For her entire life, Paola Benevento’s name has been spelled or pronounced incorrectly.
“When you are constantly confronted with that as a kid, it makes you develop anxiety around your name and a discomfort,” she said. “And that’s something that’s really continued to follow me around through life. I’m 30 years old now, and in the last week alone, I’ve had that happen to me three times.”
Benevento, a Henninger High School alum, has been a teacher in the South Bronx for eight years, and has noticed a similar frustration in her classroom.
“Some of my students have names that may not be more common, and it’s like, ‘Oh, well that’s close enough.’ And it’s like, ‘That’s not close enough. That’s your name. That’s something you should really take pride in, and you should correct people with, even if it is uncomfortable,’” she said. “That was the urgency with it, where I said, ‘Ok, this isn’t just something I’m going through, but now it’s something I see my students going through from ages 6-13.’ And then as I started to share the story with more people, so many adults said, ‘Wow, this happened to me,’ or ‘This happens to my child.’ Again, that prompted the urgency of we have to keep going with this.”
Based on Benevento’s personal experiences, Philomena and the Name Game tells the story of Philomena, an Italian-Haitian-American fourth-grader, who is moving to a new school on the other side of town. She worries that her teacher and classmates will be unable to pronounce her name. Though some of her fears do come true, for the first time, her teacher takes the time to say her name correctly. The class is then assigned a project where they must explore the history and meaning of their names.
“The story focuses on Philomena, but also all the students are now benefiting from digging deeper and speaking with family members to really understand and gain pride in their name,” said Benevento. “By the end of the book, she really starts to say, ‘Ok, I’m going to correct people, and this is how I’m going to say my name with confidence, and this is who I am without settling for a mispronunciation.’”
Benevento started a company, Empire Orange Publishing (she said its mission is to “highlight and elevate voices that exist within spaces that are often overlooked or misrepresented by creating culturally and historically-relevant texts”), to publish her book and began her search for an illustrator.
“As a teacher, one of the things I’ve committed myself to over the years is giving my students as many opportunities as possible. I’m big on real life experience, too,” she said. “Initially, I was looking at illustrators in Syracuse and New York City, because those are the two places that really shaped me as a person, then I said, ‘I can give the opportunity to an adult, or someone that is an up-and-coming illustrator, but if I’m really going to hold true to my mission statement, then I really want to give that opportunity to students.”
That eventually led Benevento to her alma mater. Her older sister was in the art program at the school, and Benevento remembers being in awe of the paintings and drawings that her fellow students were creating.
The rest is history.
“She reached out to me and told me the idea,” said Lori Lizzio, an art teacher at Henninger. “I thought about three students I had that were not only strong in the visual arts, but were also responsible and would be excited about this opportunity, and I reached out to them.”
They all said yes.
“Initially we had a meeting, all of us,” said Lizzio. “Paola told them all about the story, then she had a pretty clear plan for some of the pages on what she wanted, like ‘I want this to be a close-up of a front porch and a house.’”
Once Philomena was created and the pages were mapped out, the students divided up the work. Mario Meledez-Tellez drew the main characters, to maintain continuity, and Mellina DeSilvio added the backgrounds – both were hand-drawn on paper. The images were then scanned into a computer, and Lauren Cameron added the color.
“Everybody had an equal part,” said Lizzio. “I would look at the drawings and help them if I had to, but they really did work very independently, very professionally…I think it’s pretty cool that it’s an alumnus reaching out to current students with the sole purpose of making people aware of how talented some of the kids are in the city.”
Benevento hopes that Philomena and the Name Game will be available by the end of April.
For more information, follow Empire Orange Publishing (@EmpireOrangePublishing) on Facebook and Instagram.