Monday, May 4, 2015

What is a Caribbean story? Are our people in the diaspora still Caribbean?


 Can stories about Caribbean people in the diaspora still be Caribbean?

After the blog on Nancy Drew (March 2), it might seem that I was overcome by the realization that Nancy Drew was still beloved.  I admit to being somewhat confused. What do I write next which is relevant? Has it all been for nothing? So perhaps it has taken this time to garner my thoughts. I can have no quarrel with Nancy Drew. I too loved her, and look how I turned out. My life has been about writing stories, our stories for our children.

And there is much more activity on the children’s book scene: young writers writing, young publishers publishing; Caribbean book prizes of substance now exist, including our Lignum Vitae Awards, which will consist of the revitalised Una Marson Award for adult writing, and Vic Reid Award for YA, and the brand new Jean D’Costa for children’s; and she is still alive. This is recognition indeed, as there has been the realisation of the need to divide the former children’s section into two categories. Book festivals abound here, and in the region at large. Talking Trees comes up this month (it alternates with Calabash) and I am delighted that it has  good corporate support. Moreover, there has been more corporate support for literacy and books through the purchase of local children’s books for leisure reading. These initiatives have been spearheaded by the new generation of writers and publishers. Reading Week, this  week, sees corporate sponsors providing for reading in schools. Some schools, on their own initiative, have asked for authors to come and read. What more could one ask? Well, more sales, but we might be getting there.

From the point of view of what to write next, some of us have also revisited the concept of quaint versus contemporary. And as we look at the books/stories from the developing world, which are recognized by the developed world – allowing for publishing opportunities and increased sales -  we see that quaint, or what is different, holds sway. And indeed, why not? If I’m reading about some other country far away from our region, I think I would want to know what’s different, what traditions and customs have created the situation in which the characters find themselves, and have made the characters behave in the way they do. (Does anybody know of a book set in the Seychelles or Mauritius? I just have a feeling that might be fascinating.) So if you are going to write a Caribbean children’s/YA story do you have to set it in the  Caribbean? What a question to ask. In truth, I never thought I’d ask it.

In search of an answer, let us see what this journey has been? I come from the group that produced the first truly Jamaican children’s stories to be put in schools as supplementary readers. We were bold even in the face of some opposition, but the Ministry of Education believed in that project and in us. We were bold because we had survived colonialism. Perhaps you would not understand unless you too had been there, to survive. We created stories set in our own environment, with children in the image of our people, using our own words. Bold indeed! We were the group that celebrated black is beautiful. Perhaps you would not understand unless you  too had been there, to celebrate. We became comfortable in our hair and our skin,  and in our island and region, and we dared to put them in children’s books. We dismissed Enid Blyton! 

And in our literature! We delighted in Naipaul, Selvon, and Mittleholzer and Carew, and later, Hodge, who knew exactly what colonialism had done to us. We almost felt as if we had discovered these writers, and indeed we had, because we had discovered ourselves through them. I was in Trinidad as a  presenter at a workshop when Selvon died, and Merle Hodge wrote in my own, original, old copy of Crick Crack Monkey, and I thought that I was a part of history. 

So we are bold enough to ask, what can we write? Should it be quaint or contemporary? Should writing for the Caribbean be set only in the Caribbean, or can it  be in the diaspora? Discovering the diaspora as a valid place for us to be, is akin to discovering ourselves when we were bold enough to recognize ourselves in books and create ourselves in books. I was therefore taken aback when an overseas writer said in an interview, giving advice to us, ‘You don’t have to write about somebody going to Toronto or New York for it to be important. Setting your stories right here in the Caribbean is important’ (paraphrased). And I thought, but we know that! We have survived colonialism, we know that black is beautiful because we signed on for that, and we know that we are in books because we put our protagonists there.

But what about migration, the enduring fabric of our lives? We all have family that has migrated. Do they have stories to tell? Marlene Nourbese Philip’s Harriet’s Daughter (YA set in Toronto) had a story to tell. Samuel Selvon’s  Lonely Londoners had a story to tell. What is contemporary? I think we must write about all the experiences of our people. We must be bold enough. Each writer must write the story each writer has to tell, even if not being at home in the region all the time or quaint, is not the place to be.

 

 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Considering Nancy Drew - Forever? Or can we replace her?


Is there a child in the western English speaking world that did not love Nancy Drew?  I read those books, you read those books, no doubt.  My children read Nancy Drew. I checked Amazon, and while there was evidence of new modern packaging, Nancy Drew books are still available, hardcover copies with the same covers I remember. A success story of no mean order.

I was in a meeting recently where I said that  there was this new genre of YA. I was told that we always had it in the form of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Of course,  I was thinking of the more adult Twilight Series, Hunger Games, Divergent, enjoyed both by adolescents and adults alike. We could debate whether Nancy Drew qualifies as young adult, and it probably does, based on  its teenage heroine, even if we place it at the younger end of the spectrum.

The other day I went into a bookstore and came upon a little girl and her Mum. This little girl was bright, as was her Mum. I know this because the little girl was looking at books and could even advise me on what was really cool. I knew her Mum  was bright because she gave her child time to look at the books  - no big 'rush-rush' to get out of the store. The little girl went into raptures when she saw the piles of Nancy Drew books. She sounded like me when I was young.  There was a discussion between the little girl and her Mum as to which she had, and which she could get on whatever next occasion, birthday, etc.

So I asked, "How old are you?"  She was 8. I was very impressed. I don't think I read Nancy Drew at 8.  However, perhaps I was more like 10. I shared my love of books with her and the fact that  I asked for books, not only for birthdays, but for Christmas also. Love of books reigned!

After the little girl had moved on I opened one of the books, and was struck by the very first sentence in which we were introduced instantly to Nancy's blue eyes and blonde hair. I shared this with the shop assistant who was standing by. I said, "I have a problem with this. We don't look like this." (It would be of note  that perhaps this might also apply to many other little girls in the world. I remember an interview with a little American girl saying how  happy she was to see the animated movie Pocahontas as she too had dark hair - not blonde.) Back to the shop assistant, who brought another book which started differently, and asked if I had a problem with that one. I grinned. Clever girl. Her expression suggested, ' I'm not sure why this lady is bent all out of shape over this, but let me see if I can help her'.

 Later  I checked a Nancy Drew book site and found that the reading level of some is indicated as 8. I also noted something else - price. If you want a whole heap of Nancy Drew books for much less than the US$ selling price indicated on the book, and much less than the price on Amazon, just go to one of our bookstores. However,  these are remainders, hence their low cost.

No, I'm not against Nancy Drew; I'm not even against remaindered books, although I know that their very cheap price  makes the sale of Caribbean children's books even more challenging. However, the upside of that is that more children get a chance to buy  books. Nonetheless, I am for more diverse books, and especially for our books. Interestingly enough, we have been saying that it's the parents who are leading the children to buy  books like Nancy Drew, books that these parents liked and read when they were young. However, this little girl in the bookshop loved them; even if her parent suggested them originally, she loves them.

How do we compete with this? Can we compete with this? Certainly we can't in relation to price. So what I'm really asking is how do we attempt to place local books in that slot? It's not just a demographic slot; it's also a type of book; not just a chapter book, but an adventure/mystery type of book. It's one thing  to write a mystery/adventure that is set in a big country where a location or happening does not reflect any particular reality; it's another thing to do so in small island states/territories with small known populations, where a setting and a situation comes with a known reality. For example, any mystery involving wrong doing might well lead back to real dangers like smuggling of drugs (the challenge of island states in this region used as transshipment areas);  missing children might lead to human trafficking; kidnapping can be a reality which our protagonist could face if he/she got into the wrong taxi, and so on. Of course, these extreme occurrences, might be said to apply to the rest of the world in these days. There are dangers in the rest of the world that did not exist when Nancy Drew was envisioned.

Perhaps the beauty of Nancy Drew is that she exists in a bubble in time.

Perhaps all stories, are subjects of time, place and perceived reality/fantasy. However,  ours,  if they are to be ours, must reflect aspects of our culture/ environment. On this premise must rest our ability to write mystery adventure/stories. Therefore, if we are going to write our own teenage mysteries, what will we write? Will we write  about  the mystery of the pirate treasure? Too predictable? Too much what  you would expect as an island mystery? Perhaps 'The mystery of the burning canfields'. However from a sociological point of view, this  cannot lead to the discovery of workers  burning the fields so they can reap earlier than expected. You see the problem I fear. Everything we might write about carries either an identifiable real danger, not to be treated flippantly (for example, in mysteries protagonists are always creeping out of their houses at night to follow someone/spy on somebody - children are not allowed to do that here), or bound by not making the bad guys be an identifiable group. So maybe we shouldn't try.  

Therefore Nancy Drew rules forever?

 But stop! Wait a minute. What if the mystery/adventure involves someone trying to blame the workers on the sugar estate, and the protagonist uncovers this dastardly plan.  Who is doing this and why? Perhaps, it can be done,  guys.

You know,  I had no idea that this post would come to this conclusion. I was sure the writing of our own mystery/adventure series was a lost cause, and now it seems it might not be. Come to think of it, I worked with a group of ten-year-olds on writing of stories, and they could probably write the plot for these mysteries (to be made more sophisticated for an older audience)  without getting stuck in all my adult concerns. Hmm. And now I remember I wrote one called Much More Than Shells for the under 12 age group, with smugglers, a hideout, an escape down a bluff to the sea and a final rescue by the police. Would I write something like that again? I don't know. Come to think of it, both Jean D'Costa and Hazel Campbell have mystery/adventure stories also. So go ahead guys! Choose your hero heroine and start your local/regional "Nikki Diamond Solves the Mystery of ..." or Brave Boys Mysteries, or just join the conversation.
 
Then all we'd have to do next is to convince the gatekeepers that being local stories, they are not any more dangerous to the children than Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Launch of the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards - Jamaica: meaningful awards, meaningful monetary prizes


 

On Tuesday , February 10, 2015, the Lignum Vitae Awards were launched under the auspices of the Jamaican Writers Society (JaWS) and the Jamaican Copyright Licensing Agency (JACOMPY). The awards are named for  outstanding Jamaican authors. The Lignum Vitae tree is indigenous to Jamaica and can be seen all over the island.

The Una Marson Award  for adult creative writing  and the Vic Reid for children’s were instituted and previously managed by the National Book Development Council of Jamaica.  The Vic Reid will now be for young adult literature and the Jean D’Costa  Award has been added for children’s. It was a well executed event.  I felt elated, as if we had achieved something, and indeed we have. The prize money, courtesy of JAMCOPY, is significant, as if we are really giving a writing prize worthy of writing prizes. It was also heartwarming (trite but true) to see the librarians and other persons who were involved with the National Book Development Council of Jamaica, who first administered the awards, and the young persons who are now carrying this on. Passing of the mantle, another trite but true expression. And even though some of the older ones are still involved, ready and willing to assist, it is great to see this transition. The president of JaWS, Tanya Batson-Savage, did  us proud in her address and comments. Literature as identity creation! I think we are to be delighted when we see that the things we really care about are in good and passionate hands.

Velma Pollard, well know Jamaican writer of poetry and prose, the guest speaker, spoke to the contribution of the writer to society: to heal, inspire and defend our values (taken from the words of a journalist, she told us), to hold a mirror up to nature (Shakespeare); the writer  is a voice . . .a meaningful silent narrative (the words of which) break into our silent spaces and may even cause us to act. Loved that ‘break into our silent spaces’.

I love to find meaning in things, events, occasions, activities, perhaps because there is always meaning, for you, for me, and we may all discover different meanings, as we are at different points on our various journeys. So I took with me the meaning of transition, of things of value to me, of things I cared about passionately, being protected by those coming after, with equal passion.

There is also one important thing about living in small places, and that is, that our great people can be known to you, have touched your life,  have guided your way. It makes all events doubly significant.

Vic Reid: (His son was at the launch, which I think was lovely). I think that Vic Reid was the first Jamaican writer who made me aware that books for older children,  as opposed to folktales and picture storybooks for younger children, were being written by a Jamaican. I think I was young. I’m not saying that there weren’t others; I’m just saying that was the emotional tie for me. I also like that he wrote historical fiction. I love reading about how real events may have affected ordinary people. What better way to understand history. Hence my own time travel adventures to real events in our history.

Una Marson: I tell a true story of a steamer trunk of books in the house in which I lived as a child. Amongst them was a book written by a woman, a Jamaican woman, with her picture in the front. That’s when I discovered that black people wrote books. I’m not saying that that is how my childlike mind actually analysed it, but I know that I was astonished and fascinated.  If she could do it, then so could I. I think that was Una Marson. I do not know why I think so. Then wonderful connection! My grandmother acted in a play called London Calling at the Ward Theatre, written by Una Marson. I wasn’t around then, but I found the playbill amongst my grandmother’s things. It feels as if my grandmother was part of our creative history, as if we were there in the beginning, and so the creativity was passed on.

Jean D’Costa: Yes, I know her, and she actually was our guest speaker when we were trying to revive the Children’s Writers Circle a few years ago. I like her writer’s voice. It speaks to me. My favourite book of hers is Voice in the Wind, which regretfully is out of print. It is one of my favourite children’s books by a Caribbean or any other author.  I think of this book as a quiet book which ‘may break into my silent spaces’, as I snuggle in bed under a comforter (it is rather cool here now, and it is quite often cool when it rains). It has a mystery, a bit of the unexplained. It is not the magical realism of our cultural paranormal, duppy stories or mystic religion. It is rather that which we share as all human beings, the unexplained.

And what is the point of this post, once I told you about the awards, you might ask. I think that:

1)      it is the continuity from generation to generation, because without that the cultural  thread is broken;

2)      it is the making of meaning; what we take away from any event or book which we recognize as a part of our lives or the lives of our ancestors, and which so emboldens us, that it keeps us writing for the next generation.

It is of note that the Lignum Vitae means ‘wood of life’.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Looking for yourself in a story . . .Aah! Finding yourself. Multicultural children's books


I have said that when I was little I was an avid reader (of course), but interested as I was in the stories I read,  my desire was that there be stories about us, as we are, as 'normal' people. I might now add, in relation to my last post, not necessarily quaint.

Fast forward to my MEd. Study,  “I will not look at books the same way again”: Teachers’ Feelings About the Use of Caribbean Children’s Literature (2003). One of my quotes in the literature was: Pugh (1988) cites Bill Martin Jr. “Without consciousness of how or why ...the reader is forever rummaging and scavenging through the pages for a glimpse of self ...”  Isn’t that what we do?  And if we don’t, is it that we have no concept of self?  We do not expect to find ourselves there. For our children, that would be a pity.

Come with me then. In my constant search for children’s books to read, ( I love reading children’s books), I came across The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan. Shame and more shame, I had not read him before. But that’s why we all need exposure to other people’s literature. And he is very main-stream, very popular.

So I’m ambling through the book and something catches my eye on p.3, where the young hero describes his father, “He has dark brown skin like mine, piercing brown eyes, a bald head and a goatee  . . . ”

Clearly I’ve misread it. . . .dark brown skin . . .I read it again. Hmm. Then on p. 7 the young hero, along with his father, go to pick up his sister. He says, “You would never believe she’s my sister  . . . she takes after our mom who was white, so Sadie’s skin is much lighter than mine. She has straight caramel-coloured hair . . . .her eyes are blue. I’m serious. . . .”

By now I’m breathless. And so yes, I now realize that the hero is indeed a child of colour; he is from a mixed race family. I say that calmly now, but then I just kept reading and rereading.  Have I really found ‘myself’ in this boy, in this book? Somebody wrote about us, as a hero, in a book which wasn’t identified as an  African American, Black British or Caribbean book? Somebody wrote about us in a ‘normal’ book!

I conclude that the writer must also be at least mixed race. At least! I look him up. He is not. He is a normal Caucasian looking man. He has written a number of books with a base of mythology, which fall into various series. The Red Pyramid  is from the series called the Kane Chronicles and has a lot to do with Egyptology. Fascinating!

The point is, however, if with all of my experience, I was still blown away by finding us in a ‘normal’ book, as the hero, not just one of a group to  be politically correct, much as I welcome that, how do children feel when they find themselves in a book? How do they feel when they don’t?

We have been talking about the need for our children to see themselves in books forever, it seems. However, now I dare to think that there may be a further breakthrough. Tuesday, January 27 is Multicultural Children’s Book Day in the USA. So we join with them in their recognition of this need. Books included here are just some of what we offer.

 Books shown here: Cricket is My Game by Jason Cole from Barbados; Shaggy Parrot and the Reggae Band by Jana Bent and Friends, Jamaica; A Tumbling World . . .A Time of Fire (an E-book on Amazon) by Diane Browne from Jamaica; Drog a Dreggen Story by Hazel Campbell from Jamaica,  and Boy Boy and the Magic Drum by Machel Montano from Trinidad and Tobago.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

To be, or not to be . . .quaint: the back story


 

I’ve been meaning to write a blog about what Caribbean children’s literature is, or should be, or can be.  And yesterday I got a phone call which gave me new insight and made me realize that I could not put it off any longer.

When I run writing workshops, I always  point out to the participants that the target audience is a key aspect of writing. This usually applies to the differences in the  level of the material, the mechanics of writing  and perceived interests of the target audience. Essentially the writer can jump in passionately and write whatever catches his/ her fancy, but at some point, and usually this is before starting to write, the writer has to decide if the story is going to be in picture book/picture storybook format, or a chapter book or a young adult novel. The story the author wants  to tell often dictates the level. Most authors tend to write for a particular target audience; some can write for various levels. This would apply across the world of children’s’ writing.

We are all accustomed to European/Western children’s literature. For some decades now, however, developing countries/ex European colonies  have been trying to develop their own children’s literature, based on the psychological construct that seeing oneself in books and reading about one's own cultural environment contributes to a healthy self concept. One might ask if the reverse is therefore true.

It would seem that the rationale for producing local children’s literature must have been accepted by the people of the Caribbean by now. I and others have been on this bandwagon for the last 30  years at least; the Doctor Bird Reading Series, supplementary readers developed by the Ministry of Education here in Jamaica in the early 1980s, and for which I wrote, were to address this very need. The Jamaica Reading Association had already done some local short stories, and the Children’s Writers Circle sought to continue this by encouraging local writers to produce material. There were other authors in the Caribbean with the same dream; and we even formed regional authors’ groups. We achieved a lot; the Jamaica Library Service was supportive. Oh how confident we were! However, perhaps it wasn’t a bandwagon, but more like one of those old-time drays pulled by mules or  oxen, to be overtaken by. . . time . . . and . . . the excitement of technology.

Everyone gives lip service to the support for local children’s literature. However, although we  have a new generation of young publishers in Jamaica and the rest of the region, they seem to be facing the same frustrations we eventually did.

So what do we say are the challenges again?

1.       Low purchasing power/disposable income

2.       Small overall market in the region, hence low print runs, hence high unit costs, in the face of much cheaper foreign books

3.       Socialization to foreign children’s books, which traditionally were what we all read. So today, even the gatekeepers, who should welcome local books, cannot find it in their hearts or minds to purchase local/regional material.  Have we all been colonized, even those who were never governed or taught by overseas people? 

I am becoming convinced that this might not change much, ever.

However, what about the target audience? What part do they play? What does the target audience want? And who are they anyway?

Most of us writers have been writing what we consider to be contemporary Caribbean children’s literature for our children, so that they can know that they are important enough to be in books. In this endeavor, we have tried not to be too quaint. For the purposes of this  discussion, a definition of quaint might be ‘attractively unusual or old-fashioned’.  After all, our present-day children aren’t quaint; they live in a real world where there are computers, tablets and smart phones. Even if some of them don’t have these items personally, they interact with them in school. They face  very real lives with modern challenges. I think many of us find that our stories consist of the reality of today’s world set in an environment, which though it may have aspects of the quaint, this quaint is not for the sake of quaint, but only as it supports the setting of the story.  

We are convinced that our children want and should have contemporary stories and characters with contemporary concerns.

But are our children the target audience?

Or are the gatekeepers the real target audience, and are they a little bit afraid of what contemporary might mean, without sometimes actually reading the books?

And what of the overseas target audience, the diaspora about which we dream? ( “If this book could just get to the diaspora, man, I cool.”)

So yesterday when someone asked me how to find a book for a relative overseas to give to a child; ‘something like Anancy’, I replied, “Ah, - like folktales?” “Yes”  was the relieved reply.

And what is more quaint than Anancy and folktales? And when you are overseas, what is more nostalgic and suitable for young relatives divorced from this their ‘ancestral home’ than Anancy and folktales and quaint? And truly, I cannot argue with that. I’m sure that all displaced people, whether displaced willingly or not, long for that security of memory  -  made more delightful with passing years and distance -  of the quaint. The diaspora is probably not longing to read about contemporary children. And even if we consider the multicultural overseas markets, even if we could access it, I bet you they will just want the quaint. 


Please join the conversation.  In a future post I’ll look at some books by title, including the recent YA Burt Awards, which represent our latest regional achievements.

 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Once Upon A Starlight": A Christmas Story


And here we are again, guys; it's Christmas; it always catches us unawares although it comes every year.  As I said last year, I had wanted to write a new Christmas story, but what with one thing and another, I didn't, so here I am again putting up the same Christmas story, Once Upon a Starlight (with the illustrations I painted last year, when I had hoped eventually to break into the 'big time' of doing my own children's book illustrations.  Don't laugh!)  By the way, the illustrator who did the black and white images was Pat Lee. Last year I couldn't find her name.
 
However, there has been one additional experience with this story (first published in 1983 - in A Circle Book, The Big River and Other Stories) and that is, that I used it on a recent visit to a school and got a wonderful reception from the children. It still has relevance, or perhaps new relevance. (See my previous post to this one).
 
So, should I try to republish it as a book on its own? Hmm! Should I try to publish Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella Story (now an e-book) as a print book, as some have suggested? Hmm! Should I continue in my efforts to get Things I Like published? Hmm! Hmm! And what about my Commonwealth prize winning story, The Happiness Dress, still stuck with a publisher? Hmm! Hmm! Hmm! And again, Hmm!
 
In the new year, I'll share with you my thoughts on  having e-books on Amazon versus/as well as possibilities for further print books. No, I have no plans up my sleeve. I'm just thinking. So please enjoy Once Upon a Starlight, and a Happy Christmas to all!

 

Once Upon a Starlight 


by Diane Browne

 

Angela pressed her face against the glass of the toy store window. She looked longingly at the chocolate-coloured doll with the tight black curls, dressed in a white blouse and frilly red skirt. Oh how she wanted that doll! But she knew that her parents couldn’t afford to buy it for her.

            It was almost Christmas. The store windows were draped with coloured paper streamers and shiny bits of tinsel. The sidewalk stalls had balloons, starlights and paper Christmas hats. The fruit vendors sat with their piles of pineapples, paw paws, oranges and shiny tangerines. And there was a tall Christmas tree in the park that shone with many coloured lights at night.

            Angela sighed as she turned away from the store window. Pushing her way through the crowds of excited Christmas shoppers, she tried to console herself. She could not have the doll, but she did have a paper bag with three starlights. They were not little starlights, but giant ones. Old Miss Hannah, who lived nearby, had given them to her because Angela had helped her to set up her stall.

            When Angela got home her father was sitting on the verandah. He had been out of work for some time and he looked very sad. Every day he went looking for work, but he couldn’t  find any. Her mother, who was sitting just inside the front door, was busy sewing; she was making clothes to sell to the stores. Angela’s little sister, Carol, ran to meet her.

            “What did you buy, Angela?” she called out  when she saw the paper bag.

            Angela showed her family the starlights and explained how she had got them. “I am going to light one each night until Christmas,”  she declared

            “I’m glad that you will have something for Christmas,” said her mother, with a sigh “There is no extra money for presents this year. The money I will get for this sewing will only be enough to buy us some food. I don’t even know if we will have enough to share with Miss Hannah. I know she is alone, and we always invite her to eat with us on Christmas Day ...but things have become so expensive. This has been a hard year.”

            Angela’s father looked even more sad.

            As soon as it was dark Angela went into the yard to light her first starlight. Carol watched from the front steps and squeezed her little hands together in excitement.

            Angela struck a match and placed it against the tip of the long starlight. A gentle Christmas breeze dimmed the flame of the match. Then as it flared again the starlight sparkled and crackled. Angela held it firmly as hundreds of little lights darted everywhere, like stars dancing away in the night.

            “Swing it around, Angela!” shouted Carol. “Make the lights spin!”

            Angela was just about to twirl the starlight in wide circles over her head, when she stopped. She blinked; she could not believe her eyes. There sitting on the top of the starlight was a little old lady, no bigger than a doctor bird. Her head was tied in a red and yellow bandana cloth, and she had on a bandana apron over a long blue cotton dress. Her black face was wrinkled and her eyes twinkled as brightly as the starlight sparkling around her.

            Angela’s heart pounded with fright.

            “Don’t be afraid,” said the little old lady. “I am the Auntie of the Starlight. It was kind of you to help miss Hannah to set up her stall, and I have come to reward you. Each evening as you light a starlight I will appear, and each time you may have a wish for Christmas. What is your first wish, Angela?”

            Angela trembled with anticipation as she thought about the doll in the store window. Then she remembered her father and how sad he had looked. I still have two other wishes, she said to herself. Maybe I can use this one for Daddy.

            “Can I wish for something for somebody else?” she asked in a whisper.

            “Of course,” replied the Auntie of the Starlight. “ They are your wishes. You can use them in any way that you want.”

            “Then I wish that Daddy could get a job,” said Angela breathlessly.

            The old lady tossed her head, showering sparkles of light all over the place. “You may have your wish,” she said.

            And before Angela could thank her, the starlight spluttered, and the old lady disappeared with the last little shimmering lights.

            “Oh, Angela, that was so pretty!” cried Carol.

            “Did you see her too?” said Angela.

            “See who?” asked Carol. “What are you talking about?”

            “Oh, nothing,” replied Angela, deciding that she must have imagined the whole thing.           The next day while Angela’s father went to look for work as usual, Angela helped her mother with the sewing.

            “I’m glad you can hem so well, Angela,”  her mother said.  “We must finish these today as tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am depending on the money I get for them. Though, how I will mange to fill my next order, I don’t know. This old sewing machine is giving trouble and I’m sure it will cost a lot to fix it. I suppose I will just have to sew everything by hand. But that will take so long that maybe the store will give the orders to someone else.

            “They wouldn’t do that, Mummy,” said Angela reassuringly, though, to tell the truth, she was not at all sure that they wouldn’t.

            When Angela’s father came home that evening he looked quite different. He laughed happily as he exclaimed, “I’ve got a job! It’s at a new factory which needed extra help for Christmas, and if I work well the job will be permanent.”

            Angela’s mother smiled. “I’m so glad,” she said, “Angela needs shoes to got to school next term and my sewing machine needs fixing.”

            “Well,” replied her father, “I’ll have enough money for shoes, but that machine is too old now. They don’t even have parts for it anymore. You really need a new one, but I’ll have to work for some time before we can think of that.”

            “Yes, I  know ,” her mother said. “Anyway, now we can invite Miss Hannah to have dinner with us on Christmas Day.”

            Suddenly Angela realized that her first wish had come true. Perhaps she had not imagined the little old lady after all. Perhaps she would really see the Auntie of the Starlight again.

            Angela sat on the front steps waiting for it to get dark. At last the orange sun melted into the deep blue sky. Carol clapped her hands with excitement while Angela lit the second starlight. The breeze rustled through the leaves of the Christmas Bush as the starlight crackled and sparkled. And then just as before, there on its tip sat the Auntie of the Starlight.

            “Daddy got a job,” said Angela.

            “Of course he did,” replied the old lady. “Now what is your wish this time?”

            And just as Angela thought about the doll in the store window again, she remembered that her mother’s sewing machine was not working. Well, she said to herself, I still have my third wish. I’ll use that for the doll.

            “If you don’t mind,” she said to the old lady, “I’d like to use this wish for somebody else also.”

            “I don’t mind,” replied the Auntie of the Starlight. “They are your wishes.”

            “Okay, then,”  said Angela, “I’d like a sewing machine for Mummy.”

            The old lady tossed her head, showering sparkles of light all over the place. “You may have your wish,” she replied.

            “Thank you,” said Angela, and just as before, the starlight spluttered and the little old lady disappeared with the last little shimmering lights.

            Early next morning, Angela, her mother and Carol delivered the finished clothes to the store. Then they went to buy the food for Christmas Day. They bought some sorrel and ginger in the market to make the sorrel drink; they got sweet potatoes from a lady by the side of the road. Angela’s mother said that even a small ham was too expensive this year, so they bought a nice big chicken instead. She said Miss Hannah would probably bring a small Christmas pudding as usual. It would be a great Christmas after all.

That evening, just as Angela’s mother was crushing the ginger and Angela and Carol were picking the red sorrel, their father came home.

            “I have a surprise for you,”  he said to Angela’s mother with a big smile on his face. “One of the men at the factory knows a man who sells sewing machines. He will let us have one since I’m working, and I can pay him a little each week from my salary. And meanwhile you will have something to use.”

            There was a happy light in her mother’s eyes, and her father’s face shone with pride because once again he could help his family. Angela knew she had used her first two wishes well, and now on Christmas Eve she would make her final wish.

She could not stay still. She kept running out into the yard to look at the sky. Slowly, oh so slowly, it changed from a pale blue to gray streaked with pink.  At last it was dark.

            The two girls stood in the front yard. Angela took a box of matches from her pocket to light the starlight.    

            Suddenly Carol said, “Please, Angela, can I hold the starlight this time?”

            “No, you can’t!” replied Angela quickly. “You are too little. It might burn you.”

            “I’m big enough. I’ll be careful,” cried Carol. “I never got a chance to hold one before. Please, Angela, please! Let me hold it for just a little.”

            Angela thought about the doll. Then she looked at her sister. Her little body was trembling with excitement and her eyes pleaded for this chance.

            “All right,” sighed Angela, “ but just for a little. You must give it back to me when I tell you.”

            “Yes, I will. Thank you Angela,” Carol whispered.

            After all, Angela said to herself, it is long enough for both of us to have a turn at holding it. I will still have a chance to see the Auntie of the Starlight.

            The starlight burst into glittering lights as Carol held it tightly, her  face full of delight. The sparks flew in all directions, piercing the darkness like shooting stars, then disappearing like peenie wallies in the night.

            “This is the most beautiful starlight!” laughed Carol. “Just look at it, Angela!”

            Angela thought that this starlight did look even more brilliant  than the others. Then, just as she was about to take it from Carol, the starlight suddenly spluttered, and with a hissing sound the lights all died away. The Christmas breeze was now quite strong and Angela wondered if it had blown out the starlight.

            “Is it finished already?” asked Carol anxiously.

            “It can’t be,” replied Angela sharply, as she took it and looked at it carefully. But the starlight was already black and twisted. Angela fought back the tears as she struck match after match, trying to light it. But nothing happened.

            “I’m sorry, Angela,” said Carol softly. “You didn’t get your turn.”

            Angela couldn’t bear to make Carol feel sad, so she tried to smile bravely, as she said, “It’s all right. I had two already -  remember?”

            “Then you aren’t vexed?” Carol said with relief.

            “No, of course not,” Angela replied, as she gave her sister a quick hug. “And this one was especially pretty, just for you.” Carol’s hesitant smile, which became brighter  as she realized that it really was all right, made Angela feel that perhaps it was better after all, to have made her little sister happy.

            She was very disappointed about the doll but she was determined not to show it,  as the two girls got their clothes ready for church on Christmas morning.

            The first little rays of daylight were just slipping through the thin curtains at the windows when Angela turned over and rubbed her eyes. She stretched and yawned, and then she felt something at the bottom of her bed. She sat up and rubbed her eyes again; and there, sitting on the old chenille spread, was the doll with the white blouse and the red frilly skirt. I must be dreaming, Angela thought. But as she ran her hand over the tight black curls and the smooth chocolate-coloured face, she knew she was awake. It was not a dream at all.

            “Mummy, Daddy!” she called.

            Carol, who was awake by now, was jumping up and down in her excitement. She had discovered another doll in the folds of the spread. It was a baby doll, just the right size for her.

            “Thank you, Mummy and Daddy,” cried Angela as her parents appeared at the door. “How did you know just what I wanted?”

            “Did you put those dolls there?” their father asked their mother, laughing.

            “It’s a surprise to me,” replied their mother with a secret smile.

      
      And as Angela hugged her parents, she thought she saw something darting along a shaft of light and out through the window; something as small as a doctor bird, except that there was a flash of red and yellow like bandana cloth.

            I wonder if it really could be her? said Angela to herself with a little smile. I wonder if the Auntie of the Starlight really was here?

 

from The Big River and Other Stories

Monday, November 24, 2014

Are you underestimating the possible present impact of stories you wrote long ago?


Stories that have meaning from generation to generation: Do you have one of these stories that still provides enjoyment and has significance even after decades? Are you sure that you aren't underestimating the present impact of stories you may have written long ago?

On Wednesday last week, I was asked by Mrs. Grossett, the librarian at Franklin Town Primary, my favourite primary school, to visit and read and interact with the students. It was great seeing again some of the children with whom I had done the writing workshop earlier in the year, to feel the shared connection to story and reading. It was delightful to meet again the dedicated members of staff and the principal, Mr. Leroy Smith. I even met staff who want to write. This is great because I believe that staff can write for themselves as well as for their students.
Most wonderful, and a complete surprise, was the presentation of a plaque which read:
Presented to Diane Browne
Your service to Franklin Town Primary has been phenomenal
 "We love and appreciate you" November 2014.
So my cup runneth over with joy, as you can imagine.   I've been associated with Franklin Town Primary for some time. In the 1990s I used to work in publishing nearby, and we just came together in some way. They ask me to read from time to time, and as long as it's possible, I always go.  Mrs. Grossett is an outstanding librarian. I remember when I first met her, realising that her library was not only a window to the world of books, but also a haven. My doing writing workshops with the children is yet another way she has thought of  empowering her students.

I must say also, that a credit to the school and its staff is the fact that the children were all keen to read, when asked if they'd like to share in the reading of a story. Even if they might struggle with the odd word, they still wanted to read. This is the sign of  a nonthreatening learning environment, where children want to perform, and know that they can try and try again until they succeed. This was even evident in the younger grades, where one might expect to find some children who might be less fluent in their reading.

And now to the story. Mrs. Grossett had asked if I had any little stories which were inexpensive enough for the children to buy, and then I could autograph them. I have none. Everything that is published ends up being too expensive.  However, I thought, surely I can give what actually belongs to me? So I decided to send the text of the story I put on my blog every Christmas, Once Upon a Starlight, first published in The Big River and Other Stories by the Children's Writer's Circle with funding by Caribbean Greeting Company. The children would be able to make their own little booklets, and either colour the black and white illustrations or draw their own.

For this particular story, the group was from grades 4-6. We met in the room with the beautiful teaching aids which you can see in the photos. Many of the children had not yet got a chance to finish reading the story sent, so we talked about it. We discussed the fact that I had wanted to change the traditional 'Once upon a time' to 'Once upon a starlight'; and to make the giver of wishes be the 'Auntie of the Starlight', instead of a 'fairy godmother',  both to make the story more Jamaican. (This was when and why I created Auntie of the Starlight.) I told them  how when I was little we used to go down King Street on Christmas Eve and look at all the toys, and paper hats and starlights that the vendors were selling. Are you there with me, guys? The children were there with me. You know you can feel when you are one with your audience.

Angela, the little girl in Once Upon a Starlight wishes she could have a doll she sees in a store window, but her father can't  find any work, her mother does sewing for stores, but needs a new sewing machine. Things are dire. Everybody understood about being out of work, of needing something like a sewing machine, of not being able to have the Christmas they wanted. This story was written in 1983. Was this when hard times first hit us? Surely not; Jamaicans have been dealing with hard times and  migrating for years to escape it when they can. The fate of small island states! And we are in hard times now again, along with the rest of the world.

Of course, there were the mandatory and recognizable three wishes in the story, each to be stated upon the lighting of a starlight. We did not finish the story because  we wanted the children to either say how they thought the story would end, or draw an illustration for the story. A rush for paper and pencils! Some needed more than one sheet  of paper. There was the buzz of excitement.

Essentially, the children decided what Angela would wish for; definitely a job for her father;  and that all wishes would be granted, including that of the longed for doll. The group had a vested interest in the outcome. The illustrations varied from a glorious big starlight filling up the page ( I contributed by showing them how to use the pencil to create sparkles), to a variety of beautiful 'Angelas',  rivaling any of the traditional fairy tale heroines. Some children added her house and her little sister, who watches the wishing activities from the front steps, but who also wants to hold one of the starlights.

For the children, I'm sure this was an enriching experience. I know that many schools have activities like this. However,  I suspect that there may be others who do not yet understand how this type of activity which relates to stories about us, empowers the children, boosts their confidence. For my part, I learned that stories forgotten can continue to be relevant, can bring meaning to children's lives long after you've relegated them to the past. As people we all wish for the same things, love and security for our family. And always from these activities the children learn: "My life is important enough to be in a story."


Notes on photos: One might think that I decided to show photos of myself. I do have lovely pictures of children reading, both boys and girls, but I try not to show children's faces in any document that will be available to all on the Internet. Those pictures of the children will be sent to the school for them to display as they will. However, I hope that by the pictures I've shown here, you can observe the interactive nature of the activity. Please note the interest shown by the boys. The final picture is of Mrs. Grossett with me donating two of my books to their library.