By the Defender Network via Word in Black
Author Lavaille Lavette uses main character Jayylen to explore the power of Juneteenth and what it takes to become a doctor, engineer, or scientist.
Lavaille Lavette may not be a household name, but there are few Black households that she hasn’t impacted in some way as an author, educator, and social entrepreneur. One of her last collaborations was with superstar Viola Davis. Their team-up produced “Finding Me,” the New York Times best-seller, the audible version of which earned Davis a Grammy and rarified air EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner) status.
Lavette’s latest project is a children’s book she hopes exposes Black children to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, Juneteenth, and more. The Defender spoke with Lavette about the book, “Jayylen’s Juneteenth Surprise,” the importance of telling Black stories, and her future projects.
DEFENDER: Tell us about your latest book project.
LAVETTE: The latest project is a children’s book, “Jayylen’s Juneteenth Surprise.” The main character is a curious little 8-year-old boy named Jayylen who wants to be an engineer when he grows up. This is the first book in the series, and we hope to do many Jayylen books. It’s a STEM series. It’s about us, through the point-of-view of Jayylen, inspiring kids to get involved with science, math, engineering and technology … introducing kids to various professions. We thought it would be great to introduce the series around a holiday and that happens to be Juneteenth.
DEFENDER: How did the STEM/holiday mash-up come about?
LAVETTE: During the pandemic, with George Floyd and all of the newfound renaissance around, let’s say Black history, with all of the things that were going on in the world that came to the forefront, particularly blatant racism, I was having a conversation with my mom, Hazel, and she started talking about her childhood, telling me about Juneteenth and how that was a major thing they did as a child. Her father didn’t celebrate the 4th of July. Their 4th of July was Juneteenth. And I sat and I listened to all of the stories, and I’m like, “We didn’t celebrate Juneteenth.” I didn’t know anything about Juneteenth (until I) moved to Texas. I was shocked that her early childhood was filled with the celebration of Juneteenth … but our family did not. So, I just thought, as I was formulating and writing the Jayylen book, “What if this little boy is learning about it for the first time? What would that be like?” And I imagined if I was a kid and I found out about Juneteenth for the first time living in Louisiana, what would that be like?
DEFENDER: Why is it important to you to expose Black children to the STEM fields?
LAVETTE: It’s the future. When you look at job creation and you look at the needs of our society, of humanity, it’s STEM. You find that a large percentage of African Americans are not going into those fields, particularly engineering … Part of me writing this book is, I hope to learn more about engineering as I research and as I write too, in the hopes that I can inspire our young boys and girls to look at that profession and then dig a little deeper. “What does it take to do that?” But not just engineering, science, technology, all of that. Our tagline happens to be, “Jayylen, future engineer.” But the characters we’ll be introducing in this series will not all want to be engineers. We’re gonna expose kids to a number of opportunities they can get involved in, and what does it take to get to that point to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist, what have you.
DEFENDER: When and where will “Jayylen’s Juneteenth Surprise” be available to the public?
LAVETTE: “Jayylen Juneteenth Surprise” is available now wherever books are sold. Also, if you go to jayylen.com, we have a free teacher’s resource guide and a free parent’s resource guide. Click the button, download it free. There are wonderful activities to go along with the book. And, we have the second Jayylen book that comes out in September, a Christmas book called “Jayylen’s Christmas Wish.” Every book we do we will have a teacher and resource guide with it. And I did the Harry Belafonte Little Golden Book biography, available now, wherever books are sold.
DEFENDER: How do his Louisiana roots flavor the story?
LAVETTE: Not only is this little 8-year-old boy, whose hero is Elijah McCoy, a famous mechanical engineer, finding out about Juneteenth, he’s also finding out what Zydeco music is. So, the reader of this book, children and their parents, can get a delightful story around Juneteenth, and its meaning, through the eyes of Jayylen. But, my hope is to introduce Zydeco music to the world with this book, as well, because I grew up with Zydeco music. That’s my favorite genre of music.
DEFENDER: I remember years ago stumbling upon a children’s book that taught me more about engineering than I had learned my entire K-college educational career.
LAVETTE: Children’s books are not just for children. I’m very intentional in introducing Jayylen as a Little Golden Book because Little Golden Books, they’re 24 pages, usually between 700-1,000 words. That means you have to be very concise. You have to get a lot of information in without a lot of words. So, you have to be very descriptive in how you present the stories. It makes it very entertaining and interesting for kids, but also for adults. I’m getting a lot of feedback about the Jayylen book and the other biographies that I’ve just recently written for kids, ages 0 to 6. Because a 1- or 2-year-old is not reading. That means the parent is going to read the book to the child. So, the parent is going to learn something, as well. And that age group, I love that (age) 0 to 6 because it gives me an opportunity to disseminate information, not only to the kid, but also to the parent.