Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book review #1 - Little Island-Big Adventures

Here is a Caribbean children’s book which is immensely interesting as it gives a glimpse of life in the 1960s on one of the tiny Grenadine islands owned by Grenada in the Eastern Caribbean. (You may need to consult a map of the Caribbean) The author deliberately does not name the island which is the setting for the story, and it is my belief that the story is largely autobiographical. Life on this tiny island is both a pleasure and trial. There is no electricity, no police presence, one school, and one church. Children attend school barefooted, but there is no sense of deprivation.

The island is described by someone who is obviously fond of it, and wishes to preserve a bit of its history and the customs peculiar to its culture. In this first person story, Sara-Ann tells us about that last delightful year spent on her beloved island. She and her best friend, Ruben, get up to a lot of antics during a very busy school year filled with a witch, a bad bull, a giant cat, a graveyard adventure, a jealous school friend, a jilted bride and other exciting events. The language might seem sophisticated, in parts, for an eleven to twelve year old, but this protagonist is presented as being precocious, a very avid reader and a highly imaginative child.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite incidents: Sara-Ann and Ruben are in an old crypt in the graveyard at midnight on All Saints' Night planning a prank against a very irritating fellow student – Elsie:
The darkness was complete. So complete it snatched away my breath, smothering me like a thick blanket. I gasped, struggling for breath. I had never been as afraid as I was of that dreadful place.
Suddenly , without warning, a light flickered on.I shrieked and turned to flee, but Ruben caught me by the arm. “It’s only my flashlight,” he said, holding up a small one.
Light … light… light …light

The style of this novel is episodic, that is, almost all the chapters can stand on their own as short stories. Therefore there is not the kind of cause and effect development of plot, building to a strong climax. Although there is action aplenty as Sara-Ann and Ruben get in and out of scrapes, the story is more character driven as we learn about several of the people who live on the island and their interaction one with another,
This story celebrates family, friendship and community. Its strengths are in descriptive language and characterization. It is a good introduction to the study of literature at grades 6 or 7.

There is a glossary which explains words and phrases which are peculiar to that part of the Eastern Caribbean in which the story is set

Author Maria Roberts-Squires was born in Petite Martinique, schooled in Grenada and now lives in Barbados. This is her second novel for children.

Book link here
Sorry I had to re-post this. Something went wrong with the first post and messed up viewing of the blog 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cultural Differences

When I was writing my last post ‘Humour in Children’s Books’, I realized that two of the situations I was talking about would present problems for some persons outside the Caribbean culture.

In  Naughty Eddie LaRue, most Caribbean children would know and anticipate that with that degree of naughtiness there could be only one outcome - he would have to get a well-deserved spanking. For many of us, spanking is still the accepted punishment for bad behaviour. One of the illustrations in the book shows Eddie being spanked on his bottom and usually raises an outcry from foreigners, who immediately classify this as child abuse. ( I will not post the illustration here)

Similarly, the little girl who insisted that the dog should not be in the house, would probably be thought strange by others not accustomed to our culture. Dogs are very often kept to guard the home. As such they need to be outside or in their dog house, so that they can warn the householder of intruders. Dogs are rarely the pampered pets we see on television.

These are broad generalizations, and they may not apply to all the Caribbean islands. I am not here getting into a discussion of right or wrong. The message for our writers is that if you want your children's book to travel, be sure that it doesn’t offend other people’s sensibilities especially in sensitive areas like these.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Humour in Children's Books

I am one of those who complain that there isn’t a lot of humour in Caribbean children’s books. I guess we think that children should be preached at and moralized as much as possible to keep them on the right path. 
In my youth, one of the sayings constantly thrown at me was ‘chicken merry, hawk de near’.  Words like ‘silly’  ‘stupid’  ‘maddy-maddy’ and 'scatter-brain' were often used to describe any child who laughed too easily or too much.  And yet, as a people we like to laugh. ( Ever heard a 'belly laugh' burst forth  from of a true-true Caribbean person?) So, why not put more humour into the children’s books? There are, of course, humourous situations here and there within some of the stories, but few books, that I know of, outrageous enough to cause a child to keep smiling broadly or giggle out loud. (The story-tellers can get that effect - but that's another story)

What makes children laugh?
It is not always easy to know what will make children laugh; so much depends on their individual view of life and their experiences. It is generally accepted that children respond with laughter to the unexpected, as well as the things that subvert order - things that turn the world upside down. 
I once attempted to read for a group of small children from one of my books Miss Bettina’s House. In the story, the animals - a dog, a cat and a parrot take over Miss Bettina’s house when circumstances force her to leave it and seemingly abandon them. Older children seem to enjoy the antics of the animals as they try to protect the house from the village ginnal who wants to take over what he regards as an empty house from which he can take things as he pleases. Miss Bettina's House - Book link

Usually, when I read, the children enjoy the session, but on this occasion, a young miss about four years old insisted that the dog should not be in the house. She wouldn’t allow me to continue the story as she kept repeating very loudly “The dog must not be in the house”. Obviously this was the rule in her home. I had to switch to another story.
A book with the title The Dog who shouldn’t be in the House or Do not go into the House! with a clever cover illustration might catch this little one’s interest. She might find it amusing if the story is about how the dog tries several ways of sneaking into the house and gets caught each time. (In another post I will talk about cultural differences and such a subject.

Fractured fairy tales – alternative versions of fairy tales are funny because we already know the story and so the new version, if clever, can be funny. See an example here. 
I am not sure, however, if children would find all of this funny – perhaps the older ones might.

Some years ago, LMH Publishing Ltd. in Jamaica put out a series of picture story books for children. The books all contained very good stories. However, feedback suggests that the most popular with the children was one entitled Naughty Eddie LaRue. As you can guess from the title Eddie LaRue got into a lot scrapes, (subverting the natural order of his environment).
Here’s an extract. The author and illustrator have painted damning pictures of the many naughty things Eddie has done, but this one takes the cake:

But the worst thing of all, the worst, by far,
Was the time Eddie painted the Pastor’s new car.
Pastor drove up one day in a car of dark blue,
So shiny and clean it clearly was new.
Mummy said it looked lovely, Sue said it looked great
Eddie wanted a ride, but was told he should wait
For Pastor was busy, he had things to do
The first of which was to see Mrs.LaRue.
He had come to their house to discuss with their mother
Eddie’s constant misdeeds of one kind or another
Mummy said,”Eddie, go do some painting for me.
Pastor, please come inside. Sue, please make us some tea.”
While Pastor is visiting with his Mom, Eddie ends up painting the Pastor’s new car a bright blue and yellow, and pleased with himself, he actually signs his name as the artist. You can guess the rest. (Maybe you can’t. I’ll discuss this also in the post about cultural differences.) When you read this story for children, they eagerly await the next naughty thing that Eddie gets up to, and think it quite funny.

Here’s some more food for thought: an extract from  
Laughing All the Way: Humor in Children's Books

“Thinking is stretched and interest in literature
is extended when children experience comic stories
that present a developmentally appropriate cognitive
challenge (Jalongo, 1985; McGhee, 1979). When a story
line or illustration does not turn out as expected or does
not fit into a standard conception of normality, youngsters
are amused. They may be even more delighted
when they realize where a funny story is taking them:
They love recognizing the "inside joke." With maturity
and experience, young primary-age children gradually
develop an appreciation of verbal humor. Riddles,
rhymes, and silly songs now give them great pleasure.
At the end of the early childhood years, the multiple
meanings of an illustration, a word, or an event become
food for a young child's humorous thought (Honig,
1988)”Pauline Davey Zeece, Department Editory
Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1995
Books for Children

So, Caribbean writers for children, what you think?Do we need more humour in the stories?How about a couple of wild and wacky tales to brighten a day for our children

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Additional comment on A WE Dis?

I think I need to add something to my comments ( a few posts ago) on Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson’s talk - A We Dis?  It is obviously unacceptable for the books to be printed with wrong information, but when it comes to the images, we are probably as much at fault for perpetuating the stereotypes. Tourism is the main industry in some of our countries. All of us depend on it. In our advertising and entertainment packages we project the images we think the tourists want to see - quaintness, happy-go-lucky ‘natives’, carnival/ festivities, tropical paradise of sea and sun and fun etc. When the tourists arrive we often greet them with mento/calypso music with smiling singers dressed in colourful costumes and head-ties and broad- rimmed straw hats and so on and so on. It is probably therefore not surprising that these are the same images the books 'from foreign', project as our reality.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Reading can be dangerous!!

As a child I read everything I could lay my hands on. Heaven was going to the library on a Saturday to change my book. It was there at the Junior Centre in Half-Way-Tree, that  I discovered William.

This is what Wikipedia says about the William series:
Just William is the first book of children's short stories about the young school boy William Brown, written by Richmal Crompton, and published in 1922. The book was the first in the series of William Brown books which was the basis for numerous television series, films and radio adaptations.
I spent many a happy hour in company with William and his pals, laughing at their hilarious antics. Recently, I re-read one of the books and wondered why  I found them so very funny.  But, I was a colonial child. The things that happened to British children in books were more real than the things that happened to me in Jamaica. I had no problem rambling over the English countryside with William and his friends. I happily had tea with scones (I didn't know what that was, but no matter), and other 'delicacies'.(There were probably cucumber sandwiches too.)  I wasn’t reading any books about Caribbean children anyway, except in the prescribed reading books for the colonies. 

Here’s how William got me into trouble. Every Sunday afternoon I had to take a nap after lunch, since I had to attend night service with my mother. The nap would prevent me falling asleep and not hearing the sermon - which could mean I was bound for hell. My mother was very strict.

One Sunday, an older cousin was visiting for the day and since she was bored and didn’t have to nap, I gave her a William book to read.  Very soon, she was laughing at William’s antics. My mother came into the room and sternly ordered me to go to sleep and stop giving Gwen jokes. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t giving jokes, but she would not listen. Gwen was probably ashamed to admit that a book could be so funny and didn’t support me. (Is laughing aloud while reading a book akin to a form of madness? - like talking aloud to oneself???)

After my mother left, Gwen continued reading. For a while she only giggled softly, but eventually, one of William’s outrageous antics caused her to snort very loudly. This time Mama brought in the strap and I got a licking for disobedience. My feelings hurt more than my flesh. Gwen quietly left the room, without the book. (She was probably afraid of the strap reaching her, too.)  She still didn’t confess that it was the book causing her to laugh.  My mother would not have believed her anyway. These were the days when a child was often sent to read a book as mild punishment for idleness or mischief.
The ‘good old days’ anyone?

Check this link for a relevant discussion

Caribbean Children's Lit - A We Dis?

I attended Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson’s talk A We Dis? at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, yestereve (Thursday, Oct 14th) It was well attended, and quite stimulating.

She dealt mostly with the images and information in social studies/information books on the Caribbean written for children.  Using power point illustrations she showed how the images were often uncomplimentary and the information sometimes wrong, giving one-sided representations of just who we are in the Caribbean. The images tend to focus on the exotic and old-time situations – cane cutters, market scenes, broken - down houses (huts) zinc fences, the happy –go-lucky ‘native’ and so on. 

This, she said, has adverse influence both on the children in other lands who assimilate this misrepresentation as well as on our own children, who get distorted images of themselves as well as wrong information. She gave several examples of the wrong information in the books.

Most of these books, she said, are published in the UK and the USA to fill the demand for multi-cultural information for their schools. Many are not even distributed in the Caribbean. Sometimes the authors have never visited the Caribbean and obviously are perpetuating the stereotypes picked up elsewhere.

To change this, she recommended that persons can write to publishers and point out the errors. She also suggested that persons can publicly discuss the errors by reviewing books on sites like Amazon which allow reviews. If enough voices are raised, the publishers will have to begin to take notice and be more careful to get their information authenticated by ‘experts’ who really know the Caribbean. Also librarians should be careful not to place such books on their library shelves.

She seemed to have given the audience so much food for thought that very few comments were made or questions asked in the after period.

Some of what she said has implications for the fiction, as well, especially for the younger children, who haven’t yet reached the point of questioning what they read.  This makes it even more important for us to have a great body of literature about ourselves written from our point of view.  Fortunately, there seems to be growing interest among Caribbean writers and illustrators in publishing material for our children. If only we could solve the problems of high production costs, and distribution and access to this material.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Three Blind Mice and Me

The creative process is fascinating. Sometimes I can recognize the inspiration for a story, sometimes not; and a story might present itself at any hour- day or night.

So , here I am, it is 2 o’clock of a morning. I have been awake since 12 midnight with all sorts of thoughts running around in my head and keeping me awake. 
I don’t know why I am remembering something from my teen years – a very long time ago. I have always wanted to be a writer, and I started writing stories in my early teens. I soon realized that I needed guidance, and being too shy to ask my teachers for help, I nagged my poor mother ( and we were poor) into using some of her partner draw to pay the first installment  on a correspondence writing course out of England, advertised in a newspaper. She must have really believed in me and my ambitions.( I didn’t finish the course so she wasn’t much out of pocket).

I don’t recall much of what I wrote for that course except for this exercise. I was supposed to write a story using a nursery rhyme as reference point.  I chose Three Blind Mice and wrote what I thought was a funny story about the blind mice mistakenly eating soap thinking it was cheese.

My correspondence tutor’s response was that this was not a rational story – no mouse would mistake soap for cheese, their sense of smell would guide them.  It wasn’t only that comment but the mean tone of the other comments that made it the end of my writing career- for a time.

So, here I am thinking, at just past 2 o’clock in the morning, how to make that story rational.

I need a witch. Unfortunately we don’t have witches in my country. We have obeah women, but to use one in the story would frighten some parents into not buying the book since they fraid the word 'obeah' and others would complain that representing  an obeah woman as evil is to disparage our culture. So, I’ll import a witch-she is not ours so it doesn’t matter what I do with her. 
Back to the Story (BTTS) 
These three mice – they really should be rats - mice are so tiny, but  rhymes for mice are more fun.Example:
Three blind mice
Who lived in hice (plural of house!!!)
Had one dreadful vice
            FOOD- it was so nice  

So, one night, the three greedy mice crept into the witch’s cupboard and ate off the one dukunoo she was saving for her breakfast. They were so full that they fell asleep, same place. Next morning when the hungry witch went for her dukunoo, all she saw were three fat-belly sleeping mice.

She was so mad that she immediately cursed them and took away their eyesight. But, by evil law, one curse was not enough; she had to put a second curse on them. She allowed them to choose which other sense they would lose.

The three mice discussed this and decided that they could not live without the sense of touch/feeling; since they were blind they had to use this sense to guide them. They could not live without hearing, since they needed to hear when the witch started snoring so they could safely go into her cupboard and steal her food. They could not live without the sense of taste -  FOOD was too nice! So they chose to do without the sense of smell.

Ergo (I love that word), as the story progresses the mice can neither see nor smell.( So now they can mistake soap for cheese.)

Okay – for the soft-heart children, I might add that the curse was only temporary. The witch tells them that she will lift the curse if they complete a very difficult task. ( I haven’t decided what task yet.  Probably to stay away from her cupboard for twice months - I need my rhyme). To be continued ......

So, Mr/Ms Snarky- Correspondence-Writing Course- Tutor, would that now make it a rational story?

I started off talking about the creative process. Strange isn’t it? I just might write that story one day.

P.S  Over the years I have met two incidents of rats eating soap- one in a bathroom and one in a washroom.