Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Signing, Stories and Laughing at Devon House

I have had the hardest time trying to get the follow-up to my last post posted. Unbelievable technical challenges, which may stem from my ignorance of the intricacies of the technology. In ordinary language that could mean I did something to the computer. However we all know that the computer has a mind of its own and any time you 'cross' it (as old-time people would say, 'Doan mek fool and crawse me.' or 'If yu tink yu bad, crawse me.' - I'm still not sure of the spelling of 'crawse' but I can hear it now. It's a word that is powerful, carrying with it an abundance of doom. ) you're in big trouble. And you may not even know how you crossed it.

So instead I'll mention our 'sitting and signing' at Things Jamaican at Devon House. Things Jamaican is a fantastic craft shop with all things Jamaican. Devon House is a beautiful 19th century 'Great House', built in 1881 by George Stiebel 'a coloured Jamaican wheelwright who became a millionaire through gold mining in South America'. (Olive Senior, Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, Twin Guinep Publishers, 2003, p.152). I love old houses and I wish we could restore the other fantastic ones that exist, smaller than this, but beautiful, each in their own right. A lot of these can be found in Allman Town and Kingston Gardens, where they fall bit by bit into sad abandon. That's one of the reasons I wrote the story Louisa Jane and the Street of Fine Old houses (in Every Little Thing Will Be All Right, Carlong Publishers, 2003).

So that's another thing I do in my stories, try to capture visible aspects of our culture that are fast disappearing.

But back to Devon House. The gardens are beautiful; leafy waving plants in greens of all shades, exotic looking vines and gazebos, flowers both vibrant and soft; the best ice cream anywhere, cakes, bread pudding, other pastries, patties, and an entire chocolate shop. It's clear where my love lies.

So the brain child of Veronica Carnegie (The Tie Came Back), Veronica, Hazel Campbell ( Bernie and the Captain's Ghost), and I (The Ring and the Roaring Water) went to sit and sign our books, and talk to people about our writing. It went quite well. The main thing is that unlike similar occasions where you sit by yourself, alternating between pretending not to care if not a soul comes near you, and trying to silently will at least one passer-by 'to tek shame out a yu eye', we had each other to talk to, and that led to lots of stories and laughter. Laughter always attracts people. Also I think they don't feel they have to buy (to tek shame out a we eye) since it's more than one person, and so they do buy. We said we might do it again. We'll let you know.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Up close to real-life in Jamaican young adult fiction

Continuing my comments on books for older children and young adult readers, these are not reviews, but simply telling you what I liked about the books or why I think they are important.

How close do we want to be to real-life in Jamaican fiction for young adults? I'm not sure that we know, or if we know, are we just a little bit afraid of being too up-close and personal? This has been a concern for some of us writers.

So it's interesting to see two writers who have bravely taken this on. These books might be said to be 'making meaning' for some of our teenagers.

Bad Girls in School by Gwyneth Harold is a part of the Caribbean Writers Series, Heinemann, 2007. This story gives a very realistic picture of the lives of some troubled girls in today's Jamaica. It shows clearly the problems they have to face in their personal lives, challenges resulting from changing social structures, and consequently, how easy it is for them to let go of the opportunities at school which will give them the security they need, or put another way, how difficult it is for them to grasp the opportunities. We too often say, 'Why don't they (a nebulous they) avail themselves of the things which will change their lives for the better? This book leads us towards a greater understanding of situations which no doubt exist in other Caribbean countries.

Inner City Girl, by Colleen Smith-Dennis, LMH Publishing Ltd. 2009. In a way this book gives the answer to the question posed above. 'Why don't they...? In fact, you are astonished that the protagonist, Martina, survives any at all. I scrunged up even more in my bed, with anxiety, fretting ... It is gripping; you fear for the protagonist; and cheer her on. You know there are some books that you want to go on and on (usually for me, in adult fiction, sweeping family sagas). However, I got to the point with this book where I hastened to get to the end so that I could see Martina survive and overcome the trials of her young life, trials not uncommon to a number of our children today.

These books, each in different ways, share with us a reality which, as children's writers, we may not know how to handle, digging beneath the perception of the 'safe ordinary life' of school children. These books put a face to the 'they'.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Topical topics in books for older children

As my friend and fellow writer, Hazel Campbell has pointed out in her blog, some people seem to equate children's books with picture books. However, there are also chapter books and young adult novels which are for the top of primary and lower secondary. That is, they may appeal to the independent reader at grade 4 - about age 9 (or an adult can read to the child) and will certainly provide entertaining reading for children in grades 5, 6, and 7 - approximately ages 10 - 12. Grade 7 is the same as what used to be form 1 in high schools.

We ignore this group to their peril, and to our constant on-going disappointment when the CSEC results come out. No, exams are not everything, but as all of us who were educated in the 'good old days' know, English, which is not an easy language, becomes that much easier when you read widely and often. I have heard some young people say about the so-called old days. 'Then is then and now is now'. End of story. No examination of the past.

This is not going to be a discussion about the merits of Creole (patios) and Standard English. Both definitely have their place in our children's' lives and in books. This is about story books, children's literature for older children. It is just about books which should engage our children.

So, 1) I take it as a given that reading story books is one of the easiest ways of moving towards literacy. Structures just seep into your head from the page, and then come back out when you need them. Have you ever had the experience of using the right word, the right construction, and not being able to tell anyone why it is, but you know it's right? That's what reading does. It gives you confidence in using a language. 2) Reading story books helps in understanding what literature is all about before one is thrown into the hectic life of high school literature and towards the exam. 3) Moreover, it can be so much fun.

Therefore to my topic: I am going to mention some relatively new books which are topical and very interesting. I am not doing book reviews. They are simply books that I have read recently; I will just say what I liked about them, and hope that you can get hold of them to read them for yourselves.

Tragedy of Emerald Isle by S.E. James, published by Sharon Publications, Antigua, 2000.
This is about a child who witnesses the beginning of the volcanic eruptions in Montserrat, and then having moved to Antigua for safety, experiences two hurricanes, one after another. Scary real stuff, eh! The descriptions of the eruptions beginning, the ash, the fright of not knowing at first what it is, what was actually happening, and then once reality dawned, the fear of what would happen next, grabbed me. I was sitting 'scrunched up' in my bed (which is where I read) with fright. The description of the hurricanes was also full of tension, raising unwanted memories of recent hurricanes.

I like the sharing of the reality of other islands, as different from the sharing of folktales, which is how we usually get to know each other at this age level.

Bernie and the Captain's Ghost by Hazel D. Campbell, Carlong Publsihers, Jamaica, 2010.
Move over Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew! Yes, this book can replace them in the young reader's life. In a remote setting there is the reality of bad men involved in drugs, danger, and the secrets which may lead to the solution of the mystery and also to safety.

An interesting aspect is that the protagonists are all children with a handicap of some sort, but they soar onwards against all odds. You forget that they are handicapped and get caught up in their adventure, fearful for them, wondering if they know what they are doing, and cheering them on. I do hope that someone donates copies of this to children's homes, children involved in Special Olympics, and so on.

In a further blog I will mention books for even older children.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Quaintness and the challenging of stereotypes

Safiya dancing with Grandpa in Every Little Thing Will Be All Right

If we agree that 'quaintness' is an excellent vehicle in our stories (we need it, after all, to preserve our culture) when does quaintness allow itself to be overtaken by stereotyping?
In looking at this, I prefer to use my own books so that I do not appear to be critical of other people's work. I know it also allows me to promote my books. (It would be great if it translated into sales. Aah, if only!)
Stereotype 1. The heroine should have princess-like qualities. So we move from the inherited European tales towards creating our own versions of fantasy. However the princess with the long golden hair of our childhood is too often replaced by the Amerindian princess (same long hair, different colour), or to a delightful version of Africa, intricate hairstyles or wondrous head wraps. Where is our hair?

And believe me, if you want to create discomfort in a writer's workshop you just have to mention hair. OUR HAIR! I do so even now at my peril. And for those who will say, "Is all right for her to talk.... I say, "Yes, I can very much talk, because I was there for the period of colonialism just before Independence when everything we were was wrong. As they say, 'You had to be there...' and if you weren't there you have no idea how free we are now, free to develop a healthy self concept. So perhaps you will understand when I say I don't mind what styles we use to make us beautiful, as long as we are comfortable with what we really are in the first place. Consequently, it bothers me that after all this time of saying 'our children must see themselves in books', we have adults bleaching their skin, and 'everybody who is anybody' wearing hair extensions, or as one gentleman said on a recent TV talk show, 'wearing other people's hair'. (Yes, I know that other ethnic groups wear them too, especially on TV and in movies, but we are talking about us.) And actually all I want is for us to find descriptive words to replace, 'long, silky, golden ringlets', for example.

Interestingly, even before hair extensions were 'the thing' I decided to have a different heroine. She was not going to be 'black and slim', like some exotic, tropical version of a wood nymph! She was going to be herself. And so for all the little girls who are not tall and slim, and who do not have long hair, or any kind of hair that you can do much with, there is the heroine, Safiya, in Safiya and the Dance, one of the stories in the book, Every Little Thing Will Be All Right. (Carlong Publishers ). Safiya does not 'make up' for not being the slim, fabulous heroine waiting to burst on to the stage of her life, by being extremely well behaved and good. In fact, Safiya is rather willful. All her family think so. We find out about Safiya's appearance as it is contrasted to her Mummy's:

Mummy was a dancer herself, tall and slim with lovely, long ebony legs and her heavy black-as-night hair worn on top of her head in a twisted dancer's knot...

Safiya was quite different from her Mummy. Her hair could not go up on top of her head into a twisted dancer's knot. It was short and crinkly and she wore it like a soft dark brown halo around her head. Also she was short and stocky ... Safiya didn't care about that. She was still going to be a ballet dancer.

Aha! A ballet dancer, you say. And like many of my stories there is a story behind this. I knew that I was going to write about this short heroine, but never did I plan for her to want to do ballet. However, I found as I would do my evening walk, that Safiya would walk around with me, saying, "Tell my story about wanting to do ballet." And I would say, "You can't want to do ballet, your mother is a famous Afro-Caribbean dancer." Or even more frightening (cowardly), " I can't write that. It will ruin my reputation. I'm about our children finding themselves and their culture."

However in the end, Safiya got her way, and her entire family is quite taken aback as she is determined to do a ballet dance and ruin the Independence concert at school as well as the family's reputation! What happens? You'll have to read the story to see how this turns out.

What happens when we move away from stereotypes? Well, I did hear, when the book first came out, that one teacher found it challenging to read Safiya and the Dance to his class because this child was so 'out of order'. Here we see the discomfort with a character who isn't the stereotype of the 'good heroine'. Safiya is what Americans would call feisty, a word which I don't use because some of us are capitulating and using it in place of the very important Jamaican word facety. Safiya is not facety, but she is spirited.
So must the heroine in our books be the traditional stereotypical heroine? Perhaps! Children find it easier to understand things in black and white, rather than in occasional shades of grey. Or do they?

In relation to this book, while signing books at a school book fair, a parent rushed up to me, saying that she had a daughter with a debilitating disease, and she had heard that this book had very uplifting stories which her daughter would like, and moreover, that the author was also there to sign books. I was very moved, honoured and humbled, as I always am, when I discover that in this vast world of story, our stories reach out and touch somebody's heart.

Stereotype 2: Happily-ever-after endings are essential for children's books. Well there would seem to be no arguement about this. I like my adult fiction and movies to have a reasonable happily-ever-after ending.
As writers, we all have experienced characters like Safiya who are determined to write their story their way. It's another thing, however, to have the ending/resolution of the story write itself.
Jenny's Great Gran is another story in Every Little Thing Will Be All Right. This story is set in the UK, a Jamaican family of four generations living together. It is Jenny's job to walk her Great Gran around the garden every day, and of course, children, led by Cicely, the meanest girl in the school, tease her because her Great Gran won't wear her teeth and so her mouth looks ... well ... like that of an old witch, or so the children say.

It turns out that all of the women in Jenny's family have a musical talent and Jenny becomes a bit of a celebrity at school as a result. The fairy tale ending, the happily-ever-after ending is that the children stop teasing Jenny after this. And indeed that was how I wrote it; and so it stayed for a year. And then one day the real ending appeared. This is it:

Cicely says: "Jenny your family may be talented, but your Great Gran still looks like an old witch."
Jenny just laughed and replied. "Great Gran may be old now, but she wasn't always. Anyway she is my very special Great Gran. ... I bet everybody wishes they could have a Great Gran like her."
If she thought that would make any difference to Cicely, it didn't. So Jenny realized that you can't always change people's minds about things, but you can change your own, and sometimes that is enough.

Until I wrote that I did not know that Jenny felt so strongly about the appearance of her Great Gran. The clues are all there, but I didn't know. I also learnt something very important about life from Jenny that I didn't know. I hope that my young readers will also learn this very important thing from Jenny.