Do your students know Zaila Avant-garde? This superstar became the first African-American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2021. Today, she is a rising basketball star and a published author, with two new books for young readers. Her book Words of Wonder From Z to A is perfect for grades PreK–2 and introduces students to new vocabulary for every letter of the alphabet—in reverse. Avant-garde also has a new advice book for grades 3–7 called It’s Not Bragging if It’s True.
Students can learn more about Zaila’s journey when you share the video below. Plus read on for a Q&A with the author and free activities and a poster to go with her books.
Meet Zaila Avant-garde
Q&A with the author
It’s Not Bragging if It’s True shares your journey of setting and achieving several goals in your life so far. Who is someone who inspired and inspires you to go after your dreams?
Someone who inspires me to go after my dreams is definitely Mae Jemison. Mae Jemison was an engineer and physician who became the first African American woman to travel to outer space in 1992 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. When I was a little girl, my dad bought me a little kids book called Mae Among the Stars about her and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve always been impressed by how she pushed forward through massive amounts of adversity and kicked the doors down to rooms nobody wanted her in. And when she got there, she showed up and showed out! (Get it?) OK, so maybe it is a dad joke. Show up and show out is the name of a chapter in It’s Not Bragging if It’s True.
In Words of Wonder From Z to A, you share 26 inspirational words, one for each of the 26 letters in the alphabet. Do you have a favorite word in the book, and what is its meaning to you?
My favorite word in the book is probably DREAM. I love that word because there’s a line that goes, “Dream is a little kid in front of that giant bookshelf in the living room looking with wonder at all those big colorful books.” That line was written straight from the heart because one of my most vivid childhood memories is standing in front of the seemingly gigantic bookshelf in my living room filled with all kinds of books, from my parents’ hefty college textbooks to books like Catch-22 and Sidney Poitier’s autobiography. I definitely think that the sheer amount of books my family had just lying around and the diversity of those books contributed to me being very well read.
You have such a love for words, storytelling, and spelling. Do you also love reading? What book helped you love reading?
Yes, I do love to read. I’ve actually read well over 1,000 books. Two books I vividly remember loving as a young girl are Under the Sunday Tree by Eloise Greenfield and, of course, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise. Those and, of course, anything that involved Paddington the Bear, although those books were more laughed through than read through.
You are truly a multi-talented powerhouse! Is there anything that you are afraid of trying?
ABSOLUTELY NOT! I would try just about anything except get within 100 feet of a spider web or within 1 mile of a snake. Other than that, I would do anything. I definitely want to one day participate in activities such as bungee jumping, zip-lining, hang gliding, cave exploring, etc.
What’s something about you that people might be surprised to learn?
I have noticed a lot of people are surprised by my height. I guess because of my baby-ish voice, people think that I’m going to be like 4-foot 9 or something. So there’s often a visceral reaction once they realize I am taller. I am a little over 5-foot 8.
If you could invite any three people for dinner, who would you invite?
Just three? Well, for sure I would invite Whitney Houston, my favorite singer; Mae Jemison, one of my sheroes; and Serena and Venus Williams (they come together as one person for the purposes of this article).
If It’s Not Bragging if It’s True is turned into a movie, who would you want to play you?
I would like either Saniyya Sidney or Demi Singleton to play me in a movie. They play Serena and Venus Williams in the movie King Richard, one of my favorite movies.
Download free activities for Zaila Avant-garde’s books
Get ideas for how you can host your own spelling bee plus reproducible activities for all ages.
Request a poster with writing prompts
Sign up for a physical poster with educator-approved writing prompts on the back for both books.