The “My First Book” project began after I attended my first Social Issues Conference where the Restore LaVi session piqued my interest. Former parent Diana Day-Cartee and her daughter, Ali Cartee ’18, had been volunteering in Haiti for a while with restavecs, or child slaves.
Former parent Diana Day-Cartee and her daughter, Ali Cartee ’18, had been volunteering in Haiti for a while with restavecs, or child slaves. They established Restore LaVi (“Restore Life”) in order to start a food program, do missionary work, and improve the situation of the children. As Diana spoke about the plight of restavecs, I immediately remembered a similar book project a college was doing that a colleague had told me about. I asked Diana afterward if books in French and English would help her, and she enthusiastically followed up on our conversation.
The first year, I recruited people who would be going into French IV or French AP as seniors, offering them a ready-made Service Learning project. English faculty Dina Marks joined our crew as the editor for the English portion of the books. Writing is such an important part of learning a language, and working with students one-on-one in the editing process to help them choose the correct tenses is invaluable. I thought that the project would allow us to work on their French outside the classroom and help people at the same time, but I was totally unprepared for their level of talent.
We discovered that we were lucky in our inaugural year to have chosen Sam Slipkovich ’17, an amazing artist, and Isabella Kendall ’17, a phenomenal photographer. Shona O’Bryant ’17 paired up with Lyra Jaffe ’17 to create the alphabet book that the Haiti school uses for instruction. Because of that one book, the Haitian school started a kindergarten reading program. And because of that kindergarten class, a former Ensworth Lower School teacher who moved to Boca Raton decided to raise money to fund a kindergarten teacher. And Restore LaVi added education to its mission statement.
The process has evolved over time in that it has become much more intentional. One of our most important process-related rules is that all people in illustrations must be people of color and need to represent the target audience. There is such a dearth of children’s books with main characters who are of color, even in the U.S. It is especially important when the character is in a position of power. Indie Charles ’22 expertly illustrated Gigi Elliott ’20’s professions book with a lovely variety of people of color, suggesting that every kid reading one of our books can be a doctor, lawyer, or teacher. Jalen Sueing ’19 looked up pictures of Haitians on which to base his protagonist and used a popular Haitian name for him. Additionally, even from the first year when Isabella Kendall ’17 was working with Maggie Zerfoss ’17 to create picture books, we made sure to be culturally sensitive.
The work is done almost exclusively on the first three Service Learning Days, and the entire process is very much student-led. If someone wants to work on the project, they tell us what part (or parts) they want to do before the first Service Learning Day. With so little time to work, the art has to be started the first day, and the stories have to be written by day two. Tech also ideally starts on the second day when they are scanning artwork, uploading images, and beginning to create the templates. The authors use the Service Learning breakout PCLs to start their books. Some students have been both author and illustrator, such as Isabella Nuñez ’19 and Jalen Sueing ’19. Lillie Waddell ’21 has chosen to author and illustrate from the beginning, and Miranda Marks ’21 transitioned from illustrating other people’s stories to writing her own.
This year, when Greg Eubanks returned from a Service Learning conference, he mentioned adding Spanish. We invited Spanish teacher Sara Bostwick to join us and she assembled a team of her enthusiastic students. The Día de los Muertos book will be finalized in the fall, as we are still working out our Spanish language partner.
When I gave Jalen Sueing a copy of his book on Awards Day, he looked at it, looked up at me, and exclaimed, “I’m a published author!” I am truly in awe of the kids’ talents; every year, I think that the books can’t get better, but they do.