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Award-winning author Jesse Byrd inspires students at Jackson Heights school through interactive book reading and writing workshop

Jesse Byrd at PS 139Q Photo: QueensPost

Mar. 8, 2024 By Czarinna Andres and QNS Staff

Award-winning children’s book author Jesse Byrd talked to fourth-grade students at P.S. 193Q Alfred J. Kennedy Tuesday as part of a program that helps elementary school students write their own children’s book. 

Byrd hosted an interactive reading of his new book “The Switch”, which draws on his experiences from his college basketball career, and spoke to students about creative writing techniques to help guide them through the process of writing their first book. 

The event took place at the P.S. 139Q in Jackson Heights located at 152-20 11th Avenue, as part of New York Edge’s book publishing program. 

New York Edge, the city’s largest provider of school-based afterschool programs, hosted the event as part of its Reading Across New York Edge Week, which aims to boost literacy among schoolchildren, connect students with their favorite authors, and empower young students to write their own stories. 

Byrd will host ten one-hour sessions with students at P.S. 193Q, guiding them through the process of writing a book. Students collaborate to build their own worlds, character, themes, and storylines during the ten sessions, with Byrd taking a back-seat role. 

Byrd has won awards at the Los Angeles and Paris annual book festivals for his debut children’s book “King Penguin” and has been working with New York Edge for around three years. He has already completed eight similar projects with students across the country and said he allows the students to have as much creative control as possible. 

“I let them steer the ship as much as possible,” Byrd said. “I feel like my job is to be like bumper lanes in a bowling alley. 

“It really does have to be something extreme for me to suggest to the group that maybe we should go a different direction. But usually what I find is collectively it all levels out because if one person suggests something that seems absolutely left field for the story, it’s almost like antibodies. Other kids will be like, ‘no, no, no, that’s not going in my book’.

“I have them vote after they let out their ideas. So whatever most of them want for that particular story item is what gets cemented into the book.” 

Byrd, who is from Oakland, California, said he got involved in the program after being confronted with some “scary” facts and statistics about literacy levels among children and their correlation to problems later in life. 

“I have a lot of friends who work in the school district in Oakland where I’m from and they were really sharing some of the scary outcomes that are tied to kids not reading on grade level by a certain age,” Byrd said. 

“Not only the expected things like repeating grades, but also not getting into the college of your choice, lifetime earnings, and the school to prison pipeline.” 

Byrd believes that helping to write a published book can help reading feel less “foreign” or “scary” for young children, helping them to understand how a story is created. 

He added that the chance to become a published author at such a young age can help inspire a child’s confidence. 

“It’s something that they help make in a very real way,” Byrd said. “In addition to creating reading habits, what does becoming a published author do for their courage and confidence?” 

Students will build the core elements of their story during the workshops with Byrd and will subsequently put together a story summary, which Byrd will share with a professional writer for a script. A professional illustrator will then turn the story into an animated children’s book. 

Byrd added that he aims to hire artists and writers from around the world from disadvantaged or underrepresented communities. 

He has also promoted diversity in many of his published works, stating that he hopes to teach children to celebrate differences. 

“I think it’s important for kids and I guess readers in general to see that great stories and great art can come from anywhere and from anyone, no matter how they look or how they dress.”  

Byrd said around 200 children he has worked will become officially published authors by the end of the year. 

“This is something they can never take away from. Books typically outlive people, so this is something that they can, um, that they can hopefully point to throughout the rest of their life.” 

Kayla Carpenter, an assistant program director for New York Edge at P.S. 193, said students are “really excited” to be taking part in the program. 

That excitement was evident on the faces of several children when Byrd informed them that their names would appear on the front cover of their book once it’s published. 

Carpenter, meanwhile, added that New York Edge provides an important service for children at P.S. 193, offering them the chance to try new hobbies and build their social skills, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic. 

She said children are struggling with developmental challenges following the pandemic and added that the afterschool programs give them more opportunities to socialize with children their own age. The free program also provides a safe location for children after school if their parents are working late, Carpenter said. 

The afterschool non-profit has existed in P.S. 193 for around 15 years, Carpenter said, and now features staff members who were once students at the school. 

New York Edge’s literacy initiative is sponsored by Grid for Good from National Grid, Panera Bread and Lyft and connects students across the city with more than 60 published authors. 

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