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Savannah Children’s Book Festival brings the pages to life

J'Miah Nabawi seeks to connect young readers with culture and language -- their own and others

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SNUGGLING UP with a cherished book and a favorite kid is a bedtime ritual that crosses cultures and generations.

But when J’Miah Nabawi is telling the story, nobody’s going to sleep anytime soon.

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The award-winning storyteller employs drums, dance and different voices while acting out the tales featured in his children’s books, and sitting still isn’t an option.

“My mentors taught me that children like to be where the action is, so I make some!” laughs Nabawi, a multi-instrumentalist and polyglot well-known for his involvement in the local community and beyond.

The author of Why Spiders Hide in Corners and the recently published Nahnah Binyah’s Talking Sweet Potatoes also seeks to connect young readers with culture and language—their own and others’. Nahnah Binyah bridges African and Gullah fables as well as Southern food traditions and crafts. Nabawi also throws Russian, Japanese, French and Spanish phrases into his energetic performances, not only to broaden minds but to validate the experiences of the many immigrant children he encounters on his visits to schools, churches and festivals.

“So much of the time when families immigrate, their folklore and traditions are left behind,” he explains, wielding the traditional cow tail switch of African American storytelling. “I want these kids to know that their origin language and stories are as valuable as the ones we tell in this culture.”

For the 12th year, Nabawi will be hosting the International Tent at the Savannah Children’s Book Festival, filling Forsyth Park with literacy and joy this Saturday, Nov. 18. Presented by Live Oak Public Libraries and the City of Savannah Dept. of Cultural Affairs, this all-day book bonanza features readings, book signings, activities, education and entertainment for all ages.

The juice box set will be thrilled to hear the wildly popular The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! read aloud by author Carmen Agra Deedy, and world renowned illustrators Don Tate and R. Gregory Christie will have their markers ready. Beginning readers can giggle along with Duck, Duck, Porcupine author Salina Yoon, and Savannah’s own José Lucio will be promoting his latest kaleidoscopic laughfest, Free Rain.

Young adults—some of the most voracious readers around—can ask New York Times bestseller E. Lockhart about her delicious teen dramas Genuine Fraud and How to Be Bad, and youth lit sensation Cynthia Leitich Smith is sure to provide a roaring discussion about her new novel, Feral Pride.

Festival headliner Kwame Alexander won a Newbery Medal for 2015’s The Crossover, a hip-hop-and-basketball-inspired coming of age tale that’s been a slam dunk with YA readers around the world. Interestingly enough, the main character of Alexander’s next novel, Booked, hates reading. But that’s part of the author’s plan to draw middle school boys—not big readers compared to their female counterparts—into the literary fold.

“I’m writing from this space of what I would have wanted to have read as a 12-year-old, as a boy and the kind of boy that I was,” he told NPR in 2016. “I think that so often we think of boys as just wanting to be a part of sports, but when you get on a sports team and you really get in that huddle and you get on the court with these boys, or you get on the pitch, it’s all about family and friendship and love and rivalry and it’s extremely emotional.”

Alexander is also an advocate for more complex and diverse stories for young readers and is the force behind several literacy initiatives, including Leap for Ghana, which provides educational opportunities in West Africa.

At the International Tent, the sights and sounds of West Africa get Nabawi’s exuberant treatment as he and theater students from Southwest Middle School in Florence, SC perform Nahnah Binyah’s Talking Sweet Potatoes and other folk tales. Once again, Savannah State University International Education Specialist Joline Keevy will be bringing her group of global ambassadors to help with crafts and engage kids in conversation about lands near and far.

“The international students really look forward to coming every year,” says Nabawi. “The whole idea is to model and teach diversity.”

Of course there will be a cornucopia of different percussion instruments for kids and parents to play, culminating in the 3pm “All-In” drum circle facilitated by Liz “Kemi” Coleman. Nabawi will have his formidable collection of gourds and shakers, and he is also an emissary for Saraz Handpans, a flying saucer-looking sculpture that emits the pleasant harmonic strikes of Caribbean steel drums.

The spinner of all kinds of tales invites book festival attendees to drop by in between visiting with their favorite authors, and he promises that fidgeting is welcome during the performances and activities.

“Come shake out the sit down!” he calls, tapping his talking drum. “It’s story time!”

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