Friday, August 20, 2010

Caribbean Children's Lit - The Gatekeepers

I begin with a quotation:
“It can easily be suggested that children’s literature is not about children at all.  Rather, it is about how adults define children. After all, it is adults who write the literature and illustrate it, they edit and publish it, sell and promote it, recommend and scaffold its reading. They are the ones who decide what is appropriate to be in it, and whether children should or should not read it. 
In other words, as they make all of these decisions, benevolently or paternally, acting as mediators, scaffolders, gatekeepers, facilitators, guardians or whatever they might be called, adults censor children’s literature.” From Introduction – Censorship in Children's Literature by David Beagley
Who are these adults censors ?  They are (not necessarily in order of influence):
Author, Publisher, Parent, Teacher, Librarian, Public opinion.  Do the children, the target audience, have censorship powers?
The author of children’s books knows that he(she) will only succeed if he manages to please himself, the children and the gatekeepers.
Appropriateness for children is always a major concern for the adult gatekeepers and woe be unto the author who singlehandedly decides to write outside of the conventions of his time. 
Despite the availability of world news (full of horror stories), questionable advertising, video games and films which seem to glorify violence and other wrongs, there is still a tendency to idealize childhood, to talk as if modern children live in a bubble - uncomplicated and predictable and without opinions and experiences of their own. Therefore, adults can project their interpretation of innocence, which the children are expected to soak up like a sponge.
How does this apply to the Caribbean? Some of the life experiences of too many of our children are as traumatic as the adults’.  Can the Caribbean writer of children’s literature be realistic and gain acceptance by the gatekeepers? Outside accepted folklore, can we write our own fantasies and adventures which the gatekeepers will accept? Are there subject areas and themes which we cannot explore in our writing? There seems to be a creeping outcry that Caribbean writers for children depend too much on the idealistic tales of yesteryear; childhood in former times – rural existence with simpler lifestyles.
In the Caribbean, who are our most influential gatekeepers? I would argue that it is the teacher, given the fact that for any book to get reasonable sales it needs to be recommended reading from the Ministry of Education - .in a context where many parents are non-readers, and rely on ‘teacher’ to make the right decision to turn their children into readers and scholars.

Every now and then there is public outcry against certain aspects of book lists especially for the older ones. Recently, in Jamaica, some literature texts were condemned for having ‘bad words’ (curse words). Some recently published YA books might not reach the schools’ reading lists because they contain (bad) supernatural content. In a recent parenting advice column in one of our daily papers a parent asked this question – “Where can I find books for my child which do not contain magic? It seems to me that the books I see all rely on magic.”( not an exact quote) The advice was to check the Christian book stores.
So, what are the children reading when they can make their own choices? Only the librarians can probably answer that question since book buying for pleasure reading is not an important item of expenditure for too many of our parents. 
Our libraries mainly stock foreign titles.  What Caribbean books are the children reading - for pleasure?  Outside of those used in schools, are they reading Caribbean stories? Research is needed to answer these questions. If there is research,  it is not readily available for consideration by editors and publishers.- a very unfortunate situation.
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