The African American Read-In Celebration at the University of Northern Iowa Marks Its 15th Anniversary - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

The African American Read-In Celebration at the University of Northern Iowa Marks Its 15th Anniversary

This post was written by NCTE members Tiffany A. Flowers and Gloria Kirkland-Holmes.


Each year, the African American Read-In is held during February, Black History month. During this program, there are many African American books read and shared with children. However, as seasoned organizers, we contend that it is just as important to promote the authors who research, write, and craft these brilliant books. It often takes years to put historical fiction picture books together. Ensuring the illustrations are authentic and well matched to a text is of great importance as well. After many years of coordinating African American Read-in programs, we have concluded that when you read a book, you are not just sharing the story; you are relating culture, experience, history, and comprehension of the author’s lived experiences.

The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) African American Read-In promotes African American authors and illustrators every year at their event.  The aim of the African American Read-In program is to do culturally specific programming for first graders in the Waterloo Community schools. This can include workshops on hair braiding, Black inventor STEM workshops, drawing workshops, math workshops, and of course workshops that host authors.

UNI aims to bring authors with unique perspectives who can inspire children to greater heights. One example is Jan Spivey Gilchrist, a researcher and cultural historian of African American children’s literature. Jan can create stories that children love. Her talent comes from years of practice, writing, rewriting, and researching how to relate African American experiences to all children. Another example is Crystal Swain-Bates,  a best-selling author who engages students through everyday stories about their worlds. Ty Allan Jackson is known for his work with Black boys. He has an uncanny ability to empower Black boys to love reading through representation. Children delight in his beautiful books focusing on self-awareness and adventure. Teacher-scholar and author Ryan Joiner  brings his books to life by promoting all the reasons that children should learn to read. Ryan believes that reading can take you anywhere.

Promoting brilliant Black authors during the African American Read-In is just as important as reading the books. This is why the African American Read-In is a success every year, and this year’s Read-In, celebrated and hosted during the 10th annual African American Children and Families Conference, sponsored by the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, was no exception.

In fact, this year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Read-In at the University of Northern Iowa! Although we initially expected to hold it in person, we switched to an online model with major modifications. It is important to note that COVID-19 did not stop the university faculty, staff, students, librarians, media specialists, public school teachers, and first graders in Waterloo, Iowa, from celebrating and attending the Read-In. February 11, 2021, saw authors, entrepreneurs, and volunteers from across the United States using Zoom to read to over 1,000 first graders from Waterloo Community schools, who listened from their homes or (socially distanced) from classrooms.

Shown reading at the AARI event (l. to r.) are Jim Bray, assistant professor, Theater, and Whitney Hanley, assistant professor, Special Education. (Photos: Chris Wiebe)


The Read-In committee stayed committed to the mission of the conference to ensure that children were able to participate in this event. We want to give special thanks and acknowledge the African American Children’s and Families African American Read-In Committee, the University of Northern Iowa technology team, and the countless volunteers who tirelessly served to connect children to an experience they will cherish long into adulthood.

As we embark on our journey as literacy professionals to deliver and promote literacy instruction to children in digital environments, sharing our strategies is key to closing the digital divide and helping all students. As program planners across the United States begin their plans for the Read-In next February, our hope is that you will make time in your program for authors to focus on writing workshops, discussions surrounding their work, and the formation of book clubs to read African American children’s books.


Chicago native Tiffany A. Flowers is a children’s author, literacy advocate, and assistant professor of education in the department of cultural and behavioral sciences at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Her research interests include African American literacy development, children’s and young adult literature, urban education, family literacy, field placement, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. You can contact her at or on Twitter @Prof_Flowers.

Gloria Kirkland-Holmes is an Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood/Elementary Education at the University of Northern Iowa. She is the conference coordinator and founder of the Annual Conference on African American Children and Families and the University of Northern Iowa Annual African American Read-In. You can contact her at


It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.