Saturday, March 23, 2013

Kingston Book Festival: a future for children's writers

(L-R: Michael Williams, Jeremy Poynting, Marva Allen, Johnny Temple, Jaime de Pablos)

So what did the Kingston Book Festival have to offer children’s writing and children’s writers - the Cinderella of writing and without a prince?

1.       The first thing was that  a children’s writer, Tanya Batson Savage was on stage at UWI for Love Affair with Literature, Literatures in English Month. Promise of a fairy godmother to come/ the arrival of the fairy godmother? 

2.       The High School Tour: this was great.
a)   The children who had attended government primary schools  and the teachers who had done the same, hailed me when they discovered that I had been a writer for the Dr. Bird Reading Series produced by the Ministry of Education in the 1980’s ( revised editions are still being used in the schools).  Validation indeed! Do we need anything more to tell us that our children can be interested in stories about their lives?
b)    The students enjoyed the writers, Kei Miller and Roland Watson Grant, both young men, 40 and under. They enjoyed them as persons but they also enjoyed their work, the sounds of words. As I said, I would love to see us do this sort of thing, going around to schools, teachers’ colleges, so students can come to understand the joy of language, the wonderful images words can give us, the sound, the sound; far and apart from having to study it in school, which can kill the love for anything, unless you have a skilled teacher, and even then, with exams looming over your head…

Entertainers often go around to schools, which is great, and which I know the children enjoy. We need, for balance, for a different exposure, writers to  go around to schools also. A sponsor needed! 

3.       Using Language: Both Kei Miller and Roland Watson Grant  had  interesting points of view on use of language (which speaks to our ever returning discussion on Standard English and Creole). Roland said the ‘character speaks in his own language’. Kei spoke to the recognition of the continuum of language which we use. He felt that it was patronizing to deliberately use Creole spelling, because he said, even if the word is in Standard English spelling, we, the readers, will hear it as we would say it. He felt that we should be able to embrace the Jamaican audience but also include the non-Jamaican audience. In regard to symbolism, he indicated that sometimes  a blue sky in a poem, is just a blue sky, not a symbol of any to be discovered truth. The students loved that.  After all, there is much talk of symbolism in their literature classes. 

4.       Publishing Opportunities
a)      Jaime de Pablos from Random House stated that the  e-book is the great equalizer. And so it is, but for those who want to try that route  - self publishing - it’s very difficult to get noticed, it seems to me.  By the way, his company only accepts manuscripts from agents. You know, we need for somebody to be an agent here.
b)      A suggestion from Marva Allen  (Hue Man Bookstore, US) was that we think of the wider Caribbean rather than trying so hard to get our material into the USA. I restrained myself and did not tell them how hard we have been doing that for so many years, and with little success. However, guys, perhaps with Kingston Book Festival and Bocas Lit Fest, and the soon to be activated CaribLit, this will be the time.
c)       Johnny Temple of Akashic Books (US), who is publishing Anthony  Winkler’s next book The Family Mansion,  and who will be linking up with Ms. Allen on some projects,  said he is interested in doing young adult material. Sounds promising,  however I think that you’d have to check his catalogue to see what types of books he has published so far, a clue to what his approach might be.
d)      Michael Williams from BIC Publications (UK) spoke to the need for  books which depict  black people in significant career positions so as to provide  positive role models for ‘Black British’ children. He has himself done a book, Black Scientists and Inventors. Now we know that the USA has produced books like this.  Question: how do we get our books into that UK market? One suggestion was to use the UK print on demand/digital publishing houses. Something to think about, because we tend to see the US market as being the solution to all our dreams.
e)      Latoya West Blackwood of Pelican Press, says that they are planning to publish books for children on the achievements of Jamaicans, especially in science and technology. I got the idea that some of these might actually be based on books for adults, but redone to the appropriate reading level for young people. So it sounds as if she’s someone to contact.
f)       Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree Press, a major publisher of Caribbean adult fiction,  said that the UK is really  more interested in  the UK experience of those descendants of Caribbean migrants, now all British, than the contemporary people in the Caribbean. He stated that ‘the Caribbean has fallen out of British consciousness’. I love that expression; it is beautifully crafted, a wonderful image (for me, I see leaves falling from a tree, drifting to the ground, the tree almost bare – no, I haven’t the faintest idea why that is the image). However, it is a dramatic truth. Perhaps we have to, as Roland Watson Grant suggested, think of how  our writing can be the centre of global culture’.  Cool, eh!

5.       Memoirs: Christopher John Farley, Senior Editor, Digital Features, Wall Street Journal, was one of those who spoke about writing memoirs. (Remember his book, Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley). Memoirs often reveal something unusual about the character that you can’t believe he/she did ( but  it’s not just for shock value); the setting of that person’ s life, what was happening then in the environment/the  world at the time is also important. I love that. I’ve seen this setting of the individual  in time in  books and it makes what the character has achieved  that more relevant. I’ve used it in my children’s stories. As indicated  in the previous blog, we do need books about our great and near great Jamaicans for our young people, before everybody forgets all who came before and all they achieved.  This could be the key to biographies  you plan to write. 

6.       Writing advice from Jeremy Poynting:  I’ve left this to the last because perhaps it does give some hope for us, the Caribbean not being uppermost in British consciousness.  He gave good advice for us as we try to reposition ourselves. Questions/comments he asked us to think about:
a)      How does Jamaica fit into power centres of the world? Some writers devise  a strategy in their attempts to reach their identified target audience. However,
b)      All writers are carried along by a good story.
c)       The writer’s voice must be heard: The writer must have a voice and a vision. Editors can sometimes fix the writing and the plot, but if there isn’t a voice and the rhythm of that voice, you may not be able to fix the story.
d)      Have the characters been given their space? Some characters even surprise the writer. (I’ve had this experience and it’s fantastic).
e)      Writing has to be of the level where you can trust the readers and not have to explain everything to them, (which of course can affect the flow of your writing – my comment).
And finally, he said that often you can tell from the first paragraph of a story whether it’s going to be good or not, acceptable to the publisher or not. (Scary eh! – work on those beginnings.) And , my fellow writers, he said that he can always tell whether the writer is a reader (of books) or not. Why did I insert 'of books'? Because, dear reader, I needed to stress it. Do you know how many children’s writers I’ve run into who do not read children’s literature, but want to write it. That’s like deciding to go swimming in the sea, when you’ve never ever, even had a shower or a bath.
As I said in the previous blog, the book fair at Devon House was delightful. I saw new persons who are self publishing children’s books, so  the genre is alive, and I hear that some people did well with sales; one writer/publisher of children’s books even having to send for additional books. Wonderful! So children’s writing is not only alive but doing quite well. Cinderella is on her way to the ball to find  the prince, or maybe, she’ll just strike out on her own and start her own business, or something like that. Who knows? It’s your call. Happy, brave writing, my friends.

(L-R: Sydne Lowrie, Latoya West Blackwood, Christopher John Farley)

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