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  • Writer's pictureJoseph F. Berenato

Sooy ESL students enjoy virtual author visit

Author and illustrator Yesenia Moises Zoomed with students at the Warren E. Sooy Elementary School on April 22. (Courtesy Photo)

On April 22, more than 30 students at Warren E. Sooy Elementary School, spread across three classrooms, enjoyed a virtual visit from author and illustrator Yesenia Moises.

According to second-grade bilingual/ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher Adalgisa Lyons, students from her class, as well as from those taught by Amy Clauhs—who teaches third and fourth grade bilingual/bicultural students—and Kristi Vaszlavik—who teaches second through fifth grade bilingual/ESL port-of-entry students—were able to engage with Moises during the visit, which was held via Zoom teleconferencing software.

Lyons said that she first encountered the Bronx-based author on Twitter.

“She’s a Dominican author and illustrator. I started following her, and I thought her book was appropriate for ESL students ... I started exchanging messages with her. We did a conference call through Zoom, and finally, with her publisher and everything, she agreed to do an author visit. It was fantastic,” Lyons told The Gazette.

Above: Students Chanel Rodriguez (left) and Elver Ortiz (right) read Stella’s Stellar Hair outside of the elementary school. (Courtesy Photo)

The book in question was Stella’s Stellar Hair, which Moises wrote and illustrated. According to the description from the publisher: “It’s the day of the Big Star Little Gala, and Stella’s hair just isn’t acting right! What’s a girl to do? Simple! Just hop on her hoverboard, visit each of her fabulous aunties across the solar system, and find the perfect hairdo along the way. Stella’s Stellar Hair celebrates the joy of self-empowerment, shows off our solar system, and beautifully illustrates a variety of hairstyles from the African diaspora. Back matter provides more information about each style and each planet.”

“I connected a lot with it, because my own children are biracial. The story entails a little girl and her hair ... It made a lot of connections with me, because obviously I have the cultural hair where it’s very curly, and a lot of my students have the same style of hair. I thought the girls would definitely connect with the story,” Lyons said.

Lyons said that Moises read that book to the students, along with Honeysmoke, which Moises illustrated.

“That dealt with a little girl finding her color, because she was the product of a biracial family. Her dad was white and her mom was Black, so she didn’t know what color she was. The author also read that book to the class. It was great; the kids loved it. They were like, ‘Yeah, I’m honeysmoke!’ They started rattling out ‘I’m tan! I’m light brown!’ and all this beautiful stuff. It was a great exchange,” Lyons said.

The covers to Stella’s Stellar Hair and Honeysmoke. (Courtesy Photos)

Lyons said that Moises read both books in English and in Spanish, which really resonated with the students.

“The one classroom is all newcomers, port-of-entry students, who this is their first year here, and to hear a story being read to them by a famous author—the connection with the culture was really great. They were dancing; they were laughing. It was really nice,” Lyons said.

During the visit, Moises told the children about her background, including her studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology and her career as a freelance toy designer, and encouraged the students to ask questions.

“They asked her if she was good at writing, and she said no. She said she has a really hard time coming up with ideas and organizations. She told them the process, explaining to them how she has to go back and forth with her editors and how it’s a great exchange, and how practice is important,” Lyons said.

Lyons said that the students also asked how Moises started with illustration.

“She told them, ‘Listen; I probably have a lot of stick figures in my archives of drawing books. I started with that.’ Their eyes just glowed. They were like, ‘That’s how I do it.’ She showed them her illustrations, and how she started and what she does now, and they were amazed,” Lyons said.

Teacher Adalgisa Lyons (center) reads Stella’s Stellar Hair with her children, Selena and Michael. (Courtesy Photo)

Lyons said that the visit with Moises helped the students to feel “inspired, motivated, empowered, because there was somebody on the screen that looked like them.”

“I wish I had that when I was growing up. I grew up also in New York City, and there wasn’t anything like that for me to see and to get that experience of someone presenting to me, ‘I look like you. You can do the same things. You can accomplish all of these things that I have accomplished.’ That’s basically what she was telling them, and that was her message,” Lyons said.

Representation, Lyons said, is crucial for children.

“It’s so important for kids to see characters in books, TV and film that look like they do. My kids know that their blended heritage is a gift and we celebrate all aspects of our shared culture together as a family,” Lyons said.

Author and illustrator Yesenia Moises during the Zoom with students at the Warren E. Sooy Elementary School on April 22. (Courtesy Photo)

Given the success of the visit with Moises, Lyons said that she is hopeful that her students can connect again with the author/illustrator.

“We exchange emails. She’s supposed to send us some bookplates, so they should be on their way. Then, I figure I would hopefully connect with her at the end of the year, and maybe see if we can plan something for the future,” Lyons said.


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