When Suze Guillaume of Miami noticed her young son, Edwin “EJ” Bonilla, falling behind in reading she decided to do something about it. Remembering a request he had made — of visiting the White House — Guillaume was determined to merge his love for an adventure into a push for literacy.
At first, Guillaume struggled to get approval for the visit but on her fourth try, and a week before Edwin’s fifth birthday last year, they finally received a yes.
Their original plan was to visit Selma, Alabama. When EJ heard that President Barack Obama would be in attendance for the 50 anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he immediately took an interest. After Selma, they set out on the trip to D.C. Guillaume said the White House visit changed the way EJ son looked at reading.
“We were driving from the White House on our way back home, and he was drawing in the backseat his experience when he told me he wanted to tell kids his story and wanted to write a book,” Guillaume said. “I didn’t think it would turn into a book; I thought this was something to show his class, but then I started looking into self-publishing books. I worked with an illustrator in India and an editor in Texas, and they helped us put it together.”
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The book “EJ’s Exciting Road Trip,” debuted last August at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. Since then, Guillaume has been trying to get the book into the hands of kids all over Miami-Dade County and also in her native Haiti. She’s tried to get local bookstores to carry the book, but so far has been unsuccessful.
“I hope within five years we can build a community and a publishing house in Florida, where it’s coming from people in Little Haiti and Liberty City, and where eventually these books are getting to classrooms to make a difference in our neighborhoods,” Guillaume said.
She also stresses that an important topic of early literacy is having characters in books resemble different multicultural ethnicities. EJ, who’s half Cuban and half Haitian, told his mother he wanted to have his character look his color. Guillaume said she taught her son from an early age about his mixed roots and encouraged her son to embrace both of his ethnicities.
“He knows when he’s at grandma’s house he’s speaking Spanish, and he’s eating pan con bistec; and when he’s with his other grandma he’s eating pikliz and griot,” Guillaume said. “He knew there was a difference, and he told me his character had to look mixed so that other kids could identify with him and this was coming from a 5-year-old. I taught him this early on so he could embrace it.”
Marcelle Rouchon, a supporter of the young author, said EJ is changing the way other kids look at reading and writing.
“When “EJ's Exciting Road Trip” launched, I was fortunate to witness the birth of a great vision come to pass. It was such a great turn out. I started ordering copies of the book and mail it out to family members and friends throughout the state,” Rouchon said. “A lot of the kids were thrilled to know that they too could visit the White House. EJ was a change agent in the community at the tender age of 5 years old. I want to see more little boys and girls like EJ's books on bookshelves and libraries everywhere.”
Guillaume agrees, and hope’s to have EJ’s book in more schools and statewide. She encourages principals, educators, and anyone interested in EJ’s story to connect with them. EJ will also be doing a reading next month at Venture Café Miami in celebration of his first year in business.
“If we support community projects like EJ’s we can build a community that’s going to change things, but we have to support each other. We’ll go to the mall and spend thousands of dollars, but imagine if we supported something that’s in our community how many kids we can inspire,” Guillaume said. “It’s really about supporting small businesses that are growing and need nurturing, and if there are any resources out there, then they should be shared.”
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If you go
▪ What: Author Edwin Bonilla, age 6, reads from his book “EJ’s Exciting Road Trip“
▪ Where: Venture Café, 1951 NW Seventh Ave., Suite 300
▪ When: 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15
▪ Cost: Free and open to the public. Books are $15 each; $25 per bundle