Sunday, October 31, 2010

What a difference a day makes!

Reformatted version in colour

Original version, 1980's.

Presenting at a writing workshop. Usually love it, but yesterday I was exhausted afterwards and wondered if we are trying to do too much.

Today one participant says everything we did yesterday has fallen into place for her. 'It’s worthwhile after all,’ I think. I delight in the fact that so many of our teachers are creative and competent.

Later, we are looking at a humorous piece that one of the participants has written. It’s good. We share editorial ideas for making it just a bit sharper. I mention the importance of having humour in the material for our children, and how I have a friend who writes humour very well. (See Hazel Campbell’s blog on humour in Caribbean Children’s books.

Somebody says the book they really liked and thought was funny is The Runaway Car. Others join in, saying how they just love that story. It’s so funny. They are all laughing. Some are describing the behaviour of the characters, recounting the situations that they found most funny.

I am amazed! I laugh and say, “That story is mine, and I like it too.”

“It’s yours?” they say. “It’s hers!”

We are all laughing now.

(You may wonder how they might not know the story was mine. Well, Ministry books traditionally have the author’s name in small print on the imprint page.)

The fact that these persons have enjoyed my work, … and it’s such a spontaneous reaction … I am joyous! I feel as if writing is worthwhile. Writing for our children is worthwhile. We know it is, but sometimes you just wonder if you are making any headway. Yes we are! What a difference a day makes!

This blog replaces one still being written from last week, which was somewhat despondent about the significance of our children’s books to our people. Maybe there’s something to think about here.

What a difference a day makes!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A We Dis?

Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson's presentation on October 14, entitled A we dis? Cultural Representations of the Caribbean in Children's Books was very interesting and thought provoking. It was well done, and Hazel Campbell has given a comprehensive account of it, as well as her specific and insightful comments. I think you will find her blog on this most informative.:

Thought provoking:
1. I knew that there were many more books on the Caribbean in countries like the UK than we knew. I was astounded at the number that Dr. Shelley-Robinson discovered. No, I cannot tell you how much they were, because any time I hear something that totally astounds me, frightens me by its enormity, my brain locks down. It must be some mechanism to stop me from shrieking out with dismay. Suffice it to say that there is an enormous amount of books about which we know nothing. You could contact Dr. Shelley-Robinson through the Department of Library and Information Studies, UWI, for more information. She is retiring, to do more useful research, I think, and is donating her entire Caribbean children's book collection (collected from all over the Caribbean and other developed countries) to the University Library. So big up Cherrrell!

2. I knew that books produced overseas were giving a wrong impression of us, or as she said, a less than balanced view. I had become reconciled to that, in a manner of speaking. One has to be reconciled to some things, because one cannot fight on all fronts. However, I never thought about 'our children', the children of the children of those who migrated. They are ours because they are still seen as being descended from us, which is good. I had not thought as Dr. Shelley-Robinson pointed out, that they too are being given an unbalanced picture of the islands, a picture which might lead to them feeling 'less than equal' knowing that they are being viewed as 'less than equal'. And there is nothing they can do about it because they do not know otherwise.

This must be a call for some of our writers and publishers to try and penetrate this market with a variety of children's and young adult material. Not an easy task, I can tell you. Any suggestions, guys?

By popular demand!

Sounds good, eh! Well I think if a person requests the cover of an out of print book, it deserves to get the heading: By popular demand!
See a previous post for more about this book.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Art imitates life and responsibility to the reader

Art imitates life or life imitates art? And responsibility to the reader.

We have had endless days of rain and unbelievable damage to roads, bridges, gullies, yards and houses next to gullies, and very, very sadly, loss of life.

The first day that we were able to reasonably go out after these rains I was in the plaza and everywhere I heard people saying with awe, ‘…and the gully roared. …’. Time and time again, ‘the gully roared’. I realized that it was the first time that many people from the generation with paved gullies had heard them roaring. The roaring declares the fury of the water. A gully roaring is one of the most frightening sounds. I grew up in an area surrounded by gullies; all roads in and out crossed unpaved gullies. In the rainy season we were often marooned.

Suddenly I realised that this roaring, this threat, which I described in my book set in Kingston 1951, The Ring and the Roaring Water was an unknown to many until now. Indeed a friend of mine who lives with a road in front of her house, separating her from the very 'respectable paved gully' next to it, told me that as she knew the gully was rising, she remembered my story and so she knew what she’d have to do; should the water overflow onto the road; she’d have to climb over her back fence to get to higher ground, the residence behind her, up the hillside.

And as we now know, in these recent rains many of the ‘respectable controlled gullies’ did indeed breach their banks, tearing away the land and structures behind them.

In writing for children I believe the writer has a responsibility to the reader. So if you make your characters take certain actions, the reader must know if danger is involved, and the level of the danger.

In my story the children were fleeing the house in a hurricane because the roaring of the gullies seemed to be coming closer and closer, and they thought the gullies might wash away the house with them in it. Why else would you leave the house in a hurricane? So I make them leave the house in what appears to be the eye of the hurricane.

In my original version I had the children crossing the road to reach higher ground on the other side of the road. (the actual lay of the land where I lived). It provided tension as they scrambled through the water and stones tumbling down the road. And then I realised the danger to my characters. Consequently, I changed their escape route, making the higher ground beside their yard and accessed through a turnstile, which did allow for some tension. You see, in the dark they would never know how strong the water was on the road. Too many roads are just old river beds, with the rest of the river beside them, in the gullies, or beneath them, in drains, just waiting, waiting …

When I was little there was a saying/joke. ‘London is on the Thames, New York is on the Hudson and Kingston is on the gullies’. From then we thought a little island should line up itself with big, big cities! However, for those of you who live here, think about it as you move around Kingston, by culverts, over little bridges that you don’t even think are bridges, along roads with neatly walled gullies beside them. Can you go anywhere uptown or downtown without seeing a gully?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Should these books be out of print?

Voice in the Wind

The Bird Gang

Why should I write about books which are out of print? Because we complain that there is not enough for the 9-12 year-old and the young adult audience. (Not sure who 'we' are, but I guess it's better than 'they', the 'faceless they' which frees us up from quite a bit of responsibility). You see, I think there is more for the older reader than we know, and while the picture story book is a gorgeous medium, colourful, and very necessary for our young children, the older child also needs more material. It's a time when as a pre-adolescents/adolescents, children begin to work out and understand who they are.

I recently read an article in a newspaper which was explaining the importance of literature as a subject at the secondary level. The writer gave very important points, the intrinsic nature of literature; the importance of reading about other people's lives in other countries, thereby understanding what we all share as human beings; universal values. No where did the writer mention our own lives, the validation of ourselves in literature.

Surely one of the things about literature is that it should also reflect for us an image of our lives, like a mirror; and allow us to reflect upon our lives, especially in post colonial regions. Yes, I know colonialism is long gone, but some of the effects have not gone: reference to the bleaching of skins, and the fact that all of us seem to prefer buying the books which we bought all through colonialism, rather than those from other territories. Look at the shelves of the children's section the next time you are in a bookshop. And believe me, if you can prove me wrong, I will rejoice!

I cannot tell you why these two books I've chosen are out of print. But one of the reasons could be that no one who might be interested in publishing for this group knows about them. I admit right up front that they are two of my favourite books.

One is Voice in the Wind, by Jean D'Costa., (Longman). It takes place in Jamaica during the second World War. I can hear some saying, "See that! Ancient history! That was then, and now is now. Who want to read that?" Could be! But I would ask why are there other books about children set in Europe during that time period on some of our reading lists, and not this one. Okay, persons liking one book over another is normal; everybody has a right to their opinion. True! I just hope that it is not because one is European, 'So we know is a good book because 'they' say is a good book.' We don't know if a Caribbean book is as good unless somebody tells us? And I'm not knocking books established as classics from outside of the region. I'm just asking us to consider as we look at books what we think the 'thinking process' is for selection/purchase.

Another I like is The Bird Gang, by Christine Craig, Heinneman Caribbean; and yes, I was the person who had it published when I was in charge of the then newly formed children's section. This book could be a delightful chapter book; contemporary children, relevant story, exciting adventure, delightful black and white illustrations by Andrea Haynes. It's about a group of friends who try to save the birds from the bird shooters in bird shooting season. Plotting and planning in secret; the execution is far more scary than they expect. The ending is happily resolved, but for those who want to read between the lines, it leaves us asking questions about the creatures in our environment.

Here is a section from the book:

We came screaming out of the bush with loud, loud wails. We hurled ourselves at the acacia trees shouting and shaking the trees. The birds made a soft 'wh-oosh' as they took to the skies. There was a terribly loud 'bang' and we whirled around, screaming in earnest now, and dropped to the the ground as a hail of pellets fell all around us. ... I was terrified.

The publisher that published this book no longer exists. But had this been published by a British publisher would it be better known and on some reading list? I'm really asking if it would have made the book more important for us if 'they' said it was a good story. You see, we, our literature teachers, our schools, our librarians, our examining bodies have to ask for books and so encourage publishers to reprint. Oh my God, what heresy! However, to quote Bob Marley, "Free us from mental slavery". 'Everybody vex now since I say that. Right? Yes, man! Sorry 'bout that.'

I think I'm going to make enquiries about this one. Surely there must be a publisher somewhere! Surely?