David Ellis is giving summer reading a new dimension–and not just for the students and parents at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Harlem, where he has worked for the last 19 years. Through weekly Instagram interviews, he is introducing dynamic reading options for kids–and he is also creating a new kind of community among writers, illustrators, and families.
As some in the Partnership community know, David is the librarian at St. Mark’s–in fact, he created the school’s library, with the help of non-profit Library Connections. He is also a poet, a father, and an unassuming yet impactful voice both in Harlem, where he works, and City Island, where he lives. Profiled in the New York Times, his work as an educator, writer and parent is about surfacing connections among people and places, connections that affirm something deep within us.
Acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelson, co-creator of Harlem’s Red Rooster, says, “David is very much a part of this New Harlem Renaissance, and his thoughtful poetry captures that elegantly…His love of this community and teaching is evident as well as his passion for poetry and artistry.” The fact that he is a poet-educator who draws praise from a celebrity chef says a lot about the breadth of the community David creates.
So it should be no surprise that this summer, David is continuing to create a community around kids, writers, and cool ideas. If you migrate to St. Mark’s Instagram page most Tuesdays, you’ll catch him in conversation with a different author or illustrator each week. The authors typically read from their work as well.
The authors and their characters feature many individuals of color, which resonates with students. “Because of Mr. Ellis, my love for reading has grown,” says rising seventh grader Davelle Key. “What helped was when he showed me books where characters looked a lot like me. He helped me pick out the Miles Morales book at the book fair.”
“I started,” David explains, “because the kids weren’t really reading that much–bookstores are closed, libraries are closed.” Principal Dominic Fanelli suggested he do a series of recorded readings for students. “As handsome as I am, I know the kids may be tired of seeing me doing readings twice a week,” David explains. So he reached out to the community of authors and illustrators of which he is a part–and the brief online readings and interviews began.
“It gives authors an outlet, and parents find out what’s out there. We have to get to other ways to find out what books are out there other than Barnes & Noble and Amazon.” David also adds, “I’m not just thinking as a writer and educator, but as a parent–” one trying to manage his nine-year-old son’s screen time this summer.
Authors he talks include the likes of Newberry Honor and Coretta Scott King award winner Rita Williams-Garcia (in her first Instagram live attempt!), who has visited St. Mark’s twice in person to discuss her young adult novels and credits Mr. Ellis for having her come talk with students before her work began winning awards:
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… and Brionne Alford, whose picture books travel back in time to introduce students to African-American historical figures they may not know about:
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He also talks with illustrators about their process, as he does in this interview with artist Wes Roundtree, who is translating street art into children’s book illustration:
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David takes advantage of the geographic freedom an online-platform provides to extend the author community St. Mark’s families connect with. Sharifa Anozie, for example, lives in Los Angeles. Illustrator Lauren DeWitt‘s world travels inform her work. And David’s interview with novelist Tonya Duncan Ellis reflected on the suburban Houston experiences she shares with her characters.
David’s efforts to connect his students to authors did not begin this spring. In addition to Rita Williams-Garcia, St. Mark’s has hosted National Book Award finalists and Scott O’Dell award winner Richard Peck; NAACP Image Award Winner Andrea Davis Pinkney; Hans Christian Andersen Award Winner Jacqueline Woodson; poet and author Willie Perdomo; and others.
Writing and St. Mark’s, David says, “go two-and-two together. I couldn’t have written my second book, Honey in Harlem, without working in Harlem and at St. Mark’s.”
David describes how his godfather, an assistant principal, gave him “Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons. It was the first big book I read, the first book I conquered on my own. So when I came to St. Mark’s for the first time and saw the sign that Marcus Garvey gave his first speech there, it felt like I was meant to be a part of the community.”
It is the notion of community that he comes back to, a community he felt growing up in Mt. Vernon, New York, and attending a school similar to St. Mark’s. When describing St. Mark’s and Harlem, he says “I felt baptized by a whole community, and St. Mark’s is a community school, where kids are sitting where their parents and grandparents sat.”
Those students are also absorbing through David’s interviews the idea that authors and artists are a part of the community they already inhabit through St. Mark’s and examples of the many choices students have about how to live and work as adults.
Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner once said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” David Ellis’s deep gladness in writing and community and childrens’ deep hunger for connection and artistry meet at St. Mark’s–and now on St. Mark’s Instagram.