Saturday, March 30, 2013

Writing biographies for our children - Essential

In participating in the High Schools Tour for the Kingston Book Festival, we were asked to tell the students about our careers. My writing career began with the Dr. Bird Readings Series for the Ministry of Education. There were three of us writers;  one of the first tasks we had was to visit the government primary schools to get to know our target audience, what their interests were, and so on. It did come as a surprise to us that these children thought that all writers were either foreigners or dead. So we were their first  exposure to Jamaican writers. I shared this story with the students on the Kingston Book Festival  tour.   I hope that by now all our Jamaican children know that there are Jamaican writers.
(Image from Dr. Bird supplementary reader: Jamaican returning from Panama wealthy)

When  we were writing for the Dr. Bird Reading Series we had access to a wonderful library. There was no Internet in the 1980s. In this library there was a magnificent, thick two-volume book about  outstanding Black people in the world. I was mesmerized, astounded, but most of all, validated.  The information in these books formed the basis of some of the biographical stories in our series.  I thought then, and it still applies: Do our children know these stories? Do they know that Black people have been scientists and inventors, as well as athletes, dancers and entertainers, wonderful as the latter are; even as we celebrate those people, even as those persons are more likely to catch world attention? Children need to know that we can do all sorts of things, that they are capable of doing great things, because there were those who came before us and did them. It’s not just foreigners who can be scientists and inventors, or anything at all.

We know about our National Heroes!  But  do we know of the many other Jamaicans who can be role models?  Role models whose example  can guide us as we move forward into  the next fifty years of our country’s life? We need positive role models  to balance the only too visible anti-heroes, in danger of becoming heroes for young people who know of no others. At this time of great challenge in the world and in our own island,  children need to hear about our achievers, so that they can take hope and realize that Jamaicans have been trailblazers against all odds, that we have played our part in history. To name only a few, do they know about Dr. T. P Lecky? Do they know about Dr. A. Lockhart and Dr. M. West? Do they know about Una  Marson? (My grandmother acted in one of her plays at the Ward Theatre). Do they know, for example, that Jamaicans helped to build the great Panama Canal?

So do you want to tell the story of our people, or even of someone in your family who achieved great things? Imagine a child reading a story written by  a living descendant of a great Jamaican!  What an exciting story. However, bear in mind that the word ‘biography’ is not synonymous with dull. Biographies, stories of our people, should be interesting, worthy of the reader’s attention. So this advice given by Latoya West Blackwood of Pelican Publishers  at the Kingston Book Festival should come in handy.

She identified these points in relation to writing biographies.

1.       You need to decide from whose point of view the story is being told.

2.        Is your report balanced? ( I think that is something you’d really have to be aware of if the person is known to you.)

3.       If the readers don’t know you or the person being written about, would they be interested? (I think this especially applies if the person is in your family – for example, if I decided to write the story of my grandmother’s life.)

4.       What is outstanding, different, unique about the person?

5.       There should be a ‘wow factor’!

So  perhaps Latoya is the person to see? Oh by the way, you do know that even when you think you know everything there is to know about the person you are writing about, you do need to do research to check your facts, and to see if there is anything else to discover.
                                       Latoya West Blackwood  centre of group

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