Friday, 13 December 2019

Caribbean Children and Young Adult Literature - Going Beyond The Page

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Caribbean Children and Young Adult Literature: Going Beyond the Page  Symposium held on October 24, 2018
I had the esteemed pleasure of being a member of the steering committee of the Jamaica Library Service (JLS) symposium “Caribbean Children and Young Adult Literature: Going Beyond the Page”. The event was one of several to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the JLS and was held at the UWI Mona Visitor’s Lodge and Conference Centre on October 24, 2018. The event was established by Director General of the JLS, Miss Maureen Thompson and had membership from school and parish library networks, publishers, booksellers and authors.

Targeted at librarians who serve youth - whether through the Education ministry’s school library service or other public and private libraries and book and author services - the event sought to be a platform to promote awareness of Caribbean literature within this audience and the administrative issues around the publishing and promotion of these genres.

The purpose of raised awareness of Caribbean literature can perhaps be best summed up with this quote from author and teacher, Juleus Ghunta who participated in the symposium through a video. He said, “When I learned to read I got so excited I was particularly interested in finding books with characters who looked like me, who had my experiences and my stories and my fears and my anxieties and my hopes and my dreams as well. I was very disappointed, as I did not find those books.” Ghunta wrote the picture book “Tata and the Big Bad Bull” for children, and uses it in his work with persons who have experienced adverse childhood.

The Caribbean is also undergoing a transformation in school leaving assessments at the primary level with Jamaica moving away from a system that was memory based to one with a larger share of the assessments being critical thinking. 

In her remarks, academic in Language and Literature Education, at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Dr Aisha Spencer, said that Caribbean books were now even more important in education. She said, "We have been swatting and regurgitating for so long we have forgotten how to engage. Critical thinking is a perfect match with our children's literature books right now," Dr Spencer said.

The symposium was a platform to encourage more librarians to do research so that they could present Caribbean literature books to young people. There were speeches, discussions and booths by librarians, publishers and booksellers including Carby's Publishing, Blue Banyan Publishing, Book Fusion and the Book Industry Association of Jamaica. Representatives from the Jamaica Library Service, National Library of Jamaica, the School Library Network, and ministers of state in the education and culture ministries spoke and endorsed the mission.

Importantly, award winning children and young adult authors from the Caribbean were present to read from their work. The seven authors who read were Jamaicans and two were from elsewhere in the Caribbean. Five of the seven had their novels recognised through the CODE Burt Literary Awards for Caribbean Young Adult Literature, which was also a sponsor of the event.

2017 CODE finalist, Kevin Jared Hosein who read from The Beast of Kukuyo, a murder mystery set in rural Trinidad where the protagonist is a tween girl. Viviana Prado Nunez read from The Art of White Roses, which won the CODE that year. Her tween female protagonist is living through family and society upheavals in Cuba in the era of the 1950s revolution.

Well-known writer and 2014 CODE winner, A-dZiko Gegele, read from All Over Again, which is a loving family story starring a tween boy and set in peaceful rural Jamaica of a time in the recent past.

From the same CODE class of 2014 was the young adult book Island Princess in Brooklyn by celebrated children's and young adult author, Diane Browne. Princess is a 13 year-old immigrant from Jamaica to Brooklyn, and this book is her story from that perspective.

Secondary school teacher of English and YA author, Colleen Smith Dennis read from her book Inner City Girl, which was shortlisted in 2011 for the Dublin Literary Award and which also placed third in the 2014 CODE competition. Mrs Smith Dennis says that literature in classrooms is, "The voice for the voiceless." She says that sometimes the voices are hard to listen to. "It is crude it is talking about things that we do not want to pay attention to and we treat them in a particular manner. Through literature, I hear many stories."

The children's chapter book author of No Boy Like Amanda, Hope Barnett, read her family story of a girl growing up in the country in a family of boys, and how she fends and defines her space in the family. This book has been recognised locally with the Book Industry of Jamaica Publisher's Award for the 2013 Best Children's Chapter Book and the Jamaica Reading Association official book for National Reading Week of the same year.

YA author, Mandissa Palmer, read from The Boy Next Door which is a teenage romance with a fair amount of teenage rebellion thrown in. She also read her children's picture book Hard Ears Junior Learns a Lesson, which describes what happens to a boy who does not take instruction.

As a grouping, the librarians attending the symposium would have heard stories of hopefulness and of overcoming obstacles set up by society. All of them were set in a family context, whether the families were nurturing or fracturing the young people. They also offered a mix of leading and or supporting roles of both sexes, but mostly featuring girls. If I were to offer what the stories did not offer, is that they steered away from controversy. There was no magic, stories that challenged gender norms, sexual awareness or graphic sexuality criminal lifestyle and self harm.

Internationally, young adult books are, on non-education platforms, almost synonymous with challenging any norm in society and being accepting of behaviours that are common in that age group. This is mirrored by the symposium which as planned within the operating guidelines and strictures of the Jamaica Library Service which exists to serve the goals of the country's Education ministry. Books that will embrace subjects outside of the formal society will need other promotional platforms. That said, outside of controversial topics, there are a host of other issues that are addressed within the stories told in children and young adult literature in the Caribbean and they are making children's voices heard.

Now that the librarians have had an opportunity to hear the literary stories and are trained in exposing and encouraging readers to select books, it will be interesting to see how this is done. The general rule is that there are always readers who want to be immersed in the written word and who love the experience of handling the physical product of a book. It will now be how to expand these stories into public spaces and encourage their presence on the stage and on the big and small screens. The role of the librarian must include making these stories popular not only through lending the books, but by finding ways to bring them more into the lives of the readers. One of these is the annual National Reading Competition which is now seeing about 2,000 participants annually across the country, but there are other ways.

The symposium was a great way to raise awareness of the influencers and gatekeepers of literary enjoyment and awareness and bring the community of librarians who serve youth together. The librarians can do the research, but the real impact will be when appealing books get to youth in print, digital or audiobook or even as digital slideshows.

In Jamaica, publishers writing platforms offered by the Bocas Literary Festival, Calabash International Literary Festival, Two Seasons Talking Trees Literary Festival, the Gloria Lyn Memorial Fund for Literature, the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission Creative Writing Competition; the Jamaica Writers Society (JaWS) Lignum Vitae Awards and biennial CODE Literary Awards, and annual Commonwealth Literary Awards are outlets targetted at writers from the Caribbean and are to be nurtured and supported.

Libraries should be considered by youth as attractive, safe, stimulating places to find material that will inspire and energise them and also to allow them to experience creativity of the word with others through discussions, exhibitions and performances.

Through the JLS, I have had the opportunity to boost my normal reading with novels published after the year 2000, written by Jamaican authors, and a few from the Caribbean. I have set out at the end of this article 41 of the books that I have read, most were published in the last 20 years. They are in no particular order, I do not offer a criticism or review of the books but give short or longer comments on what they contain. They are a mix of fiction, memoir and biography.

The overarching themes that I have found are overcoming prejudice and bias; and the impact of  mothering on the life choices of the protagonists. My list is not a big enough sample to be scientific. 

For this list I have not considered Caribbean books - meaning novels and non-fiction, non-textbooks of an earlier era and will not make any comment on what they may offer, but the books of C Everard Palmer, Samuel Selvon, Jamaica Kincaid, C Everard Palmer, Marcus Garvey, VS Naipaul have indelibly shaped the English Speaking Caribbean with their authorship by shaping the opinions and attitudes of the leaders who read their work while young.

I would also add that many of our youth migrate and the books offer a way to balance what they left behind with the life that they know now, and help to foster affinity to the region of their birth and early life. The importance of this should be apparent as so many of these persons have risen to places of high official status in influential states such as the USA, Canada and the UK.

1. If I'm Not Back By Wednesday by Geoffrey B Haddad

Life threatening adventure of five boys over nine days. This book gives detailed insights into the lifestyle of a successful immigrant paterfamilias in Kingston during the 1960s.

2. A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A novel written in English as spoken on the streets of Kingston. It is a graphic novel where the attempt on the life of a celebrity forms the fulcrum around which insights into organised crime and one unconnected young woman are revealed.

Contains expletives that will be offensive to many persons, and also and graphic descriptions of manslaughter, gay sex and drug use.

I enjoyed reading about lead gangsters, their dialogue and outlook.

3. Le cœur à rire et à pleurer Condé, Maryse

I read the English language version of this book. A privileged girl grows up in a rigid social structure, and as she learns why, she realizes that she wants to break away from it.

4. The Tie Came Back by Veronica Carnegie Blake

I enjoyed the short stories that were set in Jamaica. Many were set in an era spanning the 1950s to the 2000s and quite funny.

5. Shameful Shadows by Ditta Sylvester

Another family story that shows the author's view of the influence of parenting on individuals.

Set in idyllic rural Jamaica, two children each react to the results of their mother's love life and make decisions that direct their own futures. Good triumphs over evil.

6. Breaking the Cycle by Pamela K Marshall

A young married couple with children struggle with years with unresolved issues caused by childhood abandonment that critically affect their prospects of a successful marriage. The book is filled with every layer of family life: half siblings, step parents, cousins and multi-generations.

The book has a lot of heterosexual marital intercourse and parents who try to do the best for their children despite their own personal challenges.

I would put this book in YA as the storytelling is not gratuitous and it provides space for thinking about what adults in business and in relationships can go through and how family members have an impact on each other.

The family homes are in Brooklyn and Irish Town. The family was directly impacted by the 9/11 /2001 terror attacks in New York City.

7. The Life of Captain Cipriani: An Account of British Government in the West Indies, with the pamphlet The Case for West-Indian Self Government by CLR James

Strong writing style and information that gives the first hand view of a national of Trinidad on the negative effects of Crown Colony government in the West Indies. Crown Colony government was introduced in the UK West Indian colonies between 1866 to universal adult suffrage (40s-50s). Originally published in 1932 and republished in 2014.

8. Flame of the Forest: Memoirs of Church Teachers' College by St Hope Earl McKenzie

Flame of The Forest by EarlMcKenzie shows the rewarding lifestyle that Church Teachers College in Mandeville, Jamaica offered to the dedicated academic during 60s and 70s.

9. The Colour of My Words by Lynn Josephs

Twelve year old girl with a passion for writing discovers the power of the written word. Set in the Dominican Republic, Caribbean.

10. Waiting in Vain by Colin Channer

Sensual and enjoyable and I am glad that it was written.

11. The Same Earth by Kei Miller

Great contemporary storytelling baased in Jamaica.

12. Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop edited by Colin Channer

Collection of great contemporary voices.

13. Dancing Lessons by Olive Senior

Gertrude, an elderly woman, now lives in residential care and is the responsibility of her very accomplished daughter who has little patience with her mother's ways. Yet, in this restrictive setting, Gertrude finds that there is still time in life for forgiveness of old hurts, creativity and self expression and even, romantic love.  This book delves into the issues of interpersonal relations in Jamaica across gender, class, race and colour from the pre-independence era to the current time.

14. Six Machine: I Don't Like Cricket... I Love It by Chris Gayle

This autobiography that was co-written by a sports journalist is an explanation to the world why the author is, the way he is. I found it to have several great quotes on the authors views on leadership, teamwork and friendship. It describes, in graphic detail, the joys and trials of living in Rollington Town, Kingston 2. It describes the triumphs of playing the game of cricket through the ranks, learning at the hands of teachers, teammates and foes.

15. The Dixons by Claudette Beckford Brady

The Dixons an enjoyable #YA novel of several eventful months of a Jamaican family where the parents live lives of compassion and bravery. Distinct voices of each member of the family and key characters hark with vitality.

16. The Mermaid Escapade by Suzanne Francis Brown

Great adventure book,gently told, that is very in touch with Jamaica's underground caverns with a nice take on the traditional mythical figure of River Mumma. Exists only in ebook format.

17. Lives of a Soul: A Metaphysical Autobiography of Your Soul...and Mine

This is the first sentence of the autobiography: I&I did not yet have a brain to process it, but I&I definitely knew that it was me that was being conceived.

18. The Boy Next Door by Mandisa M Parnell

Feisty Noelle falls for Ryan, the boys next door and together they navigate "getting to know you" to see if they can actually have a relationship.

19. Delory in the Marog Kingdom by Billy Elm

A boy's magical adventures where he finds friendships, faces adversities and faces the realities of his own family and himself.

20. Gone to Drift by Diana McCaulay

A boy searches land and sea for the one who he loves. If you love the Caribbean Sea, this book will remind you why you do.

21. The Last Warner Woman by Kei Miller

Miller uses tales within a tale as an allegory to show that fiction can tell strong truths about a society.

22. Such as I Have by Garfield Ellis

A very touching love story with community cricket competitions at the centre.

23. All Over Again by Ad-Ziko Simba Gegele

Real feelings while growing up in a loving family.

24. Mr King's Daughter by Hazel Campbell

A enjoyable story of young ambition and young love. Available only as an ebook.

25. A Way To Escape by Michelle Thompson

A family story across two decades and ending with migration.

26. Generation Curse by Colleen Smith Dennis

A sad family story about desperation, but the way it was told, it was an enjoyable ride and it had a just ending.

27. The Mountain of Inheritance by Carol Dunn

This is a classic saga which intertwines the story of families and shows how an earlier generation influences the ones that come after. It touches on familiar themes in the Caribbean, expectations of education, Christian religion on family life, family secrets and romance.

28. Escape to Falmouth by Lena Joy Rose

A fantasy which brings in USA antebellum society with Native American pain into Jamaica at a time when slavery had already been abolished. At its core, this is a love story between two ambitious, young, people.

29. For Her Son by Colleen Smith Dennis

An unrelenting story about a woman and her biased love for her son against all that is sensible and righteous.

30. Fear of Stones and Other Stories by Kei Miller

Collection of short stories that touch on several themes related to hardship and self awareness and society.

31. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Set in Barbados and New York City, a story of migration and the coming-of-age of a teenage girl when she is between the influences of two strong cultures.

32. Such as I Have by Garfield Ellis

Heart touching love story of two proud, young people, trying to come to terms with themselves and the society that they live in.

33. For Nothing At All by Garfield Ellis

Description of the waste of young lives living in a society that does not support integrity.

34. Till I'm Laid To Rest by Garfield Ellis

A proud and selfish young woman makes her way in the world.

35. Wake Rasta and Other Stories by Garfield Ellis.

Vignettes of live in a tough working class environment.

36. Turn Back Blow by Roger Williams

I enjoyed reading this book as it was a hilarious tale about how animals cooperated to overcome cruelty from humans. The dialogue between the animals kept the energy high. Available primarily as an ebook.

37. Song of My Life: A Biography of Margaret Walker by Carolyn J Brown

Guilty! This book is not by a Caribbean author but an African American author. I have given an exception for two reasons. Carolyn A Brown promoted literature by persons of colour and her father was a Jamaican. I enjoyed reading this biography about a girl who found her vocation early in life and how she kept moving towards it. I would recommend it to adolescents and young adults as it gives an insight into a historical period that is good to know from a general knowledge point of view, and important to know for persons who will live in the USA. This is not a story that focuses on the hardships of life, but on the joy of living and how this particular woman found fulfillment in life. The photos were interesting and the cover photo became more interesting, the more that I read the book. I plan to buy a hard copy and donate to the library of a secondary school.

38. Dew Angels by Melanie Schwapp

Through the coming-of-age experiences of one girl, we see how those who should be loving us the most, do sometimes cause the greatest hurt; intentionally or unintentionally. Set in Jamaica, the novel shows us how even the weak have something strong to give, and that women can do support each other.

39. Frying Plantain by Zalaika Reid Benta

Canadian girl navigates growing up in multicultural Toronto, weathering the storms around the relationship between her Jamaican mother and Jamaican grandparents.

I can agree that fried plantain is delicious food.

I have written about the topics that Jamaicans seem to be motivated to write about and mothering is one of them. In this book, everything is about the mother/daughter relationship. It does remind me of the setting of White Teeth which is about a British girl navigating life in London, England, and her mother's and her grandmother's characters play a role. In Garvey's Ghost, the conflict is for a Floridian born woman to Jamaican parents and grandparents. I think the similarities between the three books are thin after that.

The first two books were written by women and space is given in the books for the characters to assert their outlooks on life. Garvey's Ghost is written by Mr Geoffrey Philp, and although a woman has a rough start off in life because of bad decisions of her parents, the daughter seems to suffer because she does not follow teachings from the grand elders. (I may have to re-visit this outlook later).

In Fried Plantain ,the conflict between mother and daughter, as would be expected, is about expected behaviour. Each mother tries to bend her daughter to live a lifestyle that will get her ahead professionally and socially. The daughters usually have other ideas about how they should live their lives.

40.  Augustown by Kei Miller 
      An unusual story because the location is also an important part of the storytelling, and this location is August Town, a working class community on the fringe of the city with a contemporary reputation of violence but a past reputation of self reliance. Here we meet characters whose histories are touched by a bygone era, but have transmitted their effects to the present day.
The story returns to the accustomed discussions of colour and class in society and the role of education.  It also cradles a love story.

Mothers are important characters and Miller pays attention to spirituality as an essential ingredient of life.

41. Girlcottt by Florenze Webb Maxwell

A teen girl gets caught up between simply having a good time on her birthday or standing up for a cause greater than herself. Set in Bermuda in 1959.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Review "Bad Girls In School" by December 17, 2019 : Get a thank you copy of "Young Heroes of the Caribbean"

Warm greetings,

If you read Bad Girls in School, I would like to know your thoughts on the book. Recent stories that roll in about high schools seem to have so much in themes and possible approaches that can allow us to overcome troubling, ongoing events.

So, drop me a line in the contacts by December 17, 2019 and I will send a copy of Young Heroes of the Caribbean to you to the first ten accepted reviews to an address by post anywhere there is postal service in the world.

I am Looking out for your note.