Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2016 Distinguished Lecture National Library of Jamaica: Una Marson and Alison Donnell

How do we get young people interested in this? (by extension, various aspects of the arts?). This question was asked me by an associate of mine at a lecture, "Una  Marson: Animating the Archive of an Extraordinary Life",  at the National Library of Jamaica on Sunday Oct. 9, given by  Professor Alison Donnell, Modern Literatures in English, University of Reading, UK.

How do we indeed, in a world where everything is judged by its technological significance and the written word reduced to only 140 characters long? How do we, in an island, where for many survival is the main focus of their daily lives? This question could probably be asked in many developing countries. I recall sitting on a panel doing interviews for tertiary scholarships. One of the panel members, and educator like myself, suggested to one of the interviewees that while at the University he should take advantage of artistic activities, like plays, which often offered a reduced price for students. This sounded like an excellent idea. It warmed my heart. The student replied that he could not afford even the reduced rate. He would need that for lunch or bus fare. Reality had given all our artistic ideas a jolt.

The event  I was attending on Oct. 9,  was the National Library of Jamaica Distinguished Lecture 2016, given by Professor Alison Donnell, ‘who has researched  and taught Anglophone Caribbean Literature for more than twenty years. Her PhD, at the Centre for Caribbean  Studies at the University of Warwick,  focused on an  under–researched archive of early Caribbean women’s writing’. 

The lecture highlighted Jamaican activist, broadcaster, journalist, poet and playwright, Una Marson’s achievements, and suggested that she had not received the attention she should have because she was a woman.  It was a fascinating and stimulating lecture. Thank you, Professor Donnell.  Thank you for highlighting one of our women.

How do I come into this? Una Marson lived both here and in London. My grandmother, Clarissa Escoffery, acted in two of Una Marson's plays staged here, London Calling and At What a Price. I had done a blog post some time ago showing the programme for London Calling with the signatures of the actors, including Una Marson’s. Professor Donnell had come across this post and asked if she could use images from it in her lecture. Social media can work  positively. Of course, I was honoured to say  yes, on behalf of myself and my grandmother. I am always thrilled when I can trace creativity from my grandmother, amateur actress, through my mother, amateur painter and professional creator of illuminated addresses (now done by computer), to myself, writer, and one time amateur artist.  I know, totally immodest; but I so love that feeling of continuity.

Another lovely aspect of the event was the pre-launch of Una Marson's plays, Pocomania and London Calling by Blouse & Skirt Books - Tanya Batson-Savage. You know my cup runneth over when I see a synchronicity of events like this. The book is a joint publication between Blouse & Skirt Books and the National Library of Jamaica. So great to see a publisher and the National Library cooperate for the enlightenment of the country and preservation of our cultural heritage. I am so impressed with this young publisher. Quality books and books which inform the publishing landscape.

Yes, I will be passing over my grandmother’s material to the National Library. We are all encouraged to pass on things which we may have which would add to the store of cultural knowledge.

Back to the question which was asked at the beginning of the post. How do we get young people interested in things like this? Of course, in any population, only a percentage will be interested in the arts, writing, music, painting, dancing. However, I think we feel that we would like to see more of our young people exposed and involved, not only because of the great creativity which exists in our country/the region, but also because we know that the arts can bring joy to the individual, and go towards creating/recovering a gentler society. Obvious answers come to mind; exposure in the school curriculum, and activities at schools, and this is certainly being done; institutions which cater to the arts, and they exist, and are active. Perhaps what we really want to ask is how do we touch all lives with artistic endeavour and appreciation for artistic achievement? How do we expose all lives to the sensitivity which comes from exposure to the arts, and by so doing,  create a gentler society?  I don’t have an answer. I write this in the hope that you who read this will have ideas and share them, and that together we can achieve this.

I do recall when I was working with Olive Senior (yes, the Olive Senior) at the Institute of Jamaica Publications, us having a poetry reading by Lorna Goodison at the Institute of Jamaica with 5th and 6th forms from as many schools as we could. The auditorium was almost full. The students were enthusiastic, and this had nothing to do with school set books; it had to do with poetry. Afterwards the students crowded around the stage like Lorna Goodison  was a rock star, (which she is, come to think of it) asking questions, just wanting to share with her their joy at having experienced the event. (If anyone who was there reads this and can tell me that my memory of this event needs some clarification/correction, please feel free to  do so). This occasion is right up there with important memories in my life. I was overwhelmed that the students were overwhelmed.

What has all this got to do with children’s writing and children’s books, you ask? It has everything to do with it. Early exposure! “Train up the child in the way he should go  . . . .”

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two more new YA books from the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature

Lynn Joseph's Dancing in the Rain,  third place winner Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, 2015: another book answering the question why write? Or the power of stories

My last post was about books that bear evidence to the power of stories. Dancing in the Rain is one such  book.
Offline for three days, one felt  lost in space without  the ritual of opening emails.  I decided therefore that  I could use the time to consider at least one philosophical question. Would there be an answer if one opened one's mind? I needed to make sense of things. And the world was not making sense.  No doubt, there are others who  feel the same from time to time, and especially in today’s world.
In stepped Dancing in the Rain. I was pulled into the story by the lyrical writing. It's a joy to read; images abound, almost like being able to watch the  frames of a movie gently gliding by.  Joseph's characters are delightfully drawn;  you do indeed get to know them, want to know not only the outcome of the story, but the outcome of each of their own personal stories. The colours of the Caribbean  depicted (it's set in the Dominican Republic) are vibrant and magical.    
Against this mystical, magical background, two horrendous occurrences make their appearance,  the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, and the Holocaust. The main characters are suffering from the effects of  9/11.  It’s significant that a book for young adults should deal with a traumatic occurrence which falls within present memory. It is contemporary; it is topical in a world where so many things seem out of our control, so beyond our wildest imaginations, and not in a pleasant way. The Holocaust appears as  a story within the  story, its purpose to draw attention to the different ways people survive after a tragedy of immense  proportions. So, in a sense, it informs the present.
The young protagonists ask philosophical questions and seek answers to the things we adults ourselves often do not understand. Yet,  it seemed as if by interacting with the characters and their story, and the  really brilliant protagonists, we understand what we always knew, but sometimes forget, that the only one way to deal with disasters is with faith/ hope and courage;  Joseph more than once refers to the importance of hope.
Joseph also speaks about joy and love, 'you are my heart', 'you are my joy', both of which I firmly believe in, and which from time to time appear in my stories.
So  did I have a breakthrough as a result  of my  journey with Joseph's characters, their philosophy, their brand of magic? Well something happened. It occurred while reading Dancing in the Rain. I have never doubted the power of stories, the power of books.  I gave thanks for the power of this story.
Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh, first place winner Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, 2015
 This is a rollicking adventure story set in Guyana. It’s really well written,  it keeps you on the edge of your seat, bed, wherever you read. Quoting from the blurb: Maya is a girl on the run. Driven by desperation and the search for her father  . . . she meets Joseph, a boy without the gift of speech but with much to say. Intriguing, right? The blurb also tells us . . . the story moves from the lush hinterlands of Guyana through the bustling city of Georgetown . . .It is a refreshing take on Caribbean myth and mythology from an interesting new voice.
So I was cheering for both Maya and Joseph. I enjoyed the trip from the interior to the coast, the river boat, the chase by the villains,  some of this world and some not, through markets and canals and along the roads of Georgetown.  The character of  Anancy, when it appears, is different, without losing the anancy characteristic, and is in fact  quite delightful.  I enjoyed the very clever mix of the present time along with this  old folktale character,  and what seemed to be another new created myth. And what do we know? Maybe the new isn’t new at all.
This is a great read!
This is a book to be in schools right now, at secondary, or even upper primary. Our Caribbean children will love this. For my part, it will show them we can also have adventure stories just like anything coming out of the developed world, and better, in fact.
Here we are with three new books, all Burt winners, Children of the Spider, Dancing in the Rain (both Blouse and Skirt Books - I salute Tanya Batson-Savage and her Blouse and Skirt Books for publishing these books); and Gone to Drift, (Papillote Press, review in my post of Saturday, June, 11). All are different, all contemporary, all great reads;  which should be in schools, which could hook our children onto reading. I believe the print run for the Burt Awards might in fact allow for many schools across the Caribbean to access these books. Will the powers that be put them on their master list which controls all reading? I do hope so, because they are enchanting,  they are enticing, they are exciting, and because it’s time to have some contemporary Caribbean stories in schools.
I feel really pleased that the Burt Awards are turning out to be so fantastic, helping us to develop  a library of outstanding  young adult books.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why write if nobody is going to read it? If a tree falls in the forest . . .

You’ve seen this question, or versions of it, asked before: Would you still write if you knew that no-one would read it? It reminds me of the question first introduced to us in university. If a tree falls in the forest , and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? We were young; how we pondered that question, our introduction to philosophical thought. That was long ago. Today’s students would know the answer to that, and no doubt have far more serious concerns. Little did I know that that question might arise again. It has, after what I call the failure of the great Amazon experiment/expedition (for another blog).

A fellow writer, no doubt feeling as low as I did at the time, asked if people aren’t buying our books why write? She indicated that writing was her life, so what now? At the time,  I was concerned with unexpected family affairs and had no time to even consider the matter. However, I think I have an answer, and it is this. There is always somebody, reading. Have faith in that, and if even one person/child reads you story and finds comfort, finds himself/herself, finds something of merit, perhaps a glimmer to light his/her way through life, then it is worth writing. And in a way, like workers in some ancient colony or social organization, we have to write; that is our destiny. Perhaps this is worth a coffee morning of discussion with fellow authors.

A few weeks ago, I read a column by a young columnist in one of our newspapers. It was after The Olympics and we were just full up with gratitude to our athletes, and especially happy for our Usain Bolt. The writer said that he had read this book when he was in school about great sportsmen of the world, Mohammed Ali and Pele ( I think he mentioned those), and he wondered if he would ever see any greats like that again  in the world, and here he was seeing  our own Usain Bolt, as great an athlete as ever there was in the world. I was amazed. I wondered if he was referring to the Dr. Bird Series (he remembered the books arriving at his school in a box), provided by the Ministry of Education, and written by Peggy Campbell (of blessed memory), Karl Phillpotts and I.  This particular non-fiction piece, Some of the World’s Greats,  was written by Peggy or Karl, not by me. ( I thought that the title included  . . .in sports” but it isn’t written like that on my list, so apologies to the writer or heirs , if the title isn’t quite right). I could see the book, I searched for it in my collection of originals (so I could scan it for this blog), but there was no copy there. I concluded that I gave it to a library when I was doing one of my ‘culling of books exercises’, when I decided that I would only keep copies of those that contained stories written by me.  Hard decisions like this have to be made when you perceive that there is a danger that one day you may not be able to get into your study because of books, books, books, everywhere.

The point is, guys, the book made a lasting impression on him. He remembered it even as an adult. Finally, he had his own ‘world’s great in sports’. I think that is reason enough to write.

Here is another example, just in this last week, as a comment on one of my blog posts:

I am the quality person I am today because of your inspiring writings. My ability to ready had more to do with the interesting and captivating plots in your  short stories that had me engaged as a child. Now as an adult, I would like to collect them all. How possible is that?

By the way, I get requests from people about how to get the Dr. Bird Series ( I presume the above is about the Dr. Bird Series).  We get no royalties from these books, but I count it as one of the greatest blessings of my life that I was able to write on that series, with two great writers.

Then there is Abigail: Abigail’s Glorious Hair  created quite a stir. I thought it would be The Happiness Dress, the Commonwealth Prize winner. But Abigail is the one that touched a spark in us about our hair, brought back memories for some, made little girls absolutely sure that they had glorious hair. Earlier this year, I read at the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) conference held here in Jamaica, (along with Diana McCaulay, (Gone to Drift – see my previous blog), and A-dZiko Simba Gegele (All Over Again), both Burt Prize winners.  Again, there was that wonderful reception for Abigail. Someone from Belize asked that in signing her copy of the book, I also write, “You have beautiful hair”. This, she said, was for a little girl who didn’t think her hair was beautiful because it was too curly. Aah, my friends. Definitely reason enough to write?

But, you say, you are talking about books that people are buying and reading. Yes, guys, but when I wrote Abigail I had no idea. It was for my grandchildren, inspired by them. ( Rachel Wade, whose illustrations are so delightful, was actually sent pictures by me of my granddaughter’s hair, so that she could get the image right.) As I said, I thought it would be The Happiness Dress that would carry the two books. And in truth, children have found happiness dresses in their closets, and wear happiness dresses to my readings, as a couple of the girls did for  a recent reading at the Kingston and St. Andrew Parish Library. The  important thing is, you never know when a book will drop a ray of hope or love into a child’s heart or mind.  Definitely reason to write!

 As a postscript, at this time, hopefully Abigail will  enlighten, comfort, sing a hallelujah chorus. A story can quietly make a mighty noise.

Credits for image of forest: :https://www.google.comjm/search?sourceid=navclien

Saturday, June 11, 2016

In praise of "Gone to Drift" by Diana McCaulay:


Prize Winner Burt Award for Caribbean  Literature, 2015:  Papillote  Press, 2016

This is a beautiful book. If it were a painting it would be in tones of grey and shades of blue for the sea, and for the land,  tones of beige and green, with splashes of colour added by the people who travel across its landscape. And I would buy it instantly for fear of losing it.

This may seem like a strange way to begin a book review, and maybe this is not really an actual book review; maybe it’s more like in praise of good writing, a good story, and the environment. This last may seem too obvious to mention because we know that the author is a well known environmentalist. However, this book is not just an opportunity to recognize the importance of the environment; it is a hymn to it. You cannot read this story and come away unmoved by the significance of our environment and its importance to the characters in the story, and  to the island.

The setting is the environment; more specifically the sea. The characters and  the sea are entwined in a dance, an embrace, which we  soon understand, can at any given time act  in favour of the human characters, or not.  It is this overarching character,  the sea, unmoved one way or the other by all that is happening,  and bearing  no animosity to anyone, that  forms the backdrop to this story.  This sea can bring you a bounty, yet you can get lost in it, gone to drift.

Of the two main human characters, one is Lloyd, a young boy, who is worried about his grandfather, who has not returned from a fishing trip, in what  Llloyd perceives as good time. None of the other characters, mainly fisher families, Lloyd’s family, those who interact with them along the various coastal areas, seem to be very worried. You are left to wonder if, as they suggest, that perhaps there is nothing wrong;  Lloyd is unduly anxious. On the other hand, you wonder if it is that they do not wish to make Llloyd feel any more worried than he is. You fear that they know something that he does not, that they are not telling him the whole truth.

The other character is Gramps, Lloyd’s grandfather, whose voice Lloyd can hear  in his head, “I come from a line of fishermen.”  This is as powerful as if the statement were, “I come from a  line of kings.” We believe this, a line of greatness.

 Gramps  also tells his story.  And so we have the two stories, Llloyd looking for his grandfather, using any means necessary, his good friend, Dwight, the Coastguard, Jules, the lady who cares about the dolphins, his mother, his ne’re-do-well father, his grandfather’s friends; and Gramps’  story of his own father, his many brothers, all fishermen, and his mother. We come to care about Gramps’ family, as well as for Lloyd, whose determination and bravery in his search for Gramps often astounds us.

It eventually dawns on us that Gramps is not on any of the main cays off the coast of the island,  but is stranded on what seems to be  a mere rock in the sea. The tension is created  not only by Lloyd’s search for his grandfather, the question of how  dolphins fit into this scenario, and whether his grandfather can be found in time, but also by seeing the  old man himself wondering how long he can survive on little crabs and rain water, the latter coming  sporadically. 

The author uses the device of alternate chapters for each of these two human characters, so that we can measure Lloyd’s attempts against the will of his grandfather to survive. It works; we are not distracted; rather, we  are caught up in the emotion of the situation.

The language is measured, like a tale told on dark nights by lantern light, increasing  the feeling of  being at the mercy of the elements.  Descriptions are rich, as  seen in Gramps recollection of a sunrise.

Then I realised that  I could see my hands and feet as a grey light stole across the sea. And to the east I saw the sky turning into a hundred different colours from the blue of a summer day to the dark purple of the thickest squall, from the pale pink of the inside of a conch shell to the bright orange of a ripe mango, until the round ball of the sun itself came up and the colours of the  sky spread over the water and even warmed our faces. I knew then that the best place to see a sunrise was at  sea.

It is for this reason alone that you cannot hurry through this book. Even as the mystery deepens, you need to stop to see what the characters see, to feel what they feel.

 Then, suddenly you may be caught unawares, by an intervention into this beauty, alerting you to  danger, which may be lurking, as in Gramps’ description of his brothers going to sea:

It was late when they left and I thought the night was darker than usual.  We stood on the beach and watched them go. The boats made a ragged triangle formation, like a flock of birds, and for a few seconds their wakes were visible. Then they pierced the night and disappeared.

And you understand  in the sameness of their going to sea, the routines of their lives, the power of  nature, of the dark, of the night, of the sea.

The dialogue, which is a mixture of standard Jamaican English, and what I like to call a modified Creole, is well handled. It effectively represents  the mother tongue of our people, but does not become so deep as to make it difficult to read, or for the book  to travel to other countries. From Lloyd to his grandfather, to Jules the uptown girl, their voices ring true.  And this use of language, this love and respect for the sea, for the creatures of the sea, bridges what could be social differences and makes us one.

Consequently, just as you come to respect the environment,  you come to respect the people who depend on the sea, and their way of life. The author does not allow you to feel any  pity for the difficulty of their lives.  This is a great skill, to describe another life with empathy. You may even begin to think that like Lloyd and his grandfather,  these people are the salt of the earth, or the sea, their nobility in facing the dangers of the sea  surpassing those who make a safe living from the land. And then the author brings you back to reality. These people are no better or worse than people anywhere. They have their nobility, they have their heroes and their villains, and their awful betrayals.

This coming of age story of a boy called Lloyd, who loves his grandfather,  will leave many wondering about the meaning of it all, and yet Llloyd must make sense of it.

This book should be read in all schools. To say that a book should be read in schools, makes it sound like a textbook, or the over-worked literature set-books. However, I would want all our young people to read it, to discuss it, and that seems to be the only way to get it to them. This is a beautiful book.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Despatches: Diverse books, diverse dolls - knowing we are beautiful

I promised more posts arising from the address by Dr. Kim Robinson Walcott at the launch of Abigail’s Glorious Hair and The Happiness Dress.

 Dr. Robinson Walcott spoke of the images we saw as children in our books, all foreign, all white, with long straight hair, nothing like us, nothing we could ever be.  She  pointed out that at that time our ‘culture’ was imported from England, but now, direct quote  . . .Thank heaven we have advanced beyond  that age of darkness, right? Flash forward  to today when we see how popular weaving and bleaching are in 2016, we realize how much work we have to do. A few days ago in one of our newspapers there was a photo of a tiny tot, maybe one or two years old, dark-skinned and with big eyes, in a children’s home, caressing her prized possession: a little white-skinned blue-eyed platinum-blonde, kindly donated by some well-meaning charity organization.

I saw the picture too, and I was disturbed. Not only by the doll, but also because I know that if the child had been given a black doll, a number of people might have been offended. The giver would have been accused of racism, anyone else who thought a black doll was an appropriate gift would have been equally charged with treating the child from the home as ‘less than’.

 I think of dolls as representing  us, so to speak, so shouldn’t they look like us? Of course, for others, they might be part of a fantasy land, hence any doll will do. However, I think we fool ourselves if that is our explanation.

Both of my daughters are adults,  and the first doll ever brought into our house was a black doll named Suzie. Suzie was so loved that she was still with us when the girls were in their teens. After Suzie came dolls of various colours; one of the things I enjoyed doing was, starting in September, to hunt though the stores for beautiful black Barbies  for Christmas. You had to start in September, because very few black dolls were brought into the island. Yes, my granddaughter also has dolls of all colours. Diverse dolls!

Aha! You say the merchants do not bring in enough black dolls. You have found the scapegoat. One year, no doubt, in some fantasy  of  signs of self acceptance, the merchants brought in black dolls. Black dolls can’t done!  I was thrilled. At last, at last, my people were on their way. After Christmas heaps of black dolls were still in the stores. I asked; the merchants said no one wanted them. They haven’t made that mistake again. Many of us know of the American psychologists Clark and Clark and their experiment with black children with black and white dolls in the 1940’s, in which the black children preferred the white dolls and ascribed to them more positive characteristics. I gather other experiments have been done since then, and other interpretations ascribed to their study. However,  not a lot has changed it seems. 

What do we do about this? What can anyone do? Some may have stopped reading this by now in annoyance. Some may now view me as subversive in some way. I used to be upset by people not understanding the importance of this. I even suspected that there were those who railed against slavery and our colonial past,  but probably had no black dolls for their children, nor had they bought any local children’s books. Diverse books! One of the good things about getting older, I have found, is that you begin to realize that you really cannot change people, and you do not mind. 

Do I think local books, diverse books can influence our children’s thinking about themselves? I do. However, you be the judge.

And here is the good news in despatches: It is reported that having read The Happiness Dress, little girls are finding dresses which they consider  happiness dresses in their cupboards. Lovely! And those who have read Abigail’s Glorious Hair, have concluded that their hair is glorious also, and want it loose like Abigail’s. These reports are numerous. One mother/grandmother concluded that a particular little girl knew she was beautiful, but now she believes it.  Even more lovely!
Photo top left: Dr. Kim Robinson Walcott, courtesy of Michael Reckord
Photo upper right: me, courtesy of Camille Parchment

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Diane Browne's latest - West Indian children's guides to self acceptance: Sunday Observer, May 15

The launch of the prize-winning The Happiness Dress and Abigail’s Glorious Hair took place on May 10, at the Kingston and St. Andrew Parish Library. The launch was lovely; much thanks to all those who helped with it and participated in it, and those who attended it. The guest speaker, Dr. Kim Robinson Walcott,  made an excellent  speech. It is published in Bookends in The Sunday Observer today, along with covers of the two books launched, as well as other book covers of mine. Thanks to Sharon Leach of The Observer for the coverage of Kim’s speech and my books. Kim’s speech and the launch will provide content for more than one blog, because she touched on so many things which impact the writing and publishing of children’s books in the Caribbean.  Quote from her speech: I wish books like these were around when I was a child. I wish books like these were around when my children were young. This is the type of material that we need to engender pride in our culture and ourselves.

The headline in The Sunday Observer is shown above. I have to thank Sharon for that headline. It is such an astute point of view, and changed the direction of this blog.  Apart from the two books being launched,  the other books highlighted on the page are Island Princess in Brooklyn, Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story,  and Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune. I know that many of my stories focus on  identity and  celebration of ourselves,  but it wasn’t until I read that headline that I fully understood the variety of ways in which we can say "I am me and that’s very fine." 

 Cordelia is teased  because she is different from the other children in her village. She discovers that once you accept yourself the teasing stops, and that what is different about her  can be what contributes to  success.  Princess struggles against having to  replace her beloved Jamaica with Brooklyn, and fears she will lose her concept of who she is. She discovers that her self-concept will not be lost or replaced. It will only grow, and that you can love both Jamaica and Brooklyn like all the other Jamaicans in the diaspora, and that she can love her mother as well as her granny. Ebony, from a children’s home,  proves children from children’s homes can be successful, and she escapes  the traditional Cinderella story, by not only marrying a man worthy of her, (it isn’t that she has to be worthy of him), but earns shares in his spice factory, and trains and employs other girls from the home to work with her in the company.

In The Happiness Dress, Carolyne proves what she already knows,  that it’s okay to accept that you reflect the Caribbean even when you are in another place, and she is the happiness of her Daddy’s heart. And finally Abigail! To quote Kim: Abigail's poufy hair is nothing like a Barbie doll's, but Abigail  doesn't care two hoots about that. What a wonderfully self-assured little girl, in love with her own glorious hair, and by extension her own glorious self. You just have to look at Rachel Moss’ illustration of Abigail looking at herself in the mirror, to be assured of this.  It’s a wonderful synchronicity that most of these books have been illustrated by the talented Rachel Moss, who is gifted  at interpreting what  the writer imagined.

And now, guys, you know how we wonder if Caribbean children’s literature makes a difference, even though we, the writers, know that it does. But how do you quantify it, we ask, to prove its importance to others?  Okay! I have news for you! One of my friends bought the books at the launch for her grandchildren. She just sent me an email and photo of her little granddaughter who  wanted her hair let out for church this morning, just like Abigail's. Truly guys!  We have to continue writing.  As Kim said in her address: The road is long but we have to keep on going. For the sake of our children’s self esteem, we don’t have a choice.
Photos: top left of Dr. Kim Robinson Walcott, courtesy of Michael Reckord. Me, signing books: courtesy of Camille Parchment

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Despatches: The Great Amazon Expedition! Children’s Publishing in the Caribbean, a Cottage or Boutique Industry

 I cannot believe that my last post was last year.
That was when I was going to do a dramatic push with my two latest books on Amazon, The Happiness Dress, the story that won the Special Prize for a children's story from  the Commonwealth Foundation in 2011, and Abigail’s Glorious Hair. Picture an expedition into the somewhat unknown.

That did not turn out as well as I had anticipated. First, there was a new app offered by Amazon, Kindle Kid’s Book Creator, which was brilliantly simple to use. Even I could use it, and proceeded to do so. Both books looked fine right up to and including the review of the book. However, once they were up on Amazon, the type was not as clear as I wanted. My friend, Hazel Campbell, who usually uploads my books, had to rescue one by putting it into Word first, which required rearranging of the layout.  I was greatly disappointed in my efforts. I gather that other people have been complaining about this aspect of the app. We know that this won’t matter to Amazon until they have worked through this kink, somewhat like an experiment. In my opinion, nobody in technology  cares about these complaints really. They just continue working to build a better mouse trap. So in my annoyance and disappointment, I did not promote the books much, and consequently got little sales. So Amazon and I fell out, unbeknownst to Amazon. Whose nose was cut off, eh! I suspect that my failure to do regular posts on my blog had something to do with this. Cut off your nose once; cut off your nose twice.

 However, I still believe that it is near to impossible to get the traffic to and interest in the Caribbean children’s books on Amazon. And self promotion continues to be a challenge for me. Nobody is to blame. As they say now, ‘It is what it is’.  So I set out armed essentially with my imagination of what could be. And now the great Amazon expedition is over. I’ll still upload books; it is a place to locate them. I suppose I will still promote them now and then.

 I was, therefore, convinced that I needed to produce print copies of these books. They deserved it. With a monetary gift from a relative, I have been able to do so. They are now printed and are lovely. I plan to launch them early in May, Child Month. However, without that gift I could not have done so. Even then, I could only afford to print 500 copies of each. This means that the unit cost is high. The market cannot bear more than a certain selling price. Consequently, I will not even make enough money to recover costs and do another print run. In other words, my expectation is to be able to cover costs. Without the monetary gift  . . .etc. 'It is what it is'.  And of course, I still have to promote and sell them. I think it  should be much easier than dealing with cyberspace. I’ve done it before . . . albeit some time ago. Let's hope it’s not another expedition of the imagination.

The finances explained above lead me to conclude that nothing has significantly changed in the production of children’s books in the last 30 years. Sorry! No! Something has changed; there are far more writers in the field, which is a very good thing, and many of them are doing self publishing. And there are some young publishers, one in particular, who has published a number of prizewinning books. In fact, there is quite a bit of activity in other Caribbean islands. So there has been progress and there is excellence. Generally speaking, however, publishing of children’s books will continue to be for the love of and passion for it, a cottage or boutique industry. Prove me wrong! Please prove me wrong!

No, I’m not disillusioned. Writing for children  is a passion. Passions have to be pursued. And that the next generation is carrying on this passion is truly wonderful.
Kingston Book Festival also speaks to the vibrancy of the literary scene. From the opening readings  on March 6 at the University of the West Indies, which featured Olive Senior reading from The Pain Tree, which has gone on to win the Bocas Award for Fiction, award winning poet, Vladimir Lucien, from St. Lucia, previous YA Burt Award winning writer, A-dZiko Simba Gegele, Mel Cooke, poet and Tanya Shirley, poet,  to the final Bookfair on Saturday. I read from my latest children's books at the National Library of Jamaica Open Day and the Bookfair turned up the most delightful group. They are called Kozy Korner. They have a great idea, a Kozy Box. They  will produce and deliver a gift box of books, accent on local books, with a few international items  to a very lucky child that you know. Fantastic! How innovative! Each generation brings something new to the table. I wish them every success. You can email them at: KOZYKORNERBOOKSJA@GMAIL.COM. I think they will need corporate sponsors as well as the general public.