Put me in the picture

Do young Caribbean readers see themselves in their story- and schoolbooks? There’s long been a shortage of books published specifically for Caribbean children, but a new generation of writers is changing that. Kellie Magnus explains why this development is so important, and suggests where Caribbean parents can find the best literature for their youngsters

Photo by Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.comReady, Set… Hatch!Little Lion Goes for Gold

Soft footsteps followed me down the biscuit aisle. A pair of ackee-seed eyes peered at me from around the milk refrigerator. A small head nodded triumphantly as we came face to face at the cash register.

“I told you I know her,” the little boy said confidently. “She writes my books for Grade 1.”

His mother was not convinced.

My first guess was that in gym clothes, with my hair in a messy bun, and carting a dubious selection of groceries, I did not look sensible enough to be a writer of books suitable for primary school. But the mother’s reply left me cold.

“Don’t be silly,” she snorted. “Schoolbooks come from England.”

That the horror on the little boy’s face matched my own was the only saving grace of the moment. The next fifteen minutes found me and my new ally convincing his mother that not all schoolbook writers are old white men, and that, yes, some Jamaican schoolbooks are indeed written by Jamaicans (including some who purchase inordinate quantities of banana chips and tamarind balls). It was a real-life illustration of the rallying cry I had heard from veteran Jamaican children’s book writer Diane Browne many times — the best thing about writing Caribbean children’s books is the chance to change the perception of who has the right to write the stories that shape our children’s imaginations.

Browne and her contemporaries have been waging that fight for decades, challenging parents’ perspectives and the limitations of a small, conservative Caribbean publishing industry. Two generations after much of the region gained independence, there are still fewer than two dozen indigenous publishing houses with a substantive catalogue and a reliable annual output of titles. More troubling is that very few of these houses cater to children, and fewer still publish trade books — books meant for leisure reading, rather than for instruction in schools.

That leaves Caribbean children with the dual dilemma of either having too few books at all, or too few books to counter the narratives from the dominant North American and British publishers — books that fail to honour the diversity of their own populations, as last year’s #WeNeedDiverseBooks social media firestorm put in sharp relief. Kicked off by an editorial by noted African American children’s book author Walter Dean Myers titled “Where are the people of colour in children’s books?”, the campaign seeks to shed light on the lack of diversity in children’s literature. Those statistics are grim: the Cooperative Children’s Book Centre at the University of Wisconsin reported that of 3,200 children’s books published in the United States in 2013, just ninety-three were about black people. Children’s book writer and former UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman noted many times during her tenure that the situation in UK children’s literature was equally alarming.

A new generation of Caribbean children’s book writers is stepping into the breach, prepared to fight the battle for children’s minds at home and to fill the growing appetite for multicultural books in the US, UK, and global markets. Joined by veteran storytellers like Diane Browne, they are taking advantage of advancements in digital technology and the proliferation of author-support services to self-publish their own titles and to create small publishing houses. Along with the handful of traditional publishing houses with strong children’s lists, they create the potential for a sea-change in Caribbean children’s literature: a chance to put Caribbean children in the picture and Caribbean children’s literature on the map.

The challenges we face are significant: distribution across the region is still difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, making it hard for titles from one island to find footing in another. Investor dollars are scarce, still channelled towards textbooks and — more recently — to kids’ books’ more glamorous cousin, animation, neglecting the potential of the multi-billion-dollar global children’s book market. But there is now a critical mass of well-developed, well-designed Caribbean children’s books worthy of a spot on any shelf in the world. Though reliable counts are hard to come by, there are currently upwards of three hundred English-speaking Caribbean children’s books in circulation.

So if you’re looking for a title to inspire your Caribbean child, or a souvenir for a child back home, here’s a sample of where to find some of the best Caribbean children’s literature.

 

Anansesem

The brainchild of Trinidadian writer Summer Edward, Anansesem is an e-zine dedicated to Caribbean children’s literature. The site features stories and illustration by children and adults, and publishes three issues per year. anansem.com

 

ESP Jr

Led by Trinidadian Jeunanne Atkins, ESP Jr takes a character-based approach, putting an iconic collection of characters — a pair of coconut best friends, a leatherback turtle, a snow cone, and a dancing crab — front and centre, not just in books but on supporting merchandise. The books also aim to be educational, introducing children to Caribbean culture and the environment. espjrisland.com

 

Jackmandora

Jackmandora publishes titles for children twelve and under, and is home of the popular Little Lion series, named for its Rastafarian lead character. With a hat tip to my friend in the supermarket, the books are less about teaching kids than giving them a place to see themselves in print and to have fun reading. jackmandora.com

 

LMH Publishing

LMH boasts the largest list of children’s books of any publisher based in the region, including multiple classic Anancy titles and new titles tackling contemporary issues like climate change. lmhpublishing.com

 

Reggae Pickney

Combining strong storytelling with fun, vibrant Jamaican music, the Reggae Band series is popular with children in Jamaica and the diaspora. The stories are billed as edutainment, featuring socially conscious messages on the environment. reggaepickney.com

 

Tamarind Books

Now a part of the Random House Group, Tamarind Books has been one of the leading lights in Caribbean children’s publishing since it was founded in 1987 by Grenadian Verna Wilkins. Wilkins has written more than thirty picture books for children, and her collection is equally noted for its unflinching celebration of children with disabilities. tamarindbooks.co.uk

  • Breana Marie

    Oh my goodness! I am so excited about this article and the resources you are offering. I am an American living on a Caribbean island, and I tutor island kids. I’m white, and I grew up with a lot of picture books about white people and some about people of other colors. It reflected the predominately-white demographic around me and I never thought much of it. Now that I’m in an 80%+ black community, it has caught my attention that while the demographics around me have changed, the ethnicities and culture of kids in books have not. I scoured Amazon to find book about Caribbean and black kids. I was disappointed with the results. It frustrates me that there aren’t enough picture books about black kids, and even fewer featuring Caribbean kids! I’m even writing and illustrating my some of my own just for the kids I know, because I can’t find enough of exactly what I want. How are kids supposed to be excited about reading when they can’t relate to characters in their books? I’m thrilled to find this list and plan to order some for Christmas! Thanks.

  • Heidi Fagerberg

    It is so great to see more and more options out there. When I read books that pertain to the world children in St Kitts have grown up in they become so involved and excited about the stories! The teachers are always so amazed at the response. http://www.livingthebeachlifeskn.com