Ever on the hunt for a little light these days, I was charmed by a new children’s book about Philadelphia’s “Play Captains.”
If you’re not familiar with the red-shirted play ambassadors of summer, Play Captains are 15- to 19-year-olds who bring the fun to some of Philadelphia’s designated Play Streets, where kids get a healthy meal with a side of wholesome games.
“We do a lot of literacy activities and reading,” said Rebecca Fabiano, who through her organization Fab Youth Philly started the Play Captains youth workforce program in 2017.
“I thought: Why don’t we write and read our own books?”
So, she recruited artist Briana Clarke, a former supervisor who still trains Play Captains, to illustrate, and the two got to work.
Yaya Plans A Block Party is available through Amazon for $10. Proceeds will help provide jobs for Play Captains and get free copies onto Play Streets and into early childhood centers.
I thought it was a cute idea: teens reading the book aloud to budding Play Captains on Play Streets all over Philly.
But it quickly went from cute to adorable. Fabiano based the book on a real Play Captain — a real-life Philly Yaya, y’all! — and well, that called for a meetup. I told you: I’m chasing the light these days.
When Fabiano first met Ayanna “Yaya” Bridges, she was a precocious 14-year-old who showed up with an older cousin and all but insisted she be hired.
Fabiano recalled the day: “I said, ‘You have to be 15 to work here,’ and she said, ‘I’ll show up every day, I promise,’ and I said ‘OK, let’s try it,’ and she showed up every day and has been working with us ever since.”
Bonus: She has the perfect name for a children’s book.
In the self-published book, Yaya is 16 years old, an easygoing but focused young woman with long braids who is full of fun and wisdom as she mediates a misunderstanding between friends.
A brief excerpt: “Looking at the two friends, Yaya thinks to herself: I’ve got to come up with a creative way to solve this so it doesn’t become a bigger issue with the other kids, too!”
I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say it all works out, and it’s an important lesson these days.
Today Yaya is 18. She’s traded her trademark long braids for short locks and is headed into her last year at Career and Academic Development Institute, an alternative high school. She’s thinking about training to become an electrician. But the West Philadelphia teen still likes to play — as recently demonstrated on a basketball court at 37th and Mount Vernon Streets, which also makes an appearance in the book.
Yaya isn’t one to gloat, but she gets a kick out of having her likeness in a book about a program she loves. She also really likes what the book teaches people about Philadelphia, the city she proudly claims as home.
“It teaches you about how Philadelphia really is. And you know how people think about Philadelphia as bad and all that because of the killings? When you read the book, it’s like dang, Philadelphia got things for kids.”
As Clarke illustrated the book, that’s something that stood out to her as well.
“I really hope people read it and think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that existed,’ and then get interested in making their street a Play Street with Play Captains.”
Yaya now wants to write her own book, though hers will be more of a memoir.
Fabiano, too, isn’t done writing.
She hopes to write six more children’s books based on the elements of playful learning — collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence — and has already asked Clarke to illustrate them all.
Each book will star a different Play Captain, but as the debut book’s dedication suggests, they will be inspired by all of the teens Fabiano has met and worked with over the years:
“The book is dedicated to teens all over Philadelphia who make a difference in the lives of children and their neighborhoods.”
You hear that? You are seen, and appreciated.