Author Diana Lee Santamaria visits School No. 2 to read from her “DLee’s World” series of children’s books, which are written in both English and Spanish. Her visit Thursday was part of the school’s observance of Hispanic Heritage Week.

 

By Gary Miller

When Diana Lee Santamaria sees an anxious child, she can relate – whether it’s nervousness about going to school, fear of the dark, or just a bad day.

“I was a worry wart,” she said.

Now she’s using those personal experiences to relate to children through her “DLee’s World” book series. DLee’s stories (and even her name) are based on Santamaria’s childhood.

“When she cries a lot, that was me,” she said. “A lot of that – being worried and having apprehensions – that defines who I was as a kid.”

Santamaria visited Linden’s School No. 2 on Thursday to introduce the children to DLee — pronounced Dee-Lee. Santamaria read her stories in the voices of the characters, led the students in songs and dances, and took questions.

Part of the reason School No. 2 brought Santamaria in this week is to mark Hispanic Heritage Month. Most of Santamaria’s books are in both English and Spanish, and feature a multicultural cast of characters. Linden Public Schools have more than 700 students whose primary language is Spanish — by far the greatest number beside English in the district. (Polish is second with 230.)

“I try to inspire literacy, to inspire a fun environment, and to inspire diversity,” Santamaria said.

Author Diana Lee Santamaria leading School 2 students in dance  Author Diana Lee Santamaria onstage in front of School 2 students

Santamaria grew up in a Hispanic household in Bogota in Bergen County, but her parents spoke English at home because they wanted their children to learn the language. The characters in her books are based on her family. Her nickname was “DLee” when she was little, and the illustrations in the books are based on pictures of her mother, father and brother – who shares the name Angel with DLee’s brother.

She says her books can help parents who speak Spanish to read to their children while learning English. And they can help parents who speak English to learn Spanish along with their children.

“Most of the books have English and Spanish on the same page,” Santamaria said. “So it works both ways.”

The School No. 2 assembly was for Grades K through 2, but bilingual and English as a Second Language students in the older grades also attended.

Overall, the books help children see the world through a more diverse lens, she said.

“I remember when I would read a lot of the children’s books growing up, I didn’t see a very multicultural cast of characters,” Santamaria said. “I wanted to incorporate that in my stories so that children can feel like they see themselves.”

Santamaria has a master’s degree in early childhood education from Montclair State University and was a teacher in East Orange and Newark for nine years. She says she’s still a teacher, but is taking a break to work on getting the word out about her self-published books.

“DLee’s World is very personal for me,” she said.

Book cover for "DLee's Nighttime Scare"  Book cover for "DLee's First Day of School"