Monday, August 16, 2010

Guest Post by Joanne C. Hillhouse, Wadadli Pen Prize Founder


Today I'm really excited to host Joanne C. Hillhouse on the blog for the first time! Joanne is the author of two Caribbean YA books, The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight both published by Macmillan Caribbean and both on the secondary school reading list in Antigua and Barbuda. She lives in Antigua where she works as a freelance writer and editor. Another side of the Willow Bend author that some people may not know is that she is the founder/co-ordinator of the annual Wadadli Youth Pen Prize and its accompanying workshops for young writers in Antigua and Barbuda.

Through the Wadadli Pen movement, Joanne and her team are making a ground-breaking effort to change the culture of writing in the Caribbean by providing incentives and training for promising child and teen writers, thereby setting them along the path to rewarding literary careers. The launching, this year, in Trinidad and Tobago of a similar youth writing award-program, the Allen Prize for Young Writers, gives me hope that youth activism surrounding writing and literature is a trend that is catching on in the Caribbean. I almost weep to think that there could have been opportunities and prizes like these around when I was growing up in Trinidad! Or maybe there were and I just didn't know about them...which is a whole other topic. Anyway, today Joanne is here on the blog to talk about Wadadli Pen. Without further ado, let's here what she had to say.

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Wadadli Pen – Nurturing another generation of Antiguan and Barbudan Writers

When, earlier in 2010, I started the Wadadli Pen blog – intent on uploading the best of the best from the annual competition which dates back to 2004 – I had no idea it would consume so much of my time. Nor did I know that I would feel so energized by the process.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the stories; and was newly impressed with the young authors who crafted them, and the way their storytelling prods at social issues while revealing a literary maturity I didn’t necessarily have at their age.

So it was, for instance, that I was seeing, with new clarity, the parallels between inaugural winner Gemma George’s 'Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm' and Damani Tabor’s 'Irate Beggar,' one with a dog and the other with a human at their center but both really speaking to the way society recoils from its responsibility to the less fortunate. And when, during a Wadadli Pen Open Mic, hosted monthly by the Best of Books bookstore in Antigua, I read Kemal Nicholson’s 'Ma Belle,' one listener commented on his effective use of irony, I felt proud of all the young writers who’ve been touched by the Pen. It strengthened my resolve to keep the programme alive.

Interestingly, as I prepped the author notes to accompany the story postings, I realized that none of these youngsters, to the best of my knowledge, were bee-lining towards a literary career. Still, I felt fairly certain of two things – they’ll continue writing in some way/shape/form, and their ability to express themselves in this way will be an asset wherever they find themselves.

Where in the world is Antigua and Barbuda?
One feature of note on the Wadadli Pen blog, in addition to the expanding list of links to literary resources, is the ever expanding list of Antiguan and Barbudan writers – and thanks to John R. Lee of St. Lucia, Caribbean writers. These lists are never done. And that’s a good thing. In fact, as far as the Antigua and Barbuda list is concerned, I’m a little proud that here on this 108 square miles (170, counting Barbuda), we’ve produced such a wealth of publications (alas, very little children’s fiction).

This list is particularly an eye opener because growing up I really wasn’t exposed to/aware of much of what we had created, literally, and, frankly, the output then was paltry compared to the level of activity in the past decade or so. This high level of literary activity makes me fairly confident that young people dreaming of a career in writing will, find inspiration, and dare to believe in the dream.

I hope, therefore, that Wadadli Pen will continue to stir imagination, engender hope, and get young people writing.

I’m in!

As my tanty, bless her soul, would say, God spare life.


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Related Sites

Joanne C. Hillhouse on MySpace
Wadadli Youth Pen Prize Blog
Joanne C. Hillhouse's Main Website
Joanne C. Hillhouse's Amazon.com page (Check out her books!)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Donna Marie Seim, Cross-Cultural Children's Writer (Part II of Interview)





We're back for day two of a two-part interview with Donna Marie Seim, author of Simon, Where is Sandy? and Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure. When I learned about Donna and her books, one of the things that really interested me was Donna's strong connection to and love for the Turks and Caicos islands and its people, and what seemed to be her dual sense of belonging as an American writer of Caribbean children's books. Here is Donna again, answering my questions.

You dedicated Where is Simon, Sandy? to the children of The Turks and Caicos Islands and all proceeds from Hurricane Mia! are being donated to the Children’s Programme of the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The T&C National Museum was also instrumental in helping you publish your book. How did your connection to the Museum and to the children of the Turks and Caicos come about?

First I have to make a correction. Hurricane Mia is not donating all profits to the Children’s Programme. We will be donating the proceeds from the launch at the museum and special fund raising events for the museum but it is not in the same category as Where is Simon, Sandy?. WISS, as we affectionately call the book, is owned by the museum. All proceeds from any sales go directly to the museum for the Children’s Programme. The book is the major supporter of the summer camp and the special programs for the children through out the year.

Donna and her friends at a school in Salt Cay, T&C
My husband and I have always been supporters and members of the T&C National Museum. I sent the story to them because I liked their children’s programme, and felt that they in some way would help to preserve this sweet folk tale that belonged to the island. The museum responded within hours of my sending the story to them and they expressed their wish to make it into a real book!  But it is more than a book, it is a project with many people working hard to make it become the award-winning book that it is. I deeded all my royalties to the Children’s Programme because I felt it would do a great good. The museum needed the money to keep the programme going and the children would only benefit. As a former, teacher, childcare worker and toy storeowner, I have always loved children and the children on these islands are most dear to me.

It has been my pleasure to work with Mr. David Bowen, Cultural Director of the Turks and Caicos Islands. We visited all schools and libraries on each of the six islands with primary schools to read and donate the book, Where is Simon, Sandy?

Have you marketed your books to children in America? How would you like American children to view your books?

Yes, both books, Hurricane Mia! and Where is Simon, Sandy? have been marketed in the United States. And they have both have been received very well. When I visit classrooms with Where is Simon, Sandy?, the children have great interest both in the story and that it is from the Caribbean. We then discuss where these islands are located geographically. Some children have been to different islands and we talk about where they have been and what it was like, how it was different than a vacation in, Florida. I bring along a slide show and the children love to hear about donkeys roaming free and wild horses that trot past your gate.  They are very interested in the children in the photos. We talk about different kinds of food they eat and what the children wear to school and how they wear their hair.

Donna at the Providenciales Primary School in Providenciales, T&C
We have a pen pal program set up with a school in Providenciales, T&C Islands, and a classroom in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The children write about their pets, draw pictures of themselves, talk about what sports they play and what their favorite foods are. It is a fabulous way for the children in the States to learn about another culture, and a place in the world that is different from where they live, widening their horizons. I think both sides benefit from the letters making their life richer and gaining more understanding of this amazing world we live in.

It is still early to answer directly about Hurricane Mia, except the reviews coming in from Stateside readers are very strong. Many have written that they feel as if the story has carried them to the islands of the Caribbean, and it makes them long to go there. It has been said that if you can transport your reader to another place you have achieved a great accomplishment. My favorite part of reading as a child and now as an adult, is to be completely swept away to another place and time and be totally caught up in a really great story.

Currently, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia! A Caribbean Adventure are available online and in select bookstores in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I’m sure children in other Caribbean islands would enjoy reading the books as well. Are there any plans to make the books more widely available throughout the Caribbean?

Another good question! Distribution is the hardest part of selling to the islands. My publisher is a small publisher and does not have sales reps that far reaching. I have been the major sales force and have worked hard to establish the accounts that we do have. I am currently working on a wider distribution plan, and hopefully we will make more progress in expanding to more islands soon.

Donna marketing her books at the Salt Museum, Grand Turk, T&C

Donna, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best with your exciting projects and adventures!

Thanks so much Summer, your questions were great, and it was my pleasure!

Detail from Simon, Where is Sandy? illustrated by Susan Spellman

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meet Donna Marie Seim!


Donna Marie Seim

In the past when I've interviewed authors, the posts have tended to be a bit long (I ask a lot of questions!) so this time around, I'm changing it up. We're going to spend not one, but two days getting to know Donna Marie Seim and her work. She is the author of two children’s books: a picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? and a chapter book, Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure, both set in the Caribbean and both illustrated by Susan Spellman. She has also written a memoir, short stories, and Charley!, a soon-to-be-released chapter book. Where is Simon, Sandy? was a recipient of the 2009 Mom's Gold Choice Award (USA) and was also a finalist in the Children's Picture Book category of the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards (USA.) Seim is a graduate of Ohio State University, and holds a Master's degree in Special Education from Lesley University. When she is not in the Caribbean, she lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, USA with her husband, Martin, and her dog, Rags.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Donna Seim interesting?

Hi, Summer, I guess it is easier to talk about my writing than to talk about myself. My work with children, from being a childcare worker at a residential treatment home, to a teacher of children with special needs, have allowed me a special insight into the hearts of young readers. My years as an owner of a retail toy and book store have also given me the opportunity to see what children like to read and what is out there for them. And my daughter, Kristin, gets the credit for getting me to write down my family stories in my first book, Fifty Cents An Hour: My Life According To Me, which consists of humorous tales from my childhood having grown up in a large Irish Catholic Family on West 158th St. in Cleveland, Ohio. Once I started to write down my stories I was smitten, I had to write! P.S. I have a great sense of humor and I listen really well.

Please tell us about your children’s books. What are they about? Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip - or insights - about Mia or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

Neisha, character in Hurricane Mia!
I have written another picture book, which is currently looking for a publisher. This is again an island-based story of a little girl who tries to catch and tame a wild horse. The main character is Satchi, who learns a hard lesson about what true friendship really is. My second novel, Charley, a biographical fiction, middle grade reader, is set in the early 1900’s. It is a story of a city boy from Boston who finds himself orphaned and placed in a dairy farming family in rural Maine. It is a tender story of a young boy’s quest to find a family.

Mia, illustrated by Susan Spellman
Yes, Summer, you are right on target about an author’s personal relationship with their characters. When you write about a character in a story you carry them around with you, in your head and in your heart. You give them obstacles to overcome and trials to endure, but in the end you want them to win as if they were your own children. The funny thing about Mia is that she is a composite of different complex feelings and emotions. Some of my readers, who know me well, think of Mia as me. But, Mia is very much her own person. It is I, the author, that made up her characteristics and gave her  foibles, but she is not me. Well, maybe a little bit…but not completely. I like to give my characters their own life, personal traits and feelings. The creation of your character to me, is one of the most delicate and yet creative parts of writing. If you have strong characters they help you tell the story!

Your children’s books are set in the Caribbean and everything about the books (the illustrations, language, characters etc.) strike me as being particularly “Caribbean.”  Yet you yourself are not from the Caribbean. Why write children’s books set in the Caribbean? What’s your connection to the region?

Yes Summer, you are correct! Both, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia, are absolutely set in the Caribbean. I have been traveling to Grand Turk, and the Turks and Caicos Islands for over 35 years! My husband’s parents had a home there for many years. I fell in love with the Island of Grand Turk from my earliest visits. I have met and made treasured friendships with locals, ‘belongers’, as well as people from all over the world. It is a special place, and I have yearned to write about it. My husband and I now own a home on Grand Turk and travel back and forth to our island home. They say that travel inspires a writer and my islands speak to me.

Detail from Hurricane Mia
Illustration by Susan Spellman

It has often been debated whether or not authors can and should write books depicting cultures other than their own. Did you consider this when writing Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia? and what kind of research (if any) did you and your illustrator Susan Spellman do to be able to write and illustrate these books?

This is a very good question! But if I were to follow that rule, I could only write about Irish Catholics living in Cleveland Ohio! Hurricane Mia, is actually a multiplicity of cultures. Mia and her brother are from suburban Boston, they bring along with them their background and cultural traits. The Grandparents are from another generation, with their own values and unbending ways. When writing the story I was especially interested in the two girls interacting, learning and sharing their outlooks and “cultures”. It is Neisha who shares her knowledge of Bush Medicine that turns the tide and gives Mia a focus, to find the tea that cures everything. Mia and Neisha’s cultural differences intertwine throughout the story. They both are strong characters and yet in the end they both rely on each other. They aren’t blended but rather, learn from each other as they each grow to become true friends.

Donna during a sing-along at the Museum
In preparation for Hurricane Mia I did extensive research, some of which is listed under references at the back of the book, and interestingly enough from part of that research came the kernel for Where is Simon, Sandy?. Bryan Naqqi Manco, at that time an environmental officer of the Turks and Caicos Islands, took my husband and I on an eco tour of North and Middle Caicos. My hopes were to meet a true bush doctor and a granny, (midwife), for my research for Hurricane Mia, and we accomplished that, much to my delight. It was during that trip that Bryan told me the story of a little donkey who wouldn’t quit, and that was the beginning of Where is Simon, Sandy? I wrote it as a short story and sent it to the Turks and Caicos National Museum to put in their newsletter, or to simply read to the children in their Children’s Programme. Interested in preserving any of the oral culture passed down for generations the museum asked me if we could make it into a book. They were thrilled to have an actual folktale from their own island and the project of making the story into Where is Simon, Sandy? began!

The Turks and Caicos National Museum
Susan and I worked closely together on the artwork. She did some research, but mostly we used my photos taken on these islands. All the gates are actual gates found on Grand Turk and the antique building, which houses the Turks and Caicos National Museum, is depicted with a red tin roof in the last scene. The donkey cart is a true representation of the carts used for generations. The children in their school uniforms are actual children from my photos and some historic photos from the museum. The architecture, Bermudian in design from the days of the salt trade, is accurate down to the tin roofs and limestone walls giving the true timeless character of the island of Grand Turk.

Your first picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? is about a donkey that wouldn’t quit and is a retelling of a well-known folktale from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Reviewers have claimed that before your book, the folk tale had never been written down before. Is this true? How did you come to learn about the folk tale and what inspired you to put it down on paper?

Oops, I guess I put the cart before the donkey on this question, since I have already told you how it came to be a book! And yes, to my knowledge, it has never been written down in a printed version or book of any kind. Some of the older folks remember it, but with the younger generation it was really beginning to slip away. I was told the donkey’s name was Buster, and someone else told me it was Joe, but there was a donkey who did deliver the water from the well with his master to the townspeople of Cockburn Town. When his master was no longer able to make the route, the donkey did it every day on his own, faithfully stopping at each and every gate at the same time every day. He became a pet or mascot for the town and the children loved to follow after him. I wrote this story because I felt that it was a true island treasure and should be saved and shared with the generations to come. The children on Grand Turk identify with the story and claim it as their own, which it truly is. They are proud of it!

Illustration from Where is Simon, Sandy?

Click here to read part 2 of my interview with Donna Marie Seim.