Friday, April 4, 2014

Stories That Come from Within: Writing Children's Literature for Caribbean Audiences

Stop apologizing!
My experiences editing Caribbean children's stories are so interesting to me that I sometimes forget they might also be of interest to others. Which is to say, it only struck me recently that it might be of value to someone, to Caribbean children's writers perhaps, for me to share something about my experiences as an Editor of Caribbean writing for children.

For the past four years, editing stories for Anansesem Caribbean children's literature ezine, for the Caribbean children's book publisher Campanita Books, and through my own personal children's publishing consultancy has afforded me the opportunity to read a wide array of children's stories by Caribbean writers. It's been a remarkable learning experience and one from which I've gained some insights. I'm not a mainstream Editor so I've never done any editing work for a mainstream publisher. Also, I haven't edited anything remotely close to a bestseller. Yet, even with my humble editing experience, I think I have something to contribute to a conversation about the task of editing Caribbean children's literature.

I recently got around to watching this much-feted video of Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz's conversation at the New York Public Library. There is so much in anything Toni Morrison says to upend a person's thinking, but I was particularly riveted by her tales of the time she spent working as an Editor at Random House back in the 60's before she started writing (starting at 3:21 in the video). At one point (starting at 9:17), Morrison talks about how so much of the writing by African-Americans in the 60s betrayed the controlling presence of the white gaze. She would read fiction by African-Americans and she could feel that the writing was restrained, that the writers were withholding because they didn't want to offend the white, mainstream status quo.

The works Morrison was interested in and chose to edit on the other hand, were those works that were "unapolegetic about what they are, what they are saying, and what they intended for African-American people or anyone else to know." She was interested in working with African-American writers who were talking to African-American audiences, whose writing was coming from within. These were the bold, self-aware writers who works Morrison helped to canonize. The result was powerful and widely read works of literature by African-Americans that talk to African-American audiences, but that everyone has been able to find real value in reading.

Listening to Morrison talk about this, my heart dropped because it is exactly the same thing that has troubled me time and time again when I read children's stories by Caribbean writers. The writing in itself may be beautiful and engaging, but one gets the distinct sense that the story is written for audiences other than Caribbean people. For example, in many published, self-published and unpublished children's stories by Caribbean writers, the fiction is bogged down by unnecessary clarifications as if the writer feels the need to explain Caribbean realities to non-Caribbean readers.

And what happens when children's writers do so much explaining in their writing is they in fact end up apologizing. The writing comes across as if the writer is apologizing at every step for having a reality distinct from that of the imagined reader in the colonized mind, i.e., the foreign British or American reader. I've read children's stories by Caribbean writers that pander to foreign audiences so much that the story has little to do with Caribbean realities, reflecting instead the customs, language and experiences of (usually white, middle-class) British or American people.

I would urge Caribbean children's writers to write fiction "coming from within" as Toni Morrison puts it, because that claiming of one's voice and one's experience is where the source of powerful, authentic writing lies, as well as the power to reach Caribbean children in a meaningful way. A good start is to study the literature for young people written by Caribbean authors such as Merle Hodge, Ian McDonald, Michael Anthony, and Lakshmi Persad. These are prime examples of authors who wrote pointedly and unapolegetically for both young people and Caribbean audiences, not restraining their voices or narratives to suit foreign audiences.

In fact, I heard Merle Hodge speak about her work at the Cropper Foundation Caribbean Creative Writers Workshop a few years ago and she told us the story of how the American publisher of her children's novel, For the Life of Laetitia, wanted to append a glossary to the book because of its plethora of Caribbean Creole words, sayings and cultural allusions. Hodge adamantly refused the glossary idea and it is safe to say that For the Life of Laetitia is not only a modern Caribbean classic but has been widely appreciated outside the Caribbean.

So how does one write pointedly for Caribbean audiences? Having thought about it a lot, both for my own writing and for the sake of helping other writers, I believe it involves several things including but not limited to: the unapolegetic use of Creole; not explaining things that most Caribbean people will understand; not being afraid of offending anyone (remember, some of the best children's books, many of them best-selling, have been subject to censoring); not bending the writing voice to mimic the tone of foreign, mainstream books; experimenting with styles and formats that reflect forms of Caribbean consciousness (e.g. ex-tempo, orality etc.)

I plan to continue editing Caribbean writing for children and like countless readers hungry for stories that speak to them, I'm ever on the lookout for those works that are coming from within. A children's writer writing from within is a writer who is doing the work. The moments I love most and live for are when someone sends me something to read and I can smile and say: yes, this writer is talking to me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Caribbean Young Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reading Challenge

Recently, I got an email from someone asking for recommendations of Caribbean young adult books in the fantasy genre. It made me realize that I haven't really read much in that area. Last year I started Caribbean Juvenile Literature Reading Challenge to motivate myself to read more Caribbean children's and young adult novels in general. I got about halfway through before my schedule distracted me from reading, but I still plan to complete that challenge one way or the other.

Now I'm starting Caribbean Young Adult Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reading Challenge to motivate myself and others to explore books in this sub-genre. This time, I'm giving readers more time to complete the Challenge and inviting participants to start the Challenge whenever they want.

Challenge button artwork by Nicholas Da Silva, used with his kind permission. Check out his website at and find him on Facebook:


Read 12 Caribbean YA fantasy and science fiction novels in 12 months. Clicking on the book covers will take you to the book's page on Amazon.

1. Green Boy by Susan Cooper
2. Timeswimmer by Gerald Hausman
3. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson`
4. Abraham's Treasure by Joanne Skerrett
5. The Chalice Project by Lisa Allen-Agostini
6. Delroy in the Marog Kingdom by Billy Elm
7. Legend of the Swan Children by Maureen Marks Mendonca
8. Escape for Silk Cotton Forest by Francis C. Escayg
9. The Island in the Sky by Tobias S. Buckell
10. The Jumbie Seed by Tracey Baptiste
11. Alpha Goddess by Amalie Howard
12. Night of the Indigo by Michael Holgate

Note. The Island in the Sky by Tobias S. Buckell and The Jumbie Seed by Tracey Baptiste are forthcoming novels but I'm including them now in anticipation of their release.


1. Read the books on the list above. Don't worry if you aren't able to read all 12, just read as many as you can.
2. Sign up for the Challenge using Mr Linky below if you’re a blogger, and if you’re not a blogger simply leave a comment on this post so I can know who's reading along with me. This way, everyone can visit participants' blogs and check out any reviews or blog posts related to this Challenge. Which brings me to the next guideline.
3. Blog about the books that you read. You don't have to do long, detailed book reviews or anything, just say what you thought of the book and mention that you read the book as part of this Challenge. Please include a link back to this sign-up post so others can join the Challenge too. I'll also be blogging about the books as I read them.
4. You don't have to read the Challenge books in the same order that I'm reading them and you can read at your own pace. Also, you can start the Challenge whenever you want. That said, for the sake of discussion, some synchronicity would be nice!
5. Keep up with the Challenge on Twitter by following this hashtag: #CaribSF/F/YAchallenge
6. Grab this button and post on your site to track your progress and let others know you're doing the Challenge:

Note: You do not have to be a book blogger to participate. You can track your progress on Goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari etc.

Below, please enter the direct link to your reviews/posts about this Challenge, not to the main page of your blog. We'd like to be able to find your review directly through the link and not have to look for it. Thanks for participating! 

Monday, March 17, 2014


I'm so grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to return to the Kelly Writers House on the campus of my alma mater for their Literary Bootcamp: Creative Writing Workshop for Women of Color. The workshop will be led by A. Naomi Jackson whose writing and book reviews in Caribbean literary circles I've often enjoyed. Jackson is the 2013-2014 ArtsEdge resident at the University of Pennsylvania's Kelly Writers House and I'm very much looking forward to meeting her and the other women writers.

By way of application for the workshop, I submitted a short story from a collection for adults I've been intermittently at work on. This particular story is semi-autobiographical, drawing from my childhood experiences and I had shown the story to a family member who took offence at some of what I had written.

Truly, on this writer's path, I've often struggled with the possibility, nay the inevitability, that I will offend someone with my writing. But today I came across this article by Jamaican writer Diana McCaulay and was somewhat mollified. Just as the young person moving into adulthood has to grow away from the grasp of external authority to form her own opinions and to steer the course of her own life, so too one has to grow up into being a writer. I'm finally starting to feel ready for the task.

I just hope I'm up it!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Flamboyant Tree

I had fun making this illustration of a Flamboyant tree (click on image to magnify). I began by painting pieces of sketchpad paper and making a collage picture, then finished up with digital illustration.

Flamboyant trees can be found in hillside forests and botanical gardens across the Caribbean. In some Caribbean countries, the Flamboyant is also known as the "tourist tree" because it flowers during the summer. In some parts of the world, like Africa, Flamboyant trees are known as Flame Trees and many legends surround them, like the Ugandan story of the flame tree in this children's book. I like to think of Flamboyant trees as wise and regal grandmother souls, keepers of memories of the ancient West Indian past.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lawrence R. Sipe Collection at the International Youth Library

The International Youth Library
I heard news that my former grad school advisor and professor at UPenn, the late Dr. Lawrence Sipe's amazing children's book collection has found a home at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. Dr. Sipe passed away suddenly in my final year of grad school and I've always wondered what would become of the hundreds of children's and young adult books that lined the shelves of his almost legendary office.

It turns out that the Children's Literature Assembly along with the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) and Dr. Sipe's heirs raised funds to cover the costs of sending the approximately 4,200 volumes from Philadelphia to the IYL in Munich where they will remain and be known as the Lawrence R. Sipe Collection. What a great legacy to leave behind! So many children, children's literature scholars and researchers pass through the doors of the IYL, the largest library for international children's and youth literature in the world. I hope I will be fortunate enough to visit the collection there one day myself. Dr. Sipe always spoke highly of the International Youth Library.

Hearing this news of the collection, I couldn't help reminisce on the hours I spent as Dr. Sipe's graduate assistant restocking the books on his office shelves and discussing children's literature with him. My time with that wonderful collection of books was such a valuable professional development experience, I would even say pivotal. And I know so many of his students and colleagues at UPenn enjoyed his books. I still feel sad whenever I think about Dr. Sipe's passing, but wherever he is, I trust he is smiling knowing his beloved books have found a safe home where they will be put to good use.

Dr. Sipe at the International Youth Library a few years ago. Gone but not forgotten!