Codex Legacy

The Soul Profit of a People

• August 2013

It is a childhood “knowing” that has led me on this path: to recognize the inspiration in, and universality of, my own specific backyard and to express it through my work as a content creator and cultural entrepreneur. As a member of a small but growing community of published Caribbean children’s book authors, I recognize that we are not solely wordsmiths. Our published works are collectively and potentially a codex for cultivating an audience of readers for West Indian writers, and more.

Comparing manuscript word counts between picturebooks and chapter books, between young adult (YA) novellas and adult novels, it is typical to dismiss our creations as “easier,” altogether “too easy” to be of sincere literary value and concern. Not completely unlike the promising West Indian novelist, however, a children’s book author also needs to be grounded in craft. To display any talent, we depend on the delivery of strong concepts conveyed through a biblical simplicity. Mastering the potency of brevity, too, is a challenge we share. Further, we must trust both illustrator and publisher, albeit at times with words as few as any toddler can speak. We too expect that the entirety of the final publication will fulfill and reveal the intention of the original intellectual property.

A good picturebook is plucked off the shelf only if it is conceptually strong; there is no possibility of padding weaknesses. An illustrated reader must be highly relevant or reluctant readers will remain diffident. And YA novellas serve to secure new generations of young readers, ushering them into a world of text without pictures, save those of their own imaginings. In each category, there is a continuum of progressive excellence that is dependent on high standards and knowledgeable criticism for growth.

An illustrated reader format (30–42 pages on average) may be perceived as a creative constriction at best or, at worst, a quick job. For the working children’s book author, the hi-lo genre (high interest, low literacy level) is a legitimate avenue for applying the noble intention of crafting a “best possible” work. The apparent ease that entices an audience labeled “reluctant readers” to actually read must also provide access to a degree of reading pleasure that inspires and expands their worldviews. I see myself as a messenger of equality when I provoke even the youngest reader to question inherited beliefs with “Is it true?” in Pink Carnival, or to find the Aesop’s archetypes in themselves in The Donkey and the Racehorse.1

So we too need to be established in an authentic authority of our own. I am necessarily concerned with knowing my craft, my audience, and the industry in which I am published. Also, I remain doubtful that it is possible to become more than just a Caribbean-based writer, of any kind, without a sincere regard for, and interest in, our diverse traditions and cultures. Even our contemporary, futuristic, and personal expressions should be defined by a distinctive palette, enriched by pigments that help us to see only as we can. The self is our primary instrument. We are the organic lenses through which generalized universal experience is distilled into “my” (read also “our”) specific here and now.

Children nurtured by content that references their own likenesses, beliefs, and immediate everyday experiences are incubated in conditions that promote growth. As it is, our unconscious media consumption from birth does not typically include meaningful West Indian documentary. This thoughtless ingestion of imported media colonizes our frames of reference, causing a kind of unwitting cultural mutation that, in the absence of authentic Caribbean children’s content, remains unchecked. I am no xenophobe and do not promote insularity. In fact, I am working toward a time when this discussion will be moot due to the balance we have achieved.

While the issue is of regional, national, and individual import, it is the latter that wholly engages my concern. As an author, I too am influenced by the importation and superimposition of other cultures. Nothing about this reality impacts me as much as an increasing awareness that foreign media is nothing more than the imported dreams of another author-ity—just another writer, elsewhere, in his or her own time and space. Born and bred and still based in the Caribbean, I am confident that we can and should implicitly claim, trust, and exercise the wisdom of our own births.

We are Caribbean writers, though not through shared geography alone. Whatever we write, social realism or fantastic fiction, is drawn from a communal consciousness inherently invested with a unique point of view. And we need Caribbean readers who are equally immersed in the same possibilities to validate us.

In Macmillan-Caribbean’s “tween” novella series, Island Fiction, six different authors have crafted works of speculative fiction uniquely varied in both individual style and theme preferences. Yet each title creates an imaginative New World borne of and rooted in our Caribbean experience.

Finding a fair balance between communication and cultural sovereignty is vital for the development of all genres relating to Caribbean children and young adults. As the series editor of Island Fiction, and as author of my own children’s stories, I am interested in the art of conceptualizing universal themes. I work to present plot and action against a backdrop of our specific “back yards.” I consciously assert my right to accept our diverse cultural context as the “norm.” I take my environment for character and use social realism as a visual storytelling device, but I veer away from the fetish of folklore and “curio” pieces.

In Digger’s Diner my inclusion of tourists is not for the purpose of creating a promotional brochure of Caribbean lifestyle. My intention is to give the local hero, Pauley, and his Rastafarian, beach-vending parents, Ozzy and Denyse, a particular kind of audience. I wanted to restore the reality of equality, so I put all these postcolonial adults and their children on equal footing. Then I elevate Ozzy’s point of view: “All life is a school” and “It’s people like you and me who write books.”2 He is not being quaint or quirky. Globally, the future of education seems poised in an attitude of unschooling the Eurocentric conditioning of eras past. My illustrated readers are coded with the idea that Caribbean people do not need to “become” anything other than who they are in essence. We have equal access to the source of “first thought.”

Similarly, my inclusion of Lizzy’s Scottish birth (to Trinidadian parents) in The Scottish-Island Girl documents a community of Trinidadians who are themselves expats in foreign lands. More important, this enables enough conflict for Lizzy’s Trinidadian compeer, Alex, to proclaim her (and, by extension, our) rightful place on the planet. She revises Lizzy’s perception of “messy bush” with the words “tropical rain forest” and pits her love of steel pans against Lizzy’s inferred boast about bagpipes.3

Globally, and for decades, readers of every age, enter into previously unheard of fictitious realms of purple dinosaurs or one-eyed aliens. All manner of peculiar characters show up out of a universal, mythological imagination, and we accept the play of time and place. Caribbean and other so-called third world media consumers have long embraced varieties of “Pigeon English” from all over—North America, Australia, and Ireland, for example. Similarly, I see our work as presenting a counterpart voice, borne of our own deep cultural esteem. This voice, like those of English derivatives that come to us from “away,” does not always need subtitles and footnotes in order to be publishable and marketable. I see this as contingent only on belief.

To be clear, I am not debating the standardization of any dialect. Authors must wholly engage themselves with the concern of being understood. Dependent on novice audiences who are only just learning to read, our word choice aims to build vocabulary but not render the book inaccessible—so too, with issues of defining culture. For example, take the case of the 1950s calypso “Mama Look a Boo Boo” by Lord Melody’s (Fitzory Alexander). Although this song enjoyed tremendous crossover success thanks to the popular market appeal of Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole, writing the words boo boo in a contemporary children’s book remains tricky. American children are most likely to read boo boo as their colloquial term meaning “an owie”: a bruise or small injury.

Understanding and employing illustration is therefore key for children’s book authors. This even applies to middle-grade and YA chapter books that may have only a few black-and-white line drawings, if any illustrations at all. Building a story in a very visual, cinematic way, scene by scene, is what young readers who are “digital natives” have come to expect of a good book. Strong visual depictions, whether crafted with words or the illustrator’s compositions, are a part of an audience-driven evolution. I do not see this awareness as compromising craft. Understanding changing market trends and audience expectations only increases the ready-to-use options in the author’s toolbox.

Indeed, a picturebook writer cannot go to market without illustrations. Her entire work is dependent on the art that will sell it, so much so that the author shares an equal royalty with the illustrator, in the case of trade book deals (though not work for hire). To lean on an old adage, the intellectual property of a thousand words can be potently emoted through one illustration. Even when the author conceives the concept of an image, it is the line manifested by the illustrator that catches our eye. As much as, or at times more than, the turn of phrase a writer coins, the talent of an experienced illustrator can convey narrative tone, nuances of character, and plot action that endears a book to its readers for generations.

Through the illustrations, readers extract layers of contextual understanding. Walking barefooted, driving through potholes, pot hounds barking, and sleepy decaying houses contrasted against glass and steel “cloud scratchers”—all of these images craft the context of a contemporary Caribbean childhood experience. Whether realistic or fantastic, the scenery depicted can help us bridge our cultural crossroads. We are right here, and yet “anywhere” and “everywhere.” Across our islands, a first world sensibility is juxtaposed visually and culturally with diverse ethnic and religious traditions. My ideas usually juxtapose “back-a-yard” neighborhoods with urban living. In this way, we are no longer quarantined to island life. We actually have something of ancient value to bring to modernity.

Going to print must mean we establish a legacy of content that is not the disposable media of advertising agencies and news magazines. When children keep company with their favorite books, they see and experience something for the first time, yet also again and again. This includes readers with previous and even familiar knowledge. Additionally, we are affording our future selves a glimpse back into our West Indian journey. Only by assuming the risk and role of becoming publishers can we begin a body of work on our own terms. And as consumers we must begin to wield the power of demanding content that is not produced and propagated through the contrivances of either colonial patronization or commercial distortion.

Although the kind of crossover success we all long for is still uncommon, and for Caribbean children’s content it is as yet unheard of, our potential seems to be ripening. A published document researched by the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition of Services highlights the fiscal strength of our carnival markets here in Trinidad and internationally:

 

Most recent data from the Central Statistics office (CSO), coupled with University of West Indies (UWI)[,] research show that three weeks of revenue from Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival exceeds US$100 million. The mas industry also generates significant economic activity in a range of sectors in the local economy such as entertainment, media, hospitality and retail sectors. Additionally, overseas Diaspora carnivals generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues.4

The diaspora of an otherwise vagrant or homogenized people may one day find itself at home in the rich heartland of a children’s book. Here at home, our work should be fit for the main entre, not just a side dish in a foreigner’s multicultural genre. We can cultivate far more than the fetish of folklore. Authentic Caribbean children’s book authors need to tap into something profoundly more than the fact of geography. Caribbean-born, -bred, or -based, we must see our unique cultures as contributing far more than simply a dash of flavor. We must see children’s books as something essentially more vital than babysitting distractions. And our writing must be generously consumed by its intended audience not as a necessity of academic classroom instruction but for the sheer pleasure of it.

We must begin to publish diverse ideas of unity for our very youngest readers, invoking into manifestation a range of individual interpretations drawn from our substantial communal creativity. After all, an intentionally crafted Caribbean children’s book is a codex documenting the soul profit of a people who celebrate and document their differences.

 

Joanne Gail Johnson is currently directing-producing a short film with the local arts-based nongovernmental organization BCO Film on a screenplay of her story Sally’s Way, which she wrote with a scriptwriting grant from Trinidad and Tobago Film Company in 2012. In August 2013, the project also received a production assistance grant from the Trinidad and Tobago Film Company and was awarded “Stand Out” status by the international panel of jurors. Her work is based on twenty-five years of creative production and cultural entrepreneurship in a number of fields. She is always and in all ways honing a natural ability to balance her attention between unlimited, open-ended potential and one-pointed, productive focus.

 


1 Joanne Gail Johnson, Pink Carnival, illus. Carole Anne Ferris (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2009), and The Donkey and the Racehorse, illus. Carole Anne Ferris (London: Macmillan-Caribbean, 2011).

2 Joanne Gail Johnson, Digger’s Diner, illus. Lynda Knott (London: Pan Macmillan, 2004), 16, 18.

3 Joanne Gail Johnson, The Scottish-Island Girl, illus. Vanessa Soodeen (London: Macmillan-Caribbean, 2001); see 4–5, 7. My picturebook Sally’s Way (London: Macmillan-Caribbean, 2002) is also illustrated by Vanessa Soodeen.

4 Trinidad and Tobago Coalition of Services Indutries, “ICT Innovation for the Development of the Masquerade Industry of Trinidad and Tobago,” www.ttcsi.org/home/library.php (accessed 13 August 2013).

 

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