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.
•The Strange Fishermen
•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.