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New children's book highlights the children of Westhaven

Adeen Burton didn’t know he helped inspire a new book about a young boy living in the Westhaven neighborhood, but now that he knows, he plans to share the story around.

“I’m going to show the book to a lot of people that didn’t get to come,” said Adeen, who is 9 years old.

City of Promise, an organization that works with children in the Charlottesville neighborhoods of 10th and Page, Westhaven and Starr Hill, partnered with Virginia Humanities and local author Marc Boston to create the new book as a way to tell the story of how the city’s first public housing complex came to be and highlight the experiences of children who live there today.

“A Promise to Grow” tells the story of a young boy named CJ who lives in Westhaven and goes about the community doing good deeds, including creating a garden. The book, illustrated by Ariel Mendez, is Boston’s third book.

“The importance of this book can’t be overstated,” said Mary Coleman, executive director of City of Promise, adding that children in Westhaven are like children across America. “They ride their bikes, they play with their friends, they have fun, and they do really productive things after school.”

That’s what the book’s protagonist does. CJ also participates in after-school programs through City of Promise.

Adeen said he liked the book, especially parts about City of Promise and the garden.

“We got to do a lot of stuff in the garden,” he said. “We even got to pick strawberries.”

In addition to CJ’s story, the book includes additional information about the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, its razing and Westhaven’s namesake, John West. West was born enslaved but became a businessman, landowner and one of the city’s wealthiest African Americans in the late 19th century. He died in 1927 at 77 in his home on West Main Street, which was at the top of Vinegar Hill.

The 126-unit Westhaven complex was built in 1964 and housed residents displaced by the destruction of Vinegar Hill that same year.

“So it’s very comprehensive in its scope in terms of the audience that this book can appeal to,” Coleman said. “Because it tells a story about a child who’s dreaming big and does good, but it also tells about a setting that that child lives in that was no mistake — that was deliberate — and that represents some of the inequity that this city has to reckon with.”

Boston, who lives in Charlottesville with his wife and three daughters, read the book to the Westhaven children last week as part of an unveiling event with City of Promise. People can buy the book for $15 online through City of Promise at Proceeds go to City of Promise.

“This is for Vinegar Hill and respect to Westhaven,” Boston said before he started the reading.

Boston said he spent more than year working on the book, a process that includes interviewing Adeen and other children living in Westhaven. The idea of a book about a child in Westhaven came from another local author, Peyton Lewis Then, a $20,000 grant from Virginia Humanities and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped to make it possible.

Adeen and other children from the neighborhood were on hand to be among the first to hear about CJ. Children who attended left with a free signed copy.

Coleman also hopes the book helps to introduce children to the importance and fun of reading.

“I hope you’ll be inspired to read and write more because you have your own stories to tell,” she told children after the reading.


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