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The Mary Louis Academy students from Jenny Limberg-Durkin's advanced art class who participated in illustrating "The Best Christmas Present Ever," authored by the head of TMLA's foreign language department, Rita E. Piro. Photo by Rita Piro
TimesLedger Newspapers

Jenny Limberg-Durkin’s Advanced Placement art students at The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates were given an unusual assignment back in September. Each student was asked to reach into a hat and take out a piece of paper describing a segment from a new children’s book, written by Rita Piro, the head of the school’s foreign language department.

“‘The Best Christmas Present Ever’ was originally going to be published as part of a Christmas collection, but I wanted to do something bigger with it,” said Piro. So she approached the art teacher, and they decided that the girls would each illustrate a portion of the story, using their imagination — as well as watercolors, pastels and charcoal pencils. The book was released Nov. 15.

When their project was completed almost three weeks later, 13 talented seniors at this all-girls Catholic high school would become published artists.

A Mary Louis graduate, Piro, 44, has been teaching there for 20 years. Her book is in a sense, her Christmas gift to the school she loves, as all proceeds will go to the 75-year-old private academy, which does not receiving public funding.

This unique Christmas story is told in the first person and takes place in Queens Village, where the author grew up and still lives now. Sts. Joachim and Ann School and Church, which are still standing today, are mentioned, as well as a few other familiar neighborhood streets and sites.

“I wrote an inspirational reflection recounting the events of the last Christmas I spent with my maternal grandmother, when I was 7,” said Piro, who spent a month home sick after Thanksgiving that year beside her beloved Italian grandmother, who was terminally ill. She died shortly after that sad Christmas. “Much later in life, I realized that the best Christmas present I had ever received had been the gift of time that the two of us were able to share together.

“The story is moving, but the artwork is dynamic and exciting — the illustrations make the book,” said Piro. “TMLA’s art students are phenomenally talented.”

Camille Gregory, 17, of Jackson Heights said, “I still can’t believe my piece was chosen for the cover. This is a very exciting time in our lives — seniors in high school — and we’re published!”

Lisa Krulasik, 17, of Glendale has decided to pursue illustration in college: “I feel this gave me a jump-start.” And Julia Szaniawska, 17, of Middle Village was thrilled to see two of her pieces published: “My mom wants to send copies back to our family in Poland.”

“When Mrs. Durkin read us the story in September, I couldn’t imagine that it would all come together. The book looks amazing,” said Ashlyn Salig, 17, from Maspeth.

“Christmas is a time for slowing down — a time to just be nice to people. I love winter and the Christmas season, and as cheesy as it sounds, I look forward to singing Christmas carols in the snow, then coming in for hot cocoa,” said 17-year-old Tanya Caldas of Ozone Park. “Have you ever just stopped and looked up at the scene around you when it snows? It’s magical. Even bus stops can be beautiful.”

Durkin couldn’t have been more excited to have her talented students involved in the project.

“I was over the moon when Rita told me about this idea. What a tremendous opportunity for the girls. They work so hard and it’s so nice for their talents to be recognized by the outside community,” Durkin said proudly. “We’re so blessed to have such an intense art program here that would allow the girls the needed time and materials to accomplish such a task.

“The book talks about a tender, loving relationship between a grandmother and grandchild; about the beauty of appreciating the simpler things in life. It’s a complete honor to be a part of such a wonderful project.”

Piro said, “The message is simply that the greatest gift we can give each other is time spent together, doing things full of great love.”

Piro is also the author of “Judy Garland: The Golden Years” and “Elizabeth Montgomery: A Bewitching Life.”

“The Best Christmas Present Ever” can be ordered through the school with a donation. And after Dec. 22 it will be available in retail stores and on Amazon.com.

The Mary Louis Academy

176-21 Wexford Terrace

Jamaica Estates, NY 11432

Phone: (718) 297-2120

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