Saturday, April 12, 2014

Children reading their own stories to basic school children


 Can you imagine children reading the stories they have written to little ones in a basic school? Magical! The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission invited  the Jamaican Observer Junior Writers’ Club to participate in World Storytelling Day ( March 20) by reading their stories to children at the Radio Jamaica Basic School . (Basic school is Early Childhood level) .

The ten-year-old club  members (one is 9)  were a bit nervous at the thought of it, but we assured them that the children were very little and it would be like reading to younger brothers and sisters. And so that all would go as well as possible, our club members came to the Observer one afternoon earlier in the week  to practise their reading, expression, projection, pausing and pace.

 And I must say that the parents and teachers of these children have been most supportive of the children, bringing them to workshops regularly, and for something which is not to pass an exam, as in extra lessons, but which they realize will enrich their children’s lives. All is not lost!  The children have been taught the basics of story writing by me, and the stories have been then edited by me, in consultation with them, and our editorial team of Debra Gail Williamson and Olivia Johnson Wilmot. And it is consultation, which is great; the children are very sure about what they want in their stories, and you have to explain why things have to be changed. Indeed, they are young writers!

At our practice session,  Olivia Johnson Wilmot gave them a fact sheet on how to introduce themselves and their story, how to ask an introductory question, and how to end their reading by saying ‘thank you’. She is actually a brilliant teacher.  She also got the assistance of her father in-law, Billy Wilmot of Royal Palm fame ( a local soap opera that has been running for years here), to assist the children. It was fascinating to watch him work with the children. I saw its effect first hand as he came to work with the little boy who was doing his practice run with me.  What I saw was not only the effect of his Mr. Wilmot’s stage craft, but also the effect of the older male on the young male. It was as if he breathed more confidence into 'my' little boy. This is why we need more male teachers. You’ve heard it said that our boys are surrounded by female authority figures, mothers, grandmothers, female teachers, and they are all wonderful, but none of them knows what it is to be male. I think it must be similar to the way we interact with other women. There is a femaleness which we can identify in each other. So too there must be this male identity. I know, "Hello!’' you’re saying! "Doesn’t everybody know this?” Yes, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it right in front of my eyes. I know Uncle Billy is quite impressive with his grey  locks neatly tide back, but it’s more than that. Watching this interaction, it was as if someone poured water on a wilting plant and the leaves just lifted their heads again.

This could be a secret success potion for our boys. I’ve seen male teachers manage classes of little children and it’s different from a female teacher; however, it’s equally caring and wonderful.

Back to our reading: At the basic school, each of our writers read to a class. Some read to more than one,  as there were more classes than children, and two  read to an older group which had been joined together for the reading in their assembly area. The little children were attentive. They asked questions; they even answered questions. Wow! Our ‘clubbites’ enjoyed the reading of their stores; they enjoyed the interaction with the little children. They came away confident that they had achieved something wonderful. And I saw two male teachers at the school. Again, wonderful!

The school welcomed us. The little children entertained us with choral speaking by way of saying thanks, and snacks were provided for all by our sponsor National Baking Company Ltd. For myself, I was impressed with our children, the basic school and its staff, and all the sponsors, of course. The photos taken (some of which are on this page) appeared in the Jamaica Observer, and there was one of each of the children reading. Noted as excellent organization.


But most of all, can you imagine what seemingly little seed was planted that day which may grow into a great tree with spreading branches? Ten-year-olds have been empowered by the realization that  their written word and their spoken word can bring joy to little children. The little children, no doubt to their astonishment, saw that children a little older than they are have this magnificent power of writing and reading and storytelling. Everybody has been enriched by this. How many writers will come out of these groups? We do not know, but we do know that on that day little lives have been changed by the knowledge that there is something that can be achieved, that there is a knowledge and skill and power to which one can aspire. We just don’t know where this will lead to, my friends, but it’s all good.
Remember, that these stories are printed in the Learning Corner of the Jamaica Observer.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On being shortlisted for a major award and other revelations


How does it feel to be shortlisted for the inaugural Burt Award for Young Adult (YA) Literature for Island Princess in Brooklyn? It feels sort of wonderful! Even though we know that  Island Princess in Brooklyn will go no further than the shortlist, (because those to read at Bocas have appeared on their programme posted on their website), I still feel sort of wonderful. It is an honour to be shortlisted and the others with me are talented writers.  For those who do not know, the Burt Award for the Caribbean has been established by CODE, a Canadian charitable organization involved in advancing literacy and learning for 55 years, in collaboration with William Burt and the Literary Prizes Foundation. The idea is to address  the need for young adult material in the Caribbean, and consequently, to encourage the writing of it. The prize is being administered by the Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago, and the prizes (these are 1st, 2nd and 3rd) will be announced at the Bocas Lit Fest in April.

There are 3 Jamaicans on the shortlist, which of itself is sort of wonderful for YA material. We, including myself, will have to stop saying that Jamaicans  don’t read, because it is clear that we do write, so it follows . . . The thing is, it holds great promise for the future.

The other Jamaicans  are A-dZiko Gegele for All Over Again (Blouse and Skirt Books – a new, young publisher, Tanya Batson-Savage, so congrats to them both). I love A-dZiko’s lyrical style; and Inner City Girl by Colleen Smith-Dennis (LMH Publishing), and I have always liked this book, as you know (see post of Dec, 12, 2010 - you can click on the image to the right of this post ). Others shortlisted are: Barrel Girl by Glynis Guevara, Trinidad and Tobago (manuscript), Musical Youth by Joanne Hillhouse, Antigua and Barbuda (manuscript) and Abraham’s  Treasure by Joanne Skerrett, Dominica (Papillotte Press). I’m so delighted for us in the Caribbean that this award now exists and thankful to those who have brought it into being.

To foster interest in YA material, CODE had decided to do workshops on the writing of it,  and these were held this month. Richard Scrimger, a Canadian award winning writer, and I were the facilitators for Jamaica, and Richard and Paloma Mohammed for the Guyana leg. We hope that these will result in even more entries for the next judging period. Exciting prospect! When I was  facilitating that workshop I had no idea that I’d be shortlisted. So it was more so of a revelation. I had forgotten that workshops may also stimulate the facilitators to write. So that's a lovely bonus. In addition, things come to the fore to do with your writing which you may not have recognized, or allowed yourself to realize. Therefore I'll have to write a future blog on what I learned from doing that workshop.

When I wrote my children’s picture book, Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, my message, one might say, was fame and fortune can be found at home. There is no need to migrate. The old lady in that story tells Cordelia that she has been all over the world but has not found it. They discover together that it is right here in Jamaica. That book was inspired by my younger daughter, who like Cordelia, stands out as being different. I did not know that until someone brought it to my attention. So that was a revelation!

Island Princess in Brooklyn was inspired by my older daughter’s experience in her short sojourn with her family in the USA. So by then I must have understood  the intertwining of emotion and family with my writing. As I said in my blog for Brown Bookshelf, “This circle of family, of story, fills me with wonder.” ( ). However another  revelation,   it seems is that, yes, I can now face up to the fact that it’s not only all right to migrate, it may be essential for some. Elementary, you say; after all,  all island people migrate. Yes, indeed,  but it is not necessarily emotionally accepted deep in one’s heart.

Urban legend  has it that as many Jamaicans live outside Jamaica as live here.

 When Princess meets the old man on the subway with the 'Jamerican'  accent, she begins to think she might be okay.  He is one of us. All the migrations of my extended family before I was born, and my immediate and extended family in the seventies,  did not truly  meld those away with those here. But Princess McQueen did it. She said, ‘We are the same. Our stories are your stories and they deserve also to be told’. Perhaps, just as Princess, who resists the idea that she should need to leave her beloved Jamaica, comes to accept that  both countries can be in her heart, so too, I have accepted this concept, and that only occurred to me recently. The stories of Jamaicans abroad are part of the stories of home. What a revelation!





Sunday, February 23, 2014

Despatches: More painting, running a writing workshop for children and a guest blog

Quite a lot has been happening really. I completed two more of my paintings of illustrations for Things I Like. I really like the one in the bedroom at night with the light from the moon on the curtain. The one eating . . . Hmm. I think maybe I’m running out of inspiration. Interestingly enough though, I found the artist after all these years (1984) and he has seen my paintings on my blog and thinks I have some talent. I’m very pleased. Mind you, he hasn’t seen the breakfast one yet.

So why I was distracted  from my painting? Here are the reasons.
First, Brown Bookshelf, a group of African American writers who seek to promote  the work of black writers  and illustrators of children’s books,  asked me to write a blog about my journey in writing,  publishing, and  the back story to a recent publication. I am, of course, honoured that they asked me. Although I’m not an American, they also select people from the Caribbean and the UK . They are highlighting a different person for each of the 28 days of Black History Month. My blog came out on February 19. For the full text please see the link:

I hope that this exposure will help us to form links in the USA, and might I say, bring our Caribbean books to their notice. I know it’s a dream. But who knows, eh? I didn’t know that this group would contact me.  So you just never know. We go forward in good faith, making links with one another on our journey.

Very interesting also, I was asked to facilitate a writing workshop for children by the Observer newspaper. It’s their Learning Corner Junior Writers’ Club. We had our first workshop last week Saturday. There are 8 children around age 10, selected from both government primary and private prep. schools. They are so keen, keen to write and to read. When we had break for snacks or for lunch, they could be seen reading the books I’d brought with me while waiting for the next session to begin. I’d forgotten what it was like to be a child and to read books in recess.  I am delighted to be working with these children. I’m very pleased that the other sponsor, National Baking Company has joined with the Observer for this initiative. Stories written by the children will be published in the Jamaica Observer’s Learning Corner.

One of the most wonderful things is to be still open to learning. What have I learnt so far? I have learnt yet again that this gift for writing is a gift to be shared over and over again as much as possible, and that children, each generation comes fresh to the excitement of the world; they are not jaded by the mistakes made by previous generations. Everything is new again and it is a blessing to be able to help with this newness. What else have I learnt? This idea for the workshops/club came about because one little girl wrote in suggesting it, and one of the facilitators  at the Observer thought it was a good idea, and the rest, as they say, is history. This little girl is taking part in the workshop. And we grown-ups sometimes think that it’s a waste of time sharing ideas because now one will pay us any mind. Let us never forget the power of one (this little girl), which can lead us to two, and three, and . . . I’ve learnt this anew.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Continuing the journey into illustrations with less than a brave heart. Oh, for an agent of sorts!

The designer with whom I work, (she worked on The Ring and the Roaring Water and produced the illustration for that cover), looked at my painting of the illustrations from Things I Like ( previous post) and thought we could work with them. So I should be thrilled, right? I was, but being thrilled only lasts for some time, I’ve found. Being thrilled can so easily be followed by doubts. Is this  part of the artistic temperament?

So I’ve done two more, which are shown here. One is a night scene. Big challenge! I approached it by looking at other illustrations of night scenes in children’s books, and have come up with what I think may work. No, I haven’t shown it to my designer yet. I have two others to do, and one of those is a night scene inside. Source of light, etc. and how that throws light onto  the scene, to be taken into consideration. All very interesting, fascinating even.

The plan is to produce a CD from which we could produce a couple of hard copies to be shown to prospective sponsors. Excellent idea! Then ‘faint heart never won fair lady’ syndrome creeps in, that is, not about to win fair lady. How does one promote oneself? I really find it very hard. And this is why I wish for an agent for Jamaican/Caribbean children’s books, to market them, look for sponsors, set up readings, etc. and etc. and etc. The person would have to have some other source of income, decidedly. We have tried versions of this with great expectations, like someone going around to book/craft fairs, etc. for a percentage of sales.  Not even remotely sustainable.

Actually, I wish one of the young social media whiz kids would take this on while pursuing his/her other more lucrative sources of employment. Ah, well. Meanwhile I’ll continue trying with Things I Like.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Can A Level art translate into illustrations for children's books? Join me on the journey.

 I did indicate that it was not one of my New Year resolutions, attempting to see if A Level art can lead me to my own illustrations for my children's stories. But here I am. Oh, in all honesty, it was called Higher Schools when I did it, but who today would know what that was? So the equivalent is A Level. Also, in all honesty, I did some painting after I left school, flowers in water colour, but not really using a water colour technique, and landscapes and still lifes in oils. I actually sold a 'mother and child' in oils, and a number people asked to buy one particular landscape, which I would not sell, because I like it. However, none of this makes one a children's book illustrator. The challenge is this; there's this book Things I Like  (Early Childhood level) and I would like to republish it, but need the pictures to be in colour. I don't think I can afford the artwork. So I tried my hand, and my acrylic paints again. Aha!

Here, therefore, are two versions of the same illustrations; the second with the elements of the picture outlined in black, because I saw somewhere that illustrations for children's books should/could be outlined. And I know those lines are perhaps too thick, but that's the only pen I had here. The black broken line on the figures indicates that they are stuffed toys, and not real children. That's how the original artist interpreted them, and his name was Warren Chen Shui. I'll show the cover done by him as well.

I invited you to join me on my journey, although I'm not sure how far I'll take it. However should you wish to, you can say which of the pair you prefer.  We must bear in mind also that I did not draw these pictures. I have merely coloured them. So that would be something else to see if I can do.

By the way, it was my Higher Schools Art teacher, Mrs. Burrowes ( I hope that I've spelt her name correctly - I so admired her)  that introduced us to the earth shattering concept that the pictures we drew were to look like our people, our skin colour, not a copy of the golden haired, pink skinned figures we saw in books. What a release! What a freedom! What a pride in ourselves was uncovered! People who complain about all sorts of inequalities now, imagined or otherwise, have no concept of the difference between a colonial island and one that was independent, no knowledge of some of the people who really freed our minds. Mrs. Burrowes was one of those. Giving thanks.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Caribbean Children’s Literature 2014: the past, not an exercise in frustration, but rather a stepping stone to the future?

I am delighted  that Andrew Blackman, noted author, considered my blog one of the 20 best in the Caribbean. My delight is not only for the recognition, but also because it would suggest that there is an interest in children’s literature, or put another way, blogs about children’s literature are of interest to normal human beings.

Now in the past,  as those who read my blog know,  I have had much angst over:

1.       The lack of opportunities for getting books published in the region;

2.       The lack of a reading habit/ interest in local children’s material;

3.       The lack  of interest in the children’s literature of any one territory in any other territory.

 Therefore I wanted to see  how all of this looked from the aspect of 2013 entering 2014?

Getting published: Whereas we writers who have been toiling in children’s literature for years,  looking at the big picture, continue to be concerned about outlets for publishing, young, new writers, do have other opportunities now. We have two young publishers, Tanya Batson-Savage of Blue Moon Publishing and Kellie Magnus of Jackmandora in Jamaica. Also here in Jamaica, Carlong Publishers, traditionally a textbook publisher, has continued its children’s literature Sand Pebbles Series and has two books slated for publication this year. LMH, a trade book publisher, also continues to produce children’s literature. Those authors doing self publishing in the region seem to be more confident and there seems to be  greater acceptance of this as a worthwhile outlet.

We have recognized  editors/publishing managers like Joanne Johnson in Trinidad, who put together and edited the Island Fiction Series for Macmillan (see her blog: Island Fiction Series Editor). I, myself, have done this for the Ministry of Education here with Literacy 1-2-3. There is Joanne C. Hillhouse in Antigua & Barbuda, whose  Wadadli Pen runs a writing course for young people under 18, and gives awards. In  Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago small publishing houses seem to publish books from time to time. Nothing wrong with that. Publishing in the Caribbean  continues to be a fledgling industry in many ways, and we have to work with it in any way we can.

This is not an exhaustive list, because I do not know everything that is happening in the other territories, but it is a very hopeful list. So 2014 may well be fine. And if we add to this the fact there is now Amazon and other sites to which we may upload our children’s books, all may be looking up. We do need visibility on these sites, but perhaps one of the many young entrepreneurs will eventually take this on. So one area of angst solved?

The reading habit/ lack of interest in local books. Aha. Big sigh. Well Jamaicans don’t read if they can help it. Sweeping statement, but I’m Jamaican so I can say it without fear of being challenged. Tell me I’m wrong, if you can.  Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys still prominent in the stores along with new books from the USA and the UK; Enid Blyton still licking hot. Unbelievable, as she was the one who led me to start writing, so that I could present my children with other than the golliwog as the villain of the piece. (So maybe I should celebrate her). And of course there has been much change with the present-day books under her name; I actually saw a black character on the cover of one of her books.  And even though  Barbados  has bookshops connected to supermarkets (You can enter from the supermarket!  I’d never get my shopping done! I’d be lost in books!), which is a testament to their reading habit, I still did not find local children’s books in the bookstore I checked. When I asked for Caribbean children’s books, the shop assistant  led me to the CXC set-books. I actually found the local children’s books at the airport store which sells souvenirs.

 I suspect, therefore, that throughout the region the situation is much the same. Overseas books trump local books in demand and in price;  although not in content or packaging. Old habits die hard.

So what am I going to do about this?  Revitalized by me reading in Barbados last November, I’m going to make myself a real nuisance by calling schools and teachers’ colleges here and offer to read. I think some  see us as a nuisance as we interrupt ‘normal schooling’. I have to do this before I run out of steam, and begin to feel embarrassed; ‘like who you think you are, to think we need you to read?’ Important Jamaican point of view. That might take care of that angst.

I’m even going to include books from other territories. I have some from Barbados which I love. You knew that, didn’t you? (Nothing like a half Barbadian Grandma). But the books are good. This leads us to the next painful  angst.

Reading books from other territories:  We read set-books set in the various territories for CXC, but that is probably an aberration related to exams. That sounds a bit cynical.  But seriously, if our students read Caribbean books  for CXC and enjoy them, why can’t they read them in their younger years? Is it that we have not tried hard enough? No, we have tried.  We have tried numerous times to bring our territories together. For example:

1.       Did you know that there was a UNDP/UNESCO/AGFUND Multi-Island Project which published supplementary readers (story books and non-fiction)  in 1984? There were writers from many of the  islands. I was very young in the story of books so I had nothing to do with this project. But surely we all must have thought that would be the beginning of the sharing of the literature.

2.       Did you know that in 1991, under the auspices of UNESCO, we started the Caribbean Co-Publication Programme for children’s books? I was the Chairman of the Provisional Committee for the Caribbean. Others on that first committee were Edward Toulon,  Dominica, Anson Gonzalez, outstanding pioneer of Caribbean writing, Trinidad and Tobago, and Lucilla Benjamin, Antigua. There were committees in each territory. I actually communicated with the other territories by regular post ( olden days before PCs and email).  Some territories produced books, but all in all, the initiative floundered because of lack of funding.  And we were sure that would be the sharing of the literature. We did not realise that perhaps it was a greater challenge than we could overcome.

3.       In 2000, I was facilitator of a CARICOM 10-day workshop here in Jamaica. There were participants from most of the territories in the Caribbean. We had a number of presenters, specialists  in various aspects of children’s writing,  illustrators/designers. I can still remember what we considered the best story, one from Belize. Loved it! This was it now! At last the sharing of the literature! Funding for publishing the book of stories coming out of the workshop was supposed to come from an international agency. It never materialized. I kept the stories for some time, hoping . . .

Meanwhile,  many of the territories continued to do their own thing. For example, in Jamaica the Children’s Writers Circle, formed in 1983 by Pat Persaud and Billy Hall, continued successfully for many years, using sponsorship to publish books. I know that the Trinidad group of the 1991 initiative was at one time very active, and Julie Morton of Morton Salvatori Publishers, had her own publishing house in Trinidad also.  I’ve run children’s writing workshops in islands like Curacao and Dominica, either funded by international or local organizations. Curacao had by  then already produced some books in papiamento.

However the products from the various countries have not reached the wider Caribbean. I have constantly despaired about this. Angst!

And as I watch the Caribbean, especially now with its latest vexed exchange of words, I begin to realise that nobody can force us to be together in any endeavour. The English publishers can publish Pan-Caribbean books and we’ll buy them (and I’m grateful for that because they are still Caribbean books written by us)  but I don’t think we have got  to the point of really wanting to share our children’s books, or perhaps other things, for that matter.  And I am not blaming it on slavery or colonialism, the usual ‘whipping boys’. The Caribbean is a vibrant place with a vibrant people.  We will do what we will do when we will do it.

On a positive note, The Bocas Lit Fest, the book festival  developed by Trinidad and Tobago in 2011, has activities for children and indeed produced a book of stories written by children.  Moreover,  the Burt Award for Young Adult Literature has been housed with Bocas Lit Fest and will be offered for the first time this year.   

It has dawned on me, therefore, that a lot of publishing is going on in the region, both by  publishers and  individuals; the Ministry of Education here has continued its outstanding even if sporadic performance.  (After all, we are only five million people in the English speaking Caribbean).

Those early efforts in the past were perhaps not failures to cooperate, but merely stepping stones to the future, and indeed show our determination to produce our own children’s literature, no matter the stumbling blocks.

Children’s literature may well be alive and well, even if not in the construct those of us who had such great hopes for regional integration in this area anticipated. And so for 2014, I hope that I will give up the angst; help whenever I can, and just write and get published where/when I can, and allow the region to evolve as it will. Who knows, we might even surprise ourselves!

Apologies to anyone who feels they should have been mentioned. This really is not an exhaustive overview. However, I will gladly include additional information and make changes if needed.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Once Upon a Starlight': a Christmas story

I have often been asked by people why I do not illustrate my own children's stories. This is because they've seen some paintings I did many years ago.  Now we all know that a painting does not a children's book illustrator make. So fast forward to last year. I decided to take a couple of art classes towards rediscovering my talent, and hopefully selling paintings as an unknown artist to a gallery, towards making some money. You not sorry for me?  I liked the classes but discovered what I knew before, that to pursue painting you have to take time from writing. Also one of the other tutors passed by my painting and stopped to look at it, ( it was a particularly  challenging landscape chosen by me), and I chirped up, 'I took A level art', and he replied, 'A level art won't help you with this'. Hilarious, really. I took this as a clear sign that the plan of making some money as an unknown artist wouldn't probably fly.

Fast forward to now. 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. However, this time I decided that I'd colour it (as in paint the illustrations). So that's new. I know, guys, 'Don't give up my day job.' I must point out that I did not draw them. I just coloured them, and apologise to the artist should my interpretation not fit with his original thoughts. I do not remember who it was and cannot find my copy of the book. When I do, I'll give him credit. I enjoyed painting the pictures with my acrylic paints bought for the art class. Who knows? Maybe one day I will illustrate some of my work. One of my resolutions for 2014?  Not sure about that. So a very Happy Christmas to all my readers. May your wishes also come true.

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

 Children’s Writers Circle, 1983