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