Friday, June 28, 2013

Despatches: Of passing and going forward


Last week the renowned Jamaican writer of children’s books, C. Everard Palmer, passed away in Canada where he had been living. For many of us he was the consummate Caribbean and Jamaican children’s writer in that he had succeeded in entering the imagination of our children of successive generations. In a country, Jamaica, where reading is not considered a viable use of time, he had entered the lives of many children. I suspect  that  some of them will remember, for example, A Cow Called Boy  or The Cloud with a Silver Lining. My favourite was My Father, Sun-Sun Johnson.   Was Everard Palmer an influence in my wanting to write for children? I don’t know, but I do know that when I would sit and stare adoringly at my shelves of books ( I am inclined to look at my books as one might look at collections of exquisite jewels), the sight of that particular book, My Father, Sun-Sun Johnson, filled my heart. I know that the work of any writer encourages other writers, especially when it comes to children’s writing. He has left behind a strong legacy. Nuff respect C. Everard Palmer! I hope that you know how much you were loved and admired.     

And since we must go on, it is good to celebrate Tanya Batson-Savage winning the first prize for Best Storyboard/Script at the Kingst00n Animation Festival. Congratulations to Tanya, whose publishing house Blue Moon had a launch of a children’s book (my previous post) last weekend. Multitalented young lady! The judges for this festival included big names in animation in the world, so clearly it was no ‘little, little festival’. (See report in The Gleaner for June 25).

 And so in a way, as we mark the passing of a giant in children’s literature,  we also welcome the future. The future is not just books and publishing by young writers and entrepreneurs, but the new technologies like animation. Yes, animation has always been with us courtesy of Walt Disney , but it appears that more and more we might be seeing a marriage between books and animation. The future awaits us.
Photo of Tanya Batson-Savage taken by Emma Lewis at launch of Bolo the Monkey

Friday, June 21, 2013

Book launch by young publisher/young publishing house

Last Saturday afternoon there was a delightful book launch by Blue Moon Publishing, Tanya Batson-Savage's publishing house. So this is one of the most important aspects - a young publisher, with faith in Jamaican children's books, enough to do her own publishing, not only of her own books, but those written by others also. The book, Bolo the Monkey is written by Jonathan Burke, with illustrations by Nicholas Martin and book design by Mike Robinson. The story is timeless and will appeal to all ages; there's something there to touch everyone's heart; children will enjoy the illustrations. The atmosphere was  just right, vines trailing around the swing and the tent posts, M'Blala drumming, as well as providing appropriate background and sound effects for the exciting reading of the story by Kalando Wilmoth. As Kalando completed the reading of the story, there was a long drawn out sound of 'Awh' from the audience, a sound of satisfaction at a story that made us feel that things might well be right with the world.

It was pointed out to us that even though we do not have monkeys here, there are  monkeys in other islands, and also our folktales have monkeys in them, reflecting that aspect of our African heritage. A number of children volunteered to do impressions of Bolo, and they enjoyed their own creativity, as did we.

 I think what moved me most, apart from the story itself, was that the writing and publication of this book meant so much to the author, and as he said, there are many other stories out there. He told of visiting a friend's school with some of his poems (the story is in verse, by the way) and how the children then would greet him by calling out, 'Here comes the poet!' I like that! You see,  it means that our children can associate literature with their own people, and by extension, themselves. In times like these we cannot have enough of what speaks to the creative good in our people and our children. I applaud Tanya! I believe, from what she said, she might even be thinking of doing adult books as well. We all wish her well.

Photos taken from the Gleaner.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Making the case for children's literature - the Dr. Bird Series: Part 3

You might recall  that I started this discussion on the Dr. Bird Reading series by suggesting that we might consider these books/stories as children’s literature. Instantly some of us may shake our heads, no. After all, local supplementary readers  like these can hardly be considered children’s literature, can they? I mean, unless it’s Enid Blyton or Nancy Drew, or Anne of Green Gables…. Let’s not get confused, here. There are children’s classics like Little Women, and  there is children’s literature in general; and there is modern children’s literature; some of these books  have won awards in the USA and the UK, but we haven’t yet decided that they are classics, so the discussion goes on…

If children remember that they read  a book that they enjoyed; or if another generation of children keep enjoying the same book; or if  adults remember a book they enjoyed in school; or if a story affects children’s/people’s lives, could it then be considered children’s literature – even if the children and people are us? I mean, isn't the ‘us’,  equally important, and what speaks to us, equally important as what we have been socialised to enjoy?

Anecdotal references may suffice: We know that My Father by Peggy Campbell was a favourite. The Heights by Great Men written by Karl Phillpotts (which was about athletics) was a favourite. I wrote one called A Home With Mama. The report at that time was that the people in an entire tenement yard passed that book around. Adults as well as children read that book. For those who are not Jamaican, a tenement yard contains a number of small houses/rooms occupied by different persons/families. It is often to be found in poor areas in the inner cities. The people are often very much connected because of proximity and can be very caring of one another. The children in A Home With Mama  preferred to be in one room with their mother rather than in a big house with relatives. When you come to think of it, some of the housing complexes uptown are perhaps an upscale version; both groups being deserving of equal respect. 

So have the Dr. Bird Reading Series survived the passage of time? I haven’t done a scientific survey, but from time to time people discover me on the Internet ( I guess) and write  to see if they can get copies of the books for their children. The Cat Woman and the Spinning Wheel and The Runway Car are the runaway favourites. (I couldn’t resist that). A nurse told me that she so respected me because I had written those stories she read in school. A policeman, when I told him that I had written books for children in our schools, replied, ‘Oh I remember the one with Anancy and the dog and the puss and the hot porridge’ ( I told him that  Why Dog Don’t Like Puss was written by Karl Phillpotts). When I went around to schools this year with the group of authors for Kingston Book Festival, and I mentioned Dr. Bird stories there were shouts of recognition, calling out of names like ‘Cat Woman’ and ‘Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree’. And just now in child month when I went to read at a primary school, the grade 2  children could claim that they had read Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree. I don’t think they cared much that the author was standing there in front of them; they were more thrilled to  report that they had enjoyed the story. Mission accomplished? They know that Jamaicans write stories which they enjoy. The children believe in us. Do the adults? Do we as a people still need foreign books to tell us who we are, foreign people in a foreign land, our own?

These books were published in 1980, so it’s quite possible some are more relevant today than others, some better than others, and so on. Nonetheless, I laud the team which included then Education Officers, our own Marguerite Curtin, OD and Jeff Schatzman, who brought this vision into being.  

Ah. I had promised to tell you what my favourites  are, what I would put into an anthology of my work.

They are:

The Strange Fishermen

Marble Lady

Much More Than Shells

The Cat Woman and the Spinning Wheel

The Runaway Car

An Angel of Mercy

The Yellow Gas Balloon

These are not all at the same reading level. I would rework them to the appropriate reading level, and re-edit where necessary, with the Ministry’s permission of course … Ah, I can dream, can’t I?

All images are from the full colour revised editions produced by the Ministry of Education.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Writing is not a solitary occupation: The Dr. Brid Reading Series. Part 2

It is often said that writing is a solitary occupation, however as you can see, it was far from that with our writing team. Apart from writing together, our material had to be vetted by the curriculum officers as being suitable for our schools, and changes made if required. Accountability was part of the process.

 In approaching our task, apart from taking into account reading levels, we apportioned a certain amount of the material to be non-fiction. The selection of non-fiction topics was often a joint decision, driven by research, or vice versa. An example would be that of the Jamaicans who went to build the Panama Canal. (Those Who Left Jamaica). We considered that Jamaicans being instrumental in  the creation of one of the ‘wonders of the world’ to be important  for our children to know about. Another example would be  selections about great Black achievers, like  Mohammed Ali and Pele (many of these would appeal to boys). I felt a particular privilege to be able to write the piece on Mary Seacole, ( An Angel of Mercy), especially  as I was able to research it from her own book, The Adventures of Mary Seacole, which was then available in the National Library.  I spent hours making notes in the National Library as such a precious acquisition  could not be taken out of the library -  and I began to feel an affinity for her  which came  from  reading her actual words.

In  each of the grades, in recognition of the varying reading levels in any given grade, there were a few books that dipped down to the previous grade’s reading level. This was to encourage the slower readers. The concept of a number of books, rather than an anthology type of reader, was  to give the child a sense of achievement. Each book would give the reader the feeling that he/she had completed that book successfully and could then move on to the next task, a more advanced book, but holding the possibility of success achieved with the previous book. Motivation!

As I pointed out previously, we were a unique team; often this mix and balance was reflected in the choices we made in our writing. Peggy often had a male protagonist. She had a son. I have two girls. I often had a female protagonist, and even when there were a number of children in a story, there would be a girl who was championing the cause, whatever it was. Karl’s stories often reflected his great concern for the spiritual aspect of our lives, or for the underdog and the consequent overcoming. The Heights by Great Men aptly illustrates this. We monitored the gender balance, not only amongst our protagonists, but also among the significant others. One always has to be mindful of the hidden messages in stories for children.

Closely aligned to this is the matter of stereotypes. At that time as mentioned previously, Rastafarians were still seen as some sort of social threat to  the status quo. Hard to imagine that, now, eh! Peggy wrote a story called Broom-man to show that the broom-man, a Rasta, was an honest and acceptable part of our social fabric. (Other stories dealing with stereotypes would be Auntie Bev and the New Van  - mine, about a aunt who can fix cars, to the surprise of the men in the area; or Karl’s Who Will Comb Our Hair?  -  about a grandpa who has to comb his granddaughters’ hair;  both of these were written later, for grades 1-3.)  We would sometimes bounce  ideas of each other while writing.   I can still see the interaction between us,  deliberating the viability of an idea, sometimes not agreeing, and Peggy, smiling wisely and settling it all.

We looked at the artwork roughs for accuracy in relation to culture and story and also to catch any stereotypes. For example, there was in one story an image of a Chinese man in a shop who looked more like a caricature than a character. Good to be able to catch this and correct it.

We were mindful of the curriculum but also of other educational considerations, including the opinions of the stakeholders. We take some of these  matters for granted now, but for some, we were breaking new ground then, and for some, there was even controversy.

For example, Karl wrote a story, a retelling really of a folktale with Anancy and  Dog and  Puss. The title was Why Dog Don’t Like Puss. Yes indeed, there was  Creole in the title. A member of the public wrote  a letter to the Gleaner, expressing concern about it.  However educators were becoming aware of the significance of the Creole in our children’s lives, the fact that use of  Creole could be a validation of our lives. Besides, it was a folk tale. Most importantly, the curriculum officers had signed off on the material.

Another example came from our decision re family types.  We had decided that there should be a variety of family types which mirrored our reality.  Hence, there were two-parent families (with fathers who were involved in their children’s lives), single mothers, the extended family with grandmothers and grandfathers, children who lived with grandmothers only. We felt strongly that no child should read  our books and find himself/herself missing. If your family type wasn’t in one book it would be in another. In this regard, Peggy wrote a story called My Father.  It was, and is my favourite of all the material we produced. In summary, a girl wishes she had a dress for the festival concert which she knows her mother cannot afford. Her mother has also told her that her father, whom she did not know, is returning from England  to Jamaica. She wonders what it will be like to meet a father she has never seen. One day a man turns up at their gate. He is her father, and he has a lovely dress for her which can be used for the concert. Fairy tale happy ending? Right? Not so! After they give the father something to eat and drink, he departs for  his place in the country where his other children live. That is not the ending; the ending is sweet. The mother admits that she feared that her daughter might love her father more (the provider of largesse). Of course, the child comes through as the heroine we know she is. She assures her mother that a dress could not change her love for her. This is the happy ending!

This story resulted in a very serious meeting between the curriculum officers and the three writers. It was made clear that the family we were required to portray was the nuclear Christian family. The three writers remained quietly united and stuck out for this depiction of a family situation which we all knew existed. We prevailed. I think that the power of this story lay in the fact that it was written in Peggy’s unemotional style, but carried such a punch. We were told later, by those officers who evaluated the books in the field, that it was one of the most popular stories. Children wanted to read it. They didn’t talk about it; they just wanted to read it. I suspect that many were finding themselves in that book.

People often ask where, as writers, we get our ideas.  Some of the stories we included were retelling of traditional tales, which enchanting as they were, also carried some kernel of wisdom, for example Aesop’s Fables, and The King’s New Clothes, as well as Caribbean and African tales. Some of our ideas came from our experiences/our childhoods (universal themes played out in real life) or from the experiences of the children we knew. One of mine, Up On The Roof, was based on a friend of my children, then little, who jumped off her roof thinking that like one of the TV super heroes, she could indeed fly. She broke her leg. Although the story as written was changed somewhat, it was still a cautionary tale.  Moreover, our visits to primary schools prior to writing, also allowed us to find out about the interests of our children.

The teacher in me makes me wonder if the present day users of these books  recognize the goldmine which exists in them. As a teacher of geography, one of the things I loved to do was to find a piece of literature which could be linked to the topic of study. For example, when studying volcanoes there was a riveting first-hand account of a volcanic eruption in the Caribbean.

 So I wonder if teachers today think to make links from the past to the present and the future. For example,  Mary Seacole visited Panama  because of the building of the canal, and administered to workers there, and there is renewed interest in her in the UK now. I wonder if they consider that there are still descendants of Jamaicans who went to build the Panama Canal, that the canal is being increased in size; and that we are considering strategies to position ourselves to benefit from this. "Colon Man" (celebrated in song) was a part of the individual Jamaican’s success in the past. Is the Panama Canal to play yet another role in our fortunes? Our links to Panama through Mary Seacole and our workers, are still with us. I love introducing ideas  that make children begin to think, to wonder. There is so much in literature for children to enjoy and think about.

My final post on this series will share with you the stories that children seemed to especially like; those that seem to be favourites even now, and the ones I wish I could put into my dream anthology.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

All writers are not dead or foreigners - the Doctor Bird Reading Series: Part 1.


I have thought about writing this blog post for some time, but neglected to do so, because one doesn’t want to appear to be blowing one’s own trumpet (note the distancing use of ‘one’). However two recent things spurred me on to do it now. One was,  as usual, someone asked me how many books I’ve written, and I mumbled some answer, as usual ( feeling fool), because I do not know whether to include the books in the Doctor Bird Reading Series. Secondly, someone wrote asking for information about present day children’s writers in Jamaica; however it seemed as if stories in Language Arts textbooks should not be criteria for inclusion. Aha! Surely a necessary distinction, but does it always apply here? We’ll see.

Then lo and behold! When  I looked at my copies of the Doctor Bird Reading Series I was horrified to find that some were missing. How could that be? Well, book-friends, sometimes the books on the four bookshelves the length of  one wall, have to be scaled back. This is always  fought against and then done in a frantic act of desperation, possibly to be regretted later at one’s leisure. So reluctantly I recalled  that I had given away to a library, any of the books which did not contain my stories (since eventually one realizes that the children and the grandchildren will only want copies of those you’ve written, and then just for nostalgia - like how I have some of my mother’s paintings and wonderful  illuminated addresses in here, and don’t know what to do with them since wall space is limited, what with the bookshelves). Then worse was to come;  there is one story of mine which I thought was quite clever (as one does sometimes) which is not here; clearly given away in the frantic act of desperation, in a book that I thought had none of my stories. You see, gone forever! So perhaps this is the time to record these stories, to record a  ground breaking initiative.

 1980 the Government of Jamaica, through the Ministry of Education, did something which was visionary in the realm of local literacy; it produced local story  and non-fiction books. Through the Publications Section of the Ministry of Education, three writers were contracted to write supplementary readers for grades 4-6, building on the work of the LMW for grades 1-3. The LMW were Language Arts books, but The Doctor Bird Reading Series would be stand alone books, thus encouraging the children to love reading for reading’s sake, rather than associate it with studying. The three writers were the late Peggy Campbell (of blessed memory), Karl Phillpotts, and me, Diane Browne. The education officer who so ably managed this vision of writing stories for children about their own environment was Marguerite Curtin, today a well known historian. When we went into the primary schools, which was our target audience, children thought that all writers were either dead or foreigners. With the Doctor Bird Readers children realized that Jamaicans could also write books, and indeed the children were to find themselves in these books. You must understand that at this time to have local books for our children was somewhat earth shattering. We writers (and we did not know each other before) met every day, sat in a room together (or did research in a then fabulous library in the Ministry) and wrote.  The rooms varied; once we had to move out because the caterpillars, which would eventually become the yellow-white butterflies which fly around the Lignum Vitae trees, had invaded from the nearby tree. We bounced ideas of each other, as well as words. In the afternoon we would edit if we had enough to edit. And it was honest editing, not destructive, but decidedly telling it as it is. Peggy was my mentor and hero (she had done quite a bit of writing before for the LMW (for which I later also wrote some pieces) and the Jamaica Reading Association. She said she represented the rural Jamaica perspective, having originated from the country. She had a bold afro! Her favourite saying when things didn’t go quite as one would expect was, “Situation normal”, accompanied by a wry smile. Very calming. Karl was a Rastafarian, very religious; quite brave of the powers that be to have had him on the team, as the middle classes were still fretting that their children would become Rastas. I was the ‘town girl’ in my bell-bottom pants and my bright blue or green eye make-up (all the rage then), which make-up, conservative Karl one day likened to Jezebel in the Bible. But we were ‘family’ and very loyal to one another. That was one of the happiest times. Imagine going to work every day and writing  with writers whom you trust. Fantastic! 

For the record, others on this project were Lawrence Carrillo, Consulting Editor, a retired American educator, who came from time to time and trained us in how to write to reading level.  Jeff Schatzman, Series Editor (originally from the Peace Corps); Designers, Annette Miller and Donny Miller; Art Editor, Jacqueline Powell.  Artists were all local, even if some had not long come to live on the island: amongst them were Annette Miller, Susan L. Shirley, Lascelles Lee, Jacqueline Powell, Samere Tansley, Donald Miller, Betty Anderson. Some of these have gone on to become rather famous artists. The project was funded by the Organization of the American States with the Ministry of Education. The paper for the first printing of the books was donated by UNESCO

We produced 33 books! They were in two-colour,  colour- coded to reading levels, with a teacher’s guide for each of the grade levels. Over time they have been repackaged; the latest versions are in  full colour, some with new artwork and covers. The Doctor Bird Reading Series is still in schools; and in demand.

What do I want us to take away from this?

1.In developing countries like ours I would like to make the case for supplementary readers like these to be considered as story/nonfiction books (children’s literature) rather than textbooks. These are what many children will have, and nothing else. And  they are relevant to their life styles and validate them/us.

2. This was a wonderful achievement by the Ministry of Education. Yes, really good material can be produced by the government agencies, and yes, we can work together as Jamaicans towards a common goal. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of us pulling down each other and wanting to hide the  achievements of others. Do not let ‘bad-mind’ people make us lose faith in ourselves and our ability to work with one another.

3. The Doctor Bird Reading Series set the pattern for other projects, although perhaps not as big, nor it seems, with books still in print. The most recent is Literacy 1-2-3, done in full colour, with Big Books as well as student story books; with a number of artists and  writers, some experienced, some new, some young.  This project was managed by me. Talk about coming full circle and being able to give back, eh! They are truly lovely books. I do not know to what extent they are in all the schools, but on a recent visit to a primary school I did see a child with one  in her hand. She was doing the  ‘walking and reading’ thing, a sure sign of delight in a book.

4. Why can’t we sell these books to the private schools? That would be a way for government to make money. From we were doing the Dr. Bird Readers private/independent schools wanted them. The answer then was that government ‘did not sell’, and if it did, the money would only go into the Consolidated Fund and not necessarily  be of any benefit to further  book production in the Ministry. (Some publishers would say that there should be no book production section of the Ministry, but that’s for another discussion. I’ve worked both in government and commercial publishing and can see both sides). In these times when  there are so many economic challenges I would love to see the Ministry being able to sell their books; also in this way, all of our children would  be able to enjoy books which they would not otherwise be able to access.

The Dr. Bird books in my possession are shown below. Mine are shown in bold, for obvious reasons (so I won’t ‘feel fool’?) You will see that some from the series are missing, as indicated previously. However, I do have a full list, should anyone want it. I have not included it here because I’m not sure of particulars of some of the books, e.g. authorship and book #. In future blogs I will say more about those books that have stories/anecdotes attached to them; my favourites; and the ones I wish could form a personal anthology. One can but dream, eh!

Dr. Bird Reading Series

1.       A 1. In Jamaica Where I live; Do Not Play in the River Today -  by Karl Phillpotts

2.       A 2. In the Mountains; Richie’s Pet - by Diane Browne

3.       A 3. Anancy and Cow – retold by Diane Browne; Countryman – Karl Phillpotts

4.       A 4. Fish for Dinner – by Diane Browne; Mr. Rain – by Karl Phillpotts

5.       A 6. The Cat Woman and the Spinning Wheel - - retold by Diane Browne; Can Annie Make Friends?  - by Diane Browne; Good Follows Good – by Karl Phillpotts

6.       A 7. Broom-Man – by Peggy Campbell; The Sound at the Window – by Diane Browne; My Father – by Peggy Campbell

7.       A 8. The Strange Fishermen – by Diane Browne

8.       A 9. Marble Lady; A Terrible Fright; Earthquakes – by Diane Browne

9.       A 11. How Did We Get Here? – by Peggy Campbell; The Emperor’s Nightingale –  retold by Diane Browne; The Dentist – by Karl Phillpotts; Limestone Caves – by Diane Browne

10.   B 1. Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree – by Diane Browne; Why Dog Don’t Like Puss – by Karl Phillpotts

11.   B 2. Jenny Never Did Anything Right – by Diane Browne; The Letter – by Karl Phillpotts

12.    B 3. There Is No King As Great As God – retold by Diane Browne

13.   B 4. The Trouble-maker – by Karl Phillpotts; The Story of Bath – by Diane Browne

14.   B 5. King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – by Karl Phillpotts; Up on the House Top – by Diane Browne

15.    B 6. The Heights by Great Men – by Karl Phillpotts; A Home with Mama – by Diane Browne

16.   B 7. The Emperor’s New Clothes  retold by Diane Browne; Maggie’s Wish – by Diane; Tell Me Why – by Karl Phillpotts

17.    B 11. Volcanoes – by Diane Browne; Some Caribbean Customs – by Diane Browne; John Connu Dance – by Dorothy Whitfield;  Joe and the Carnival Costume- by Diane Browne

18.   B 12. Short-Cut – by Peggy Campbell; Just Fooling Again – by Diane Browne; Frederick and Catherine – retold by Jeff Schatzman; The Love of Freedom – by Karl Phillpotts

19.   C 5. The Runaway Car – by Diane Browne

20.   C 7. First Aid – by Peggy Campbell; An Angel of Mercy ( the story of Mary Seacole) – by Diane Browne

21.   C 9. Those Who Left Jamaica – the Maroons Who Were Forced to Leave Jamaica  (the story of the Trelawny Maroons exiled  to Nova Scotia) – Jamaicans Who Went to Panama (Jamaicans who went to help build the Panama Canal) – by Diane Browne; Much More Than Shells – by Diane Browne

22.   C 10. China and India – by Peggy Campbell; The North American Indians and Cowboys – by Karl Phillpotts; An Amazing Journey (the first men on the moon) – by Peggy Campbell