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.