Thursday, November 25, 2010

Animals in our children’s books

Being an island, we don’t have a wide variety of animals in Jamaica. We inherited lions and tigers and other continental animals in our Anansi stories from Africa. The steady diet of books from foreign countries means that our children mostly see a lot of bears and wolves and elephants and giraffes and so on .

Once, some years ago my young daughter came home with an assignment from school; she had to draw an animal. When I asked her what kind of animal she wanted to draw, she said :”A squirrel, of course.”  I asked her why she didn’t pick one of our own animals since we don’t have squirrels in Jamaica. I could see her thinking about this with a kind of surprised look on her face. Then she said : “We don’t have any animals.” As far as she was concerned the only valid animals were those in books and on television.

The children are probably wiser now, but we still don’t see a lot of our own fauna in the children books. We could raise the children’s consciousness of our environment if more of our books featured our own animals.

Read some interesting findings on the value of animals in children’s stories in this article:
Animals and nature are top page-turners for children across generations, says new reader research At

The research is based in the UK but it certainly provides food for our own thoughts. Local research- anyone?  Here's an excerpt:
Booktime’s research, which polled over 1,500 parents and carers across the UK, also showed that reading books featuring animal characters motivates children to find out more about the natural world: 44% of children are inspired to want to go to a farm, zoo or safari park to see the animals for themselves. 90% of respondents stated that reading books about animals increases their child’s interest in the natural world and more than half of Britain’s parents report that their children are more inquisitive about animals and nature after reading a book on the subject.
One of the reasons for this enduring call of the wild was hinted at elsewhere in the research with parents and carers overwhelmingly agreeing that animal and nature themed books help their children to make sense of human feelings, relationships and the world around them.(my emphasis).

Generally, in our population, any animal not meant for food is considered more or less unimportant,or to be feared.  We fear lizards, snakes,crocodiles, toads and many of the creatures around us. Boys and dogs are natural enemies. A pet, apart from a dog or cat which might be useful for watching the home or catching mice would be considered a luxury in many households. 

Our folktales sometimes add to our discomfort with the animal kingdom. Take the galliwasp, for instance:  very ugly – looking. Folklore says if it bites you, whichever of you finds water first will live, the other will die. So, if bitten by a galliwasp, rush to the nearest pipe and put water on the spot. I don’t even know if it can bite and nobody knows what water has to do with surviving the bite, but we repeat the story for generations.
Here’s  a definition of the galliwasp: A large, harmless lizard found in marshes in the West Indies and Central America
And another:  A West Indian lizard (Celestus occiduus), about a foot long, imagined by the natives to be venomous.

Animals in our stories seem to be limited to donkeys and goats, and perhaps a cow or two, often  in the idyllic setting of the good old rural days. (I have a published story about a boy and a goat!! It's a modern story so I hope it passes muster. Also, Miss Bettina's House ( Carlong) features domestic and farm animals. ) There are only a few books featuring our wild life - lizards, birds, mongooses; and some domestic animals - cats and dogs etc.
I like to challenge my writing class to think about our environment for ideas for their children’s stories. Take fish, for instance. We have a number of interesting names for our fish – grouper, parrot, butter, king, snapper, and, more recently, the lion fish. What could a writer do in a fish story using those names!
Some years ago, deer escaped from a circus during a hurricane. I haven’t seen any, but people in the hills say they are multiplying. This is a new creature in our environment. What possibilities for stories! And it doesn’t have to be fiction only. Children, particularly boys, respond to non-fiction stories about the environment.

On her anansesem facebook page Summer Edward has been featuring children's book covers from different Caribbean countries. I have taken the liberty of copying a few relevant to this discussion. Check her pages. You will find that there aren't many books featuring animals

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why a Goatboy?

I have been asked why the name goatboy in the title of my latest chapter book for children which is A Goatboy Never Cries. Here's an extract from the story which explains it. Jillian is the story teller of that exceptional summer holiday when her family moves to the suburbs of Kingston and the children in the family find themselves with new daily chores. She has to help her mother take care of chickens and her brother Johnny has to take care of a goat. He dislikes the experience, at first, but grows to love the goat as a pet.
" At first, Johnny's new friends ridiculed him. His new name was 'goatboy'. I thought it was a stupid name, but, I suppose, if there were 'cowboys'to take care of cows, there could be 'goatboys' to take care of goats and 'pigboys' to take care of pigs and so on. However, I don't think I would like anybody to call me a 'chicken girl' OR WORSE, a 'fowl girl'.

available from LMH Publishing Ltd
Tel:876 938-0005
Fax: 876- 759-8752

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Importance of book covers

Summer Edward on her facebook pages has been posting book covers from various Caribbean Islands. So far she’s posted covers from Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Haiti and Grenada. I thought I had seen a post on her blog specifically on the importance of a book cover, but I couldn’t find it. Her comment below on illustrations for Caribbean children’s books might be relevant though, as the illustration is actually the most important component of a cover, especially for children's books. Check the covers she has posted and judge for yourself.


Looking at many of the illustrations in Caribbean picture books, I might be tempted to say that Caribbean artists are simply not that talented. This I know, is far from the truth. There is abundant, fantastic artistic talent in the Caribbean. What is missing in our region, is a sense of the importance of the role of the children's illustrator. Also, many of us do not yet understand that works of children's illustration are as much "fine art" as the creations we see displayed in Caribbean art galleries and museums. Caribbean artists fail to see children's illustration as the lucrative business and fine artform that it is, and we are decades behind continental children's illustrations (UK, Asia, USA, Africa) in this sense. So that is where we are right now in Caribbean children's illustration: abundant talent to choose from, but no cohesive, well-respected children's illustration field/industry with ties to an organized, professional and active Caribbean children's publishing mechanism with plenty and sustained work opportunities for illustrators

I may get some grief for this, but I am going to say it anyway: I simply don't think Caribbean children's illustration as it stands today is all that great. I mean the work that currently appears in published Caribbean children's books. To put it plainly, Caribbean children's illustration as it looks today, lacks versatility, seriousness (in the sense of professionalism) and sustained effort. Caribbean children's illustrators (who by the way, are a small group) simply haven't been inventing much, and we are waaaaaay behind our continental counterparts in this respect. Much― and that is not all, there is some great work out there― but again, much of the illustration currently appearing in Caribbean picture books is basically clich├ęd: cute, simplistic, uninventive, cartoony, and computer-generated. ( my emphasis)

Publishers sometimes consult, but do not  give authors control over/input into the design of their book covers. (My publishers are not adverse to a suggestion, but this is in the laid-back Caribbean) Self-publishers of course have that full control. Both need to pay very serious attention to cover design.  Here are some reasons why.
Importance of book covers
·           Shoppers in a bookstore spend an average of 8 seconds looking at the front cover of a book and 15 seconds looking at the back before deciding whether to buy it.
·           A survey of booksellers showed that 75% of them found the book cover to be the most important element of the book.
·          Sales teams often only take the book cover with them when they shop titles into stores.

What goes into the making of a design for a book cover?  Obviously the story itself - what it is about and the intended readership. Decisions about typeface, size – those technical details are taken on the basis of these considerations.The art brief from the editor will give the illustrator guidelines for the cover illustration. Judging what will make a book stand out on the shelf is not often easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Some people may like a cover, others may not – usually the detractors cannot give an objective reason for disliking a cover.

Another  consideration  for our books is also whether the illustrator is familiar with and understands the Caribbean origin of the story. We all have to be very careful not to fall into the category highlighted in the last sentence in Summer’s quote.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I love my hair

You've got to check this!

watch the video

The longing for silky, long hair is still a problem for black children!! What are we writers doing to consciously send the message that black hair is okay: that our hair was designed for us - whatever its texture, colour, length. and it doesn't have to be a book about hair  - just one of the many affirmative messages about ourselves that we need to interweave in our stories.And if anybody dares to comment on prejudice, reverse or otherwise - . I'll delete the comment. Read the reason it was made then just watch the video and ponder

Monday, November 8, 2010

BIAJ chapter book nominations

My chapter book A Goatboy Never Cries has been nominated for the People's Choice award by the Book Industry Association of Jamaica  (BIAJ)

What about it folks. Buy a copy from a bookstore in Jamaica or go to the LMH website

Read it and decide if you want to vote for me.

I am repeating an earlier post about it here

My new book A Goatboy Never Cries has been getting good reviews.
Here's an excerpt from the Sunday Gleaner of May 23
"A Goatboy Never Cries , a 13 chapter book, tells it all. Illustrations which appear in 10 chapters make the book fun to read and will help push the imagination, especially for those children whose knowledge of the countryside is limited. ....
Although a simple tale, Campbell uses the story to address themes such as family, friendship, love, loyalty and responsibility."

In the story Johnny, who has never owned a pet, is forced to take on the responsibility of looking after a young goat during his summer holidays. His initial rebellion changes as he learns to love the goat- which in turn presents new problems when the summer holidays end and there is no one to take care of it.

Traditional Christmas Entertainment - Jonkunnu in Jamaica

"Jonkunnu a Come"

In Jamaica, up to the fifties and sixties, at Christmastime masked Jonkunnu bands (masquerade) could be seen roaming the streets of towns all over the country playing their lively music, dancing and prancing to entertain the crowds which would quickly assemble, as a prelude to collecting money. 

Although a few straggling groups may still come out in the rural areas, sadly, Jonkunnu bands no longer roam the streets of our towns and they are now seen mainly as entertainment at cultural events. Today's children are missing out on the heady feeling which a Jonkunnu band could add to the already magical Christmas season. The fear inspired by Horsehead snapping at you or the Devil trying to jab you with his trident cannot adequately be described. Both adults and children would run when they started their antics. I don’t think anybody actually got hurt. It was great fun all around.

And the music !!!!  Fife and drum which immediately set your feet and body dancing . I have very fond memories of the excitement created when the first strains reached my ears and the cry of “Jonkunnu a come!” started up. 

My favourite character was Pitchy - Patchy. In his costume made of pieces of brightly coloured material, he would dance up a storm twirling and twisting every which way. I didn't like the 'policeman'
who would wield his baton in attempt to 'control' the band and the onlookers. and as for the Devil - "RUN!"

Incidentally the band was made up of all men, even bride and belly woman whose exaggerated pregnant belly seemed to have a dancing life of its own, separate from her body. All the characters wore a mask of some sort.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Author involvement in selling books

Nobody can deny that authors should help to promote and sell their books. This seems to be standard procedure in the big countries. I find though that the author/publisher situation in the Caribbean, especially for trade books, is sort of unknown territory.

Text books don't need author involvement in the same way, and most of our publishers - the bigger ones - specialize in text book publishing - it is, after all, their bread and butter

But for the trade books - take the business of authors getting copies of their books. If you have a good ongoing relationship with your publisher, chances are you can get copies on consignment. But here's the problem , you have to sell off what you take in a limited time, or return the books or pay for them.

Now, I am supposing that most Caribbean authors are like me with limited disposable income to wrap up in purchasing significant copies of their books, unless there is certainty of sales. It's usually a few books sold here and there, even at literary functions. But, one never knows when an opportunity might arise for a sale, and it is useful to have books at hand.

Personally, I have a good relationship with my publishers, but I know other writers who complain about the reluctance of publishers to give books on consignment. (In fairness some publishers have problems getting payment even for books on consignment to bookstores)  But, since the publisher is in charge of royalties and can withhold the payment for the books the author has taken, why the reluctance?

What do you think? (My comments section should be working now)