Friday, December 24, 2010

From the archives - A Christmas story

This Christmas story is from one of the first Children's Writers Circle publications; from the time when there were still paper Christmas hats and people sewed cloths to be sold in stores. As people have pointed out, many of our folktale creatures are frightening, not at all benevolent. I wanted a character that granted wishes according to the rules of granting wishes; and so I created the Auntie of the Starlight. It makes sense after all; we know we do not have fairy godmothers, but we have a lot of Aunties, whether they are related to us or not. Aunties are respected; aunties are loving. So we have my Auntie of the Starlight! An addition to our folktale characters? Who knows.

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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Beautiful books! At Christmas and always

A thing of beauty ... a joy forever! Sometimes I remember to look for joy everywhere. Blue, green, purple mountains, pink pouis in bloom ...

Children should be exposed to things of beauty, to joy as often as possible. This concept of beauty and joy will remain with them forever to enrich their lives.

There are books which are things of beauty. Of course, stories can be beautiful, words can be dancing-along joyous, but illustrations are perhaps the easiest way in which we can transmit this concept of beauty and joy. So I want to share some of the picture story books in my collection which have delightful, wondrous illustrations.

Is it True Grandfather? by Wendy Lohse, illustrated by Jenny Sands, Macmillan Caribbean. Gorgeous, dreamy images of our lives! My favourite!

Anancy and Mr. Dry-Bone, illustrated by Fiona French ( I presume written also), Frances Lincoln, UK. Illustrations which utilise black lines and patterns, as delicate as fretwork or as strong as the tiger which boys will like.

The Nutmeg Princess, by Richardo Keens-Douglas, illustrated by Annouchka Galouchko, Annick Press Ltd., USA/Canada. Bold, bright, 'full of everything' pictures which are reminiscent of artwork created by children, so they'll love them.

I don't know if these books are in print or not, but you can give other books with equally enchanting illustrations. You may have to point out the beauty and joy in the books you give, because our children live in a world where too often beauty and joy can be crowded out by violent images in the media and games, and where loud, angry sounds can pose as music. So we'll give a gift of a beautiful joyous book this Christmas.

Interim up-date

I had all sorts of plans for posts which were postponed so as to allow for more topical postings. One recent one was to look at books for boys. It was reported in a newspaper last week that the Ministry of Education agreed that we need more books (children's literature - my words) for boys. This recognition is good, and fits in with my recent post 'Boys Reading', but now it's Christmas time and we should be joyful. So in another post, perhaps after Christmas, or in the New Year, I want to look at that concept. What Caribbean books/stories do we have for boys, or which would be of interest to them?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jamaican author/book nominated for major international prize

It's in all the newspapers today, and so it should be. Inner City Girl written by Colleen Smith-Dennis, a teacher and an author, published by LMH, has been nominated for the international IMPAC Dublin literary award.

I wrote about this book in my June 29 blog. I was at the launch; met the author, (authors are special people - as major, too often unheralded, contributors to the fabric of our lives). I read the book, I was totally swept away by the story. I fretted over the protagonist, Martina. I felt danger with her, I cheered her successes. I could not put down the book. I also wanted to finish it and be sure that Martina had survived, conquered all there was for her to conquer. Good book, eh, to pull you that much into the story!

I read a great deal, (goes without saying, I suppose), so I know a good story when I meet one. I have been known to drop into a book for the weekend and be barely able to crawl back out, struggling to focus brain and eyes so as to be able to join the real world again. So I know a real storyteller when I meet one, and Colleen Smith-Dennis is an excellent storyteller. Congratulations to Colleen Smith-Dennis and to LMH for recognising her talent! I wish them all the best in this award, but even if they don't win, they will still have done Jamaica proud. You can tell I'm pleased, can't you!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Boys Reading!

I read at Franklyn Town Primary School in November. This is one of my favourite schools; it is representative of our schools which are in residential areas, overtaken by the city of Kingston. It has old-time classrooms, a large, bright and airy library with a very keen librarian, and a new ‘resource centre’, an air-conditioned room with computers (provided by a corporate donor). I read in the usual large room which can hold three grades; first, for the lower grades, second, for grades 4, 5 and 6.

Most of my stories have a girl protagonist. I’m accustomed to girls participating. This time I was totally swept away by the interest, energy and excited participation of the boys. Hands flying up, stretching out of their seats to get my attention, wanting to read, reading by themselves or in groups of three (had to do that to accommodate all of them).

Why was this time different? What are the variables?
Could it be the librarian and the process? The librarian had asked for info from me so the children could do research about my work. So the children knew about me, had used the technology to do the research.
Could it be that this cohort of children are more interested in reading? You think?
Could it be that the school has a male guidance counsellor? (male role model)
Could it be the author, who can be seen reading dramatically? (They have enough females in their lives not to be unduly affected by another one.)

Or could it be the books? The books all have cricket as a background to the stories (mentioned in a previous blog).

The students enjoyed The Lost Ball, which allowed for repetition and prediction; The Magic Bat which allowed for a brief discussion as to whether the bat could be magic, and Twins in a Spin, which posed the big question: ‘My brother or my team?’ Serious thing! So what do I think happened here?

It could be that the stories are short and allowed for interaction, (had them demonstrating bowling and batting at one point. In the classroom? Of course! Imaginary ball, imaginary bat!). However, I think that it was a real-life demonstration of what we have always been told. Boys will read what interests them! Cricket is a sport. It allowed for discussion about other sports. Question posed: In athletics, (at which we excel) where is there a team? Big excitement as answer shouted out!

Of course, there were girls in the class. However pictures of them reading had them facing the camera, so I didn’t want to put them on the blog. But the important thing is the boys reading.

We hear it said of countries where woman are not allowed to participate actively in the workforce that they are losing half of their productive potential. We are losing a great part of our productive and creative potential when we lose our boys! Can we save them, one book at a time? I don’t know, but we can try; along with other initiatives; who knows?