Henninger Students Create Illustrations for SCSD Alumna’s First BookGrowing up, Paola Benevento grew accustomed to people struggling to pronounce her name. As a student at Huntington – and then Henninger, where she graduated in 2009 – she said her name caused her a great deal of anxiety and discomfort.
Thanks to a SUPA English class in her high school years, Paola discovered her love for writing – a passion that she pursued in college. Now a teacher in the Bronx, Paola’s love for writing, combined with her personal experiences growing up and a passion for finding solutions, inspired her to add an additional title to her resume: author!
Her first book, Philomena and the Name Game, is a children’s picture book that follows the journey of an Italian-Haitian-American 4th grader as she accepts her name as a positive part of her identity.
“During my time as an educator, I have actively sought out texts that represent the cultural, historical, and geographical experiences of my students,” Paola explained. “What I found was that this in itself became a full-time job! I realized that this was a problem that many other educators, parents, students and advocates for equitable representation faced. It was after this realization that I decided to create stories that I wish I had for my students and even myself at a young age. I fell in love with the idea of ‘If you don't see it, create it!’”
Paola said Philomena’s story is not only representative of the frustration she and some of her classmates felt growing up – but also the frustration that some of her current 7th grade students in New York City experience.
“As a teacher, I have about 90 students pass through my door each school year,” she said. “When we are getting to know one another, sometimes they have difficulty saying my name, and sometimes I have difficulty saying their names. I remember one of my students told me, ‘well, that’s close enough’ after my third attempt at their name. However, I stopped the student and said ‘It is your name. Close enough is not good enough.’ I want people with the ‘difficult’ names to correct others EVERY SINGLE TIME!”
In speaking with other adults, she discovered that many of them were connecting with the book as well, as they reflected with sadness on past and present times when their names are pronounced incorrectly.
“I hope that this book shows readers of all ages that our names have great meaning and power; our names are how we introduce ourselves to the world,” Paola shared. “Be proud and don’t let others make you feel like your name is less important or special than others. It is important and powerful for children to open a book and see characters that not only have shared similar experiences as they have, but also characters that look like them, speak the same language(s) as them, live in similar spaces and more. Relatable content helps children develop a strong sense of identity and it also fosters engagement, which can lead to a deep love of literacy!”
As Paola looked into publishing options for her book, she discovered two major challenges: first, she had never published a book before; and second, she self-admittedly isn’t an illustrator – and her picture book needed pictures!
In researching publishers and the process involved, she realized publishing was something she could handle on her own – and thanks to the mentorship of a friend who had self-published, her publishing company, Empire Orange, was born.
“As a self-publisher and business owner, you are faced with making many decisions,” Paola shared. “I chose to be very intentional with all of my decisions, from content, collaborators, and more. My publishing company is called Empire Orange in order to pay homage to the two cities that made me who I am: Syracuse and New York City. The mission of the publishing company is to highlight and elevate voices, talent, and beauty in spaces that are often overlooked and/or undervalued. To me, individuals living in Syracuse were and are often undervalued-- especially depending upon what neighborhood you’re from.”
While searching for illustrators, Paola recalled her childhood friends who had been in the art program at Henninger High School.
“I remember the amazing work they would produce with Art teacher Lori Lizzio,” she said, noting that her sister was previously Ms. Lizzio’s art student. “I feel as if I have many talents, but drawing is not one of them! I used to just be in awe that people my age-- teenagers-- could do what they were doing!”
She connected with Ms. Lizzio, who pitched the opportunity to her art students, and received great interest from three student artists: Mario Meledez-Tellez, Mellina DeSilvio, and Lauren Cameron.
“Mellina, Lauren and Mario are so incredibly talented but also really awesome humans,” Ms. Lizzio shared. “They’re kind, modest and hard-working and I felt that this opportunity would mean a lot to them. I loved Paola’s idea of showcasing the talent in our district. It’s so important that alumni connect back to the school they went to. Earlier this year, we all met here in my classroom and we laughed as Paola shared memories of being in the building. My students really connected with her. I think my students will feel so proud when this goes to print and they were a part of it… they got a real sense of what it is like to work professionally as artists with deadlines and changes. I am so proud of them and what they did!”
“From the very beginning, they have been amazing!” Paola added of the students. “They became invested in the story immediately, and I love that we all talk about Philomena like she is a mutual friend of ours! It is great to work with people who are invested not only in your story, but your message as well. While most authors traditionally work with one illustrator, after meeting them and looking at their work samples, I couldn’t turn any of them away. We talked about what each one felt their strengths were and we divided up the illustrations that way.”
Mario drew all of the characters, Mellina drew all of the background and scenery, and Lauren outlined and colored all of the illustrations.
“When Mrs. Lizzio came to me about this project, I was immediately excited,” Mellina shared. “I knew this could be an awesome opportunity for me to work with new people and complete a job doing something I love. Throughout the process, I was designing and drawing out most of the backgrounds – by the end of it, I was drawing out whole pictures. This book has taught me so much: to push myself, to be patient, and to better understand perspective. The best part has definitely been working with Paola. She was very consistent and clear with how to make the drawings fit better into the book. She was very patient with us and would give us a lot of leeway to showcase our own creativity!”
“I didn’t choose these students solely because of their geographic location, but because of what that means for them,” Paola explained of the students. “The media often picks up on the negative occurrences at Henninger and within the SCSD; it doesn’t focus enough on the positive. There is so much talent that came out of the SCSD, and that’s currently there, and I want everyone to see what they can do. These three students are now able to add this body of work to their own portfolios and can say that they have collaboratively worked with an artistic team and author to produce illustrations for a children’s book. They are able to take something away from this experience which will help guide them in their next steps as an artist.”
If you would like to contribute to help fund the completion of this project – primarily, printing and shipping costs – please click here to visit Ms. Benevento’s Kickstarter campaign. The plan is for printing to begin in early 2022. Donors also have the option to allocate funds toward an Arts scholarship which will be awarded to a graduating SCSD senior!