Words by Stephanie Gaitan
Photograph by Brandon King
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
The Bronx has recently become a cultural hub for literary activity, in part thanks to City College graduate, Saraciea J. Fennell. The Bronx Book Festival, an annual literary event that caters to residents of the Bronx, first took place in the summer of 2018. This year the festival will take place on Saturday, June 8 at Fordham Plaza and Fordham University. Erika Sanchez (I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter), Mark Oshiro (Anger is a Gift), and NoNieqa Ramos (The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary), among several other authors, panelists, and vendors will be featured at the festival this year.
Its founder, Saraciea Fennell, a former accounting major, first stepped onto the path to The Bronx Book Festivalwhen she transferred to CCNY as an English major. Once here, her advisor Yana Joseph presented the publishing certificate program to her; she went for it and the seeds were sown. Professors Mark Mirsky, Lynn Applebaum, Retha Powers, and David Unger inspired her and gave her “the fuel she needed to graduate and pursue [her] career in publishing,” she shared. She landed an internship with “Simon and Schuster” and after graduation, continuing to work for the company later. She now works as a publicist in publishing with “Tor.”
When the Bronx’s only general-interest bookstore, a Barnes and Noble located in Co-op City, closed in December of 2016, Saraciea focused her efforts on the development of a book festival. Her original plan was to open a children’s bookstore in the Bronx and eventually work her way towards hosting a children’s/teen’s book festival, but she saw the immediate need in her community for a place where bookish Bronxites of all ages could gather and connect, and thus the Bronx Book Festival was born.
It began as a “Kickstarter” campaign that exceeded its funding goal of $30,000 and incorporated a new reading literacy program for Title I public schools — The Bronx is Reading (TBIR) literacy program. This program brought several published authors and books, at no cost to Bronx schools and children who live in underserved communities. As a Bronxite herself that lacked literary exposure as a child, Fennell sought to create the largest impact she could.
Last year, through the TBIR program, Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X), Sayantani DasGupta (The Serpent’s Secret), and Tracey Baptiste (The Jumbles), visited Title I Bronx schools. In addition to a festival and literacy program, Saraciea also birthed a book club. The Bronx is Reading book club meets at The Andrew Freedman Home once a month on Saturdays – all are welcome, and teens are encouraged to attend.
Fennell is a full-time publicist and mother who passionately believes in making a positive difference in her community. Regarding this, she said, “I am so proud to give back to my community and especially children and teens of color. Representation matters. I am so happy that I get to play a small part in sparking change among communities of color.”
The festival offers volunteer opportunities that allow students and book-lovers alike to see firsthand what it takes to put on a literary festival and a chance to meet authors as well as illustrators. Sixty to seventy volunteers are typically needed the day of the festival. This is a great opportunity for English majors who are interested in creative writing and the publishing industry.
When asked if she had any advice for current English majors, Fennell responded, “English can open many doors for you, teaching is not the only answer. You can work in book publishing, magazine publishing, and so much more. Have as many informational interviews as possible and ask to shadow an employee at a company you are interested in working for.”
She continued, “Sometimes we think we don’t have options, but we do and the only way to explore those options is to ask questions and gain as much information as possible. So be proactive and make connections, ask questions, and network as much as you can!”
CCNY alumna Saraciea J. Fennell serves as an inspiration for English majors and those who are pursuing careers in the book industry. Her success serves as a reminder to our diverse population at City Collegethat dreams are achievable.