee

Tiffany wrote her second book, “My Dolly and Me,” together with her daughter, Mariah McGee. She published the book on her daughter’s fifth birthday in 2019.

Her most recent book, published in 2022, is titled “Girl, God Is in the Details.” Tiffany describes the book as a “manifestation journal,” in which she shares testimony of her career as both an author and a musician.

“My goal is to share the successes I’ve had with my readers in order to encourage others to write down their own goals and work toward them until they manifest,” Tiffany says. “I want to inspire people young and old to believe in themselves, to trust in their abilities and do whatever they’ve set their minds to.”

Building Character Through Spoken-Word Poetry

Dr. Janice Neal-Vincent, who worked as a speech communication studies coordinator for Jackson State University for 34 years, will conduct children from Walton Elementary School in Jackson in a spoken-word choir performance at 3:45 p.m. The performing students are members of Walton’s music program, which Dr. Carrie Denton leads.

Landyn Reed (8) and Ayden Davis (10) smile while they sing and recite poetry
Landyn Reed (center left) and Ayden Davis (center right) rehearse inside their Walton Elementary School classroom alongside other members of the spoken-word choir that will perform at the Jackson Book Festival on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023. Photo by Peter Kelly

A spoken-word choir does not involve singing, but is instead a call-and-response practice wherein a leader first speaks a line that the chorus then reacts to with a follow-up line. Much as a singing choir features alto, bass and tenor voices, a spoken-word choir has its own performing voices, divided into “light,” “medium” and “dark” as well as “leader,” “chorus” and “all.”

The Walton students will perform poems titled “Are You a Bully?” and “Salvation” from Neal-Vincent’s 2020 book “A Little of Me, A Little of You,” in addition to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which civil-rights activist James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1900.

“In today’s age, we as a society have encountered bullying on a number of levels, and it seems to be festering in my opinion,” Neal-Vincent says. “I believe that children need learning experiences that expose them to how not (emphasis added) to be a bully. I want to encourage them to do the opposite of what a bully would do—either physically or verbally—and teach them self-respect and respect for others.”

Dr. Neal-Vincent directing the children during rehearsal
Dr. Neal-Vincent (left) directs the students comprising the Walton Elementary School spoken-word choir during rehearsal. At this weekend’s Jackson Book Festival, the choir will perform anti-bullying poems from Neal-Vincent’s 2020 book, “A Little of Me, A Little of You,” as well as a poem from civil-rights activist James Weldon Johnson. Photo by Peter Kelly

Neal-Vincent, who established her first spoken-word choir at Northern Illinois University in 1974, has been working with Walton Elementary’s music students since just after their Christmas break. Through spoken-word choir practice, she says, the children are learning important skills such as analytical thinking, improved listening, diction, vocal variety, bodily behavior, eye contact, unity, message transmission, vocabulary improvement, and a wider exposure to different authors and cultures.

“The outreach the book festival provides is valuable to children in getting them to learn the art of reading,” she says. “The poems they are reading have a message that conveys positive self-esteem, and the skills they are learning encourage them to build self-esteem.”

More About McGee

In addition to organizing the Jackson Book Festival, Meredith McGee owns and operates a typing, writing and resume-service company called Typing Solutions and has run her own local publishing company called Meredith etc. since 2013. She is also a contributing writer for the Jackson Advocate.

Writer, publisher, entrepreneur and Jackson Book Festival organizer Meredith McGee (right) stands with Gwendolyn Mayberry Bell (left), author of “I Learned to Read.” Photo courtesy Jackson Book Festival

For McGee, the fact that the Jackson Book Festival takes place during Black History Month in February is especially significant, as her uncle, civil-rights activist James Meredith, was the first African American to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962.

“We’ve always seen a lot of Black History Month crossover with the Jackson Book Festival, with so many kids submitting works with themes about Black history,” McGee says. “We want to invite people from all around to come out and cheer for these kids and everyone else going on stage. Showing support for them is a great way to encourage them and promote intellectual growth for everyone involved.”

For more information on the Jackson Book Festival, visit the festival’s Eventbrite page.

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