Sélavi: That Is Life

A Haitian Story of Hope

By: Youme Landowne
Illustrator: Youme Landowne
“This is a true tale of children who face some of life’s cruelest obstacles. It is both moving and engaging. The story of a little boy and other homeless children living on the streets in Haiti is told without pretense or flowery words…This is an excellent choice not only for the intended audience, but also for anyone who cares about others.” —Children’s Literature
Categories: All Books | Children | Fiction


Sélavi Teaching Guide

The story of Selavi celebrates the triumphs of children who face some of life's most difficult challenges.

In these pages, you'll meet Sélavi, a homeless child who is befriended by other children living on the streets in Haiti. They look out for one another, sharing food and companionship. Together they find the voice to express the needs of Timoun Lari, the children who live in the streets. With a caring community they are able to build a shelter, and from there to create Radyo Timoun, Children's Radio, a station run by and for children, which, until March of 2004, was still in operation. At Radyo Timoun, the questions and suggestions of children were broadcast for all to hear. In March, however, the station was destroyed in the midst of the incredible unrest in Haiti.

The story takes place in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, a country which has a long history of resistance, struggle and triumph. Haiti is the birthplace of Toussaint L'ouverture and many others whose dedication to justice led to Haitian independence from slaveowners. Haiti is perhaps best known as the island which orchestrated the first successful revolt by enslaved peoples in the western hemisphere in 1804.

Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, says about Selavi: "Being a child of Haiti myself, I can only hope that SelaviÍs story will be repeated in the lives of many other children, among them future writers and radio and television journalists, who will continue to tell, and show, their stories in such moving and powerful ways that the rest of the world will no longer be able to neglect them."

Teachers: Click here for the teacher's guide. This book offers high appeal content and meaningful artwork for readers of all ages. For classroom applications, it serves as an effective discussion tool and is most suited for the upper primary or lower elementary grade reader. This guide was prepared by educator Helen Buchanan.

Awards and Accomodations

Texas Bluebonnet Master Award List, 2005
Notable Book, American Library Association, 2005
Jane Addams Peace Award Winner, 2005
IPPY Award, 2005

7 reviews for Sélavi: That Is Life

  1. Kirkus Reviews
    The street children of Haiti (abandoned because their families were killed, their homes destroyed, or simply because there were too many in their households) found each other on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Through the story of a boy named Sélavi, readers learn of a shelter for such children, built and destroyed and then built again, of murals to spread the word, of a children’s radio station, Radyo Timoun, where “We will write our messages in the air where they cannot be painted out.” Beautiful illustrations using watercolor, photographs, collage, and techniques like batik make vivid Sélavi’s life. He and other are real, as Danticat’s essay indicates, and their home and the radio station may now be abandoned as Haiti surrenders to unrest. A strong message of caring for the children and for each other rings through the kinds of sorrows too many children face in the world.

  2. Publishers Weekly
    Youme, an artist and activist, makes a powerful debut with this true story of Port-au-Prince’s street children. As one of many orphaned or homeless boys and girls in war-torn Haiti, Sélavi (so named for a Kreyòl expression he uses, meaning “that’s life”), ekes out an existence searching for scraps, doing odd jobs and avoiding the military police. Youme’s experience as a community muralist informs every picture—her work emits a streetwise sense of lyricism and urgency. The palette darkens with acts of violence, and lightens to reflect images of hope. In one spread, the police stare out at readers while scenes of murder and destruction are reflected in their black sunglasses; a motif that incorporates tanks and broken hearts frames the image.

    Ultimately, Sélavi succeeds in rallying a group of adults to build an orphanage and, later, a radio station, from which a boy and his compatriots advocate for their welfare (“We will write our messages in the air where they cannot be painted out.”) The book lays out the realities, however, explaining that the children are plagued by political callousness even as “they continue to struggle.” But the book’s animating belief that people can come together as “a mighty river” of change and caring is genuinely inspiring. Photographs from the actual orphanage and an essay by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat make for a compelling closing statement. Ages 5-up.

  3. Children’s Literature
    This is a true tale of children who face some of life’s cruelest obstacles. It is both moving and engaging. The story of a little boy and other homeless children living on the streets in Haiti is told without pretense or flowery words. Violence, death, or poverty has left each child with no one to care. Without any family, Sélavi lives with children like himself until angry men in uniforms run them off. He flees to a church where he hears a man speaking to the people. “Alone we may be a single drop of water, but together we can be a mighty river.” The truism becomes the theme for this story. Through the charity of the church people and by working together, the children eventually have a home and begin a radio station. Today the station is still staffed and operated by children and used to tell others of their plight. They have, indeed, become a mighty river.

    The author displays colorful illustrations and black and white photographs of young ones who continue to benefit from the courage of the first orphans. She rounds out the picture by incorporating a concise history of the beautiful, but tumultuous Haiti. An essay by a young woman who has risen above her own humble beginnings to become a published author adds substance to the Haitian story.

    This is an excellent choice not only for the intended audience, but also for anyone who cares about others.

  4. School Library Journal
    Landowne uses softly rendered, uncluttered pictures and simple text to tell the story of a homeless boy and his friends. The book opens with Selavi’s evocative words, “Not so long ago and not so far away, people with guns could take a family, burn a house and disappear, leaving a small child alone in the world.” He joins other children living on the streets of Port-au-Prince and helping one another survive until repressive authorities force them to seek protection at a church meeting. Even the orphanage set up to help them proves unsafe when their murals are destroyed and their new home is burned down.

    Despite all the difficulties, the children continue to speak out about their needs, eventually establishing a radio station in a rebuilt orphanage. The book deals with complex issues over an extended period of time, so some story transitions are short on details. What does come through are the feelings of fear, anger, and solidarity that bind the youngsters together. A mix of full spreads and small, carefully sequenced illustrations that are varied in scale and tone helps tell the story. Photographs and lengthy endnotes from Landowne and Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat provide valuable background information. Selavi offers a realistic view of children whose lives are sometimes disconcerting and sometimes hopeful. It will be useful in communities that serve Haitian-Americans, and libraries in which children are exploring issues of social justice.

  5. Booklist
    People with guns could take a family, burn a house and disappear, leaving a small child alone in the world.” Through the story of one Haitian child, this stirring picture book puts a human face on news images and tells of young people caught up in the terror of war at home. Selavi finds family with a group of other street children. Helped by a church, they build a shelter. After “others” set fire to the building, the house is rebuilt, and the children start a radio station to reach young people. The simple watercolors show the boy alone, then the warmth of his community and the angry faces of men in uniform. In a moving afterword accompanied by her own documentary photos, Youme, as she’s identified on the jacket, tells more of the story, which is based on the experience of homeless kids in Port-au-Prince. For older readers, adult writer Edwidge Danticat contributes a powerful essay about her own Haitian childhood, her country’s proud history, and its desperate upheaval.

  6. Baker & Taylor’s “Cats Meow”
    In view of recent events, this story of the struggle of Haitian ‘street’ children is especially timely and poignant. Orphaned Selavi wanders to the capital, where he is taken under wing by a group of kind children of similar circumstances. After enduring persecution and homelessness, the resourceful children proceed to create their own radio station and community safehouse. Despite, or perhaps because of the somber surroundings, the hopefulness and resilience of the children and Haitian community shine through. This relevant story of hope is not to be missed and is an excellent addition to any youth collection.

  7. Midwest Book Review
    Selavi is the story of a homeless child befriended by other street children living in Haiti who look out for one another by sharing food and companionship. Together they find a caring community and a voice to create a radio station run by and for children. A true story with a positive message that vividly presents the poignant difficulties street children face in daily life.

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