Sunday, September 25, 2016

Two more new YA books from the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature

Lynn Joseph's Dancing in the Rain,  third place winner Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, 2015: another book answering the question why write? Or the power of stories

My last post was about books that bear evidence to the power of stories. Dancing in the Rain is one such  book.
Offline for three days, one felt  lost in space without  the ritual of opening emails.  I decided therefore that  I could use the time to consider at least one philosophical question. Would there be an answer if one opened one's mind? I needed to make sense of things. And the world was not making sense.  No doubt, there are others who  feel the same from time to time, and especially in today’s world.
In stepped Dancing in the Rain. I was pulled into the story by the lyrical writing. It's a joy to read; images abound, almost like being able to watch the  frames of a movie gently gliding by.  Joseph's characters are delightfully drawn;  you do indeed get to know them, want to know not only the outcome of the story, but the outcome of each of their own personal stories. The colours of the Caribbean  depicted (it's set in the Dominican Republic) are vibrant and magical.    
Against this mystical, magical background, two horrendous occurrences make their appearance,  the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11, and the Holocaust. The main characters are suffering from the effects of  9/11.  It’s significant that a book for young adults should deal with a traumatic occurrence which falls within present memory. It is contemporary; it is topical in a world where so many things seem out of our control, so beyond our wildest imaginations, and not in a pleasant way. The Holocaust appears as  a story within the  story, its purpose to draw attention to the different ways people survive after a tragedy of immense  proportions. So, in a sense, it informs the present.
The young protagonists ask philosophical questions and seek answers to the things we adults ourselves often do not understand. Yet,  it seemed as if by interacting with the characters and their story, and the  really brilliant protagonists, we understand what we always knew, but sometimes forget, that the only one way to deal with disasters is with faith/ hope and courage;  Joseph more than once refers to the importance of hope.
Joseph also speaks about joy and love, 'you are my heart', 'you are my joy', both of which I firmly believe in, and which from time to time appear in my stories.
So  did I have a breakthrough as a result  of my  journey with Joseph's characters, their philosophy, their brand of magic? Well something happened. It occurred while reading Dancing in the Rain. I have never doubted the power of stories, the power of books.  I gave thanks for the power of this story.
Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh, first place winner Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, 2015
 This is a rollicking adventure story set in Guyana. It’s really well written,  it keeps you on the edge of your seat, bed, wherever you read. Quoting from the blurb: Maya is a girl on the run. Driven by desperation and the search for her father  . . . she meets Joseph, a boy without the gift of speech but with much to say. Intriguing, right? The blurb also tells us . . . the story moves from the lush hinterlands of Guyana through the bustling city of Georgetown . . .It is a refreshing take on Caribbean myth and mythology from an interesting new voice.
So I was cheering for both Maya and Joseph. I enjoyed the trip from the interior to the coast, the river boat, the chase by the villains,  some of this world and some not, through markets and canals and along the roads of Georgetown.  The character of  Anancy, when it appears, is different, without losing the anancy characteristic, and is in fact  quite delightful.  I enjoyed the very clever mix of the present time along with this  old folktale character,  and what seemed to be another new created myth. And what do we know? Maybe the new isn’t new at all.
This is a great read!
This is a book to be in schools right now, at secondary, or even upper primary. Our Caribbean children will love this. For my part, it will show them we can also have adventure stories just like anything coming out of the developed world, and better, in fact.
Here we are with three new books, all Burt winners, Children of the Spider, Dancing in the Rain (both Blouse and Skirt Books - I salute Tanya Batson-Savage and her Blouse and Skirt Books for publishing these books); and Gone to Drift, (Papillote Press, review in my post of Saturday, June, 11). All are different, all contemporary, all great reads;  which should be in schools, which could hook our children onto reading. I believe the print run for the Burt Awards might in fact allow for many schools across the Caribbean to access these books. Will the powers that be put them on their master list which controls all reading? I do hope so, because they are enchanting,  they are enticing, they are exciting, and because it’s time to have some contemporary Caribbean stories in schools.
I feel really pleased that the Burt Awards are turning out to be so fantastic, helping us to develop  a library of outstanding  young adult books.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why write if nobody is going to read it? If a tree falls in the forest . . .

You’ve seen this question, or versions of it, asked before: Would you still write if you knew that no-one would read it? It reminds me of the question first introduced to us in university. If a tree falls in the forest , and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? We were young; how we pondered that question, our introduction to philosophical thought. That was long ago. Today’s students would know the answer to that, and no doubt have far more serious concerns. Little did I know that that question might arise again. It has, after what I call the failure of the great Amazon experiment/expedition (for another blog).

A fellow writer, no doubt feeling as low as I did at the time, asked if people aren’t buying our books why write? She indicated that writing was her life, so what now? At the time,  I was concerned with unexpected family affairs and had no time to even consider the matter. However, I think I have an answer, and it is this. There is always somebody, reading. Have faith in that, and if even one person/child reads you story and finds comfort, finds himself/herself, finds something of merit, perhaps a glimmer to light his/her way through life, then it is worth writing. And in a way, like workers in some ancient colony or social organization, we have to write; that is our destiny. Perhaps this is worth a coffee morning of discussion with fellow authors.

A few weeks ago, I read a column by a young columnist in one of our newspapers. It was after The Olympics and we were just full up with gratitude to our athletes, and especially happy for our Usain Bolt. The writer said that he had read this book when he was in school about great sportsmen of the world, Mohammed Ali and Pele ( I think he mentioned those), and he wondered if he would ever see any greats like that again  in the world, and here he was seeing  our own Usain Bolt, as great an athlete as ever there was in the world. I was amazed. I wondered if he was referring to the Dr. Bird Series (he remembered the books arriving at his school in a box), provided by the Ministry of Education, and written by Peggy Campbell (of blessed memory), Karl Phillpotts and I.  This particular non-fiction piece, Some of the World’s Greats,  was written by Peggy or Karl, not by me. ( I thought that the title included  . . .in sports” but it isn’t written like that on my list, so apologies to the writer or heirs , if the title isn’t quite right). I could see the book, I searched for it in my collection of originals (so I could scan it for this blog), but there was no copy there. I concluded that I gave it to a library when I was doing one of my ‘culling of books exercises’, when I decided that I would only keep copies of those that contained stories written by me.  Hard decisions like this have to be made when you perceive that there is a danger that one day you may not be able to get into your study because of books, books, books, everywhere.

The point is, guys, the book made a lasting impression on him. He remembered it even as an adult. Finally, he had his own ‘world’s great in sports’. I think that is reason enough to write.

Here is another example, just in this last week, as a comment on one of my blog posts:

I am the quality person I am today because of your inspiring writings. My ability to ready had more to do with the interesting and captivating plots in your  short stories that had me engaged as a child. Now as an adult, I would like to collect them all. How possible is that?

By the way, I get requests from people about how to get the Dr. Bird Series ( I presume the above is about the Dr. Bird Series).  We get no royalties from these books, but I count it as one of the greatest blessings of my life that I was able to write on that series, with two great writers.

Then there is Abigail: Abigail’s Glorious Hair  created quite a stir. I thought it would be The Happiness Dress, the Commonwealth Prize winner. But Abigail is the one that touched a spark in us about our hair, brought back memories for some, made little girls absolutely sure that they had glorious hair. Earlier this year, I read at the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL) conference held here in Jamaica, (along with Diana McCaulay, (Gone to Drift – see my previous blog), and A-dZiko Simba Gegele (All Over Again), both Burt Prize winners.  Again, there was that wonderful reception for Abigail. Someone from Belize asked that in signing her copy of the book, I also write, “You have beautiful hair”. This, she said, was for a little girl who didn’t think her hair was beautiful because it was too curly. Aah, my friends. Definitely reason enough to write?

But, you say, you are talking about books that people are buying and reading. Yes, guys, but when I wrote Abigail I had no idea. It was for my grandchildren, inspired by them. ( Rachel Wade, whose illustrations are so delightful, was actually sent pictures by me of my granddaughter’s hair, so that she could get the image right.) As I said, I thought it would be The Happiness Dress that would carry the two books. And in truth, children have found happiness dresses in their closets, and wear happiness dresses to my readings, as a couple of the girls did for  a recent reading at the Kingston and St. Andrew Parish Library. The  important thing is, you never know when a book will drop a ray of hope or love into a child’s heart or mind.  Definitely reason to write!

 As a postscript, at this time, hopefully Abigail will  enlighten, comfort, sing a hallelujah chorus. A story can quietly make a mighty noise.

Credits for image of forest: :