Saturday, January 17, 2015

To be, or not to be . . .quaint: the back story


I’ve been meaning to write a blog about what Caribbean children’s literature is, or should be, or can be.  And yesterday I got a phone call which gave me new insight and made me realize that I could not put it off any longer.

When I run writing workshops, I always  point out to the participants that the target audience is a key aspect of writing. This usually applies to the differences in the  level of the material, the mechanics of writing  and perceived interests of the target audience. Essentially the writer can jump in passionately and write whatever catches his/ her fancy, but at some point, and usually this is before starting to write, the writer has to decide if the story is going to be in picture book/picture storybook format, or a chapter book or a young adult novel. The story the author wants  to tell often dictates the level. Most authors tend to write for a particular target audience; some can write for various levels. This would apply across the world of children’s’ writing.

We are all accustomed to European/Western children’s literature. For some decades now, however, developing countries/ex European colonies  have been trying to develop their own children’s literature, based on the psychological construct that seeing oneself in books and reading about one's own cultural environment contributes to a healthy self concept. One might ask if the reverse is therefore true.

It would seem that the rationale for producing local children’s literature must have been accepted by the people of the Caribbean by now. I and others have been on this bandwagon for the last 30  years at least; the Doctor Bird Reading Series, supplementary readers developed by the Ministry of Education here in Jamaica in the early 1980s, and for which I wrote, were to address this very need. The Jamaica Reading Association had already done some local short stories, and the Children’s Writers Circle sought to continue this by encouraging local writers to produce material. There were other authors in the Caribbean with the same dream; and we even formed regional authors’ groups. We achieved a lot; the Jamaica Library Service was supportive. Oh how confident we were! However, perhaps it wasn’t a bandwagon, but more like one of those old-time drays pulled by mules or  oxen, to be overtaken by. . . time . . . and . . . the excitement of technology.

Everyone gives lip service to the support for local children’s literature. However, although we  have a new generation of young publishers in Jamaica and the rest of the region, they seem to be facing the same frustrations we eventually did.

So what do we say are the challenges again?

1.       Low purchasing power/disposable income

2.       Small overall market in the region, hence low print runs, hence high unit costs, in the face of much cheaper foreign books

3.       Socialization to foreign children’s books, which traditionally were what we all read. So today, even the gatekeepers, who should welcome local books, cannot find it in their hearts or minds to purchase local/regional material.  Have we all been colonized, even those who were never governed or taught by overseas people? 

I am becoming convinced that this might not change much, ever.

However, what about the target audience? What part do they play? What does the target audience want? And who are they anyway?

Most of us writers have been writing what we consider to be contemporary Caribbean children’s literature for our children, so that they can know that they are important enough to be in books. In this endeavor, we have tried not to be too quaint. For the purposes of this  discussion, a definition of quaint might be ‘attractively unusual or old-fashioned’.  After all, our present-day children aren’t quaint; they live in a real world where there are computers, tablets and smart phones. Even if some of them don’t have these items personally, they interact with them in school. They face  very real lives with modern challenges. I think many of us find that our stories consist of the reality of today’s world set in an environment, which though it may have aspects of the quaint, this quaint is not for the sake of quaint, but only as it supports the setting of the story.  

We are convinced that our children want and should have contemporary stories and characters with contemporary concerns.

But are our children the target audience?

Or are the gatekeepers the real target audience, and are they a little bit afraid of what contemporary might mean, without sometimes actually reading the books?

And what of the overseas target audience, the diaspora about which we dream? ( “If this book could just get to the diaspora, man, I cool.”)

So yesterday when someone asked me how to find a book for a relative overseas to give to a child; ‘something like Anancy’, I replied, “Ah, - like folktales?” “Yes”  was the relieved reply.

And what is more quaint than Anancy and folktales? And when you are overseas, what is more nostalgic and suitable for young relatives divorced from this their ‘ancestral home’ than Anancy and folktales and quaint? And truly, I cannot argue with that. I’m sure that all displaced people, whether displaced willingly or not, long for that security of memory  -  made more delightful with passing years and distance -  of the quaint. The diaspora is probably not longing to read about contemporary children. And even if we consider the multicultural overseas markets, even if we could access it, I bet you they will just want the quaint. 

Please join the conversation.  In a future post I’ll look at some books by title, including the recent YA Burt Awards, which represent our latest regional achievements.



  1. Diane, as you say, I think the problem is the gatekeepers. Most gr 3&4 children will tell you their favourite books are the well-known traditional fairy stories, because that's what people buy for them. Any child who has read Delroy and Sand Pebble titles like these books, but the challenge is to get them into their hands and persuade them to read them. The next diaspora conference in is June 2015. Perhaps Ja writers could have a presence there.

  2. Thanks for joining the conversation, Helen. You have made an important point. The idea of the diaspora conference is a good one. There is also the JTA conference. I know of a writer who took her books to it last year. I'll check her out to see what she thought of it. Perhaps we can also get the Jamaican Writers Society to be interested.

  3. I looked into the JTA conf one year, but I would have had to pay the prohibitive daily rate just to go into the hotel, so it made no sense.

  4. Thanks for your further input, Helen. I think the key would be to find out if any one person could go and take books for all of us. I know of someone who went last year. I'll find out how she managed that, and let us all know if anything can work for us..

  5. I think kids from all nationalities will benefit from books that portray Jamaican characters and culture. I know that I would love to read them here in Boston! The bar will be for the books to be of high quality, both the writing and the illustrations but if so, the world is waiting for these!

  6. Thanks for your support, PragmaticMom. I agree with you re quality. I think however, that we also face the challenge of access. That is, for books to be sold into the US, even to libraries, I understand that one needs a US distributor. This is quite understandable. We tried that some years ago, and found that because of our economies of scale, our books were too expensive for us to pay an overseas distributor and break even. I hope that now with some of our books on Amazon, there may be greater access. However, I do think that it is for us in the Caribbean to work out a successful way of penetrating the US market. I hope that some of the younger writers and publishers who are making strides with modern technology, will also take on the matter of children's books using this technology and social media.