First black winner of the Scripps Spelling Bee

Do your students know Zaila Avantgarde? This superstar became the first black 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 PreK-2 grades and introduces students to new vocabulary for each letter of the alphabet – in reverse order. Avantgarde has also released a new guide for Grades 3-7 called It’s Not Bragging if It’s True.

Students can learn more about Zaila’s journey by sharing the video below. Also, read on for a Q&A with the author, free activities, and a poster of her books.

Meet Zaila Vanguard

Questions and answers with the author

“It’s Not Bragging if It’s True” tells about your journey so far to set and achieve several goals in your life. Who is someone who inspires and inspires you to achieve your dreams?

Someone who inspires me to achieve my dreams is definitely Mae Jemison. Mae Jemison was an engineer and doctor who became the first African American woman to travel to space aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1992. When I was a little girl, my father bought me a little children’s book about her called Mae Among the Stars, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. I’ve always been impressed by how she pushed ahead against the odds, kicking down the doors to spaces no one wanted her in. And when she got there, she showed herself and showed herself again! (Got it?) Okay, maybe it’s a dad joke. “Show up and show out” is the title of a chapter in It’s Not Bragging if It’s True.

In Words of Wonder From Z to A, you’ll share 26 inspirational words, one for each of the 26 letters in the alphabet. Is there a favorite word in the book and what does it mean to you?

My favorite word in the book is probably DREAM. I love this word because there’s a phrase that goes: “The dream is of a little child standing in front of the huge bookshelf in the living room and looking in amazement at all those big, colorful books.” That line came straight from the heart, because one of my most vivid childhood memories is of standing in front of what appears to be a huge bookshelf in my living room, filled with books of all kinds, from my parents’ thick college textbooks to books like Catch-22 and Sidney Poitier’s autobiography. I definitely think that the sheer volume of books my family just had lying around and the variety of those books helped me get a very good read.

You love words, storytelling and spelling. Do you also like to read? What book helped you love reading?

yes i love to read I’ve actually read well over 1,000 books. Two books that I loved very much as a young girl are Under the Sunday Tree by Eloise Greenfield and of course Margaret Wise’s Goodnight Moon. These, and of course anything to do with Paddington the Bear, although these books were more laughed at than read.

You really are a multi-talent! Is there anything you’re afraid to try?

ABSOLUTELY NOT! I would try almost anything but dare to get within 100 feet of a spider web or within a mile of a snake. Otherwise I would do anything. I definitely want to participate in activities like bungee jumping, zip lining, hang gliding, caving, etc. one day.

What is something about you that might surprise people?

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are surprised by my height. I guess because of my childish voice, people think I’ll be about 5’10 or something. When they realize I’m taller, there’s often an emotional reaction. I’m a little over 1.70 m tall.

If you could invite any three people to dinner, who would you invite?

Only three? Well, I would definitely invite Whitney Houston, my favorite singer; Mae Jemison, one of my heroines; and Serena and Venus Williams (they come together as one for the purposes of this article).

If It’s Not Bragging if It’s True is made into a movie, who would you like to play?

I want either Saniyya Sidney or Demi Singleton to play me in a movie. You play Serena and Venus Williams in the movie King Richard, one of my favorite movies.

Download free activities for Zaila Avantgarde books

Get ideas on how to host your own spelling bee and reproducible activities for all ages.

Download the activities

Request a poster with writing suggestions

Sign up for a physical poster with educator-approved writing instructions on the back for both books.

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