on April 11, 2016
This creative non-fiction book tells the story of young orphan children living in Haiti. Left parent-less due to fighting, violence, and poverty, these children band together and become a family of their own. This beautiful tale of love, compassion and goodwill narrates the real-life story of an orphan boy, Sélavi, and other children like him who created their own orphanage, extending a hand to all those other children in need. Eventually these same orphaned children began a radio show called Radyo Timoun, where they, to this day, advocate for children’s rights.
At the back of the book is an essay written by Edwidge Danticat, one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary Haitian writers, sharing some personal experiences and historical context to frame Youme’s story. As many of you know, we frequently feature Danticat’s books on our blog. In this particular essay, she notes that “My birthplace, Haiti, is a land of incredible beauty, but for many, it is also a place of great sadness.” Youme’s tale does a lovely job of embodying these two dualities—the laments of many of Haiti’s children, as well as their inspiring courage, hope and beauty.
Danticat also shares some historical facts: “In 1804, the slaves (of Haiti) revolted and won their independence, making Haiti the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Along with the American Revolution, Haiti’s was the only successful rebellion in North America.” Danticat’s essay continues with additional information on both Haiti’s history and contemporary Haiti, contributing a valuable component to this story and especially to the use of this story in the classroom. Finally, Danticat’s essay concludes with one final wish: “Being a child of Haiti myself, I can only hope that Sélavi’s story will be repeated in the lives of many other children, among them future writers, radio and television journalists, who will continue to tell—and show—their stories in such moving and powerful ways that the rest of the world will no longer be able to neglect them.” Youme’s story is one attempt at elevating and drawing attention to these children’s powerful stories.
The story starts with a little orphan boy roaming the streets of Haiti. He has no family and no name. The narration describes a climate of violence and discord, pointing to moments of political unrest in Haiti’s history: “Not so long ago and not so far away, people with guns could take a family, burn a house and disappear, leaving a small child alone in the world.” One of the first illustrations also shows an imaginative map of Haiti using only green and white paint, and pointing out general markers such as “Nord” (North), “l’Ouest” (west) and “Sud” (South). Port-au-Prince is also marked as “Pòtoprens” (its Haitian name). Underneath “Pòtoprens,” there is an image of the little boy sitting all alone on a bench in Haiti’s capital. This illustration symbolizes the young protagonist’s immense feeling of loneliness. However, this image also symbolically places the plight of Haiti’s orphan children “on the map,” raising awareness of and educating readers about this situation. In other words, the young protagonist, although feeling very alone, is one of many, many other orphan children living in Haiti, a humanitarian crisis deserving of attention.
This particular illustration also complicates the often over-simplified conception of Haiti by outsiders: the rest of the map is made up of blurry, washed-out and highly generic images of the cardinal directions, stick figures, amorphous homes and squiggles. The protagonist is illustrated clearly and discernibly using brown and red paint, grabbing the reader’s attention. Not only does this draw focus to the subject of the book, but it also interrupts a generalized and simplified representation of Haiti with realities that, like Danticat states, “the world will no longer be able to neglect.”
As the story progresses, the protagonist meets another young boy, an orphan just like himself. The boy introduces himself as TiFrè. However, when he asks the protagonist for his name, the protagonist must respond that he doesn’t have one: “‘You can name yourself,” TiFrè said. ‘Like my name means Little Brother. We could call you Hungry, Sleepy, or Little Traveler…’ ‘I am all those things,’ the child said. ‘And that’s life.’ From then on they called him Sélavi.” Ultimately the protagonist’s new name, and the title of the book, will embody the hardships of the past as well as the hope and potential for the future: That is life.
Sélavi’s new friend introduces him to a group of other orphan children. Although they have each experienced devastating pasts, just like Sélavi, they are tremendously compassionate and generous, offering Sélavi some of their water, mangoes and avocados. As Sélavi begins to integrate himself into this new community, readers will learn of some of the other children’s stories, the continuing obstacles that they face, and the goals and projects that they are now undertaking, all the while being exposed to some of Haiti’s landscapes and sociological conditions. Throughout the story these children show great perseverance and ingenuity as they successfully create a shelter in Haiti’s capital for other homeless orphans, as well as a kids’ radio show in order to continue educating and raising awareness.
In the back of the book readers will also find a note from Youme where she explains how she came up with the story, while extrapolating upon some historical details about the real-life Sélavi, TiFrè and their inspirational group of activists. Youme explains how Sélavi, TiFrè and many other people all worked together to make a home for Haiti’s orphaned children. They called the home Lanfanmi Sélavi, which can mean either “Family is life” or “Sélavi’s Family.” The original shelter no longer exists, but a newer model has been built and children still live there today. These children also created a radio station called Radyo Timoun, meaning “children’s radio,” where they continue to go on air advocating for the rights of children. The emissions are now international, and people all over the world can access them. Youme also includes photographs of the children playing and working together: “The family of Sélavi is an extended family with a strong sense of community. Just as with any family, there are many chores, including washing clothes, preparing food and cleaning up after meals. The work is always more enjoyable when the tasks are shared.”
In addition, “Working together also means playing and talking together. Like children everywhere, the kids in Sélavi’s family have learned about life and community by working and playing and talking together.” This is an important point of Youme’s story and educators could take this opportunity to ask their students about ways in which they’ve “learned about life and community by working and playing and talking together.” The example set by Sélavi and the other orphans reinforces values of community and comradery. In addition, the point that this is “like children everywhere” helps foster tolerance by finding common ground amongst people from different cultures. As mentioned in my earlier post, some of these books could be useful for lessons on compare and contrast. For one, humanistic values of community, learning, life and compassion are some beautiful commonalities to be emphasized across cultures.
For access to the full review and additional resources, check out our Vamos a Leer blog at teachinglatinamericathroughliterature.com