When linguistics professor Melissa Baralt is not teaching in the classroom or conducting research in the community, she volunteers at Inn Transition North, a facility that provides housing and resources to women and children who are survivors of domestic violence.
Many of the families currently residing at Inn Transition North are from Haiti. For two years, Baralt has worked with the Junior League of Miami to hold workshops on a variety of topics for the women at the facility, including how to shop for groceries on a budget and how to make a good impression in a job interview. But after two years, she noticed something was missing for the kids — specifically, books. While the facility has children’s books, none were written in Haitian-Creole.
Baralt consulted with her colleague in the Department of Modern Languages, Nicolas Andre. The instructor of Haitian-Creole explained to her these books are not easy to come by, even in a community with a large Haitian immigrant population like South Florida. Undeterred, Baralt visited Andre’s Haitian Creole I class and pitched a story writing competition to the FIU undergraduates. The charge was to write and illustrate a children’s book in Haitian-Creole. The winner would win a cash prize.
“Having books available for children in their mother tongue is critical because it fosters bonding time between mom and child,” Baralt said. “Many of these families have been through tumultuous times and having materials to read promotes a bedtime routine.”
Valerie Regis, who was born in Chicago to Haitian immigrant parents and grew up speaking Haitian-Creole, enrolled in Andre’s class to improve her reading and writing skills. The public relations and marketing major thought it would be fun to enter the contest and wrote the story Ti Ble, which translates to “Little Blue.” For the illustrations, she partnered with a childhood friend to do the illustrations.
“It’s really important to have a connection with your heritage. Being raised in the U.S., you naturally assimilate to American culture,” Regis said. “I hope this book helps the kids feel a connection to their heritage, motivates them to better grasp two languages and boost their confidence as readers.”
Ti Ble tells the story of the Francois siblings from Haiti who visit the beach with their mother and find a little blue crab. Enamored with their new friend, “Little Blue,” the children take him home but must convince their father to allow them to keep him. The children prepare him his favorite meal, bouyon – a traditional Haitian stew – in hopes of coaxing him into letting them keep their new pet.
Regis hopes to visit Inn Transition soon to read her book to the children and is working with Andre on getting it published. The Department of Modern Languages is planning on partnering with the Latin American and Caribbean Center to host the children’s book competition on an annual basis.
“We have many heritage-speakers at FIU like Valerie, including those of Spanish, French and Portuguese descent,” Baralt said. “This is a wonderful way for her and other heritage speakers to give back to their community and get in touch with their heritage language. As a linguist, it’s a wonderful thing.”