Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Everyone is an Artist

I'm currently taking an online children's writing and illustration course taught by Pura Belpre-award-winning author-illustrator Maya Gonzalez. The face on the left is the first thing I drew for the course. I didn't realize it when I was drawing it, but he's actually a character from the middle grade novel I'm currently writing. I like the idea of possibly doing my own illustrated novels one day.

I did a big girl thing and quit the freelance writing grind to focus on my creative writing, the consulting work I've been doing with writers, and now, my illustration. This decision carries a tender weight for me, as I'd been feeling so stuck and uninspired with the rather mundane writing gigs I'd been doing. I've been literally sick and tired for a long time without recognizing a major culprit: blocked creativity. Somehow, in the last few years, between the rigors of grad school, running an online magazine and the minutiae of daily life, I became a (largely) right-brained person stuck in a left-brained person's reality. Now I'm fixing that.

I'm discovering so much about myself and what I have to bring to this practice of children's books through the The Heart of It course. I don't yet have a style of doing illustrations that I feel is distinctly my own. The drawing above for example, is really representational, and I'm not sure if that's me. One thing Maya and the course are big on is experimentation and the free flow of things, so I'm experimenting with more cartoonish and impressionistic styles of drawing. A touch of the whimsy that I so adore.

I must say I've always loved illustration. As a child, I would compulsively cut out pictures from my storybooks. Once, I even cut out illustrations from an expensive encyclopedia set my mother had bought me. I remember getting plenty of boff (as we say in Trinidad) for this habit. My mother just couldn't understand why I was cutting up perfectly fine, expensive books. As a teen, when I had better discernment about what was "cuttable" and what was not, I cut out and collected illustrations I liked in scrapbooks. There was just something about looking at illustrations and noticing the way they were drawn and the things they were trying to say that really magnetized me.

As an adult, I've always loved looking at art and at illustration in particular (it's no surprise I was drawn to children's literature as a career), but I never really knew what all these impulses were until quite recently actually. I decided to try my hand at drawing and art-making and now I can't seem to stop. It literally feels like coming home, like I've found what was missing from my life all along. When I'm drawing I feel tingly all over, I feel lighter. I think it must be happiness.

Maya Gonzalez uses her Claiming Face curriculum to guide all the coursework at the School of the Free Mind. The philosophies and knowings of the curriculum are distilled into The 3 Rules:

1) Everyone is an artist.
2) There is never a right or wrong way to make art.
3) Art is always an act of courage.

I encourage everyone to embrace these principles, whether you feel you're a creative person or not. I don't think I'm particularly inspired as an artist and really, I have no idea what I'm doing, not in the cerebral sense anyway. But you never know what you can do until you try and creative expression is such a natural part of us all, with so much power to heal both ourselves and the world. So jump in and let it be.

Hope you're enjoying a calm, creative mid-week!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Client Success

I wanted to take a moment to share some client updates. I edited Mario Picayo's cute little board book, Fun, Fun, One Crab on the Run published by Campanita Books/Little Bell Caribbean and have been hearing nothing but great stuff about it. It's a simple counting board book written in rhyme with adorable, gentle pictures by Grenadian illustrator Stacey Byer. I knew of Stacey from interviewing her for Anansesem, so it was a pleasure to work on her book.

The book targets 3-6 year olds, promotes environmental conservation, and includes a scientific glossary (which I also enjoyed editing) of Caribbean plants and animals at the back. I've since found out that companion learning materials for the book have been created in the form of Fun Crab Number charts and Species charts.

Fun, Fun, One Crab on the Run was launched at the Grenada National Museum this past November, fittingly during Picturebook Month. At that time, 150 copies of the book were donated to pre-primary and primary schools in Grenada to support national initiatives in childhood literacy. Earlier this year, Stacey sent me a tweet letting me know that over 160 copies of the book would also be donated to the Ministry of Education, Government of Grenada in an official handover ceremony in February. Permanent Secretary Ruth Elizabeth Rouse was present at the ceremony and she congratulated Byer on her accomplishment. I couldn't be more happy for Stacey and Mario. Stacey is someone who is dedicated to illustrating Caribbean children's books and I look forward to seeing her career blossom. Stacey's Facebook page has updates about Caribbean stockists carrying the book as well as sweet photos of little ones reading it.

Two other books I enjoyed editing for Campanita Books are The Shark and the Parrotfish and Other Caribbean Fables and Four Wishes for Robbie, both written by Mario Picayo. The Shark and the Parrotfish and Other Caribbean Fables, which is illustrated by Barbadian illustrator Cherise Ward, was a delight to work on both because it was written so well and because I enjoyed seeing the fable genre used in a Caribbean context. Four Wishes for Robbie is a middle-grade novel about a nine-year-old boy living on the island of St. Thomas who meets four little aliens. The aliens grant him four wishes and hilarity ensues. It is probably the most "different" book I've worked on and it was a fun book to edit.

I'm so happy for Mario that Fun, Fun, One Crab on the Run and The Shark and the Parrotfish and Other Caribbean Fables were both selected as featured titles in the U.S. Virgin Islands' fifth annual Summer Reading Challenge last year. This is a national program created by Governor John P. de Jongh Jr. to encourage children in kindergarten through eighth grade to read at least five books during their summer vacation. Many children across the Virgin Islands received free copies of the books during the Summer Reading Challenge sign-up events. Photos of these events can be found here on the Campanita Books website.

Mario poses with a copy of The Shark and the Parrotfish and Other Caribbean Fables
Four Wishes for Robbie has also been doing well since its release in 2012. It was chosen as a featured title in the U.S. Virgin Islands' 2012 Summer Reading Challenge (photos here on the Campanita Books website.) Also, check out this video interview with Four Wishes for Robbie's illustrator, Pablo Picayo at the 2012 Comic Con in New York last year.

Mario signs copies of Four Wishes for Robbie during a Summer Reading Challenge event

I just finished editing a picture storybook written by Amanda Smyth for indie publisher Caribbean Reads. I really liked this story and am looking forward to seeing it come to fruition. I'm also currently working with some other writers on their manuscripts. It's such a great feeling to see these writers' projects take flight. Congratulations to them on all their success!

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 http://www.dreadandalive.com and find him on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/dreadandalive



GOAL


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.


GUIDELINES


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

Growth

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!