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[Interview] Caribbean Children's Literature: A Library Perspective With Cherie Miot Abbanat

Our special series of interviews with librarians continues today. Join our editor-in-chief, Summer Edward, as she investigates forward-thinking children's library projects across the Caribbean and the crucial role librarians everywhere play in broadening awareness of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.

Cherie Miot Abbanat is a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and in the Department of Architecture where she has been teaching for over fifteen years. She lectures on policy, non-profit management, post-disaster rebuilding in New Orleans and Haiti, and the need for grassroots initiatives. At a young age, Cherie moved from the USA to Haiti where she lived for many years. She is passionate about empowering women in Haiti and throughout the world. She holds an undergraduate degree in Economics and French from Simmons College and a Masters with a concentration in Environmental Policy and Planning from MIT.

As a practitioner, Cherie joined Haiti Projects Inc., a 501 (c)3 non-profit, in 2013. As its CEO, she successfully turned Haiti Projects around financially, and oversaw its transformation from a fledgling non-profit into a growing social enterprise. Haiti Projects boasts 4 employees in the US and close to 90 employees in Haiti. Haiti Projects operates a women's sewing cooperative; a women's health clinic that focuses on family planning, health and hygiene; and the Haiti Projects' Community Library. With support from the Kellogg Foundation, Haiti Projects plans to build a new community multi-purpose center in the near future.


Summer Edward: The Haiti Projects' Community Library opened in January 2018 and has been steadily building capacity and adding to its roster of initiatives. What programmes for young people does the Library offer? And what are some of the features of the Library that appeal to children and teens?

Cherie Miot Abbanat: The Library offers a number of programs for children, young adults and teens including Saturday kids club where kids learn to read, sing songs, go on short field trips around town, play recorder, and play games. Parents get a break, and little kids get a jump-start on learning. Young adults have access to book club, theater club, film club, and also dance. Some of our popular classes include English class and French class. We also have an adult literacy class where folks who never learned to read and write can come to the library to begin to learn to read and write letters and numbers. Finally, we are beginning to offer community vocational training classes in the makerspace, including sewing classes and, soon, woodworking classes. As we try different classes, we hope to learn more about what works/doesn’t work with the community.

The 10,000 square foot Haiti Projects' Community Library building in Fond des Blancs, Haiti.

SE: The Library is housed in a striking building surrounded by smooth green lawns and flourishing trees. I can only imagine what the inside looks like. I think that when many people think of Haiti, they don’t necessarily think of stylish architecture. How important do you think it is for Haitian children to have beautiful, memorable learning and cultural spaces that calm, energize, uplift, and create emotional resonance? Was the social experience of the space something the Library’s designers had in mind?

CMA: A library is a place that celebrates learning in its many forms, and it seems appropriate that the building should be beautiful and invite the community to strive toward higher learning. If you look at the libraries built or funded by Andrew Carnegie and some of the old schools built around the same time period—the early 1900s—you will see this grand celebration of education through the beauty of the structure—large windows, a grand walkway up to the library, a dramatic roof. Libraries and schools built around this time seem to be monuments to education, and seem to speak to the importance of educating the community. We held a similar vision for our library, but it needed to also speak to the culture and building typology of Haiti— a grand entrance, large windows, high ceilings, and a roof that has a large overhang so that windows could be open even during the rainy season. If you take a look at some of the older homes in Haiti, the Gingerbread houses, you will see elements of this style of building in our library, including the truss roof made of wood that is key to safety when building in seismic zones. The color of the library, a blush pink, celebrates the colors you see in the Caribbean and, also speaks subtly to Haiti Projects' mission— the empowerment of women.

Importantly, our library is off the grid with no electricity, no running water, or heating or cooling technologies. As such, the building is positioned on the site to ensure that natural cooling and ventilation can happen. We use rainwater collection that flows into a cistern below the library for reuse. In addition, in 2019, if we can get donors on board, we hope to install and run most of our operations using a solar energy system, an inverter and batteries, reducing our diesel generator fuel costs.

SE: In the library world there’s always a lot of talk about ‘responsiveness’, in the sense of making sure that library collections, programming and management take patrons’ needs into account. How does the Library work with the people of Fond des Blancs to make sure that the Library responds to the needs and possibilities of the community, and remains an inclusive space?

CMA: Before our new Community Library opened, Haiti Projects operated a tiny library in Fond des Blancs for over 10 years and we have learned a few things about what the community wants/doesn’t want. Also, we have been lucky to be connected to amazing partners locally and nationally to help us. For example, we are working with the Haiti National Libraries, FOKAL, and consultants from the American Library Association to determine the best collection for the library. We are working with Haitian and Haitian/American authors to gather books that are relevant to the culture.

At the local level, we are working with local law enforcement to design and implement a series of civics classes to help people better understand the rule of law, what it means to be a good citizen, the importance of civic engagement, and the importance of community service, among other topics. We are also working with a local spinal cord injury program at the local hospital, to add a ramp to allow handicapped access to our second floor. Furthermore, we have populated a local library board composed of leaders of the community who help us better understand what the community wants/needs.

Still, in some ways it is hard to know what the community wants, because for many the basic survival needs of food, water, clothing and education remain a daily struggle. Because many folks have have never seen or had access to books and programs, it’s hard for many to imagine possibilities. So, we designed our first ever Literary Week in June 2018 as an open house with books, membership sign-up, author talks, workshops in drumming, poetry, film, storytelling, dance and theater, as a way to help people see the potential of a library.

SE: It's troubling that, usually, in children’s libraries in the Caribbean, most of the shelves are filled with American and European books, while the children’s books by Caribbean authors only get one shelf, if so many. Do you think culturally relevant/responsive literacy should be a prime motive—as opposed to a peripheral consideration—of the Haiti Projects’ Community Library, and is it?

CMA: It is critical to speak to the children in their own languages, Haitian Kreyòl, and make these books the center of our collection in our library. At Haiti Projects, we turn away many, many offers of English books for our Library, because we know that these are not relevant. We also work to include as many Haitian authors as possible in setting up our collection. What is most difficult for us is finding writings for our children and young adults in Haitian Kreyòl.

In fact, at one point I asked the kids what we should do since we don’t have many books in Kreyòl to include in our Library. In response, the kids, with the help of their teacher, started writing down their own stories and making Kreyòl books for the Library. This was beautiful. Our adult literacy students, who never learned to read or write, jumped in when asked to tell stories to the children, who then wrote them down in Kreyòl. During Literary Week, we hosted Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and she did a story-telling workshop with the kids; she encouraged them to continue writing down their stories in Kreyòl and sharing them with as many folks as possible. As we move forward and build our library collection, it will be critical to gather the voices of Haiti in print, and audio, for the community.

Young library patrons engrossed in silent reading

SE: Haiti Projects was conceived due to the altruism and vision of American founders, is a registered charity in the state of Massachusetts, USA, and has a Board of Directors comprised of American people. Given the unequal power relations between Haiti and the USA, do you think it’s possible for charitable organizations like yours to avoid authoritarian and paternalistic approaches to social/literacy development in Haiti? How so? Is that something the Library's administration actively thinks about?

CMA: Haiti Projects' focus is on empowering women in rural Haiti by providing access to jobs, family planning services, and education through our Community Library. The very inception of Haiti Projects was about bucking the Catholic Church patriarchy at the local hospital that dictated that contraception, and by extension choice, was not okay to provide to women. In response, Haiti Projects opened the first-ever family planning clinic in the region, which now boasts 8,000 patient visits each year. Haiti Projects employs 80 women artisans in our workshop, has 60 women beekeepers, and 500 girl soccer players. Of course our library, cyber cafe and makerspace are open to both genders, and we continue to track female/male participants to gauge our impact. As Haiti Projects has grown, we have learned the power of providing a job to a woman, and the importance of breaking gender norms about who can play soccer (we have 5 all-girls soccer teams) and who can bee a beekeeper; all traditional male roles and activities.

In terms of leadership, all of Haiti Projects leaders are either Haitian-American or Haitian, and most of our leaders are women. Finally, half of our board members are women and we have two Haitian-American or Haitian board members in the US, a Haitian Library Board, and a Haitian Clinic Advisory Committee. So, while there is room for many more Haitian or Haitian-American voices, especially on the US board of directors, we have come along way in terms of Haitian Leadership for Haiti Projects.

SE: The Haiti Projects’ Community Library is Haiti’s first Maker Library. The Maker Library Network, created as a project of the British Council (although the British Council stepped back from its involvement in the project in 2017) enables the UK-facilitated development of library makerspaces all over the world, including at MIT where you teach. The British Council has been criticized for being an organization that “projects Britishness abroad” thereby continuing the legacy of colonialism. Does the Haiti Projects’ Community Library, as a Maker Library, fall under such a charge?

CMA: The Haiti Projects makerspace is indeed modeled after the makerspaces at MIT. MIT’s makerspaces or fablabs have been positioned around the world and are designed to talk with each other so that students from around the world can learn from each other about how to make almost anything. MIT’s approach is focused on hands-on learning, entrepreneurship, as well as open access learning for all, and yes, I hope that we can spread these ideas as we move forward in developing our makerspace.

As part of our research for this project, Haitian-American board member and PhD Engineer, Dale Joachim, helped us design the space and helped us make it relevant to the community of Fond des Blancs, a largely agricultural and artisan community. Dale was an instructor at MIT’s media lab where he worked with innovators on the concept for our maker lab, and had a chance to visit and teach alongside MIT faculty exploring many of the open access learning concepts. Furthermore, we had many conversations with MIT librarians, Haitian librarians, and other international organizations about how to make the maker space functional and relevant.

Based on our research, we have included equipment such as sewing machines, woodworking tools and equipment, computers, and our stretch machine, a vinyl cutter. We have avoided the purchase of the “cool” machines, including a laser cutter and 3D printer, to date because of the lack of applicability right now in the region.

SE: The Library carries books written in Haitian Kreyòl, and also English and French. The Haitian Kreyòlist Michel DeGraff, believes that requiring Haitian children to learn, speak and read French as well as Kreyòl, their mother tongue, causes inferiority complexes in those who can’t speak French well, and hinders their ability to excel. Has the Library put measures in place to make sure Kreyòl books aren’t viewed by young patrons as inferior or aren't sidelined in library programming?

CMA: All classes, including our technology classes, are taught in Haitian Kreyòl. We also have Kreyòl books, and have included many of the Kreyòl Mother Tongue Books, donated to us by the Matinwa project that Professor DeGraff helped facilitate. We were also fortunate enough to have an MIT team who worked with Professor Degraff to help us translate the programming software we use, Scratch, into Kreyòl for the kids in our January coding workshop. Still, we struggle to find books and resources translated into Haitian Kreyòl, and we find that we must translate many things ourselves. For example, during Literary Week our fabulous Haitian librarian had to translate an Edwidge Danticat story we were teaching into Kreyòl so that our theater piece could be accessible to all.

But to your point, it is hard to know how an entire culture views or doesn’t view its mother tongue, or books written in its mother tongue, Haitian Kreyòl. It it even harder to know how to change a mindset. When the taxi driver tells you how proud he is that his children are getting good grades in French, a language that he hopes will allow his children to move to a higher social class, it is hard to know what to say. Still, as a Haitian-American, and having lived in Haiti as a child, I have seen that the problems that Professor Degraff points to in his writing remain a challenge for all who work and live in Haiti.

Haiti Projects has chosen to address these challenges by celebrating Haitian Kreyòl and providing access to resources in Haitian Kreyòl to our community (books, computer training, theater, and film). We teach in Haitian Kreyòl, and use both languages, Haitian Kreyòl and French, in our communications. We also teach French as a non-native language, much like we teach English. At the Haiti Projects Library, we strive to celebrate literacy in its many forms— written, oral, dance, theater, and music. In fact, during Literary Week, we opened our doors to multiple workshops for the arts, culture and literacy, all held in Kreyòl. We invited Haitian and Haitian-American authors to join us in the celebration and help the community celebrate what it means to be Haitian in its many, many transformative forms.

SE: What needs and challenges does the Library currently have? What would you say to someone who might be considering supporting the Haiti Projects’ Community Library?

CMA: Haiti Projects is focused on the question of how to make all of our projects sustainable over the next five years. Because of donor fatigue in Haiti, we need to find ways to support and enhance our projects in creative ways. The questions that we are asking include: Can our artisan workshop produce enough revenue to fund not only itself, but also the library? Can our women’s beekeeping program produce enough revenue to pay for the costs of new equipment, trainings, and maybe even the girls soccer program? Haiti Projects Library needs to continue to reduce its operating costs and increase its revenues in order to move closer and closer to a fully sustainable building.

Our first step in the sustainable direction is to purchase and install a solar system to power the entire library— lights, machines, computers, etc. Other ways to create sustainable programs may be to partner with the local schools and schools abroad to offer teacher training in exchange for teaching in our library, so that we can extend the reach of our programs to kids and teachers in the region. One of our biggest challenges that needs a solution is how to get high-speed internet to the rural locations in Haiti. Our “high-speed” network is painfully slow, and expensive. How can we bring the power of the Internet to our rural locations so that kids can learn from many teachers around Haiti, the Caribbean and the world?

Young patrons learning how to code in the library

SE: In terms of your involvement with the Library, what are some of the experiences that have brought you the most joy?

CMA: Last April, I was at the Library working on a host of challenges that we were dealing with: Internet problems, car problems, books that had gotten damaged from the hurricane the year before, etc. At the end of the day, my staff let me know it was graduation day for our first adult literacy class, folks who had never had the opportunity to go to school to learn to read or write. I was exhausted, but wanted to be a part of the ceremony.

You would have thought that we were attending the Academy Awards. Women and men were dressed in prom dresses, men in suits, and friends and family held cameras. Everyone was celebrating, including dancing and singing when names were called at graduation. One woman spoke about how proud she was that she could write her own name. She explained “I will never have to sign my name by only making a little cross, now I can sign my own name.” Another man had written a poem and read it to the audience, and still another woman read a passage from a book that she loved. As each individual came to the microphone to thank the staff and share something they learned, tears flowed. It was clear that those 60 graduates had a precious new gift that was worth more to them than the 6 months of work they had put in at the library. Each had a new tool, a new gift that they had given themselves, a new way of being in the world. Now that each had begun to decipher words and numbers, write their names, a passage, or a poem, they celebrated the door they had opened up for themselves— a door to reading and writing.


This the last interview in the first installment of our series on Caribbean children's librarianship. Links to all of the interviews in this series have been archived on our website on this page.

About the Interviewer

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.

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[Interview & Submissions Call] Lantana Publishing Seeks to Champion Caribbean Children's Stories

I first met Dr. Alice Curry, founder of UK-based Lantana Publishing, in 2013 when we worked together on a think tank to brainstorm the curriculum for Writing for Young Readers: Opening the Treasure Chest, a project she spearheaded during her tenure as Children's Literature Adivsor with the Commonwealth Education Trust. We've kept in touch since, and got together again in London in the summer of 2016, when Lantana was in its second year of operations and already making a mark on children's publishing in the UK.

With a degree in English Literature from Oxford University, a PhD in Children’s Literature from Macquarie University in Sydney, a keen sense of social responsibility, and a commitment to environmentally-friendly publishing, Alice is one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for women in publishing. Over the years, she's spoken to me about wanting to find talented Caribbean children's writers to work with; as a small house, Lantana doesn't necessarily have the advertising budget or influence (yet) to reach children's writers as far away as the Caribbean, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested. Lantana is one of those exciting publishers who reassures me that publishing demand for stories like ours exists.

Lantana Publishing describes itself as "a young, independent publishing house producing inclusive picture books for children." Their mission is "to publish outstanding writing for young readers by giving new and aspiring BAME authors and illustrators a platform to publish in the UK and by working with much-loved authors and illustrators from around the world." Lantana’s award-winning titles have been nominated for a Kate Greenaway Medal (three times), received starred Kirkus reviews (three times), been shortlisted for the Early Excellence Awards, the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards, and the Sheffield Children’s Books Awards, and won the Children’s Africana Best Book Award. Lantana has been shortlisted for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year and the Clarissa Luard Award for Independent Publishing. In 2017, they broke into the US market, and will continue to push high-quality children's literature from underrepresented groups even further.

I've always been struck by Alice's openness and genuineness, as well as her smarts, and am extremely happy to share her thoughts on working with Caribbean children's writers.

Alice Curry (right) and Summer Edward in London in 2016.


Summer Edward: I was happy to learn that Lantana is specifically interested in receiving more submissions from Caribbean writers in the hopes of publishing its first Caribbean title (and hopefully many more after that!). What types of manuscripts do you tend to look for and accept? Do you handle a variety of genres and formats? Also, what types of manuscripts will you not accept?

Alice Curry: We mainly publish picture books so we tend to look for relatively short narratives – around 400-500 words is ideal – that are fun and childlike, or evocative and inspiring, where children of colour are the stars. We tend not to accept manuscripts that are primarily explanatory – teaching the reader about a particular culture, tradition or custom, even if couched in a story format. We may publish a manuscript that has already been self-published (this would depend on the context), and we do consider narrative nonfiction for slightly older readers (7-11).

Illustration by Sonja Wimmer, from Looking for Lord Ganesh by Mahtab Narsimhan, published by Lantana in 2016.

SE: As a children's publisher focused on cross-cultural collaborations, you've published picturebooks set in Africa, India, Syria and Singapore. Given that Lantana is based in the UK, how do you reach and serve the "cultural markets" in the countries and communities your authors are from?

AC: This is always tricky. We have thriving export markets in the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and most recently India, so we are steadily expanding our reach. But whether or not we can feasibly distribute our books in – say – Kenya or Syria depends so much on the political and economic context in that region. While our US distributors have some links with the Caribbean, we would actively seek sales or distribution outlets in this region if we were to publish a Caribbean title. And of course, in the meantime, our books can always be bought from our own website or via other online retailers who ship worldwide.

Illustration by Mehrdokht Amini, from Chicken in the Kitchen by Nnedi Okorafor, published by Lantana in 2017.

Illustration by Martina Peluso, from The Phoenix Song by Tutu Dutta, published by Lantana in 2015.

SE: All children's publishers have a "house style" that they impose upon the text, illustrations and layout of the stories they publish. What would you say to a children's writer in the Caribbean who might be concerned that a British publisher's house style could detract from the authenticity of the text or illustrations in their book? In other words, as a cross-cultural publisher, how does Lantana balance the sometimes competing concerns of house style and cultural authenticity in the picturebooks you publish?

AC: I will answer your question with an example from one of our previous titles. Ugandan author Nansubuga Nagadya Isdahl’s wonderful Sleep Well, Siba and Saba, illustrated by French illustrator Sandra van Doorn, is a story set in Kampala. It is the story of two adorable sisters who lose everything, except each other. Over the course of a few months, Nansubuga, Sandra and I had several three-way conversations trying to ensure that we were as culturally authentic in our representation of Ugandan life as possible – particularly when it came to Sandra’s illustrations. We became stuck, however, when Nansubuga suggested that Ugandan women often kneel when at home, while men tend to stand. Sandra drew a lovely scene in the family’s living room with the mother, father and children spending time together…with the wife kneeling before her husband. Culturally authentic, yes, but absolutely sure to be misinterpreted by a British reader as a patriarchal image of male control and female subservience. Our solution was for Sandra to move the mother figure further across the page to kneel beside her children rather than in front of her husband, thereby retaining a sense of Ugandan tradition without sacrificing British values. We strive for this balance on every occasion. We may of course make mistakes, but we are usually aware of the potential dangers.

SE: So many of the children's books with Caribbean content that have been published by Global North publishers have perpetuated cultural stereotypes or narrow narratives of the Caribbean. How will Lantana ensure that your books avoid doing this?

AC: First of all we think it’s vital that authors tell the stories they want to tell, rather than our own vision of what we think that story should be. Being committed to really listening to our authors means that we often publish very personal stories – memories of spending time with a beloved grandfather, or of the architecture of the city where an author grew up – where stereotypes can more easily be avoided. For many of our readers, the titles we publish might give them one of only a handful of chances to glimpse themselves, their families and their neighbourhoods on the pages of a book, and knowing this demands our absolute commitment and dedication. And we have a wealth of friends to call on if we need advice, including the wonderful Dr. Aisha Spencer, lecturer in literatures in English at UWI Mona, and you yourself, Summer.

Illustration by Nerina Canzi, from The Ammuchi Puchi by Sharanya Manivannan, published by Lantana in 2016.

SE: Generally speaking, what would you say makes Lantana a good publisher to work with?

AC: We’re passionate about what we do which means we’re passionate about our authors and getting their stories heard. Unlike larger publishing houses with A lists and B lists – and thus varying levels of advertising and attention – we dedicate ourselves to each of our authors and illustrators and their books as equally as we can. We don’t expect to receive nigh on perfect manuscripts or to work only with authors with agents – we are happy to undertake an extended editing process if we think your manuscript shows promise. And becoming a Lantana author means joining a supportive international community of talented authors and illustrators who are all achieving great things in their lives and writing – a community we find constantly inspiring!

About the Interviewer

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.

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[Interview] Caribbean Children's Literature: A Library Perspective With Janice Ferdinand

Our special series of interviews with librarians continues today. Join our editor-in-chief, Summer Edward, as she investigates forward-thinking children's library projects across the Caribbean and the crucial role librarians everywhere play in broadening awareness of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.

Janice Ferdinad is the school librarian at the Juanita Gardine Elementary School in St. Croix. She graduated from the University of the Virgin Islands and has served as coordinator of the Young Writers’ Camp, sponsored by the national V.I. Writing Project (VIWP). In 2014, her initiative, "Bookopoly: An Interactive Project to Encourage Student Reading", received an Anderson Family Teacher Grant from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. She lives in Christiansted, St. Croix.

Janice and I met earlier this year when I led a workshop titled 'Healing Through Children's Stories: 10 Talents for Cultivating a Caribbean Children's Book Harvest' in St. Croix, under the auspices of the U. S. Virgin Islands Literary Festival and Book Fair and the U.S Virgin Islands Department of Education. The event took place in the school library and was attended by elementary school and high school teachers from across the three main islands. Janice helped set up, and participated in, the workshop and afterward, she and I chatted about the rewards and challenges of school librarianship in the territories.

Janice Ferdinand (far left), myself (far right), and some of the U. S. Virgin Islands teachers who attended the 'Healing Through Children's Stories: 10 Talents for Cultivating a Caribbean Children's Book Harvest' workshop, pictured here in the library of the Juanita Gardine Elementary School where the workshop was held.


Summer Edward: Children can always go to the public libraries in their communities, so why is it important for schools, and even classrooms, to have their own libraries as well?

Janice Ferdinand: School and classroom libraries tremendously enrich learning and influence literacy by giving children daily, on-demand access to books that pique their interest. Surrounding young learners with books says to them that literacy/reading matters. We read for pleasure and delve in for information as well. School libraries highlight great authors, variety in genres, as well as subject matter content. The books in the school library expose students to new vocabulary, an array of authentic writings, factual information and attractive places in real life, and teach them about elements of storytelling like voice and conflict among characters. What I particularly like are the discussions, in the corners of these libraries, among adults and students, or student-to-student, and observing how they decipher the wording of a difficult text in order to comprehend the author’s meaning.

Accessing titles from the public libraries in my area is simple if families want to do so, but that’s as far as it goes. I believe all local libraries should have modern-day titles, appealing activities, and tech tools, otherwise they fail in anchoring literacy throughout communities. Creative planning and sufficient funding are needed to bring about change in St. Croix. The professionals needed in our public libraries are within our communities.

SE: We chatted a bit before about the difficulty of finding short Caribbean picture books (books less than 900 words long) that are suited for quick read-alouds in the classroom. The majority of Caribbean picture books are really picture storybooks which have longer text lengths of 900-2,000 words. Why are short, quick Caribbean children’s books important for child readers?

JF: The youngest readers in my school are best served with quick picture books. They are always intrigued by the comical or real-life characters, rhyme and catchy rhythm in the text. Students quickly grasp the familiar settings and dialects, and are engaged by the fast-paced and concise form. These short-paced texts with less wording are designed to induce lots of laughter, voice and pitch changes during read-alouds, and spontaneous applause. Each story teaches a valuable lesson that young readers internalize. Caribbean picture books are much-needed culturally-relevant introductions to the world of words.

SE: I looked around the library at Juanita Gardine Elementary School and was pleased to find a number of Caribbean children’s and young adult books, but most of the books are American and British books. I imagine this is also true for other school libraries across the U.S. Virgin Islands. What do you think is necessary in order for this to change?

JF: Access, access, access! Librarians need updated publications, flyers and links to reputable websites that highlight new Caribbean releases. Sadly, some librarians stick to the curriculum, which is still Americentric and Eurocentric, and buy only those types of books. I am always looking for published Caribbean stories because I was raised listening to the oral traditions from the elders. I do quick online searches or visit the local bookstores, but with these methods, it's hard to find a good sampling of what might be available. A suggestion is for Caribbean children's and young adult authors to send library guides, advertising flyers or emails to department chairpersons, reading councils, librarian associations, and librarians. There are so many great children's books out there that are not getting the publicity.

SE: It’s easy for the Caribbean books in the school library to get lost in the shuffle. How do you ensure that the Caribbean books are visible to students and how do you help students recognize the distinct value of Caribbean children’s/YA literature?

The Caribbean Literature Section in my library is a standout because it is strategically placed in an area that everyone passes by. Each school year, I plan and execute a new look for this section because I strongly believe that books unique to our region and diaspora are paramount. Organizing an area that stimulates the senses with appealing designs, headings, and pictures is key. Namely, indigenous foods, colloquial sayings, flora and fauna, cultural elements like moko jumbies, Caribbean people and places. Then, I read aloud a host of Caribbean stories with different grade levels using the text to teach lessons and reading/comprehension strategies. I love when students return to the Caribbean Literature Section to reread a favorite. I know I’ve struck rare gold when a teacher diverts from the American curriculum and requests a Caribbean story to teach a lesson.

SE: What difficulties do school librarians in St. Croix face in terms of adding Caribbean children’s and young adult books to their collections? Are there perhaps gatekeepers you have to get past?

JF: School librarians on St. Croix are independently charged to order books for their libraries when funding is approved. Each school librarian is unique. If building a Caribbean collection is not important to the librarian, that section of the library can be limited or neglected. As the faces of librarians change, the availability of Caribbean titles can be negatively affected.

The gatekeepers in my area are the individuals that grant funding for new items. Teacher-librarians should not be the only ones leading the discussions about the need for Caribbean storybooks in schools. The school district has an overarching responsibility as well. It’s imperative that school librarians extend their expertise to the district, and spend time learning how various titles tie-in to a content skill or fit the different interests and personalities of children who want to read just for pleasure. It’s important to persevere when it comes to finding, ordering and exposing children to quality books about "us”!

We have to also encourage each other to continue writing authentic Caribbean stories and then talk and teach about why children and young adults should see themselves in the books they read and learn from. It’s how culture is passed on!

SE: In your experience, are teachers in St. Croix aware of the Caribbean children’s and young adult books that are available to them in school libraries, and are they using these books enough in the classroom?

JF: Many teachers are conditioned to use the American books that accompany their curriculum guides even though they can use any text to teach a skill. It’s rare for a teacher to request a Caribbean story to teach a skill/lesson. When we are celebrating Virgin Islands History Month, there are slightly more requests for books to tie in with a school-wide theme or for a visitor to read aloud. Many believe Caribbean books are solely for occasions like these when we want to explicitly teach children about our culture, but when exposed to our students on an everyday basis, Caribbean books win hands-down because of students’ familiarity with aspects of the story which heightens interest to listen and learn more.

SE: In terms of developing the school library collection and deciding which books to purchase, do you think it’s important to get input from students and parents? Is this something that you do?

JF: Each year, I request input from students and teachers. I find that students have a lengthier wish list than their teachers because students are heavily influenced by a variety of advertisements online and on television. Likewise, if they are hooked on the first volume of a great read, then they want to continue that series. Some teachers, on the other hand, just rely on the librarian to make collection choices. For the past five years, I’ve noticed that some teachers only request a tie-in text when it is time for them to present a lesson that will be observed by the building administrator. When this occurs, I have to locate specific titles from other school libraries. To garner more suggestions from staff, I regularly attend grade-level planning meetings just to listen in on the types of skills teachers are working on, and then I begin the work of deciding what to add to the collection.

SE: Do you have any tips for teachers who want to build a classroom library?

JF: Each classroom library should be comfortable, vibrant, organized by subject/genre, and employ a user-friendly system to check books in and out. It is vital that students are empowered to organize this space.

SE: What, for you, are the most rewarding aspects of being a school librarian?

JF: Being a librarian is such an empowering and flexible role. I love to see students reading, but when the boys in particular huddle together on the rug and are intensely engrossed in a book of their choice, that stands out! I’ve been supported by administration and intermediate teachers in the planning and execution of school-wide activities. My school’s largest celebration so far was the first Battle of the Books Competition on St. Croix. Each year, there is a new twist to keep students interested in reading. So far, we have celebrated literacy with book parades, challenges, pajama reads, and independent explorations. Each successful event makes the job all the more rewarding. The icing on the cake is to hear a child say, “I love to come to the library!” or when former students stop in to say, "We miss this library, can we still check out books?”


Next week, the first installment of this series on Caribbean children's librarianship closes with an interview with Cherie Miot Abbanat, CEO of Haiti Projects, Inc., Founder of The Haiti Projects’ Community Library, and Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Links to all of the interviews in this series will be archived on our website on this page.

About the Interviewer

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.

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[Interview] Caribbean Children's Literature: A Library Perspective With Michelle Warren

Our special series of interviews with librarians continues today. Join our editor-in-chief, Summer Edward, as she investigates forward-thinking children's library projects across the Caribbean and the crucial role librarians everywhere play in broadening awareness of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.

Michelle Warren grew up in Windsor Forest, St. David, Grenada and is the Operations Manager at the Grenada Community Library and Resource Centre, previously called the Mt. Zion Public Library. She is an alum of St. Joseph's Convent St. George and holds an Associate Degree in Technology from the T.A Marryshow Community College, and a BSc in e-business from Ashworth College. She formerly worked for CARICOM's Caribbean Knowledge and Learning Network and has fifteen years of experience in the field of education and technology. She lives in St. George's, Grenada.


Summer Edward: First of all, how, why and by whom was the Grenada Community Library conceived?

Michelle Warren: The library was established in 2013 through the efforts of Caribbean and internationally-published author Oonya Kempadoo, the faith-based organization Mt. Zion Full Gospel Revival, and the social-action collective Groundation Grenada. They recognized the urgent need for a public library, as the Grenada National Public Library had been closed since 2011.

The Grenada Community Library building at 7 Lucas Street in St. George's, Grenada. The library's opening hours
are Mon-Fri 10am-6pm and Sat 10am-1pm.

SE: By the end of the first month, the library had 25 members. In 2016, it had over 1,000 members. As of today, where does the membership count stand and has membership been stable?

MW: We now have 2841 members, and yes membership is stable.

SE: You've struggled with securing volunteer participation. Why do you think it's so hard to get people to volunteer at libraries? Also, what are some of the things library volunteers do?

MW: Library volunteering is still new to Grenadians and many don’t understand the benefits. A library volunteer will be trained to carry out some of the duties of a librarian: cataloging; greeting members; assisting members to locate books of interest and/or recommending books to them; returning and loaning books to members; assisting children with reading; and ensuring the library environment remains user-friendly.

SE: In 2013, the library started a new after-school programme for children. What is the goal of the programme and what do children gain from it? Also, what types of creative programmes for children does the library offer?

MW: The goal of the programme is to expose children to learning by using a variety of creative methods that may not be used in a classroom. The classes are structured to reinforce creativity in language, math, reading, critical thinking, science and arts and crafts. The children are able to master various lessons and skills that may be challenging them in school. We offer creative programs that utilize internet research, group games, video documentaries and discussions. We offer chess club, story time, a boys' Kindle book club, arts and crafts activities, and science activities to demonstrate concepts like gravity, evaporation etc.

SE: What is the Grenada Community Library's Children's Library doing to build children's and teens' awareness of the range of literature for young people written by Caribbean authors?

MW: The library keeps an active Facebook page and noticeboard which updates members of our growing collection of books. Recently the library was fortunate to add 1,200 books all written by Caribbean and Caribbean-American authors. This collection was officially launched on March 27th of this year. To further bring awareness to this collection and other literature, the library celebrated World Book Day on April 23 under the theme, “Reading should not be presented to a child as a duty, a chore. It should be a gift.” All of the nation's secondary and primary schools were invited to the library. Some of the Grenadian children's authors who have done events at the library include Richardo Keens Douglas, Sheldon Charles, Fidelia Fisher, Sue Brathwaite, Jemilla Francis, Reena Andrews and Verna Wilkins.

Children busy reading in the Children's Library.

Young patrons hold copies of The Grenada Chocolate Family, The Grenada Community Library’s first publication, a children’s story/coloring book written by library co-founder Ooyna Kempadoo. The book was named BEST IN THE WORLD at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (considered the “Oscars” of Cookbooks).

SE: How are children and teens responding to books by Caribbean children's/YA authors/illustrators or to the authors/illustrators themselves?

MW: They are usually fascinated to see someone ordinary, someone resembling their big sister or mother, someone real who can achieve something creative. I believe they are inspired on the spot, and are motivated to create something equally unique and creative that will represent their own experiences and environment. The books are usually easier to relate to compared to books written by an author of another nationality/race because they can see their own culture/heritage reflected within.

SE: How does one go about building a community of child readers?

MW: First create a space that is safe and child-friendly. Create book clubs for both adults and children, and have parents and community members participate in programmes that encourage reading and creative writing. Collaborate with similar outreach initiatives and schools to continue to motivate children to read, and parents to read with and to their children. It is the reading culture we really need to develop since children mimic parents and elders in society. Children should be encouraged to view reading as both entertaining and educational, and as an adventure.

SE: In 2014, the library employed its first youth librarians. What is the role of a youth librarian and why is it an important role?

MW: The children’s librarian's main role is to administer the Children's Library’s functions which include registering new members, entering and cataloging new books, training volunteers, supervising after-school activities for children and teens, and assisting them with homework and research. This role is important because the children's librarian guides and supports children who are still creating opinions of the world, and creates a space where the child feels equal and comfortable enough to express herself or himself.

SE: In 2015, the library began to digitize its services, becoming the first digitized Grenadian library free and open to the public. What does the digitization of library materials entail and why is it so important?

MW: The digitization of library materials entails the migration of members' information, books and other materials into a centralized computer database system. This significantly decreases the need to have records on paper. This was an important achievement as it signalled the library moving forward and keeping up with other libraries around the world.

SE: How has the library gone about securing patronage? Has that been a struggle?

MW: In an effort to secure patronage, the library has been inviting the private and public sectors to become Partners for Literacy. A Partner usually pledges $1000 for 3 years. This donation goes towards the salary of the children’s librarian. More recently, we have implemented partnership categories: a Bronze Partner EC$1000, a Silver Partner EC$5000 and a Gold Partner EC$10,000. All pledges are for a 3-year period. It is our hope that persons realize the importance of a library in our community. The library, so far, has one patron, Mr. James Bristol, who has given the library its current home.

SE: Why is taking children to the library so important? What role do libraries play in childhood?

MW: Taking a child to the library is an opportunity for their youthful imagination to be fueled by fantasies and dreams, and enriched with knowledge about the real world. The interplay of imagination and knowledge involved in reading makes a direct positive impact on how children will use their minds, skills and talents as they evolve into more independent learners. A library can be seen as an enchanted palace of books and knowledge. To a child, the atmosphere is comforting, quiet, and relaxed. It introduces learning to a child in a way that is very unique.

SE: What needs and challenges does the library currently have? What would you say to someone who might be considering supporting the Grenada Community Library?

MW: There is an urgent need for the library to become sustainable.We are challenged monthly to meet basic operational expenses such as remuneration and utility payments. There is no investment more fulfilling than that of investing in a child’s future. Very often, we see children flourish once given the opportunity to explore the natural talents and skills that they have. The Grenada Community Library provides a haven for them to nourish their minds and travel the world through the pages of a book.

Watch the Grenada's Community Library's fundraising video and head on over to their Go Fund Me page to make a donation.

SE: In terms of working with child and youth readers, what has been one of the most special or rewarding moments you've had so far?

MW: The moment when a child has a “Ah!” moment, when the light enters their eyes, curiosity is developed, and questions are asked. This is the most rewarding thing to witness, and can be repeated every time a child visits the library or reads a book. Children need to know that movies like Harry Potter began with a story, that all of the magic in the world can be found in the books that sit on a library shelf somewhere.


Next week, the series continues with an interview with Janice Ferdinand, school librarian at the Juanita Gardine Elementary School in St. Croix. Links to all of the interviews in this series will be archived on our website on this page.

About the Interviewer

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is www.summeredward.com.

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