Of what value is Young Adult literature? Said often by those who are inclined to dismiss children’s lit as well. It would seem that YA should either be categorized as fitting into the chapter books of middle grades or into adult genres. These people would also say isn’t there Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys? No, I’m not going to start off this blog with a rant. But the world has changed big time since Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. These books are read by children under 12. They are fun but add nothing to our lived experience.
So first let’s say that YA for the Caribbean, just like children's literature, is important for self acceptance and consequently self confidence.
There was an interesting comment from one of the panel members on a Bocas Lit session on the 100 books that 'formed us' on the weekend of 25th April. It was suggested that the 100 books that formed us could be divided into those with which we are familiar, sometimes on school book lists, and others that we were unfamiliar with. Interesting! I had not thought of it that way. Yes, I read Miguel Street, (often on set book lists) and I agree that the novels of Naipaul, Selvon, Mittleholzer and to top it off, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey formed and informed me. Crick Crack Monkey has some of the most powerful statements on the socializing effect of colonialism. I used to start writing workshops with quotes from it. These may no longer have the significance to the younger generation now writing and publishing as they did for us. These young people are perhaps more exposed to Caribbean culture (we lived it), but more Americanized. There is still much to be learnt about the Caribbean we share with our sisters and brothers of this region, and if we don’t, we do so at our peril. The lack of recognition of our commonalities (not common at all) in this upside down world with it’s pandemics and climate change shall leave us perishing in hot sun, rising waters and hurricanes.
Consequently I want to share with you books (Burt Awardees - my heart is broken about the abrupt ending to this dream come true. Look at the wealth of talent it has unearthed.)
The first is: The Art of White Roses by Viviana Prado-Nunez. (winner 2017 Burt Caribbean award – Papillote Press ) I love this book! The cover is enticing, a girl half seen entering through a door, perhaps encouraging us into her world. It is set in 1957 Cuba and strange things are happening, neighbours are disappearing. The author's use of language is gorgeous, her writer’s voice welcoming and warm, including with it everyday life, lurking with danger. The protagonist is 13 but grows up as young people do in times of great social change and revolution. I myself found the ending surprising, humane; this ending is worth discussing. New York bestselling author Daniel Jose Older says: "The Art of White Roses is a gorgeously written story, full of nuance, sadness, and the joy of growing up. A terrific debut from an exciting new voice in young people’s literature.” The writer was born in Puerto Rica and lives in the USA. I’m glad that her voice is included as part of our Caribbean literature, our 'own voices.'
Another book I liked was Girlcott by Florenz Webbe Maxwell ( Burt Caribbean 2016 winner - Blouse and Skirt Books ). It’s set in Bermuda. When I was young all we knew about Bermuda was that it was picture perfect, a tourist destination, run by white people and people of colour had no say in anything. All they had was money from tourists. Well this book opened my mind. It’s about a boycott of the segregation in theatres. So often we sit in judgement when we do not have the full story. I developed a new respect for the people of Bermuda. Now if I, who actually experienced colonialism, didn’t know this, how are young people to know and to understand the significance of what has taken place in the region?
( I get a lot of my knowledge of history from novels. That’s why writers must do their research properly, especially for books for Young adults and children.)
The other book I want to mention is called Home Home, by Lisa Allen-Agostini. It is set in the Canadian Midwest and the protagonist is a Trinidadian teenager who is depressed (Papillote Press). So we acknowledge the diaspora. Good! The significance of the diaspora was also mentioned in the weekend BocasLit panel. That depression in an adolescent from the Caribbean is a focus of this book, is certainly a plus. There are probably more depressed adolescents in our societies than we can imagine. This book might give them the permission to look for help. The other ground breaking aspect of the book is that the aunt to whom the teenager is sent is a lesbian who lives with her lesbian partner. And they are both normal human beings. I don’t know if this will pass the gatekeepers any time soon, but at least it has been written.
It seems that contemporary stories are suspect at best by the gatekeepers and cannot easily get through the glass ceiling for books, much less when they could be culturally controversial. I understand this, not only because I am an author, but because I’m an editor, and sometimes you have to say to the author, 'do you want this to be a challenge to the gatekeepers and even to the teachers, or not?’ However, if we are true to ourselves we write because we have a story to tell, and sometimes it may take us all into this modern and ever changing world.
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