Tuesday, December 24, 2013

'Once Upon a Starlight': a Christmas story

I have often been asked by people why I do not illustrate my own children's stories. This is because they've seen some paintings I did many years ago.  Now we all know that a painting does not a children's book illustrator make. So fast forward to last year. I decided to take a couple of art classes towards rediscovering my talent, and hopefully selling paintings as an unknown artist to a gallery, towards making some money. You not sorry for me?  I liked the classes but discovered what I knew before, that to pursue painting you have to take time from writing. Also one of the other tutors passed by my painting and stopped to look at it, ( it was a particularly  challenging landscape chosen by me), and I chirped up, 'I took A level art', and he replied, 'A level art won't help you with this'. Hilarious, really. I took this as a clear sign that the plan of making some money as an unknown artist wouldn't probably fly.

Fast forward to now. I had wanted to write a new Christmas story, but what with one thing and another, I didn't, so here I am again putting up the same Christmas story, Once Upon a Starlight. However, this time I decided that I'd colour it (as in paint the illustrations). So that's new. I know, guys, 'Don't give up my day job.' I must point out that I did not draw them. I just coloured them, and apologise to the artist should my interpretation not fit with his original thoughts. I do not remember who it was and cannot find my copy of the book. When I do, I'll give him credit. I enjoyed painting the pictures with my acrylic paints bought for the art class. Who knows? Maybe one day I will illustrate some of my work. One of my resolutions for 2014?  Not sure about that. So a very Happy Christmas to all my readers. May your wishes also come true.

Once Upon a Starlight 

by Diane Browne


Angela pressed her face against the glass of the toy store window. She looked longingly at the chocolate-coloured doll with the tight black curls, dressed in a white blouse and frilly red skirt. Oh how she wanted that doll! But she knew that her parents couldn’t afford to buy it for her.

            It was almost Christmas. The store windows were draped with coloured paper streamers and shiny bits of tinsel. The sidewalk stalls had balloons, starlights and paper Christmas hats. The fruit vendors sat with their piles of pineapples, paw paws, oranges and shiny tangerines. And there was a tall Christmas tree in the park that shone with many coloured lights at night.

            Angela sighed as she turned away from the store window. Pushing her way through the crowds of excited Christmas shoppers, she tried to console herself. She could not have the doll, but she did have a paper bag with three starlights. They were not little starlights, but giant ones. Old Miss Hannah, who lived nearby, had given them to her because Angela had helped her to set up her stall.

            When Angela got home her father was sitting on the verandah. He had been out of work for some time and he looked very sad. Every day he went looking for work, but he couldn’t  find any. Her mother, who was sitting just inside the front door, was busy sewing; she was making clothes to sell to the stores. Angela’s little sister, Carol, ran to meet her.

            “What did you buy, Angela?” she called out  when she saw the paper bag.

            Angela showed her family the starlights and explained how she had got them. “I am going to light one each night until Christmas,”  she declared

            “I’m glad that you will have something for Christmas,” said her mother, with a sigh “There is no extra money for presents this year. The money I will get for this sewing will only be enough to buy us some food. I don’t even know if we will have enough to share with Miss Hannah. I know she is alone, and we always invite her to eat with us on Christmas Day ...but things have become so expensive. This has been a hard year.”

            Angela’s father looked even more sad.

            As soon as it was dark Angela went into the yard to light her first starlight. Carol watched from the front steps and squeezed her little hands together in excitement.

            Angela struck a match and placed it against the tip of the long starlight. A gentle Christmas breeze dimmed the flame of the match. Then as it flared again the starlight sparkled and crackled. Angela held it firmly as hundreds of little lights darted everywhere, like stars dancing away in the night.

            “Swing it around, Angela!” shouted Carol. “Make the lights spin!”

            Angela was just about to twirl the starlight in wide circles over her head, when she stopped. She blinked; she could not believe her eyes. There sitting on the top of the starlight was a little old lady, no bigger than a doctor bird. Her head was tied in a red and yellow bandana cloth, and she had on a bandana apron over a long blue cotton dress. Her black face was wrinkled and her eyes twinkled as brightly as the starlight sparkling around her.

            Angela’s heart pounded with fright.

            “Don’t be afraid,” said the little old lady. “I am the Auntie of the Starlight. It was kind of you to help miss Hannah to set up her stall, and I have come to reward you. Each evening as you light a starlight I will appear, and each time you may have a wish for Christmas. What is your first wish, Angela?”

            Angela trembled with anticipation as she thought about the doll in the store window. Then she remembered her father and how sad he had looked. I still have two other wishes, she said to herself. Maybe I can use this one for Daddy.

            “Can I wish for something for somebody else?” she asked in a whisper.

            “Of course,” replied the Auntie of the Starlight. “ They are your wishes. You can use them in any way that you want.”

            “Then I wish that Daddy could get a job,” said Angela breathlessly.

            The old lady tossed her head, showering sparkles of light all over the place. “You may have your wish,” she said.

            And before Angela could thank her, the starlight spluttered, and the old lady disappeared with the last little shimmering lights.

            “Oh, Angela, that was so pretty!” cried Carol.

            “Did you see her too?” said Angela.

            “See who?” asked Carol. “What are you talking about?”

            “Oh, nothing,” replied Angela, deciding that she must have imagined the whole thing.           The next day while Angela’s father went to look for work as usual, Angela helped her mother with the sewing.

            “I’m glad you can hem so well, Angela,”  her mother said.  “We must finish these today as tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I am depending on the money I get for them. Though, how I will mange to fill my next order, I don’t know. This old sewing machine is giving trouble and I’m sure it will cost a lot to fix it. I suppose I will just have to sew everything by hand. But that will take so long that maybe the store will give the orders to someone else.

            “They wouldn’t do that, Mummy,” said Angela reassuringly, though, to tell the truth, she was not at all sure that they wouldn’t.

            When Angela’s father came home that evening he looked quite different. He laughed happily as he exclaimed, “I’ve got a job! It’s at a new factory which needed extra help for Christmas, and if I work well the job will be permanent.”

            Angela’s mother smiled. “I’m so glad,” she said, “Angela needs shoes to got to school next term and my sewing machine needs fixing.”

            “Well,” replied her father, “I’ll have enough money for shoes, but that machine is too old now. They don’t even have parts for it anymore. You really need a new one, but I’ll have to work for some time before we can think of that.”

            “Yes, I  know ,” her mother said. “Anyway, now we can invite Miss Hannah to have dinner with us on Christmas Day.”

            Suddenly Angela realized that her first wish had come true. Perhaps she had not imagined the little old lady after all. Perhaps she would really see the Auntie of the Starlight again.

            Angela sat on the front steps waiting for it to get dark. At last the orange sun melted into the deep blue sky. Carol clapped her hands with excitement while Angela lit the second starlight. The breeze rustled through the leaves of the Christmas Bush as the starlight crackled and sparkled. And then just as before, there on its tip sat the Auntie of the Starlight.

            “Daddy got a job,” said Angela.

            “Of course he did,” replied the old lady. “Now what is your wish this time?”

            And just as Angela thought about the doll in the store window again, she remembered that her mother’s sewing machine was not working. Well, she said to herself, I still have my third wish. I’ll use that for the doll.

            “If you don’t mind,” she said to the old lady, “I’d like to use this wish for somebody else also.”

            “I don’t mind,” replied the Auntie of the Starlight. “They are your wishes.”

            “Okay, then,”  said Angela, “I’d like a sewing machine for Mummy.”

            The old lady tossed her head, showering sparkles of light all over the place. “You may have your wish,” she replied.

            “Thank you,” said Angela, and just as before, the starlight spluttered and the little old lady disappeared with the last little shimmering lights.

            Early next morning, Angela, her mother and Carol delivered the finished clothes to the store. Then they went to buy the food for Christmas Day. They bought some sorrel and ginger in the market to make the sorrel drink; they got sweet potatoes from a lady by the side of the road. Angela’s mother said that even a small ham was too expensive this year, so they bought a nice big chicken instead. She said Miss Hannah would probably bring a small Christmas pudding as usual. It would be a great Christmas after all.

That evening, just as Angela’s mother was crushing the ginger and Angela and Carol were picking the red sorrel, their father came home.

            “I have a surprise for you,”  he said to Angela’s mother with a big smile on his face. “One of the men at the factory knows a man who sells sewing machines. He will let us have one since I’m working, and I can pay him a little each week from my salary. And meanwhile you will have something to use.”

            There was a happy light in her mother’s eyes, and her father’s face shone with pride because once again he could help his family. Angela knew she had used her first two wishes well, and now on Christmas Eve she would make her final wish.

She could not stay still. She kept running out into the yard to look at the sky. Slowly, oh so slowly, it changed from a pale blue to gray streaked with pink.  At last it was dark.

            The two girls stood in the front yard. Angela took a box of matches from her pocket to light the starlight.    

            Suddenly Carol said, “Please, Angela, can I hold the starlight this time?”

            “No, you can’t!” replied Angela quickly. “You are too little. It might burn you.”

            “I’m big enough. I’ll be careful,” cried Carol. “I never got a chance to hold one before. Please, Angela, please! Let me hold it for just a little.”

            Angela thought about the doll. Then she looked at her sister. Her little body was trembling with excitement and her eyes pleaded for this chance.

            “All right,” sighed Angela, “ but just for a little. You must give it back to me when I tell you.”

            “Yes, I will. Thank you Angela,” Carol whispered.

            After all, Angela said to herself, it is long enough for both of us to have a turn at holding it. I will still have a chance to see the Auntie of the Starlight.

            The starlight burst into glittering lights as Carol held it tightly, her  face full of delight. The sparks flew in all directions, piercing the darkness like shooting stars, then disappearing like peenie wallies in the night.

            “This is the most beautiful starlight!” laughed Carol. “Just look at it, Angela!”

            Angela thought that this starlight did look even more brilliant  than the others. Then, just as she was about to take it from Carol, the starlight suddenly spluttered, and with a hissing sound the lights all died away. The Christmas breeze was now quite strong and Angela wondered if it had blown out the starlight.

            “Is it finished already?” asked Carol anxiously.

            “It can’t be,” replied Angela sharply, as she took it and looked at it carefully. But the starlight was already black and twisted. Angela fought back the tears as she struck match after match, trying to light it. But nothing happened.

            “I’m sorry, Angela,” said Carol softly. “You didn’t get your turn.”

            Angela couldn’t bear to make Carol feel sad, so she tried to smile bravely, as she said, “It’s all right. I had two already -  remember?”

            “Then you aren’t vexed?” Carol said with relief.

            “No, of course not,” Angela replied, as she gave her sister a quick hug. “And this one was especially pretty, just for you.” Carol’s hesitant smile, which became brighter  as she realized that it really was all right, made Angela feel that perhaps it was better after all, to have made her little sister happy.

            She was very disappointed about the doll but she was determined not to show it,  as the two girls got their clothes ready for church on Christmas morning.

            The first little rays of daylight were just slipping through the thin curtains at the windows when Angela turned over and rubbed her eyes. She stretched and yawned, and then she felt something at the bottom of her bed. She sat up and rubbed her eyes again; and there, sitting on the old chenille spread, was the doll with the white blouse and the red frilly skirt. I must be dreaming, Angela thought. But as she ran her hand over the tight black curls and the smooth chocolate-coloured face, she knew she was awake. It was not a dream at all.

            “Mummy, Daddy!” she called.

            Carol, who was awake by now, was jumping up and down in her excitement. She had discovered another doll in the folds of the spread. It was a baby doll, just the right size for her.

            “Thank you, Mummy and Daddy,” cried Angela as her parents appeared at the door. “How did you know just what I wanted?”

            “Did you put those dolls there?” their father asked their mother, laughing.

            “It’s a surprise to me,” replied their mother with a secret smile.

      And as Angela hugged her parents, she thought she saw something darting along a shaft of light and out through the window; something as small as a doctor bird, except that there was a flash of red and yellow like bandana cloth.

            I wonder if it really could be her? said Angela to herself with a little smile. I wonder if the Auntie of the Starlight really was here?


from The Big River and Other Stories

 Children’s Writers Circle, 1983

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Book Industry Association of Jamaica awards, 2013: showcasing young writers and publishers

Christmas is almost here. So time to get in some blogs before 2014.
The Book Industry Association of Jamaica awards took place in early December. The number of books being entered keeps increasing as do the self published books. For the purposes of this blog, the most important aspect  is that there are more children’s books being entered, a testament to more being written,  self published and published by new, independent publishers. This is all to the good. Could we be on our way to producing a reading society?
Here are the results:
Publishing Awards:
Children’s Chapter Book: No Boy Like Amanda, by Hope Barnett, published by Becky T. Books
Children’s Picture Book: Please Don’t Touch My Tomato by Cecile Levee, published by Spencer Kennedy Concept Ltd.
Children’s Trade Book Cover: Bolo the Monkey: written by Jonathan Burke, cover Design by Michael Robinson, published by Blue Moon Publishing
Readers Choice Award:
1.       Children’s Picture Book: Bolo the Monkey, by Jonathan Burke, Illustrated by Nicolas Martin, published by Blue Moon Publishing
2.       Children’s Chapter Book. A Turtle Tale by Latoya Newman
The really great thing about all of this is that we are seeing young, new writers and publishers entering the arena.  It is good to see that the baton is being passed and passed effectively. Special praise for Blue Moon Publishing which won in two categories.
Could we be on our way to creating a reading society? What a something, eh! What a something! Lovely!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree and a Barbados welcome

Just by chance someone in Barbados saw my Caribbean children’s literature blog and said ‘The next time you are in Barbados can you read at my school?’ Her name is Sarah Venable. I replied, ‘I’m  going to be in Barbados soon’, and as they say, the rest ...  was pure delight for me, and hopefully for my Barbadian hosts. One of the things that Sarah also discovered by chance was that I was the author of Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree, which she had been reading with her group.  Serendipity!
I read at two primary schools, Sharon Primary and Blackman Gollop Primary.

Sarah Venable is at Sharon Primary as a tutor in the National Cultural Foundation’s Writers in Schools and Education Programme. The Principal, Mrs. Pamela Small-Williams, welcomed me warmly and I knew from emails that she was very supportive of my reading for the students. The group of students consisted of  8-11 year-olds. We talked a bit about the similarities and differences between Jamaica and Barbados, and decided that it was mostly a matter of size.

I read a story called Twins in a Twist, (Pearson - Get Caught Reading Series) which I like because it asks the question, ‘my twin or my team?’ These are bright children and they could respond to that challenge. We talked about why I wrote that story. (I have twin brothers; all sorts of things inspire stories). The children had a number of questions to ask me about writing in general, and about Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree in particular. They sang their song from Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree for me, and I loved it. I even had an offer from one young man to publish my books, a thoughtful response to my indicating the difficulties of getting Caribbean children’s books published. And I have every hope that when he grows up he will remember that day and be a champion for children’s stories.

Sarah has written me since then and shared some of their back-stories to Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree. I found this very exciting and will perhaps borrow this technique when reading to children here. Most of all, I enjoyed their enjoyment of meeting a real-life Caribbean children’s author. I would have loved that as a child; and even as an adult, I am thrilled to meet an author of a book I like.

Penny Hynam invited me to the Story Club at Blackman Gollop Primary.  Formed under the aegis of the Barbados chapter of “Be the Change”, the Story Club consists of volunteers reading to the children once a week after school and encouraging visual expression with drawing and colouring in response to the stories. Again I was welcomed by the Principal, Mrs. Joselyn Brewster, who recognized me as part Barbadian (grandchildren are Barbadian, so it follows). The Story Club audience consisted of 5-8 year-olds, mostly boys. Aha! I didn’t think any of the books I had brought with me would hold the attention of this younger, mostly male group. Then it struck me! Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree to the rescue. I became the mango tree with whirling arms for branches, and chanted the song. It was a success.   

The second half of their club meeting was to draw something from the story. Now I had forgotten how good a story Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree is. (I say this humbly). It is part of the Doctor Bird Reading Series. I had also forgotten, until I started reading it again, some of the details of the ending. In the end, Ben, who is a lazy, greedy man, who had been asking the mango tree for food and other essentials and getting them, oversteps the mark, and asks for money, money, money. The mango tree rains money down on him and covers him totally. He is never seen again. Traditional folktale ending for greedy people, eh! My young  listeners asked what happened to him. What should I say?  It’s one thing to read it, so you can wonder about it; quite another to have the author give you a definite answer.   ‘Why not draw the ending?’ I said. Well there were various endings, but mainly, Ben used all the money to get a big house, a big car, a big plane and even to become a rock star.  Modern times!

Stories help our children to utilize their imaginations. They soon find out that they too can write stories set in their own environment. They see that their lives can also be in stories. What a wonder! I enjoyed being in both schools. I was delighted to meet their principals, clearly both outstanding ladies. I enjoyed meeting the ladies who volunteer for these reading programmes in schools.  I consider myself very fortunate that Sarah Venable stumbled upon my blog.

What struck me, and what I hope also strikes you is, here is a story written in Jamaica finding a place in Barbadian schools. I’m sure there are many stories from all the various territories that can find a place in other schools in our territories.  So let’s do that, eh. I don’t know how, but one never knows.

 (Photos are from both schools, courtesy of Penny Hynam - Blackman Gollop Primary, and Cheryl Hutchinson - Sharon Primary.  I try not to show the faces of my young listeners so it may seem like the pictures are mainly of me, but I hope that you get the idea of what a great reading time we had.  Please note the extended arm in air, no doubt a branch of the mango tree.)