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.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A real Caribbean book: written by a Barbadian, published in Barbados about a Trinidadian invention: a multicultural/multiethnic book


 
I do want to start looking at multicultural children’s literature in general, and in relation to the Caribbean. Therefore it was perhaps serendipitous that I picked up this book, Ping Pong by June Stoute in Barbados, at the airport, in the Best of Barbados shop. Everything in that sentence has meaning. The book Ping Pong is about the steel pan, invented in Trinidad; June Stoute is Barbadian; the children in the delightful illustrations by Suzette Humphreys and Jehanne Silva-Freimane depict the various ethnic groups of the Caribbean. That it was bought at the airport in a Best of Barbados shop, suggests that sales are to be gained out of a specialty store selling high end art and craft gift items. The book, in verse,  was published in 2011 by Wordways, Barbados.  At the end of the book there is information about the origin of the steel pan and steel bands today.

What is the significance of all of this? Well on the positive side, it’s great to have a multiethnic/multicultural book published for us. On the other hand, one would have to ask why a book like this is not in bookstores in all the islands, available for all our children to enjoy. Maybe it is in some of the other islands, I don’t know, but I’d be ready to swear that it’s not here, and yet a number of our schools have steel bands.  Of course the price, once it is turned into Jamaican dollars, might seem prohibitive to some parents, but surely it should be in school libraries.  These questions I’m posing are nothing new. I have posed them in one way or another, for years now, it seems. If we do not support one another, if we are not interested in one another, why should anybody outside of the region be interested in our books? As usual I live in hope, so that I hope that as people become more interested (yet again)  in multicultural children’s literature, we will in some way get caught up in it as well. More about that in future blog posts.

 
 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A new take on character driven stories: Inviting comments on a story; a fascinating experience

I’ve asked people to comment on stories as readers,  adults, in the form of teachers, librarians, editors, and children, usually from schools. These comments usually help me and my editor as we continue the writing process. But I’ve never put a story on line and invited comments from the general public. I did this with Daughter of the Time to Come in my last blog. I already knew how one of my regular readers felt as she said she couldn’t comment as she really didn’t work with that style of writing/type of story. Translation: she does not like it at all.

So on to the comments. As far as I can see only two people commented, which could mean people didn’t like it and wanted to spare my feelings, or just weren’t interested. But the exercise has been instructive and fascinating for me because I found out so much more about the story.

First comment: N. said that the story was lovely (or maybe that’s what I took her to mean, when she said it was so gentle). She added that she wondered if it weren’t too gentle. I agreed with her and said there really was no action or excitement. Certainly a damning comment form the author herself, eh. She asked what was the target audience, and I stuttered a reply. I realized that I had wanted it to be for children under 12, but hoped that adults would also read it, and read between the lines. I admitted that I had perhaps imagined a type of Native American approach to story, where things are quietly told so as to let us know why something is the way it is. Yet this is not a ‘just so’/’how it came to be’ story. And as I think of that, I share with you an event at the library, where a visiting Native American storyteller told a story; it was beautiful and calm. The children present clapped politely. Then a Jamaican storyteller told one of our stories; it was full of fun and excitement and some amount of trickery (Anancy-type survival syndrome) and the children roared with laughter and clapped loudly. Who indeed is my target audience?

Second comment: H. said that the story felt unfinished, that she needed more back-story, more info on both characters, e.g. Was the soldier brought up by house slaves, hence had an affinity for Africans? Had the two characters thought of each other in between the meetings which take place in the story? and so on  H. mentioned the idea, as expressed by the characters, that one day people would respect one another, as something that resonated with her. She pointed out that it was still relevant today and that we have not as humans managed to achieve this ideal. In the story, The Red Warrior tells Daughter of the Time to Come that they had respected one another as great warriors, and that even if they could not now be friends, perhaps their children would be friends in this island in the time to come. The story indicates that Daughter of the Time to Come realizes this truth. . . . "This then was the answer, to have the understanding." That, by the way, was the original ending.

There is a history to this story. I had actually sent it to an American publisher and the children’s editor graciously met with me when I was in New York attending a conference. She said they might be interested if I could include what Maroon life was like, how the villages were set up/worked, etc. I understood what she meant and that this then would make it like those stories which could be promoted as historical/multicultural. I thought about it. It seemed an excellent idea. I did nothing about it when I returned home. The story was selected for a collection of Caribbean folktales. I saw the comments of the readers and one had mentioned the element of romance. The collection was never done because the publisher had discovered by then that children’s books were hard to sell. When that collection was passed onto another publisher, I was not surprised that the story was not included in the book they produced. Perhaps it had only made it through that initial selection because one of the readers had a little romance in her soul.

Both readers, N. and H., picked up on the attraction the characters felt for each other. An attraction that would have been forbidden at that time, and always is, wherever we are in whatever time of history, for those who are on opposing sides. (Romeo and Juliet).

The back story: I know all about these two characters. I can see them. The soldier eventually married and had a family. He had grown up with Africans, not as house slaves, but around them on the estate to which his father was attached. He learnt their ways. Always he wanted to be a brave warrior. He is handsome, just because he is, and he is a wise and brilliant warrior; he can also be gentle. All through his life he often thought of Daughter of the Time to Come, always wondered if he would meet her again. Perhaps he always loved her. Certainly, he understood her.

Daughter of the Time to Come also has a family, she too has thought of him over the years, but would not even admit to herself that she is carrying any feelings for him (as we say in these modern days). She is beautiful, just because she is, and bold, fierce and proud. She is not gentle. She has had no opportunity or inclination to be so. She is bitter about the defeat, as she sees it, of the truce with the British. Her people are more important to her than anything else. (‘I could not love thee dear so much loved I not honour more’ – something I remember from English literature in school when I would mentally collect particularly romantic or life-directing quotes).

These two characters are star-crossed never to be lovers. There is no way that any of their feelings could be admitted. Hence, I suppose in 2014, I give her the consolation prize of mothering all the daughters who will lead her country down through the ages. (The later ending). And after all, who can say if it is the consolation prize?

And that is why, even though I’ve read the comments, I don’t think the story can be changed. This is a character driven story and I don’t think the two characters want to tell their back story. There is nothing more to be said. Their story has been written. These characters came to me and said , ‘Tell our story', and yet , here is a story that perhaps should not have been written, because it is not a story. You may then ask if there is any psychological reason why the characters came to me, any family history. That question did not occur to me until I was writing this blog, and quite honestly, I do not think that there is. This is a story which has no future and yet these two characters are as real to me as any I have ever written.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Daughter of the Time to Come: a story for remembering our heroes


In this month of October we celebrate our heroes; we do so in particular in Heroes Week. We remember our designated heroes as well as all the other heroic people who have contributed to the development of our people and our country. We celebrate our  culture and cultural icons. As you can imagine, our history and culture could be the basis for many children’s stories. Remember all the tales we were told of the heroic in stories from Europe when we were children. Do you remember the boy who stuck his finger in the dyke? I can see myself as child, awestruck at the enormity on what he was doing.

 I also wonder about the people who did not get themselves into stories and history books. My story Daughter of the Time to Come is about two such people, each in their own way heroic, each of them human with hopes and disappointments, and hopes again. I had wanted to upload it as a book on Amazon, but the funds just weren’t there. So I’m putting it on my blog. I hope that you will read it. It may seem a bit long for a blog post, but think of it as a story you don’t have to purchase. Let me know what you think, what you would have liked included. For example, should I make her part Taino?  I just thought of that recently, but I really wanted to make her African, to be related to the unsung Nanny heroes.  There was a previous ending to the story before I revised it. See if you can spot it, and say which you prefer. The two endings have quite different implications.

The illustration, which I love,  is by Errol Stennett. When this story was first selected for an anthology  (which never did get published) this was the piece he submitted for it. Perhaps next year Daughter of the Time to Come can be a real book with plenty of great artwork.
 
Daughter Of The Time To Come
 
It was the time when the Tainos no longer roamed the forests free. And the Spanish who had brought an end to the Taino way of life, had themselves fled the island from the invading British – for that sadly is the way of humankind, conflict instead of peace and understanding. It was then that there lived in the mountain forests a beautiful girl called Daughter Of The Time To Come.
            No one knew how she had got her name but it was whispered that an African wise man, one who could remember the old ways, had named her. This was taken as a sign that she would be a great leader amongst her people, the Maroons.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come showed every sign of fulfilling this prophecy for she was as brave as she was beautiful. Her skin was the rich colour of polished mahogany, her eyes were like pools of dark secret water, and her short tight black curls framed a face of great sensitivity and intelligence. She was an expert tracker, her long, strong legs carrying her swiftly and silently through the forest. And she was accomplished in all methods of fighting used by the Maroons, those fearless Africans who had been slaves of the Spanish, and who had taken to the hills to continue the fight against the British invaders.
             At that time also there were other women leaders amongst the Maroons who were such brave warriors that the British soldiers feared them, believing them to have special magic powers. Daughter Of  The Time To Come knew she would be one of these, one of those who would lead her people in the defeat of the British in the time ahead.
             One day, Daughter Of  The Time To Come stood in the forest quite still; the breeze whispered through the dense foliage gently moving the vines that hung from the massive trees. She listened carefully for she had heard a sound. She was alone. Normally this would not have been so, but she had chosen this day to scout out the area to see if it was a good place for an ambush.
            There was the sound again. Daughter Of The Time To Come clutched her machete. Was it a wild hog?
            No, it was the sound of men coming through the bush. Closer they came, their boots making a distant noise, however careful they tried to be, as they trampled twigs and bramble underfoot. She could tell that it was only a small party which meant that they were either scouts or stragglers.
             Either way she was in danger for she was alone. Mind you, in a minute she could be safely gone, but if she could watch them, and report to her people on their movements, she would show how clever and fearless she was. She stood, hardly daring to breathe, blending in with the sprawling roots of the cotton tree.
             Suddenly the men appeared below in a little clearing where there was a small stream. They were British soldiers, there red tunics a startling contrast to the green forest. They looked lost and exhausted. They threw themselves down by the stream, drinking and splashing their hot faces with water.
             There were only ten or so of them and there were no sounds of others. Daughter Of  The Time To Come relaxed her tense muscles and waited.
            After a while they got up and went back in the direction from which they had come. And now from where she stood, she could easily follow their movements, as birds fluttered from the trees from time to time as they passed. She would take this news to the camp by nightfall. By the next day the Maroons would have caught up with them.
            For the return journey she would need water. So when nothing else stirred in the forest, she slipped into the clearing, and placing her musket and machete beside her, stooped to fill her gourd from the stream.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come suddenly froze. She knew someone was behind her yet she had heard nothing. She jumped up and whirled around. She was looking straight into the face of a British solder with his sword drawn. The first thing she noticed was that he had flaming hair the colour of the setting sun as it sinks into the sea and cold blue-gray eyes like sharpened steel. Surely this must be one of their devils.
            It took her some time to realize that he was not a man but a boy about her age and that he was as frightened as she was. But even then, he was armed and she could not reach her weapons. Would he kill her?
            The young soldier looked at the Maroon girl and saw the face of a fearless warrior with eyes so dark that shafts of black lightning flashed from them. This must be one of the magic women he had heard about. Would she use her magic powers to disarm him?
            It took him some time to realize that she was as young as he was, and that though she stood proud and brave, she was also a beautiful young woman and she was as nervous as he was. And then he realized that shafts of black lightning did not flash from her eyes, but that they were really like pools of dark secret water.
             To her surprise he addressed her in her own language “You are my prisoner.”
            “How did you know I was here? I was as quiet as the snake while you and your men were as noisy as wild hogs.”
             “I saw you standing in the shadow of the tree,” he replied. “So I hid and waited so that I could capture you and take you back and show the others how brave I am. Though at the time I thought you were a man.”
            “But how did you see me? I was well hidden. And how did you come upon me without my hearing? And how do you speak my language?” For she could not understand how he could be so clever.
             And the young solder was very impressed by the bravery of the Maroon girl. She was not afraid. She only wanted to know how he had outwitted her. “I was born on this island and so I know the ways of the forest as well as you do. And I decided to learn your language.” And he laughed with boyish pride.
And when he laughed she noticed that his eyes were not at all like cold blue-grey sharpened steel, but as light and bright as the skies on a day when the sun is not hidden by clouds.
            “Are you one of the magic women?” he asked.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come lifted her head with pride and replied “Not yet, but I will be in the time to come!”
             “If I take you back as my prisoner, they will believe you are one, and they will think that I am extremely brave” he said with a gleam in his eyes.
             “Yes,” she said, “and then they will kill me or make me a slave. And if they make me a slave I would kill myself.”
             The young soldier looked at her and after a while he said “You are truly very brave. I will not let them kill you or make you a slave. Take up your weapons and go, quickly before the others come looking for me.”
            Daughter Of The Time To Come hesitated only a moment before moving quickly to the edge of the clearing. Then she turned and looked back at the red haired soldier.
            And he lifted his sword in salute and called, “Till we meet again in battle, brave warrior!”
            Daughter Of The Time To Come ran as quickly as she could through the forest, her heart thumping in her ears. She wondered if he would change his mind and come after her, for though she was a skilled warrior she now knew that he was perhaps equally clever. But after a while she knew that he would not.
            And when she reached the safety of her people she did not tell them about the red haired soldier for she did not know how to explain his behaviour to them.
 
                                                         ***********
            The years passed and Daughter Of The Time To Come did become a leader of her people, and her bravery was known throughout the island, from the forested mountains to the plantations on the plain, and the British knew her to be one of the magic ones. During this time, although she had not seen the young soldier again, she heard the Maroons speak of a brave Britisher, the Red Warrior they called him. And she wondered.
            One day there was great excitement in their camp. The news had come. The Maroons had ambushed a band of soldiers led by the Red Warrior himself. At last they had caught him. With some of her men she went to the place but when they arrived there was much confusion. They had captured many soldiers but there was not sign of the Red Warrior. Clearly they had been mistaken and he had not been there at all. The Maroons departed but she stood alone in the forest listening.
            She could hear the breeze whispering through the trees. She could hear the call of the parrots. But there was another sound the sound of something breathing. Swiftly and silently she moved through the bushes, and there he was lying wounded. The Red Warrior, the young British soldier, now grown into a man.
             “So we meet again, now that you are truly one of the magic ones. And now I am your prisoner.” He said this with an attempt at a smile but she could see he was in pain.
            She stared at him. To capture the Red Warrior would make her famous even among the magic ones.
            “Will you kill me yourself or will you give me to your men?” he asked.
            “I will not kill a wounded man, nor will I give you to my men. A brave warrior such as you should be able to fight to defend yourself. You should not be killed like a dog or a wild hog.”
             “Then what will you do, Daughter Of The Time To Come?”
            “I must give you back your life as once you gave me mine. Till we meet again in battle, Red Warrior, that is, if you do not die of these wounds before you reach safety,” she replied angrily. But in her heart she hoped he would survive for he was a brave warrior.
            “I will not die of these wounds, I promise you. We will meet again.”
            And Daughter Of The Time To Come left him without a backward glance. Nor did she tell her people what had happened because she could not explain her behaviour to herself, much less to them.
 
                                                          ***********
            The years passed, and then one day the wars were over. There was to be a peace treaty between the British and the Maroons, for neither was winning. The Maroons would have their own land in the mountains forever and be their own people forever.
            Daughter Of The Time To Come gathered with the other Maroon leaders to meet the British. She stood tall and proud, the breeze gently moving her African robes and watched as the British leaders approached.
             The Maroons and the British exchanged the gifts that would mark the treaty. Then one of the British leaders approached her, and even though there was grey in his hair so that is was no longer like the setting sun as it sinks into the sea, she recognized the Red Warrior.
            “Daughter Of The Time To Come,” he said, “now that we are no longer enemies, may we then be friends? You are a brave warrior and I have always admired you.”
            But she was overcome with disappointment and could not answer. For although the British had had to make peace with the Maroons, she felt that the Maroons should have been able to drive them from the island.
             And he understood what she was feeling and said, “Daughter Of The Time To Come, your people were brought here long ago against their will, and mine were sent, as soldiers cannot decide where they are to go. This was not of our making. Surely we can be friends.”
             And though what he said was true, and she admired the brave solder, she was a leader amongst her people and they would not want to see her a friend of this enemy. So she shook her head and said, “My people will not like it, nor will yours.”
            He knew that she was right, so he said, “Use your magic powers and look into the time ahead. What do you see?”
             But she could not see, for she was overcome with sadness.
             “I saved your life at one time, and you saved mine,” he continued. “And so without meaning to, we are friends even though we may not meet again. They say your name means you were destined to be a great leader, and so you are. I hope that in the time ahead our children’s children may live in friendship in this land. And so you will have become not only the Daughter but the Mother Of  The Time To Come.”
            And he turned and left her standing under the same cotton tree where he had first seen her long ago.
            She watched till she could no longer see him. And then she looked upwards through the green foliage, up, up into the sky to the place where it is no longer blue, but only white light. Could she see?                        
            And suddenly she saw clearly that in spite of the ways of humankind, the soldier had saved her life because he saw her not as his enemy, nor even as his friend, but as a brave warrior deserving of respect. And she, without thinking about it, had saved his life for the same reason. This then was the answer, to have the understanding to respect another, and then there would be peace and friendship.
Daughter Of The Time To Come knew that two people do not make a world nor could they alone make all the people understand. The time was not now. But perhaps, little by little, there would be others who would understand in the time to come.  
And moreover, the wise ones had explained her name to her at one time. They had said, “You may wonder why you were not called the Mother of the Time to Come, but you see it is the daughters who go into the future and change it. And so there will be your daughter, and then there will be her daughter, and her daughter, and into eternity.
And now Daughter of the Time to Come could look into the far future and she saw them; Daughters of the Time to Come - Time to Come - Time to Come - Time to Come , telling their truths, creating things not yet imagined; leading their  people; forward – forward – forward, in the time to come.
(C) Diane Browne, 2014