Jamaican Children Reading

A Reflection

• August 2013

The last ten to twelve years have seen an investment in “homegrown” fiction for young children and teenagers as individuals and establishments have begun to take advantage of the opportunities in this largely untapped niche market. Digital technology, the Internet, the ease of desktop publishing, and, with these, the low cost of publishing and dissemination, have ushered in quite a few small independent publishing outfits, self published e-books, and, from publishers long established in the Caribbean, various initiatives targeting the eight–fourteen age group. The terrain is significantly different from the way it was in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was growing up. V. S. Reid’s maroon classic The Young Warriors, Jean D’Costa’s Sprat Morrison, Michael Anthony’s The Year in San Fernando, and C. Everard Palmer’s A Cow Called Boy stand out in my memory because they represent the tiny list of West Indian children’s books that were available to my generation.

Despite the growth in the field, I find it interesting how much has remained the same. Access to fiction written specifically for Caribbean children and teens is still extremely limited for most Jamaican children. There is no shortage of cable and TV fiction, or of globally popular series such as Harry Potter, the Wimpy Kid diaries, and Lemony Snicket’s “Unfortunate” (in more ways than one) series. Beyond these, many of the books available for pleasure reading are the same that were available to me: staples such as Enid Blyton, Grimm’s and other fairy tales, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, The Arabian Nights. As an adult rereading some of these—for sheer enjoyment but also out of curiosity (How will these books appear to me now from an adult perspective? Do children now read differently from the way I did as a child?)—I think that by and large the complications and hazards surrounding my childhood and teenage reading still surround the experience of today’s Jamaican children reading, though not in the same way.

I think they read somewhat differently now, that they notice issues that I, product of a less globalized, more innocent, more protected age (in the sense of the knowledges and experiences to which children were exposed or admitted to, or guarded from) definitely did not notice. What they might make of the things they notice (and which I now notice as an adult rereading) is anyone’s guess, but some issues arising include how parents might approach children’s reading: To what extent, if any, should children’s pleasure reading be supervised or directed? How much should children be left to discover, miss, or find out for themselves? Does supervision with a didactic intent not in fact inhibit the pleasures of reading that all children must discover outside of the “school” environment? And if it does, how does one find a balance between the free discovery of reading pleasure and the encouragement of a healthy awareness of the world, its values, and its hazards, which are present also in books?

These are obvious, old questions, but they struck me afresh, quite sharply, rereading Enid Blyton’s doll stories, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series,1 and an American version of The Arabian Nights I found recently in my local Maryland library. I had no idea, as a six- or seven-year-old in rural Jamaica, that Blyton’s golliwog represented a racial stereotype, or that he was supposed to be either “black” or ugly. I loved him because he stood out so vividly and with such character against the bland sameness of the other dolls. He was his own character, not a representation of me or anyone I knew. Would a 2013 Jamaican child, growing up with a greater awareness of race, be aware of the golliwog in a different way, and would this awareness negatively affect her self-image, or lead her to reject the golliwog?

I don’t wonder quite the same about The Arabian Nights: Their Best-Known Tales, the version edited by sisters Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, first published in 1909, now republished in late-twentieth-century print as well as a 2011 Amazon.com digital edition. I like to think that the virulent racism of this collection, comprising adaptations of ten tales, would not have gone unnoticed by most children old enough to read it, even in my time. Lavishly populated with “monstrous blacks” with a predilection for consuming human flesh, whether one meets them in Africa, the Middle East, or “the Indies,” this volume unapologetically propagates a physiognomic and ethnographic image of the American Negro for the edification of the white child reading.2 I think about how this kind of narrative formed a continuum with oral instruction in early-twentieth-century America, and what kind of continuum it might form for the twenty-first century Jamaican child well exposed to racial discourse in a way I was not. As a child, I did not read this version of the tales, but I am reminded that Jamaican school libraries, where they exist, are often stocked with US-donated books chosen for their availability not necessarily their content (and what price censorship, anyway?). I am equally horrified, now, by the outspoken antiblack racisms of the Dover New York editions of Andrew Lang’s Red, Yellow, Blue, Lilac, and other “Coloured” Fairy Books that I, blissfully unaware, devoured as a child.

In the same way that my high school education never led me to notice the enabling backdrop of colonial money in Jane Austen’s and the Brontës’ fictional worlds, I had no idea until now, rereading Anne of Ingleside, how much dreams of otherness based explicitly in an African, South American, and Caribbean ethnography peopled the imaginations of L. M. Montgomery’s child characters, or that the book featured its own “black art man” in the form of a “Big Black Man” who was a child kidnapper.3 What difference might it make, in terms of recognizing these allusions (that is to say, understanding them as cultural statements of personal relevance to oneself), that one’s high school history books were titled The People Who Came (post-CXC) instead of opening with “In 1492 Columbus discovered . . .”? I suspect that high schoolers exposed to the former (a three-book West Indian history series produced for schools in the 1980s under the general editorship of Kamau Brathwaite) are alert to these far-from-coded strategies of alienation in a way children of my generation, whose first encounter with the term history was that famous “In 1492” line, were not.

Whatever the answers, this business of accessibility to homegrown fiction is serious, and not because race and colonialism are the only issue, or, as I said above, because I am thinking children’s books should be censored for all kinds of negative content, or because all homegrown fiction is good for children. But the reading images children form of themselves and of others in the world are important, and these stories, or versions of them, are part of their repertoire. I use the term business deliberately because of the way the local book industry is implicated in the issue of accessibility—of giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

Carlong Publishers’ (Jamaica) largest investment in children’s literature is its Sand Pebbles Series (8–14 age group), begun in 2002. Macmillan Caribbean’s Treasure House Series targets a similar age group. Both showcase authors and editors who have become brand names in children’s writing (at Carlong: Diane Browne, who won the 2011 Commonwealth Children’s Short Story Prize, Hazel Campbell, Jean Goulbourne, Jean D’Costa, Telcine Turner, Maria Roberts Squires; at Macmillan: Debbie Jacob, Opal Palmer Adisa, Undine Guiseppi). Several authors on both imprints have multiple publishers: Campbell, Browne, and Goulbourne, for example, have been published by the Jamaican Ministry of Education; Campbell by LMH (Jamaica) and Ginn (UK); Goulbourne by Arawak; and Browne by Harcourt Brace (US), among others.

Circulation is guaranteed by virtue of these authors’ status, their publishers’ Caribbean reputations, and the particular ways their work is marketed. The general wisdom is that Caribbean books sell only when tagged as educational, that is, as textbook material. Thus in most cases, the publishers designate a student level (secondary or primary) or explicitly state that this fiction collection is a textbook. Carlong creatively suggests a hybrid category for its Sand Pebble Series by designating the texts as both primary or secondary and general, a way of saying these books are for school and also for fun. Inevitably, “for school” sticks, and more especially because of the ubiquitous back-of-book questions and activities. By far the largest percentage of local children’s fiction is associated with school; and while I haven’t researched this, I have a hunch that this prescriptive framing diminishes reading as a pleasure activity.

Macmillan addresses this concern with its Island Fiction series for young teens, launched in 2006 with six introductory titles: Time Swimmer by Gerald Hausman; The Chalice Project by Lisa Allen-Agostini of Trinidad; Escape from Silk Cotton Forest by Francis G Escayg (Trinidad); Legend of the Swan Children by Maureen Marks-Mendunca (Guyana); Night of the Indigo by Michael Holgate (Jamaica); and Delroy in the Marog Kingdom by Billy Elm (Jamaica). I find these interesting because of my own preferences and because of their peculiar complications and hazards. Walker Books, which published my children’s book Flying with Icarus and Other Stories in 2003, are self-described as the United Kingdom’s leading publisher of children’s fiction. They do not market in the Caribbean; Icarus was invited for British and Australian audiences. I offered a manuscript, Little Nicey, in the category generally referred to as fantasy, that is to say, those “otherworlds” that are the real worlds children inhabit. What differentiates these worlds from adult worlds is not that they are unreal, or fantastical, but rather that their basic ethos is innocence, and therefore within them all things are possible. Set in an “alternative” universe where staples of Caribbean legend such as River Mumma, Ol’ Higue, and Rolling Calf are part and parcel of the everyday, Little Nicey satisfied my love of otherworldly fiction and addressed the profound lack of such in the fare offered to children in Caribbean books. I have always thought it unfair that a preponderance of fictions about Caribbean children are really adult books with child protagonists.

Walker was enthusiastic about Icarus but not terribly interested in Little Nicey. Icarus met the criteria for “socially realistic” fiction advancing the aim to introduce the Caribbean to metropolitan children. I managed to cheat a little: the collection ends with a story in which a young boy falls through the pages of a book into River Mumma’s underwater realm and learns from her to recognize within the stories told in village yards the same magicality he had thought existed only in European fairy tales—what he calls “the stories in books.” This story rather obviously expressed my sense that our children were starved of homegrown writing with this fundamental kind of appeal: the otherworldly—the mysterious, the “fantastical,” the imagined, and, in the case of older children, adventure and teen romance.

Macmillan’s Island Fiction stories inhabit that otherworld space. They blend West Indian legend and lore with science or science fiction; West Indian history; Caribbeanized mythologies from Europe, Asia, and Africa; the detective adventure and teen romance supplied by Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; moral didacticism; and general knowledge around modern world issues.4 In other words, they offer, individually and collectively, the young reader’s otherworlds under one umbrella, and render these “educational” without the “school” connection. Still, they create complication and hazard in how the series title (reflecting Macmillan’s concept of “Caribbean”) conjures up the usual stereotypes (hard not to mention that Guyana is not an island).

Enterprising young publishers investing in children’s fiction include Reggae Pickney, a group publishing enterprise, as well as Tanya Batson-Savage’s Blue Moon Publishing and Kellie Magnus’s Jackmandora, both formed by these young women writers to publish their own work as well as others’. The field is remarkably active, driven not only by print but by e-books, blogspots, authors’ and publishers’ Web pages, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and authors’ on-the-ground store-by-store marketing. Yet Jamaican fiction outside of the school curriculum is unknown to many children. Most have limited Internet access. Some parents who would love to purchase nonschool books for their children cannot afford the cost. Those who can, have extensive options offered by the distributing giant Scholastic.5 With multiple outlets in the Caribbean, Scholastic leaves its local competitors far behind.

The larger Jamaican bookstores sell mostly textbooks; among their small stock of nonprescribed fiction, the West Indian section is a miniscule spot on the back shelves. More prominently displayed are the Enid Blytons, Hardy Boys, Harry Potters, and so on. Small independent bookstores (when they survive) do better: while their predominant fare is popular romance and textbooks, they often carry a reasonable assortment of children’s fiction, including West Indian books marketed on the ground by publishers or their agents. But such shops are few and are concentrated in the two major cities. In all bookshops, however, browsing is heavily discouraged by the use of prominent signs forbidding such. In contrast, the Jamaica Library Service makes amazing inroads in encouraging children’s and teens’ reading through its annual summer reading competition—moreso, I think, than the annual publishers’ book fairs, where purchasing is all. However, faced with economic stringencies, the libraries, wonderfully stocked when I was a child, are now sadly depleted, and children utilize them primarily to access the Internet. Novelty Trading Company has historically done a remarkable job of disseminating nontextbook fiction, placing books strategically in pharmacies and other places where people shop. But Novelty’s marketing, partly driven by the Calabash Literary Festival, fell off somewhat when Calabash shifted from an annual to a biennial event.

In a society that has always conducted a passionate love affair with fiction (viz the popularity of yard storytelling; concert recitations at school and church rallies; radio dramas; Miss Lou; Stella Seh; Oliver Samuels; stand-up comic performances such as those of Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Tony Hendricks, Ity and Fancy Cat; popular and roots theatre; Hollywood film; radio talk shows; and impromptu performances in front of reporters’ microphones during street protests), the common excoriation of television and the Internet as destroyers of children’s interest in reading is exaggerated and mistaken. Most children will gravitate to a well-presented book (attractive covers, bright pictures, lovely smell) like flies to honey. The challenge of access is to forge sustained and sustainable creative alliances, facilitating open and affordable reading spaces among writers, parents, bookshops, and publishers. (I am mindful that in parts of rural Jamaica, radio and local television are still the main forms of access to information and, potentially, to literature.) The challenge of addressing the other issues—as children read, what do they notice or unconsciously absorb that might be a hazardous or fruitful engagement with the harsher realities of the glocal world—falls naturally into place in such interactive spaces, which should be full of open joy.

 

Curdella Forbes is a Jamaican fiction writer whose publications include Flying with Icarus and Other Stories, a collection for young readers (Walker, 2003); Songs of Silence (Heinemann, 2002), a prescribed text on the 2012–14 English B syllabus; A Permanent Freedom (Peepal Tree, 2008); Ghosts (Peepal Tree, 2012); and an academic work, From Nation to Diaspora (UWI Press, 2005). She teaches Caribbean literature at Howard University.

 


1 Also a fairly longstanding television series.

2 The mismatch between Maxfield Parrish’s illustrations and the sisters’ narrative exemplifies their strategy. In the account of Sinbad’s third voyage, Parrish’s drawing of a “black” giant asleep gives him normal human features except for his inordinate size. His lower lip droops slightly, as one might expect in sleep. The narrative description—“A horrible figure of a black [cannibal], as tall as a lofty palm tree. He had but one eye, and that in the middle of his forehead, where it looked as red as a burning coal. His foreteeth were very long and sharp, and stood out of his mouth, which was as deep as that of a horse. His upper lip hung down upon his breast. His ears resembled those of an elephant, and covered his shoulders; and his nails were as long and crooked as the talons of the greatest birds”—invites the child reading to re-draw Parrish’s representation in these terms, while seeing the drawing as the narrator re-presents it. In this way the figure of the American Negro is familiarized as humanly unfamiliar. Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin and Nora A. Smith, eds., The Arabian Nights: Their Best-Known Tales (New York: Atheneum, 1993), 305.

3 See L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Ingleside (London: Puffin, 1994), 34, 51, 151,178, 201, 209, 212. The “black art[s]” man in Jamaican folklore is a child kidnapper.

4 For example, in vitro fertilization, the environment, Caribbean first nations.

5 Scholastic has distributes in 150 countries worldwide—almost the entire United Nations.

 

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