Monday, July 14, 2014

2014 Caribbean Children's and YA Books So Far

Back in 2011, I started a ritual of keeping track of the English-language Caribbean books for young people published each year. I've found this to be a useful and edifying exercise. To get an idea of the types of children's stories that are being told by Caribbean writers is always a revelation. To see Caribbean writers of literature for young people making the effort year after year despite the mainstream disesteem for this market is encouraging.                                      

This exercise of counting books has suggested year after year that self-publishing is currently a sine qua non in the Caribbean children's publishing endeavor. Generally speaking, self-published books still don't have the cachet of traditionally published books, but attitudes are changing. Over at Anansesem, we recently ran a Self-Publishing Journeys segment where we featured the first-person stories of five self-published Caribbean children's authors. The testimonies of these five authors speak to the turning tide of self-publishing in Caribbean children's book production. Personally, I've found that if you give self-published books half a chance, you can find some gems in the stacks.

It's mid-year, and here's what the Caribbean children's book market (English-language books) looks like so far for 2014. I'm even now actively compiling this list, so please let me know if I missed any. I'll be adding other information such as genre and publisher later.

2014 Caribbean Children's & YA Books- Traditionally Published

1) Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle
2) Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior
3) Give the Ball to the Poet: A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry edited by Georgie Horrell, Aisha Spencer and Morag Styles
4) Zapped! Danger in the Cell by Jewel Daniel and Lynelle Martin
5) Forest Fever by Sharon James
6) Sand, Sea and Poetry by Ashley-Ruth Moolenaar Bernier
7) Oliver and Friends (Living the Beach Life series) by Heidi Fagerberg
8) Ash the Flash (Sand Pebbles Pleasure Series) by Hazel. D. Campbell
9) Drog, a Dreggen Story by Hazel D. Campbell

Some covers of 2014 traditionally published Caribbean children's and YA books. To view larger, click on illustrations.

2014 Caribbean Children's & YA Books- Self-Published

1) Nadia's Good Deed: A Story About Haiti by Rachel Harris
2) Goobee Goez Tu Da Refe: A Caribbean Lullaby by Seth Bernanke
3) The Adventures of Freddy the Frog & Lena the Lizard by Jennifer Nunes
4) The Twins and the Arawaks by Diafra Thomas Nunez
5) Caribbean Princess by Beverley Byer
6) Manatee Has a Question by Stacey Alfonso-Mills
7) Bum Bum Bananas – Oh, Do Mind Your Manners! by Betsy Bermuda
8) The Rice Bag Hammock by Shaeeza Haniff
9) Concealed Treasure (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
10) Hurricane Liza (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
11) The Beautiful Turtle Dove (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
12) The Market Woman Song (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
13) Virgin Islands Proverbs (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
14) Mema’s Medicine Basket (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
15) Our Humble Beginnings (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
16) Virgin Islands Delights (The Alive Word Series) by Jacqueline Richardson
17) Justice pon di Road by Aliona Ginson

Some covers of 2014 self-published Caribbean children's and YA books. To view larger, click on illustrations.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Poems in Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters

Five of my poems (for adults) are in the July 2014 issue of Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters, a new literary magazine out of the Virgin Islands. You can read them here. Founded by David Knight, Moko is doing a great job providing a platform for Caribbean writers.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Interview with Uma Krishnaswami

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication. Today, I'm honored to add Uma Krishnaswami's voice to the series.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Uma at a Commonwealth Education Trust curriculum planning workshop for a children's writing course. In those few days, Uma taught me a lot about what it takes to write for children. I've grown to respect her not just as an author of beautiful picturebooks and compelling novels for young readers, but also for her contributions and visibility in conversations about diversity and inclusiveness in children's publishing. I asked Uma to share some of her wisdom culled over two decades of writing books for young readers and helping her students do the same ―yes she's been at it that long! Here's what she had to say.

As a somewhat random start, I saw on your blog that you use Scrivener software for writers. I’ve been threatening to try it myself for the longest while. Would you recommend Scrivener for people writing either picturebooks or children’s novels and why? 

I’ve never used it for a picture book—it’s so much easier for me to visualize an entire picture book than an entire novel. In fact I need to hold a whole picture book in my mind for some time before I write a word. I don’t seem to need too many tools to accomplish that.

For novels, I find Scrivener invaluable. I don’t use all its features—e.g., I never use the little feature that helps you name characters. I turn the spellcheck off. I rarely use the screenshot. I like being able to color-code chapters and see patterns of plot and character involvement. I like being able to move passages, scenes, and even entire chapters around as I need to. I like being able to keep just the right music file handy to pull up if I need to evoke a certain mood as I write. For both novels and nonfiction projects, I can keep all my reading, research, and lists of print and online sources together in a single compiler, so everything’s accessible to me while I’m writing.

You’ve been on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts since 2006. What is it like balancing teaching and writing? Any advice for people trying to strike this particular balance? 

I think it’s a different kind of balancing act for everyone, just the way we all come at writing in hundreds of different ways. For me, teaching and writing are very much alike. They are both more about process than product, the work is never finished, and you meet an amazing number of generous, wonderful, talented people along the way. Advice? I’d say stay open to possibility on both fronts and think about what both teaching and writing mean to you, not just as a balance to strike but as part of your life.

You’re represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about the working relationship between a writer and a literary agent?

I don’t know if I really feel competent to answer this question, but I will say that in my experience (and I’ve been both agented and unagented over the years) “relationship” is the key word. I am very grateful for my agent’s support. I don’t often have burning questions I need answered but can’t imagine not being able to call on Ginger, and Curtis Brown, when I do. And I am more than grateful for the help I get with navigating the business end of my work.

You recently wrote a blog post about common errors in American children’s books with South Asian content. It’s true that children’s books outside the mainstream, white norm published here in the States have often been subject to inaccurate and sometimes insensitive interpretations on the part of both publishers and reviewers. As someone writing children’s books set in India and rooted in the South Asian diasporic experience, have you had to work to ensure that reviewers, publishers and ultimately young readers in the US “get” your books? 

Factual inaccuracies, outmoded depictions, and great big gaps in material related to India and the region—these were in part the things that drove me to write in the first place. That said, I think my job as a writer is to write the story I need to tell. When I write and revise, I find the more I focus on the story, let the characters grow as they need to, let the big picture of the story reveal itself, the more likely it is that an editor will relate to it. At another level, I simply can’t control who will “get” my books and who will not. I’m an idiosyncratic reader—I read what pleases me and I have opinions about the books I read. I need to write my books and then when they’re published I need to let go of them, to hope that readers will have opinions about them. Beyond that, I have to move on to the next book and the next.

I recently wrote a post here on the blog about the question of audience in Caribbean children’s writing. Audience has such a big effect on the way a writer writes and also on the types of stories that get told. As a South Asian writer living and writing in America and writing books that in your own words, “cross from one place into the other and back again”, how do you see the issue of audience? 

It’s complicated. I tend to push audience to the back of my mind when I’m writing drafts, and then slowly, over the course of many revisions, I bring them back into my consciousness. By the time we’re done with the last rounds of edits, I’m fully aware that I need to make my thoughts accessible on the page to someone who’s 6 or 8 or 11, depending on the book. That does not always make me simplify, mind you—sometimes the thought of the audience has quite the opposite effect because I know how very perceptive young readers can be.

At some level I don’t think it matters where that reader lives. When I was writing Book Uncle and Me, I didn’t think I was writing it for readers in India, or in Australia where it has since been picked up. My picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! was originally published in India, and I didn’t think I was writing it for kids in the US, but now they’re reading it anyway, thanks to the wonderful people at Groundwood Books who published a North American edition.

Illustration by Uma Krishnaswamy from Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

You regularly travel to India, where you were born, for book festivals like Bookaroo and to speak with young readers at schools and so forth. Do you find that your books are well received in India and as an expat writer, what have you found to be key for connecting with your readers in India?

I have felt very welcomed in the land of my birth. It’s been a joy for me to encounter the energy and enthusiasm of young audiences I’ve spoken to in India. I don’t know that I’ve had to make any special attempts or look for ways to make that connection—it’s all felt very natural.

In your children’s books, you’ve managed to tell nuanced, non-stereotypical stories about Indian and Hindu traditions ―like yoga, Bollywood and Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity― that have been largely festishized in the West. Your books have also addressed topics as far-ranging as immigration (The Grand Plan to Fix Everything), divorce (Naming Maya), interfaith dialogue (Many Windows), death of a loved one (Remembering Grandpa), the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan (Chachaji's Cup), and adoption and biracial families (Bringing Asha Home). Both from the perspective of navigating the publishing world and honing our voices as storytellers, I’m interested in the question of how we convey culture and traditions in our stories without stereotyping or pigeonholing ourselves. Any insights? 

I think we reach for honesty at many levels—in thinking about why I want to tell a particular story, in getting as close as I can to a credible, plausible character, at staying true to the kind of story I am trying to reach. I try to get at the bigger questions through small, specific details of setting and context. Naming Maya needed a different kind of truth-telling (facing the realities of a contemporary child’s life) from Chachaji’s Cup (the truth about a period of history my mother lived through).

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything—well, it has an immigrant family at its center, but I see it and the sequel, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic, as being about friendship and family in a world of blended cultural identities. Writing those books called for me to turn some conventional wisdoms on their heads—hence the kid of color rather than the white kid is the one who defines what is “cool” in the books. They are not about becoming American—Dini’s blended version of Americanness is never in question and that in some ways is the point.

Your latest chapter book, Book Uncle and Me won the 2011 Scholastic Asian Book Award and the 2013 Crossword Book Award in the Children's Category. You wrote on your blog that the book really started with memories of a particular setting, specifically, the street where your parents lived for over thirty years. As you say, “When you start to pay attention to the quirkiness of a place, it will begin to show itself to you as if it's auditioning for a part in your story.” I love that! I’ve been blogging about the importance of stories of place and “place-based writing” in Caribbean children’s literature. What, have you found, is the power of writing with a strong setting? 

It’s the only way I know how to write. Eudora Welty said, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else...” And I think children are loaded with the ability to soak up place even when they may have no idea that’s what they’re doing. All my childhood memories are deeply sensory, and bound up with very specific places—the way the bark felt in trees I climbed, or the smell of jasmines, the clanging of train wheels and so on. For me, reaching for place is always a part of reaching for story.

I've been hearing a lot about renewed interest in the poetry of children’s stories. In fact, the Children's Book Academy is currently offering an online course titled "From Storyteller to Exquisite Writer: The Pleasures and Craft of Poetic Techniques " and they just hosted a free webinar on the same topic. Some of your picturebooks, like Monsoon and The Girl of the Wish Garden: A Thumbelina Story have been praised for their poetic quality and even in some of your novels, there is this use of poetic imagery. How did this awareness of poetic language develop for you as a writer? Was lyricism something you naturally leaned towards or something you’ve had to consciously develop? 

I was a reader before I was a writer. Back in the last century, I was one of those lucky kids who can’t remember learning how to read. I have memories of sitting by myself and reading…reading…reading silently and then suddenly finding myself reading out loud, as if the words were just bursting off the page and I had to make them my own. We memorized a lot of poetry in those days, and perhaps that has something to do with it as well. My grandfather used to recite Longfellow and Tennyson while shaving. There’s a sensory memory—fluffy white shaving cream and “This is the forest primeval…”

Illustration by Jamel Akib from Monsoon

What’s next on your itinerary and are you currently working on a book?

Summer residency’s coming up at VCFA, so I’m getting ready for the next teaching semester to begin. And I’m working on a book project that I cannot talk about because it might evaporate if I did!  All I can say is that I’m in that happy place of waking up each morning eager to get to work on it.

Uma Krishnaswami is an award-winning children's author described by the Journal of Children's Literature as "a major voice in the expanding of international and multicultural young adult fiction and children's literature." She is also a writing teacher in the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her short stories and poems have been published in CricketHighlights and Cicada, and her books, which include picture books, collections of stories of India, non-fiction books and novels, are published in English, Spanish, Hindi, Tamil and six other languages. She is published by Atheneum, Groundwood Books, Lee & Low Books, Scholastic India and Scholastic Australia, and represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, Ltd. Born in New Delhi, India, she now lives in Aztec New Mexico and regularly travels to India. She blogs at Writing With a Broken Tusk.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Field of Possibilities

It's nice to be finally embracing creativity. I am journeying slowly. This illustration took three weeks to do. It's done in a different style than I've ever attempted before and I like the vintage-children's-book-illustration feel.

I don't yet have a distinctive style of doing illustrations but that's okay. I am playing. It's okay to play. One day I may stumble across something that feels right, something I want to stick with. For now, think I will just enjoy experimenting. Our field after all, is open to possibilities.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fruits: A Caribbean Counting Poem (Book Review)

by Valerie Bloom, Henry and Holt Company, New York (1992), illustrated by David Axtell

Have you read Jamaican children's poet Valerie Bloom's picturebook, Fruits: A Caribbean Counting Poem? In 1997, it won the now obsolete Nestlé Smarties Book Prize Bronze Award. I'm currently studying it with an eye to using it in the workshops I'm developing. There is so much in this book that is not just lovely but teachable.

What is it about? Here is the publisher's synopsis from the jacket flap:

Two sisters playing count fruit: One guinep, two guava, t'ree sweet-sop, four red apple, five june-plum, six naseberry, seven mango, eight orange, nine jackfruit and ten banana.

Notice the spelling of the number 3 "t'ree". As the glossary at the front of the book explains, "the spelling of words throughout the text is meant to reflect the sound of the Jamaican language, Patwa" (Although I'm not sure this is technically Patwa). Since there is no standard way of spelling Caribbean English (Creole) words, I'm a fan of using the phonetic spelling when reproducing Caribbean English on the printed page, but it's interesting to see how Bloom made up her own spellings. For instance the book opens with:

Half a pawpaw in de basket―
Only one o' we can have it.
Wonder which one dat will be?
Ah have a feelin' dat is me.

How much fruit do you think two children can manage to eat in one day? With each flip of the page, we see the girls plotting and scheming their way into high cupboards, climbing trees, outwitting adults, in short, doing anything they have to do to get their hands on numerically ascending quantities of fruit. So the book not only teaches counting but adds Caribbean fruits to the lexicon of irresistible literary viands in children's literature.

T'ree sweet-sop, well ah jus' might
Give one o' dem a nice big bite.
Cover up the bite jus' so, Sis,
Den no one will ever notice.

Four red apple near me chair
Who so careless put dem dere?
Dem don' know how me love apple?
Well, tank God fe silly people.

A good picturebook invites multiple re-readings. As you re-read you discover new layers to the pictures and words. A good picturebook also uses the pictures to tell a story that the words aren't telling. The illustrations extend and deepen the story, and sometimes even suggest an entirely different meaning from the words. In this book what emerges from the illustrations is the nature of the relationship between two sisters. There is a sense of conspiracy, affection and friendship between the sisters that shines through the illustrations.

Like in many sibling relationships, particularly when the balance of power is uneven, there is room for misunderstanding. All of this is shown in the illustrations. The illustrations were done using oil on canvas board. Notice the decisions the illustrator has made decisions of perspective, space, shape, value convey the dominance and leadership of the older sister, in contrast to the innocence and vulnerability of the smaller girl. Despite a moment of tension between the two, caused by the older sister's provocation, it is the younger sister who ends up offering comfort when the older gets sick from eating too much fruit. So although this is a book about counting fruit, the real power of the illustrations is that they do a great job reflecting what most sibling relationships are like. 

The Caribbean landscape is (for the most part) a fertile and generous one and it's so nice to see one of the great joys of Caribbean childhoods our delicious indigenous fruit celebrated in a picturebook (the red apples mentioned are Caribbean Otaheiti apples by the way, not the types of apples you get here in American supermarkets) And the text rhymes too!