Long Beach Public Library Foundation

Long Beach Leaders are Readers: City of Long Beach 2024 Youth Poet Laureate, Helena Donato-Sapp

Top leaders of the world have the exceptional simple habit of reading. Whether for enjoyment or enrichment, reading stimulates the mind and fuels creativity. Long Beach Leaders are Readers features leaders in our community as they share their recommended reads.

In July, we spotlight Helena Donato-Sapp, the City of Long Beach’s 2024 Youth Poet Laureate. Helena is a published author, exhibited artist, and a passionate disability justice activist. Her book recommendation, Figure It Out, Henri Weldon, tells the story of a young Black girl who loves poetry and has dyscalculia. Helena, who also has dyscalculia, shares this book to highlight Disability Awareness Month, emphasizing the importance of diverse literature in reflecting our experiences and fostering understanding. Discover how this young adult novel beautifully mirrors her journey and advocacy.

Figure It Out, Henri Weldon

by Tanita S. Davis

Meet Helena Donato-Sapp:

What made you choose Figure It Out, Henri Weldon as your book recommendation?

My book recommendation is Figure It Out, Henri Weldon and it is about a young Black girl who loves poetry and has a learning disability called dyscalculia, which is a math disorder. This book is important for me to share because July is Disability Awareness Month, I am a Disability Justice activist, I am a poet, and I have dyscalculia also. Not only are diverse books important because they help so many of us who were erased from literature for centuries, but they provide a rich window into the lives of others that many might not be able to witness otherwise. As the 2024-2025 Long Beach Youth Poet Laureate, I wanted a young adult novel that highlighted poetry, of course, but also one that informed readers about learning disabilities and the struggles those of us that have them face daily. I encourage everyone to go to your local library and find a book that beautifully mirrors you as well. It makes me, for one, feel less alone. Let’s all lift up Disability Pride!

What do you hope other readers get from reading your book recommendation?

I believe that kids can tackle tough topics and this book shows a story where this happened quite beautifully. I am so impacted by this book, that I want to buy a copy of it for every math teacher I have going forward – and for any peer who becomes a good friend – so that they can have a deeper understanding of what it means to have dyscalculia.

How relevant or relatable are the themes or messages of the book to your own life, or to society today?

Good literature always has an abundance of universal themes and Figure It Out, Henri Weldon is no exception. I liked the themes of friendship, taking risks, and boldness.

What did you learn from the book or what did it teach you about yourself or others?

I was affirmed by Henri writing poetry, writing in journals and on scrap paper because I have that done that all my life too. But when I saw that she was writing about math and to math…that inspired me to want to think more deeply about how I communicate about my math disorder to others. It inspired me, actually to write a poem on dyscalculia where I used some numbers for letters to make it a bit more difficult for readers so that they might get a sense of how hard it is to decipher numbers for those of us with dyscalculia. And guess what? I read that poem at the Long Beach Youth Poet Laureate Finals and I think it won me the Poet Laureate position!

Were there any stand-out scenes or particular passages from your recommended book that have impacted your life?

I read a lot of books on disability in my partnership with the National Education Association (NEA) and my role as a social media influencer for their organization, particularly their Disability Awareness Booklist and their Read Across America initiative. But I was shocked to find a book that was about a teenage Black girl who loves poetry and has one of the same learning disabilities that I have – dyscalculia. It’s hard not to feel all alone when you have a disability that rarely comes up and this book really touched my life because the stories of Henri struggling with math are the exact same things that have happened to me in my schooling.

How did your recommended book make you think or feel about a certain topic or issue?

Like I said, since it mirrored me so much, it made me feel less alone. It also emboldens me because if Henri can push forward and be bold and brave, then I feel that I can too!

Did your recommended book challenge or change your perspective or opinion on something?

It reaffirmed my belief that it is important for diverse authors to write diverse books about diverse kids who have diverse intersectional identities! The more diverse, the better!

How old were you when you got your first library card?

I was 15 years old.

Has a book ever changed your life?

It was really a genre that changed my life more than a book. I was a struggling reader because of my four learning disabilities and the books that saved me were graphic novels! Oh! I ate them up! They were the first books that I “read” because I could cue from the pictures and I read hundreds of graphic novels throughout my childhood. They boosted my confidence and graphic novels the books that are most responsible for me being an avid reader today.

Do you prefer paperbacks or e-books?

I just got a Kindle for my birthday from my Grandma and I am loving it! But I will always be in love with paperbacks. The touch of them, the smell of them, running my fingers over the lines on the pages, being able to take pencils and highlighters and annotate them…that is heaven to me!

Did someone read to you when you were a child?

Oh yes! My two dads are avid readers and I have pictures of them holding me in their arms and reading to me since the first day I got home from the hospital. My Grandma is the most hungry reader I know and she reads day and night. She even gets my booklist from school and reads every title alongside me!

What are your favorite genres to read?

This is an easy answer – science fiction and horror! Three cheers for Stephen King!

Where is your favorite place to read? Outside? Local coffee shop? On vacation?

On our couch, in a chair, and laying in bed at night with my night light putting a warm glow on the pages.

Is there an author you’d like to meet? Can you share their name or work?

I would want to meet Stephen King! Plus, I also really like his politics. Plus-plus, I love how he thinks about writing too.

What’s the last book you read?

The last book I read for school was The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri. I loved it and nearly all of our books in freshman year were about immigration and refugees. But yesterday was my first day of summer and so I started reading The Hunger Games again.

What book will you read next?

The next on my list is a book is titled Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens edited by Marieke Nijkamp. It is a great YA book featuring all disabled authors. The thing I love about it is that it has so many different genres in it – from realistic fiction to romance to fantasy to science fiction and horror. Science fiction and horror are my favorite genres so that is what caught my attention about this wonderful book.

If you wrote a memoir, what would the title be?

The Evil Teacher Who Said “You can’t”

Why do you think reading is important?

I was bullied a lot in K-8 and didn’t have a lot of friends. Books were my friends. I always had a book on me because if I was going to be alone at lunch or on the playground I could find safety in the pages of books. To this day, I never leave home without a book in my hand. I have spent my entire childhood reading and reading and reading and it is informative and fun! Books are friends and there are lots of friends at your local library waiting to meet you!

Helena Donato-Sapp, 2024 Long Beach Youth Poet Laureate

    Helena Donato-Sapp is the City of Long Beach’s 2024 Youth Poet Laureate, a published author, exhibited artist, working poet and sought-after keynote speaker who has been featured on the Disney Channel and in Discovery Education. Helena Donato-Sapp has also been appointed to the Long Beach Commission for Women and Girls. Her awards include the Global Youth Award for Educational Leadership, the 2023-24 Heumann-Armstrong Award and the “Yes, I Can Academic Award,” among others.

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