An Elementary School Artist’s Dream Comes True

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In Forest Avenue Elementary School’s 2006 yearbook, then fourth grader Olivia De Castro announced that her career plans were to become a cartoonist or artist. Making those kinds of plans so early in life might seem like a flight of fancy. But when The Collective Book Store held its grand opening in September, there was De Castro, autographing copies of “How To Speak In Spanglish,” a children’s book she illustrated.

“I was always doodling on everything,” De Castro recalls of her time in elementary school. “Art was my favorite class, but I drew all the time. On every test and quiz there was a doodle in the corner. I got in trouble for that a lot.”

But not from her Forest art teacher, Lisa Varuolo, who remains a fan to this day. “It’s always great to hear that a former student is pursuing a career in art,” says Varuolo, who still teaches at Forest and Laning Avenue schools.

De Castro says she spent her days at Forest in awe of Varuolo, who, she says, “can draw flowers so beautifully.” “She took the doodles seriously,” De Castro adds, “and she was very encouraging. I was aspiring to be as good as her.”

After De Castro graduated from Forest, her father was transferred to a new job in Pennsylvania. She did high school there, then went on to study at Brooklyn’s famed art school, Pratt Institute, graduating in 2018. She’s been making a steady career as a commercial and book illustrator ever since. “I feel very lucky to be able to get the jobs that I do,” De Castro says.

She was drawn to “How To Speak In Spanglish” by the story line. It is about a little boy who must speak Spanish at home and English at school, and sometimes mixes the two. “It reminded me of my own family,” says De Castro, whose family has its roots in the Dominican Republic. “I made the characters look a lot like people in my regular life. The father in the story is a mix of my dad’s hair and my boyfriend’s style.”

And it was a Verona connection that brought “Spanglish” to The Collective Book Store, which is located across the street from Verona Park near the corner of Bloomfield and Cumberland avenues. Kerry Metzger, one of the associates there, stayed in touch with the De Castros after they moved. “It was a full circle moment,” says De Castro, “to be able to bring my art back to the place where it started.” 

De Castro, who lives in Brooklyn, encourages all the artists now at Forest Avenue, and all of Verona’s schools, to find their inspiration. “You have to lean into what you like best,” she says. “That’s how people will understand you as a person.”

There are signed copies of “How To Speak In Spanglish” available at Collective Books. De Castro is now working on illustrations for “Cute Toot,” about two sisters who have a farting competition.

 

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