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Celebrating 10: Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature

Children's literature is a field that’s held my fascination for over a decade now (to tell the whole truth, I’ve been fascinated by children’s books since I was, well, a child reading them). I've loved delving into its history, and within arm’s reach of my desk I always keep a couple of texts I consider staples on craft and foundations: the classic Children and Books by Zena Sutherland; Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Patterson (gifted to me years ago by a neighborhood friend I co-led a teen girls book club with); Joy Cowley’s Writing from the Heart: How to Write for Children (I had her sign it when I attended one of her Highlights Foundation workshops); The Potential of Picture Books: From Visual Literacy to Aesthetic Understanding by Barbara Kiefer (purchased for a course back in grad school and then couldn't bear to part with it); Charlotte Huck's Children's Literature: A Brief Guide by Barbara Kiefer and Cynthia Tyson (in which my “ten tips for selecting multicultural literature” appears); Bridges to Understanding: Envisioning the World through Children's Books by Linda M. Pavonetti (one of several books gifted to me by Rowman & Littlefield in return for peer-reviewing a proposal for a multicultural children’s literature textbook; it's a useful annotated bibliography sponsored by the USSBY); and Multicultural Children's Literature by Donna E. Norton. They're well-thumbed books that have traveled with me across oceans, surviving house moves and country moves, and they’re all written by women.

When it comes to the history of the field, the 'Great Lady of Children's Literature' tradition in the USA has been firmly established. The American women whose seminal work created and shaped the field as we know it are legends in the children's literature world and their contributions have been richly memorialized (see "New England Book Women: Their Increasing Influence" by way of example). Reading and learning about what they accomplished, and their strong quirky personalities, has inspired and instructed me over the years.

There's Anne Carroll Moore who, in the early 1900s, helped make libraries all over the world a welcoming place for children at a time when boys under 14 years old and girls of any age were forbidden to enter them, and whose set of standards for children's literature, "The Four Respects," still guides us. There’s Ursula K. Nordstrom, who did groundbreaking work during her run as editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper and Row from 1940 to 1973. Louise Seaman Bechtel was the first person to head a juvenile department at a major American publisher. Margaret K. McElderry was the first children's book editor to be given her own imprint (I'm putting it out in the universe that I want my own imprint one day, because hey, why not?). Caroline Hewins was an influential children's librarian responsible for instituting children's rooms at libraries. Bertha Mahoney was the founder of Horn Book Magazine, one of the field's most distinguished journals (in whose pages I've been honored to have my own writing on Caribbean children’s literature appear). There’s also Elinor Whitney Field, co-founder of Horn Book Magazine; Alice Jordan, who headed children's work at the Boston Public Library from 1902 to 1940; and Clara Whitehill, who opened Brooklyn's first children's public library in 1914, and was one of the first people to design children's rooms at libraries and train children's librarians.

These remarkable women were all white and American. Over a decade ago, during my graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, while taking a course on multicultural children’s literature taught by a wonderful professor named Dr. Susan Browne (the only black professor I had at UPenn), I also learned about American women of color whose contributions to children's literature were just as prolific and revolutionary. There’s Augusta Braxton Baker whose library work, advocacy and bibliographic studies from the 1930’s onward catalyzed the ongoing humanization of the image of black people in children's literature. There’s Dr. Henrietta Mays Smith, who was an early proponent of noisy, interactive children's libraries and advocated tirelessly for quality and diversity in children’s literature. Pura Belpré was the first Latinx librarian at the New York Public Library; she pioneered bilingual children's library programs and is the namesake of the prestigious Pura Belpré Award. Dr. Rudine Simms Bishops, still very much alive, has become known as the 'mother of multicultural children's literature' and her groundbreaking research and much-cited 'mirrors, windows, sliding glass doors' metaphor has virtually come to define the field. Virginia Hamilton, an African American woman, broke racial barriers by winning every major national and international prize for children's writing. My advisor at UPenn, the late great children’s literature scholar Lawrence Sipe, spoke as highly of these American women of color as he did about their white counterparts whose biographies are more widely known.

In every country, women have been at the forefront of every children's literature-related field, from children's publishing to children's librarianship to children's book-selling, and yet when they’re women of color, their work has too often been under-recognized to the point of being diminished and dismissed.

I find the stories of how all these legendary women made a life and an entire field out of their love and respect for children's books, and their devotion to the children who read them, deeply engrossing. As pioneering children's librarians, esteemed children's book reviewers, brilliant researchers, influential writers and tone-setting children's editors, these women found useful work for their hands and supported themselves financially during an era in history when women were expected to devote their lives entirely to domestic pursuits. They understood that work with children and books was both a profession and higher calling, and they gained respect for children’s literature at a time when many people and institutions didn’t take it seriously. The women listed above are inspirational, aspirational figures, to say the least.

The 'Great Lady of Children's Literature' tradition isn't just an American phenomenon though. In every country, women have been at the forefront of every children's literature-related field, from children's publishing to children's librarianship to children's book-selling, and yet when they’re women of color, their work has too often been under-recognized to the point of being diminished and dismissed. That's certainly been the case in the Caribbean. Well, at Anansesem, we’ve always tried to do our part to fix that.

As Anansesem celebrates our 10th anniversary, it's fitting then that we celebrate the trailblazers whose labors, writings, editorial work and foundational research created the still fledgling, but increasingly growing, field of Caribbean children's and young adult literature. Most of these Caribbean women of color you won't hear nearly enough about at Caribbean literary festivals and little has been written about most of them; yet, without their remarkable wayfinding, none of us working to elevate Caribbean literature for the young to the status it deserves would be where we are today, and anyone seeking to understand the trajectory and role of children's literature within Caribbean societies would have little material to work with. The names and contributions of these Caribbean women (all of whom are now in their swanky 60s or older!) deserve a place in the international 'Great Lady of Children's Literature' pantheon. As “minders of make-believe” (to borrow Leonard S. Marcus's term) they’ve set the stage for the cultural and commercial burgeoning of a distinctive Caribbean literature for the young.

That's why we're celebrating 10 of them during Women's History Month and as part of Anansesem's ongoing 10th anniversary celebrations. They are Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson (Jamaica), Diane Browne (Jamaica), Franck Paul (Haiti), Hazel Brown (Jamaica), Jessica Huntley (Guyana/the UK), Jocelyne Trouillot-Lévy (Haiti), Julie Morton (Trinidad), Lucía Amelia Cabral (Cuba), Margarita Luciano López (Dominican Republic) and Tere Marichal-Lugo (Puerto Rico). Each week, we’ll post essays by (or about, in the case of those deceased) these Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature looking back at their remarkable pioneering careers. We're beyond honored to be able to share their stories. Stay tuned!

About the Author

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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Meet Country Correspondents Ariana and Carmen!

At the start of the year we announced that we're switching from a submission-based publication model to a citizen journalism model supported by a team of Country Correspondents.

Country Correspondents report to us any developments, publishing trends, and events happening in the field of children's/YA literature in their island(s), and they also spread the word locally about what we do at Anansesem. Oh, and they usually get free books. In the next couple of weeks we'll be introducing you to these wonderful people, two at a time.

Ariana Maria Herbert was recently appointed as our first ever Country Correspondent for Trinidad and Tobago, and we're thrilled that Dr. Carmen Milagros Torres, who's been an Associate Editor with us (and a huge help!) for the past several years will stay on in her new role as the Country Correspondent for Puerto Rico. Here’s what they have to say about themselves and their work in the field:

Ariana Maria Herbert

I’m serious about empathy, inclusion and wonder. Insatiably curious, I prefer verbs to nouns when it comes to describing my work, but I can usually be found in the modes of Freelance Arts and Culture Coordinator, Writer and Arts Educator. I’m committed to storytelling and world-building in all forms and believe in the power of play. From creative writing workshops to stop motion masterclasses, you can usually find me anywhere where I can learn about inclusion and diversity in the literary arts, media and edtech; for the past few months, I’ve been on an extended trip to the UK where I’ve been attending various workshops and conferences related to early childhood education, special education and film production.

With a background in the literary and performing arts, I have over six years’ experience in NGO and arts-based project/workshop development and facilitation. I’ve been a volunteer at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s national literary festival, where I was also employed as the Children’s Programme Coordinator and Programme and Prize Administration Assistant.

I’ve enjoyed volunteering as a Creative Writing Teacher for children, and I’ve worked as an Arts Educator with The 2 Cents Movement, a youth-led performance art NGO in Trinidad and Tobago, where I was also a Senior Resident Teaching Artist and served as the Interim Artist Director.

As a Performance Poet, my work focuses on exploring childhood, identity, gender and diversity. I was a finalist in the First Citizens' National Poetry Slam and a poetry slam judge of the Courts Bocas Speak Out Intercol and the Republic Bank Primary School Showcase. I've performed both locally and internationally in parts of the UK, where I was one of two poets selected to represent Trinidad and Tobago at the Roundhouse’s 2017 Talking Doorsteps International Exchange Program.

Since late 2018, I’ve been freelancing and exploring another interest of mine: the world of arts production (I’d previously worked as a Production Assistant for Bird’s Eye View Productions and at the University of Trinidad and Tobago for a children’s musical.) I participated in the Mentoring with the Masters programme run by Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts; through this programme, I was able to intern in set and lighting design with the National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago (NDATT) and went on to serve as NDATT’s Assistant Secretary. Additionally, I was a Teaching Artist with the Trinbagonian chapter of Girl Be Heard, a New York-based nonprofit theatre company and educational programme and served as the Lighting Coordinator for their June showcase, which I co-directed. Most recently, in 2019, I worked with Manchester-based Sparklab Productions to coordinate three radio plays for CARIFESTA and BBC Radio 3.

Literary-wise, I’m currently a poetry reader at Homology Lit, and my poetry and nonfiction have been published in Caribbean Beat and Culturego Magazine. With a particular fondness for speculative fiction, I want to produce sensory-friendly literature and edutainment that expands the children’s and young adult narrative in Trinidad and Tobago. I’m especially committed to ensuring that disabled children in the Caribbean see themselves represented in accessible literature and media.

Education: Bachelors (Hons) in Communication Studies with a special focus in Educational Linguistics and a Minor in Literatures in English from the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine (Class of 2016)

Location: Arima, Trinidad

Favorite Caribbean children's/YA books: Crick Crack Monkey by Merle Hodge, Boonoonoonous Hair! by Olive Senior, Starring Carmen! by Anika Denise and Malaika's Winter Carnival by Nadia L. Hohn

Carmen Milagros Torres

I’m an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao where I currently teach literature courses as well as online courses to undergraduate students. I’m a member of Puerto Rico Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (PRTESOL) as well as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I’ve also been an Associate Editor with Anansesem since 2016, which has allowed me to continue cultivating my passion for Caribbean children’s and young adult literature.

My PhD dissertation (which I successfully defended in 2015) is titled 'Unsilencing the Afro-Puerto Rican Voice: Bilingualism and Cultural Identity of Puerto Rico.' This research is based on a praxis model and incorporates my short story collection, Coquíes, Drums and Dreams, which consists of eight fairy tale retellings exploring the realities of enslaved Puerto Ricans in the 19th century. These stories for young audiences portray strong Afro-Puerto Rican female characters.

While completing my studies, I participated in numerous conferences (including the International Society for Language Studies Biennial Conference, the Caribbean Without Borders Conference, the West Indian Literature Conference, About Change’s ‘Wrestling with the Image: Caribbean Interventions’ exhibit, and the ‘Negotiating Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in a New Global Age’ Symposium) and workshops, presenting my creative work and research. My article 'Puerto Rican Children’s Literature and the Need for Afro-Puerto Rican Stories' was published in Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature in 2014 and my essay 'Giving a Voice to Afro-Puerto Ricans in Children’s Literature,' which I originally presented at the first Congress of Afrodescendants in Puerto Rico, appears in the book ¡Negro, Negra!: Afirmación y Resistencia.

Through my research on Caribbean children’s and young adult literature, I’ve identified the need for more stories with Afro-Puerto Rican characters. I’ve taken the initiative of writing such stories myself; two of my short stories⁠—'Adannaya’s Sugar' and 'Dancing Bomba'⁠—were published in Anansesem. My short story 'The Ungrateful Coquí' obtained first prize in a short story contest sponsored by Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas and Professor Vivian Mayol of University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus.

Currently, I’m in the final stages of self-publishing APParently Enchanted, a speculative fiction children’s novel that I first started brainstorming during my PhD studies. The book will be published with the support of the University of Puerto Rico Humacao’s Office of Sponsored Research and Programs.

Education: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Caribbean Languages and Literature from the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras campus (Class of 2015)

Location: Río Piedras, Puerto Rico

Favorite Caribbean children's/YA books: The Red Comb by Fernando Picó, The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba by Margarita Engle, The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer, In the Shade of the Nispero Tree by Carmen Bernier-Grand and Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph

If you'd like to become a Country Correspondent and we have a vacancy for your country, please contact us.

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17 Own Voices Picture Books About Caribbean Immigration

Back in 2018, Caribbean immigrant communities in the UK made international news headlines due to the Windrush Scandal, and this month they're in the news again for similar reasons. The debate, of course, is whether the Jamaicans, who have criminal records, deserve to be deported or not. What I'm fascinated by though, is the way the deportee-convicts are being interviewed, documentary-style, and being afforded so much air time by British journalists. So many of the British rags say that they're "following the stories" of the convicted offenders. Do Caribbean immigrants only deserve to have their stories "followed" by the media when there's controversy and deportation crackdowns involved? Why not follow the stories of immigrant communities all year round? Why not also follow the stories of those immigrants who aren't thieves and drug dealers?

It's so important to start teaching children, from a young age, to see immigrants as human, and the best way to do that is to share the stories of immigrants, as told by themselves...and not just the stories of injustice. Children's books can help readers of all ages to walk in the shoes of people from immigrant communities who, for the most part, are decent, honest, hard-working folk who just want to make a better life for themselves and their families. If your academic institution or library has a subscription to EBSCOhost Novelist, you can access this annotated bibliography I wrote for them in 2019 titled 'Caribbean Immigrants Tell Their Story: 17 Own Voices Picture Books': https://tinyurl.com/u7b28xk.

About the Author

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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Caribbean-American Titles Recognized at the ALA Youth Media Awards

Caribbean-American authors and illustrators received recognition at the 2020 Youth Media Awards in Philadelphia on January 27, 2020. Click on the book covers to view the books on Amazon.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez (Disney-Hyperion) won the Pura Belpré Author Award for outstanding children's literature by a Latino/Latina author.

Across the Bay illustrated and written by Carlos Aponte (Penguin Workshop) was named a Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Honor Book.

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrated by Paola Escobar (HarperCollins Children’s Books) was named a Pura Belpré Author Award Honor Book.

Double Bass Blues illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez and written by Andrea J. Loney (Alfred A. Knopf) was named a Randolph Caldecott Medal Honor Book for the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya (Kokila Penguin Young Readers Group) was named a Schneider Family Book Award (for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience) in the middle grades category.

Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López (Philomel Books) was named a Schneider Family Book Award (for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience) in the young children (ages 0 to 10) category.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus (Dutton Books) was named a Coretta Scott King Author Award Honor Book for outstanding books for children and young adults by an African-American author.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta and illustrated by Anshika Khullar (Hodder Children’s Books) won the Stonewall Book Award for English-language children’s and young adult books of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz (Flatiron Books) was selected as an Alex Award Winner for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences.

Read the complete list of nominees and winners here.

Congratulations to the authors, illustrators and publishers!

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This Month's Books