Saturday, August 1, 2015

Response to a critic re my story Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight a Caribbean Cinderella: symbolism and sensitivities

I posted a promo about Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story, on Facebook. I must admit it was not the most brilliantly written promo. It referred to Ebony being in a children’s home and having no future. This critic took me to task, asking how would children from children’s homes feel should they read that. I replied giving the exact words from the text (which she had not yet read). Ebony concludes, ‘People say that children from children’s homes have no future.’  I explained that I had very carefully thought about placing Ebony in a children’s home, and that eventually when Ebony comes into her own, (becomes a manager at the spice factory), she invites other girls from the children’s home to work at the factory and she trains them. Independence for Ebony and for the other girls as well! I thanked her very much for being interested enough to want to comment and to take the time to do so, and said.
 I welcome the challenge posed by the pitfalls of relevant material for our children, as all our local writers do. If this book, even though it is fantasy, makes people think more about the children in children's homes, realise they are of great value (in that we are all valuable, our lives are valuable, no matter where we come from or how we got here), and full of promise, then it will have accomplished something.
 I hoped that when she read the story she would let me know if/ how well the creating of this Caribbean Cinderella story works.
Some  things stand out.
1.    One should write well thought out promos.
2.    If a foreigner had written about children’s homes in a children’s book, no one would mind or even notice. Of course, foreign places are very big; the children’s home could be anywhere in the foreign land, so it never becomes personal or painful. 
3.    Yet, it is good that people notice. And this is why I say  that  writers of children’s stories in small developing nations, especially post colonial countries, have a great responsibility. Some people think writing a children’s book, is no big thing. Not true, guys. A good children’s book must entertain, but the writer must also be aware of the sensitivities of the society in which the story is set, and consequently, the values embedded in the story. Stories are never value free. Yet one must never appear to be preaching as that spoils the story.  

So I want to use this post to talk about the thought processes that went into this story. Many of them will not be evident to our child or adult readers, but they are important nonetheless, because they may stay with the reader long after the story has been read. 

1.    I wanted to write a story in which the Auntie of the Starlight would again play a role. She first appeared in a Christmas story, “Once Upon a Starlight”, written by me and published in a book “Big River and Other Stories”  by the Children Writers Circle. In response to my wish, she requested to appear in this Cinderella rewrite.

2.    The Cinderella character is called Ebony, to indicate a consciousness and celebration of our colour, and because I like Ebony trees when they bloom and promise rain. (Ebony trees appear in other children’s stories of mine.)

3.    It was a deliberate decision to place her in a children’s home. I didn’t think the term 'orphanage' would have much meaning to our children, but children’s homes tend to be in the news from time to time. They are perceived by many as a place of last resort for children. This is not necessarily so, but there is the perception that there is no future there. The story then sets out to show that there can be a future. And note,  Ebony is not ill-treated in the children’s home.

4.   The stepmother character is replaced by Mrs. Redeyeness (‘red eye’ being a term for envy in Jamaica). Mrs. Redeyeness, who lives near to the children’s home, takes pity on Ebony, and invites her to her home to play with her daughters. She does this only to impress people that she is kindhearted. The stepsister characters are Mrs. Redeyeness’ two daughters; not wicked, just spoilt and indulged. They are not really ugly, but their mean-spirited thoughts show on their faces, making them appear ugly. (Perhaps a warning to tell children this can happen. Oh, yes, it can. A cautionary tale?)

5.    I make Ebony into our version of the fairy tale princess.
And then Ebony began to grow into a young woman.    . . . her eyes,  were  big and brown and beautiful like burnt sugar in her face, which was the colour of rich chocolate. Her black hair had grown long over the years. She combed it with scented oils into six plaits, then she put the plaits up and secured them with the tortoiseshell clip. The clip flashed like magic in the sunshine, and the plaits fell like a spray of palm leaves all around her head.  . . . when she smiled it made people feel happy, as if gentle breezes were blowing.

6.    Mrs. Redeyeness now shows her true colours.
  Mrs. Redeyeness was overcome with envy that Ebony had become a beautiful girl and the envy turned to boiling anger. (Of course, people like that exist.)

      So Mrs. Redeyeness invites to Ebony to come and live with her. Ebony, feeling she has no future, goes.  Mrs. Redeyeness hates her for her beauty and kind nature, and hopes that she can hide her away from the world in the back of her house. ( Why? Pure bad mind! There are people like that. Wolf in sheep’s clothing.)

7.     Ebony becomes a drudge. Since there is no electricity in that part of the house ( surprise, surprise!) Ebony has to use all sorts of old-time Jamaican things - old time iron wood burning stove, coconut brush, sad irons and coal stove. (Chance for the children to hear about these things. And this does happen, you know. Decent kind-hearted people are taken advantage of, and some have so little self-confidence that they are complicit in their own sacrifice. Females who have been programmed to be nice have to take note of this.)

Mrs. Redeyeness is delighted that Ebony, who has no time to even comb her hair, is looking . . .a bit bedraggled. (Every now and then I like to use a word which is not one children will easily come across, but it’s so suitable. Bedraggled is one of those.)

Mrs. Redeyeness cackled to herself every time she looked at Ebony. "How bedraggled she looks. Ha! Ha! Bedraggled! Ha! Ha!”

8.   ( However, by this time, dear readers, I’ve just had about enough of Miss Ebony. I’m fed up with her. I can’t believe that she could be so ‘fool’. Can anything save her? I seriously consider not going any further with the story. I suspect that it is only Mr. Redeyeness’ malice, as shown in that excerpt, that forces me to continue the story.)

9.  Ebony, does not need a ball to meet her ‘prince’. Instead, there is going to be a parade for Independence. The parade is sponsored by the spice factory in the district. The heir to the spice factory has come home from his studies and everybody concludes that he will need a wife. All mothers get in gear. Everybody dressing up for the parade! The ‘ugly sisters get their costumes made by a dancehall  tailor. Ebony is sewing hers by hand. The sisters steal it and cut it up. They look even more ugly after doing this dastardly deed.

10.  Mrs. Redeyness, to make sure that Ebony cannot reach the parade, gives her a long list of Jamaican foods to prepare, (every Jamaican food you can think of and love, saltfish and ackee, bammies, fried dumplings, curry goat, jerk pork, etc.) No way she can finish in time to go to the parade.

11.  However, a starlight left on a windowsill where Ebony is cooling food, falls into the coal pot. And out of the wonderful starlight display, steps the Auntie of the Starlight. She is clearly as fed up with Ebony as I am, as she says, 

I was wondering how long it would take you to see that these people taking advantage of you.

     The Auntie of the Starlight gives Ebony three wishes ( of course) and sings a song with a lot of the names of Jamaican trees, as she works her magic:

 Mahoe, logwood, cedar, lignum vitae, mahogany, ebony,
Trees of the land of wood and water
Grant this wonderful wish to this daughter . . . 

12.  Ebony gets to go to the parade in a beautiful dress, but without glass slippers - not needed in the Caribbean. And no, she doesn’t need a coach either, or any of those things from the old fairy tale. Everybody is dancing: 

Dance to the Independence beat
Move your feet, . . .

 Along comes the parade with people dressed up as Jamaican spices, with the Spice Prince (Alfred) himself travelling on one of the floats. He sees Ebony and stops the parade! Everybody is in shock. He is attracted by her beauty, and her kindness and goodness, which he can see in her smile (at last her goodness begins to pay off).

13.   Mrs. Redeyeness, seeing that this could be a dangerous situation, invites them  back to her house, where she plies Alfred with all the various foods cooked by Ebony, and implies  that her daughters have cooked them. Alfred soon uncovers that lie, and  asks for Ebony’s hand in marriage, in spite of Mrs. Redeyeness shouting that Ebony has no family and is nobody. Alfred, seems to feel that one can make one’s future even if you don’t have great family credentials.  (Chalk one more point up for the inhabitants of children’s homes.)

14.   At this point Mrs. Redeyeness and her daughters throw themselves upon Ebony declaring their love, saying they cannot do without her. And for a moment Ebony wonders if they really, really love her. (I am in despair of her yet again, wondering if this silly girl is really going to believe them. This can happen, you see, if you’ve never been loved and feel a bit insecure.)

15.   She comes to her senses, however, and goes off to work for the ‘spice prince’ at the spice factory. Where does she live? Oh, it’s all very proper. She lives with his parents. He doesn’t live there. He has his own place (modern times). Soon she becomes a manager. She brings other young women from the children’s home to work there and trains them. As part of her wedding present she gets shares in the business.  (Now this is big time! Even I wouldn’t think of that. Independence! This is a totally modern girl. I worried if this might seem as if she was a gold digger, but I realized that she was just recognising her full worth to the business. And after all, Alfred offers them.)

Ebony has a lovely wedding with everybody there from the district and the children’s home, and the Auntie of the Starlight. Ebony and her Alfred dance the night away in true Caribbean fashion.  

So on this wonderful night, Ebony hitched the train of her wedding dress over her arm, and extended her other arm as she danced, sway, sway, sway, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle,  yo, yo, yo across the floor. And the Spice Prince took off his jacket and rolled his sleeves halfway up his arms and danced around her, sway, sway, sway, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, yo, yo, yo.


Lovely illustration by Rachel Moss that so captures it.

You can still buy the book, if even just to find out if we do indeed discover who Ebony may be,  what her three wishes are, and if they come true, but hopefully, to enjoy the story, and tell me if the Caribbean flavour and the symbolism works.

Amazon link:




Friday, July 10, 2015

Amazing proofing - and a bit of magic

 My story  The Happiness Dress won an award from the Commonwealth  Foundation for the best children's story in 2011. I was greatly honoured and thrilled.  The Foundation published the stories in audio form,  to be distributed throughout the Commonwealth. It was left for the writers to find print publishers. I sought a publisher, thought I had found one, and then faced problems, which resulted in lost time, a couple of years really. So as not to feel totally helpless,  at the mercy of the vicissitudes of life, I  decided to publish The Happiness Dress as an e-book, to join my other children's e-books  on Amazon. Not making many sales really, but at least the book would be somewhere.

I figured that at the most I would just have one more read through of the book before telling the designer /illustrator to make a final copy for uploading to Amazon, when I suddenly found myself in Barbados visiting the grandchildren. Yes, suddenly, as in just like magic, and certainly there is a bit of  magic in this.  Do you believe in magic?

Having tried out another story (in the works) on the 'grands',  to what seemed like a positive reception, I became bolder, and thought I would show them other stories I had brought, a print out of Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight, a Caribbean Cinderella story (already on Amazon) and The Happiness Dress. My nine year-old granddaughter declared Ebony interesting and humourous. It passed! The Happiness Dress, although below her age group (she's gobbling up chapter books), was next. She loved the illustrations, of course (like Ebony, done by Rachel Wade Moss).


"Grandma, here's a mistake!"

"A what? No, there can't be a mistake. A lot of us read it. No, there's no mistake,"  the voice moving from shock to that indulgent adult tone you use when you don't want to discourage  a child who is showing initiative, but has got it wrong.

"Yes, there is,"  says a nine year-old Bajan (pet name for Barbadian) voice, carrying all the certainty with it of a country with a 98% literacy rate (or some impressive figure like that).

"Let me see," I say.

And there it is! An error! How do you miss an error in 500 words, spread across 24 pages? So many of us have read it. So, it's only a question mark, but still.

Then she finds another. Then she finds a page where she says, "Paragraphs!"

And, lo and behold! There it is, a page, a short page, where the paragraphs need revisiting, a nice publishing word for the 'paragraph them wrong'. By then I'm feeling pale and wan. (reference from English lit. in school).

It is only a matter of time before she tells me what I already know about the typeface. The distance between the apostrophe and the next letter (e.g. won' t) is too great. It will confuse young readers. The typeface must be changed. A whole heap of work is left on this book!

I have never claimed to be good at proofing. I like editing, but I always use a proofer, paying for the services of one out of my money if there has been no allowance made for it in a project. But still, how do you miss these errors in 500 words  and 24 pages?

Much praise is heaped upon my granddaughter. She suggests that she can do all proofing for me in the future.

Then my seven year-old grandson shouts that he has found an error.

"No, you haven't," we say.

After all, he is only seven, and the bright reader of chapter books has already 'shredded' the text.

"Yes!" he declares,  "Carolyne is spelt Carolyne in most places, but there is one which is spelt Caroline."

We are all struck dumb. He is quite right. That is even worse than question marks and paragraphs. His mother asks if he read the story. No, he hasn't. He just checked all the Carolynes ( standard proofing procedure,  but did we employ it for 500 words and 24 pages?) This is the boy who does Math exercises for fun, no doubt, hence the zeroing on the concept of checking one word throughout.

No, this is not an adoring Grandma post. I am not saying that my grandchildren are brilliant beyond words. I am not suggesting that you use your grandchildren for proofing, though it might not be a bad idea.  Rather, it's a post to warn you about the importance of proofing, even of 500 words; the challenge of  self-publishing - it is essential to use professionals even if you, yourself, are a professional, or perhaps because you are a professional, and too confident by far. (That's why you should also use an editor.) I tremble to think what might have happened, had I not unexpectedly (magically) come to Barbados. So now, do you believe in magic?

Also, I get a chance to tell you about the upcoming placing of The Happiness Dress on Amazon. However there will be more about that closer to the time.

Monday, June 8, 2015

A post mainly for women (but fathers also): A Caribbean book about girls going through the changes that come with adolescence


The book, Celebrating Me by Colleen Wint: If you read my blog, you will know that I talk about our stories celebrating our children, bringing to our children a celebration of  their lives, validating our way of life. Well this post is about another type of celebration, the celebration of what happens as girls begin the changes that go towards becoming women.  This is a story of four friends in primary school, and one has her first period, which throws them into a spin. How they find out, what they do about it, is all part of the story. An older sister plays her part by explaining (and there are illustrations to show this) what happens inside a girl’s body and why.  I must commend this writer, Colleen Wint, for thinking to do this story about a very sensitive subject. I remember Judy Blume’s “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” the first book, to my knowledge, to mention periods in literature for children.

Isn’t it interesting that for something that will be such a significant part of a woman’s life, this topic is seldom, if ever, touched on in literature.  Well, of course, that’s because it’s a very private thing, and information is passed down privately from one woman to another.  But what if no one tells the young girl, or is astute or knowledgeable enough to tell the truth, and not a mixture of truth and myth? Many of us adults may have forgotten the fright, the  worry, and all the things you wanted to do with which a period interfered, like being on summer holidays by the sea, with all the other children swimming except you. So I commend the author for her empathy for our young girls, for her remembering. I commend her for her wisdom in realizing that such a book could be written in story form, with endearing young heroines to share their adventure of life with our readers. Societies can be quite conservative, and ours is no exception. However, as a society, we are beginning to have the essential conversations about our children, especially our girls, in the media, in our various agencies and organizations. Consequently, perhaps this is an ideal time for this book to come out. It can then be a part of the conversation. Naturally, we would expect that parents/guardians would read the book before giving it to  their girls ( just as my mother read the book she gave me, and I read the book I gave my girls), and be mindful that their children may have questions and be ready to answer them.  

Celebrating Me has delightful illustrations by Rachel Wade Moss, which capture the joy (and concern) of little girls on the brink of being big girls.

Most of all, I like that this book is about us. We too can have books about important female development. We don’t have to read it in a foreign book.  We are important enough to learn about celebrating ourselves as girls and women in our own books. A seemingly subtle but very significant difference. They are our lives, after all.

I was unable to attend the launch, but attended a ‘meet and talk’ with the author event at Bookophilia on May 16. The audience was essentially made up of girls (and a few boys) with mothers/parents. Ms. Wint did a very interesting activity with the children, which highlighted the importance of accurate communication. She told the young people present that her father, Arthur Wint, was the first Jamaican runner to get a gold medal at the Olympics. I loved that! What a legacy! I so believe that our children should know our ‘near’ history, and know that we have a long history of achievement. The young audience enjoyed the interactive participation. Note to those of us and self, whose launches focus on the gatekeepers mainly. Maybe meet and greet is also a good idea. I note also, that Ms. Wint will be at Bookophilia again this Thursday, June 11.
Photo of Colleen Wint and me at Bookophilia

Friday, May 29, 2015

Talking Trees: A Literary Fiesta indeed! Creative energy expanding even beyond Treasue Beach

On Saturday, May 23, 2015, the Talking Trees Literary Fiesta was held at Treasure Beach. It was a fantastic festival of creative energy and poetic voices. The line-up of writers was outstanding. Once one names names, one can get into a lot of trouble. However,  I must mention our cultural icons. Mervyn Morris, Poet Laureate, Eddie Baugh and Lorna Goodison,  in the same place on the same day. Unbelievable! What good fortune!

Readings from Ray Chen's The Shopkeepers (Gloria Lyn's Memories from a  Jamaican Village, as well as Easton Lee and Victor Chang,  reminded us about old time Chinese Jamaica, which  reminded me of my childhood. There were many other talented writers, both mature and young, both known and up and coming, to make the day a super one.

I am a children’s writer writing a blog which relates to children’s literature. So what did this festival bring to the field of children’s literature? Most importantly, it featured a children’s writer, Gwyneth Harold Davidson, who is also one of the organizers for the event. Gwyneth read from her book, Young Heroes of the Caribbean, Common Destiny, (portions  of which have been developed as radio drama in partnership  with the Jamaica Information Service). The section she read  imagined the life of the young Paul Bogle, one of our National Heroes. The subject matter and treatment were excellent, and I appreciated it even more so because I  know that much research had to be done to make it sound as authentic as it did. Gwyneth is one of our fine young writers and has the ability to write for both the under twelve's and the young adult audience. She makes the future look bright.

There were two young boys, self taught drummers. A splendid performance! Children also performed a short play in one of the intermissions. It is wonderful to see this festival including children from the surrounding areas. What better way to indicate the significance of literature to our young.

And though I had decided that I would not go into great detail about writers by name, especially as many are known to me personally,  I will break that rule and mention Lorna Goodison. She is one of my favourite writers and performers. She read both poetry and prose, the prose being from From Harvey River, one of my favourite books. If you haven’t read it, get hold of it and do so. What a fascinating social history of a period of time in Jamaica! Also delightful was that there were some St Hughs old girls (alumni) there, her old school, and she shared events at school which had led to one poem in particular. A feeling of family and camaraderie.

What has all of this to do with children’s literature, then?  For me,  with the great energy, the great joy from Talking Trees, the 'I'm full up to the brim' feeling, I wrote a story in one afternoon. The idea had been gelling for some time, ages, as you might imagine, but I couldn't get it onto paper/computer. However,  it just reeled itself out. It's for a picture book. Now, a lot of it is still missing, as you would expect (a story is not written in a day), but I know the characters, I can see them. I have the beginning more or less, the ending more or less, the refrain more or less. (More or less, meaning subject to change, but it's basically there).  I don't have the middle yet. I have various versions, but not too keen on them. And I know that I will have to wait until my little protagonist, or one of the other characters, tells me what it is, what really matters, and that could take some time, but still . . . The creative energy of all the other writers at Talking Trees . . . Each of us lights the way for the rest of us.

And though I have felt this before, I tend to forget - submerging oneself in a creative atmosphere can lead to a burst of creativity. I just have to harness that story and complete it. Now, the hard work begins, eh.
Photos: from top to bottom, left to right: Mervyn Morris, Eddie Baugh, Easton Lee, Gwyneth Harold Davidson, Lorna Goodison


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’.