SMITHFIELD – Deb Fontaine is still recognized in Rhode Island for the bubbly character she portrayed in her party hosting business, Polly’s Parties, decades ago. It was at one of her parties in the 90s that Fontaine met a young girl she said changed the trajectory of her life forever.
After almost 20 years of learning and teaching sign language, Fontaine has released her second book, “The Signing Kids.” The colorful pages of the book feature five diverse children who teach the sign language alphabet using quirky and fun sentences.
“I knew it had to be silly. If the kids are going to love it and learn from it, it has to be fun, ”Fontaine said.
Fontaine teamed up with artist Carlo LoRaso, who worked with Disney to illustrate “The Signing Kids.” She said it was important that the characters, children and animals alike, have bright and cheerful facial expressions to catch a young reader’s attention.
The illustrated characters in the book use arrows to indicate sign language hand movements describing an alliterated sentence for each letter in the alphabet.
Fontaine explained that not all words have corresponding sign language gestures, and some words, and people’s names, are spelled out. At the end of the book, the hand signal for each letter and number is also given.
“This book is the first in a series of ‘The Signing Kids’ books. We’re presently working on the second. I love creating them, I’m happily addicted, and, according to the fast sales, kids love reading them as much as I love writing them. The love of children laughing and learning is what teaching is all about, ”Fontaine said.
She said she plans on writing at least 10 books in the sign language series, adding more characters in the next two books. She is also publishing children’s books outside the “The Signing Kids” series, including “Clumpy the Cloud.”
“The Signing Kids” was released on Feb. 22 and has become popular among children, she said. One customer reached out to Fontaine describing how her child loves the book so much they sleep with it. Though she said she hopes one day to branch out to make the characters into dolls, she said for now signers can purchase sweatshirts and t-shirts with the choice of their two favorite characters and the purchaser’s name spelled out in sign language.
“They’re adorable,” she said.
It all began when Fontaine approached the young girl with a smile and cheerful greeting, she was surprised to learn the girl was deaf. She responded in sign language that was interpreted by her mother.
“In all my years of interacting with children, I had never felt so helpless. Here was a child with a smile that lit up the room who wanted to share her thoughts and emotions with me and I had nothing to give back, ”Fontaine said.
The following month, Fontaine went back to school for sign language courses followed by classes at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf. From there, she would teach all the children at her parties how to the song “Happy Birthday,” and other simple signs.
When students returned to school after a party, teachers would see their students teaching other students how to sign. Then, teachers began reaching out to Fontaine to teach students k-6 how to sign.
“It was all a chain of events that lead me here. I couldn’t be more grateful, ”Fontaine said.
At the time, Fontaine was a single mother of four who needed a stable income that allowed her to bring her children to work, as well as be home during the week. She opened Polly’s Parties in Warwick and Smithfield, where she hosted children’s parties on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Fontaine closed Polly’s Parties and in 2006 opened a preschool, the Little Village Schoolhouse Preschool, Pre-k and Kindergarten, which she ran for 10 years. She decided to sell the schoolhouse when her in-class lessons began to take up much of her schedule. Less than a week later, her firefighter husband was poisoned by arsenic while working a house fire. Lucky to survive, Fontaine said she spends much of her time caring for him and her mother.
As a contract worker, Fontaine spent the last two years out of school and working on her book. She said she is delighted to return to teaching sign language in local schools this fall.
“I felt like these are my kids. I knew them and loved them. It was a very heavy feeling for some time. I’m ready to go back, ”Fontaine said.
“My hope is that children everywhere will learn sign language as a second language and never feel as helpless as I did so long ago as I looked into the eyes of that beautiful, smiling, signing child,” Fontaine said.