Summer Brenner sits quietly at a coffee shop table amid the rumbling of the city outside and smiles as she gently thumbs through a copy of her 2009 children’s book Richmond Tales: Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, a story featuring an array of young characters who journey through time to discover the lost history of the industrial city.
“I believe it gives insight into children’s lives growing up there, especially those that feel disconnected from their homeland,” Brenner said. “That’s why I decided to incorporate kids into the historical context and have history serve as the narrative.”
The book has become a local sensation in elementary and middle schools, and has given rise to the annual “Richmond Tales” Family Literacy Festival, which saw close to 500 kids and parents attend this year and more than 1,000 books given free to local kids. The themes of community, race, and understanding have added to the curriculum in many of the schools, including Berkeley’s Adult School where the book is used to teach English comprehension. The East Bay Performing Arts Center will also be producing a play based on the book, and next winter, a musical is in the works. Brenner is also the recipient of the 2010 Richmond Historic Preservation award.
Brenner, 66, grew up in Atlanta, Georgia at a time when race and class issues weighed heavily on society. “My family members were Jewish immigrants with liberal views, leading me to become politically aware,” she said.
“What certainly inﬂuenced my awareness and writing was The Temple where we attended Jewish services – the Sunday school was bombed in the late 1950s because the rabbi was so outspoken in the cause of Civil Rights.”
Brenner’s passion for activism and interest in topics ranging from homelessness to sex trafficking has fueled the publication of dozens novels and works of poetry. But Brenner said she feels that there is still more work to be done helping youth discover their history.
“Storytelling is a part of being human,” she said. “I’m just trying to help give these kids the tools they need to express themselves.”
Her project “Where We’re From” does just that, as she worked with students at Kappa Continuation High School on interviewing techniques to learn about their diverse backgrounds and traditions from family history. The students then shared their ﬁndings with a collage of photography and poetry.
Max Porter, a 7th grade English teacher at Helms Middle School, recalled the impact of Richmond Tales: Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle on the kids in his classroom.
“Many students were reading the book in my class or had heard about it during the festival, and really got interested in looking for more of these kinds of books” he said. “It’s exciting for them and for the community to have a book that reﬂects their diversity.”
Brenner said that she hopes the book will also inspire more children to read about the past.
“History is more than what’s written in a book,” she said, “and it’s up to our youth to discover that.”