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Caribbean Children's Literature, Where's Our Diversity Jedi?



Image Source: Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking


Are you familiar with the "Diversity Jedi" (or #DiversityJedi, as they go by on social media) in the world of American children's and young adult (YA) publishing? If not, this post published earlier this year by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) on its blog is probably the best introduction to them and their work.

The Diversity Jedi is a group of mostly women of colorAfrican American, Asian American, First Nation and Latinx American womenin America who speak up boldly against cultural misrepresentation, racism, bias, cultural appropriation, stereotyping and related issues in children's and YA books. They are very outspoken, informed and passionate about these issues, and have emerged as the major representative voices of the children's book diversity movement, both online and in the children's literature conference circuit. They often provide incisive "take-downs" of problematic books on their well-read blogs and Twitter pages.

Oh, and a lot of them have PhDs.

They include people like Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen (Twitter: @readingspark), Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (Twitter: @Ebonyteach), Dr. Zetta Elliott (Twitter: @zettaelliott), Dhonielle Clayton (Twitter: @brownbookworm), Dr. Debbie Reese (Twitter: @debreese), Ellen Oh who is a co-founder of the We Need Diverse Books movement (Twitter: @ElloEllenOh), and Edith "Edi" Campbell (Twitter: @CrazyQuilts).

Although they are American, or rather because they are American, the Diversity Jedi's thought leadership has cut across geographical borders, shaping the way diversity problems in children's literature are discussed around the world. Whenever you see an article in a major news outlet discussing the diversity problem in children's literature, whether it's a UK paper or an African news website, chances are a member of the Diversity Jedi has either written it, will be quoted or referenced, or has influenced the author's thinking.

I have been in touch with some of these fiercely intelligent women over the years, and because of the common work we do, we certainly all know of each other. To say I admire them and their work is an understatement. If you want to understand the decades-long "conversation" surrounding diversity in children's books and the issues that people of color all over the world continue to face navigating this field, then it's important to follow the Diversity Jedi's Twitter pages, attend their workshops, and read their books, articles and essays. Like many people outside of the USA who want to affect change in the content and availability of literature for young people in their own countries, I have learned a lot of what I know from reading the Diversity Jedi and listening to their presentations and talks.

Here at Anansesem, we always like to say so whenever we like or support something, so we haven't supported the Diversity Jedi in the US in silence because we know that does not help their cause, which we believe is our cause as well. We don't just silently send them "good vibes," because we know there is power in numbers and that causes only acquire critical mass when people are vocal and visible about who and what they support. Rather, over the years, we have shared their writings, bought their books, retweeted their posts, interviewed some of them about their work, and reached out personally to some of them to express our gratitude and admiration for their efforts. To put it simply, we never let a compliment go unspoken if we can help it. I wrote about the power of this before in my rather gushing post on "Convivencia: What We Can Learn from the Latinx Children's Literature Community." I am actively thinking about how Anansesem can be even more visible in our support of the Diversity Jedi.

At the same time, I am also aware that not everything about the Diversity Jedi's ideas, frames of reference, politics, points of contention and methods translates to Caribbean spaces, or to people outside of the US in general. For example, back in 2014, when American children's author Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) made a "watermelon joke" while presenting the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (a major US children's literature award) to African-American children's author Jacqueline Woodson, the Diversity Jedi and their supporters quickly denounced the joke as racist. In the Caribbean, or in Africa and India for that matter, the watermelon is not a fruit burdened with the kind of racist history it has in America. Many Black Caribbean people living in the Caribbean would have been completely unaware that they are supposed, as Black people, to be offended by Handler's joke.

The fact is, a liberatory struggle that has organized itself along certain lines of thought and action in the US may not practically work in other countries simply because different societies work differently, have different histories, and often do not have the same resources. (Other countries certainly don't have the material resources of America, the world's economic superpower.) So while I absolutely encourage people outside of the US to stay abreast of the Diversity Jedi and support their work, I also want to caution us in the Caribbean against assuming that American voices, and an Americentric movement, as it were, can represent, or wholly represent us.

What I believe we need to do (or more accurately, to stop avoid doing) is figure out exactly in what areas and ways Caribbean people can stand to benefit from adopting the positions and methods of the Diversity Jedi, and other people of color in the US engaged in liberatory struggle. Are there are ways in which people of color in the USA, including the Diversity Jedi, are ahead of us when it comes to anti-oppression efforts and liberatory struggle? As we continue to negotiate agendas for making Caribbean children's/YA literature more publishable, visible, accessible and socially meaningful, might we find it in our best interest to be more like the Diversity Jedi in certain ways? As we follow the Diversity Jedi's (often riveting) Twitter threads or read their (often scathing) critiques of books deemed problematic, what in their thinking and approaches should we accept as useful for, and what should we reject as not relevant to, a forward-thinking (emphasis on the word 'forward-thinking') and uniquely Caribbean social construction?

My life has been shaped by America, so these are the kinds of questions I am always puzzling over. Then again, which of us in the Caribbean can honestly say that our lives have not been shaped, in some way or form, by America? That is what is means to be the world's superpower America has shaped us all; certainly it has shaped us in terms of the books we grew up reading as children and teens, which of course, were overwhelmingly American (and European) books. Certainly it has shaped the conversations we have about race and diversity, and sometimes that is as it should be. But I do believe that we sometimes allow America to shape our conversations (about diversity in children's books and everything else) too much, when we should in fact be speaking up against this very presumption and intrusion.

As someone who was raised a third culture kid, was a barrel child, was a card-carrying immigrant in the US for a decade, and am now a returnee to the Caribbean who, as a dual citizen, spends a few months out of the year in the US, I'm very aware that my life trajectory has afforded me the ability to see things from many different angles, and to understand the shifts of meaning and perception (both one's own perception and others' perception of you) that happen when one moves from place to place, particularly as a person living in a brown body. All of this moving between spaces and societies has gifted me with empathy, and also a kind of clarity I think. Ultimately, although I have an American passport, I am Caribbean in sensibility and loyalties (mostly!), and so I do not always see things the way the Diversity Jedi see them. But a lot of the times, I do. And sometimes, when I do share the Diversity Jedi's viewpoints, I do so without a lot of agreement or support from other Caribbean people.

For example, I recently sent Edith "Edi" Campbell (Twitter: @CrazyQuilts), a Diversity Jedi member who is an academic librarian and is African American, links to two picture books written by Black Caribbean children's writers: Jooba Goes to the Market by M. E. Mohalland and Carla Dances Soca by Alyssa Bierzynski. I had been following Edi's recent blog posts (among them "On Negroes, Monkeys and Apes", "Monkey Business," and "Out Out Damn Monkeys") on the racism of monkey imagery in children's books and thought rightly that these two books might be of interest to her since both have protagonists that are anthropomorphic monkeys. I know that many Caribbean people will not even notice anything offensive about Jooba Goes to the Market and Carla Dances Soca. In the Caribbean, race is, for the most part, not the big issue it is in America, and because race is not a major form of identification in the Caribbean, we are much less attuned than Americans to possible racist motives, associations or microaggressions. On the other hand, many African American people will immediately conclude that these two books are racist, as Edi did.


Why did a Jamaican write a book about an anthropomorphic monkey when there are so few books about Black Jamaican children being published?


As editor-in-chief of Anansesem, my job is to decide where I (and by extension Anansesem) stand on an issue like this. I have to side with the Diversity Jedi on this one. For one, I am always irked whenever I am scouring a lily-white (racially I mean; not the wall color) bookstore for children's books with brown-skinned people and glimpse a flash of what appears to be brown skin on a book cover only to realize it's not a brown person but a monkey. (Tell me this hasn't happened to you before.) Because the fact is, the anthropomorphization of monkeys in children's books often leads to these kinds of inappropriately blurred lines, such as body coverings that look more like skin then fur.

The book Carla Dances Soca, written, as mentioned before, by a Black Grenadian, came out of a Room To Read (an American literacy non-profit headquarted in San Francisco, USA) book publication program in Grenada, the aim of which was to help Grenadian writers and illustrators produce culturally-relevant books for Grenadian kids. If that was the goal, then why not simply have Carla Dances Soca star a Grenadian child? Why did the author and illustrator feel the need to make the protagonist a monkey? Were they perhaps influenced by the directors of the Room to Read program to make such a narrative/artistic choice?

When asked why they choose to use anthropomorphic animal characters in their books, white American authors typically respond that they do it to make their books racially inclusive; the faulty and baffling logic seems to be that, in an industry where 73% of the children's books published annually feature white characters, it is animal characters, rather than racially diverse human characters, that provide the solution to the lack of racial diversity in children's literature. Should one assume that the Black Grenadian author of Carla Dances Soca shares the same faulty logic, and if so, might this not be evidence of a colonized mindset? Caribbean people and people of color in the US both talk alike about "decolonizing" but clearly this decolonizing sometimes means wildly different things to us. But should it? Or should it always? Also, should Caribbean people not be free to critique children's books by Caribbean authors, rather than merely blindly applauding them? We are putting these books in the hands of young people after all.

All of this brings me to a question that someone recently asked me: Why isn't there a Diversity Jedi in the Caribbean where our children's and YA literature is concerned? The person had noticed that children's and YA books depicting Caribbean people, many of them written and illustrated by non-Caribbean people, are full of stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies, and regurgitate narrow narratives. She was complaining about the low numbers of children's books featuring Caribbean people published yearly (my own research shows that, on average, only 58 English-language children’s and young adult books with Caribbean protagonists or by Caribbean authors are published annually, and 62% percent of them are self-published.) Clearly, she reasoned, there's a desperate need for a Caribbean Diversity Jedi, although she owned that the term "Jedi" might not work for us. Interestingly, this person had not taken the time to research children's/YA literature advocacy efforts in the Caribbean, and I was struck by her assumption that we do not already have a version of the Diversity Jedi.

Whenever people in the Anglo-Caribbean's literary community raise, in some form or fashion, this question of why we aren't a more outspoken, militant or unified community, or why we aren't discussing the things that really matter more, inevitably a range of reliable explanations will be put forth. Some will cite our "colonial upbringing" which supposedly conditions us to docility and excessive politeness. Some will say that the geographical smallness of our island societies makes it difficult to risk offending people, which you kind of have to do if you want to do your Diversity Jedi work well (incidentally, as a Trinbagonian, I find this explanation particularly odd since there is perhaps nothing more Trinbagonian than the casual way we offend others as a matter of everyday conversational practice). Others believe that the geographical smallness leads to too much jealousy in Caribbean societies (think "big fish in a small pond" syndrome) which undermines positive change-making efforts. Others yet will place the blame on our unwillingness to support our own people unless they've first achieved acclaim abroad (read: in America or Europe) and thus "proven themselves." The list goes on and on. I have always resisted these easy explanations and generalizations about Caribbean people, which I find more suffocating than anything, and which to my mind, often demonstrate a lack of empathy for people and for Caribbean socio-historical situations more broadly.

I'm more inclined to think that Caribbean women of color (because let's face it, it is mostly Caribbean women of color who, over the past couple of decades, have championed Caribbean children's literature) simply do not have the kind of resources in our societies to do the kind of work the women of color in the US who make up the Diversity Jedi do, in precisely the way they do it. The American women of color who make up the Diversity Jedi are living with the taxing mental and physical toll of structural discrimination, but they also have "First World" privileges that Caribbean women of color often do not have. Confessedly, I would not have been able to do the work I have done building Anansesem and advocating for Caribbean children's/YA literature, had not the chance circumstances of my life equipped me with the privileges of American citizenship.

So, to revert to the first question of this post Where's the Caribbean Diversity Jedi? — the answer may surprise people who assume that we don't have one. Nothing could be further from the truth. At Anansesem, we have, from the beginning, been committed to recognizing and celebrating the fact that we have, in fact, had many people in the Caribbean, mostly unsung women of color, working to champion Caribbean children's/YA literature for decades. Anansesem published a retrospective on Jamaica's Children's Writers Circle in our December 2016 issue, and there have been many other iterations of similar action groups in the different islands. Our recent series on Caribbean children's librarians is just one of the ways in which we continue to highlight both organizations and individuals in the Caribbean working tirelessly to address the gaps and inefficiencies in how literature for young people is treated in our region. There are many more individuals we plan to highlight in upcoming features. If you know of anyone who deserves recognition, please reach out and let us know.

In the meantime, let's remember that we in the Caribbean who care deeply about the messages books are sending our children have been making our own movements in our own Caribbean ways. In many ways, the obstacles we face are even greater than those our American counterparts face, and a lot of us have been conditioned to think that we are failing when we aren't. That too needs to be acknowledged.

Our Caribbean movements to create the kind of literature for young people we deserve may not look like the American version, but that's because we aren't Americans. Well I kind of am, but you know what I mean.


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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[Interview & Submissions Call] Anansesem's Special Issue On Puerto Rican Children's Literature



Illustration by Lea Stagno from La Cotorrita Boricua, written by Enrique Hidalgo


Carmen, one of our associate editors, is a Puerto Rican who lives in Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Maria first hit landfall on Wednesday September 20, 2017, I doubt she or anyone on the island imagined that they were about to experience the worst natural disaster on record to affect Dominica and Puerto Rico. Before the hurricane, I knew Carmen as many things: a warm and positive person, a devoted mother, an educator passionate about the Caribbean children's literature courses she teaches at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao and exceptionally dedicated to her students, and an avid reader and researcher of Puerto Rican children's literature (check out her article, 'Puerto Rican Children's Literature and the Need for Afro-Puerto Rican Stories' in Bookbird: A Journal of International Children's Literature, and for a good overview of Puerto Rican children's literature, check out this 2014 interview with Carmen over on my website.) After Hurricane Maria, Carmen is still fully all of these things. In a country where so much has been lost and derailed, and most of the public libraries have been destroyed, she and many others continue to forge community, build resilience and reassure young people through the power of children's books.

I've always wanted Anansesem to publish an issue devoted to Puerto Rican children's and young adult (YA) literature, but I never felt I was fully equipped to edit a Puerto Rican issue (I don't speak Spanish fluently for one) and other ideas took priority. Now, with millions of Puerto Ricans still struggling to rebuild and the rich tapestry of Puerto Rican life in danger of being reduced to "a single story" à la Chimamanda Adichie, an issue devoted to Puerto Rico's distinctive legacy of #ownvoices children's narratives feels more than timely. From the early jibaro tales and coqui stories, to the bilingual folktale re-tellings of Pura Belpré and trailblazing works by Fernando Pico (La Peineta Colorada/The Red Comb) , Georgina Lázaro (El flamboyán amarillo), Ángeles Pastor (the Por el mundo del cuento y la aventura series), and children's poet Andrés Díaz Marrero, to name only a few, to fresh new fiction by the likes of Pablo Cartaya, Ann Dávila Cardinal and other Twitter-savvy Puerto Rican migrants to the US mainland, Puerto Rican literature for young audiences is ripe for much wider recognition, essential for Caribbean children, and historically vital for building pivotal cultural bridges.

Small publications like ours struggle to meet our editorial needs, so we are beyond excited to announce that Sujei Lugo Vázquez—a US-based Puerto Rican children's librarian and PhD candidate who is well-known in the children's literature world for her advocacy and teaching regarding anti-racist and social justice themes in children's books—will be guest curating and editing our upcoming May 2019 issue. Check out my interview with her below to learn more about her and her vision for the issue, and scroll down to the bottom to read the issue's Submission Call in Sujei's own words.


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Illustration by Lea Stagno from La Cotorrita Boricua, written by Enrique Hidalgo


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Sujei Lugo Vázquez is a former elementary school librarian from Puerto Rico, who moved to Boston, USA to pursue doctoral studies at Simmons University. Her research focuses on racial justice in children’s librarianship. She currently works as a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library and is an active member of professional organizations such as REFORMA, ALA, and ALSC. She is a member of the Latinxs in Kid Lit blog and We’re the People Collective. Her body, heart, and mind constantly travel between Boston and Puerto Rico.

Summer Edward: Why do you think reading, writing and telling Puerto Rican stories is important for children and teens right now?

Sujei Lugo Vázquez: Puerto Rican stories told and retold to my grandparents, parents, myself and our children were mainly filled with colonial perspectives and outsiders telling our stories, or insiders with internalized oppressions telling fractured stories. Digging outside the mainstream publishing world and school curriculum was a way to find our stories of resistance and empowerment, and perspectives of marginalized voices. Right now, we need to continue telling our own stories, in our words, so youth can challenge and re-imagine our past, present and potential future. There’s no single way of being Puerto Rican and living in Puerto Rico, and our political, social and cultural landscape keeps influencing and shifting our stories. We need to keep our children and teens up-to-date on these changes, and educate them about their role in writing and telling Puerto Rican stories.

SE: What are you looking in terms of submissions to the issue? Is there a particular kind of writing that stands out to you?

SLV: I’m looking for stories, experiences, literacy projects, words, and images that center works for youth, and with youth, in a post-Hurricane María Puerto Rico. The issue seeks to showcase voices and perspectives from the whole island, metropolitan area, rural areas, our coasts and mountains, and the islands of Vieques and Culebras. Educators, librarians, writers, illustrators, artists, activists, community leaders and community members mobilized and expressed their experiences and concerns in different ways regarding issues such as health, education, literacies, art, food justice, the environment, sustainability, power/energy, migration, and temporary relocations. I would like the issue to provide a glimpse of all of these local efforts, projects and activism for, and with, our youth. I'm not only looking for writing but also images that speak from hands-on experience and life in Puerto Rico. Pieces that readers could see and feel the sincerity, emotions and perspective of the creators using the language that best represents and portrays their voices.

SE: Ultimately, with this issue, what message do you want to send to Puerto Ricans— young Puerto Ricans especially, but adults too—still grappling with the after-effects of Hurricane María, and to those who will read the issue?

SLV: Our people might not be ready now to completely express ourselves, since we are still healing, coping, understanding and surviving the effects and aftermath of the natural, political and human disasters that Hurricane María made clearer. Our children and teens need to acknowledge that they have the experience and tools to control their own narratives, and that they can be expressed in many ways— through words, images, community organizing, and collaborative work. Their memories, experiences and reflections are all valid, and reflect not just an individual feeling, but a collective, intergenerational, and historical one.

Literacy, education and children’s literature have played, and will continue to play, an important role in moving Puerto Rico and our communities forward, serving as vehicles of change, empowerment and resistance for our youth, and for adults that work with youth. Through this issue, I want readers to see activism and children’s literature in practice and to understand that our voices, and youth voices, can and should be heard. I want Caribbean readers to know that collaboration is intrinsic for (re) building communities, and that we should enhance our connections with our fellow Caribbean peoples.


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Call for Submissions

Special Post-Hurricane Maria Issue on Puerto Rican Literature for Young People


Illustration by Lulu Delacre from How Far Do You Love Me?, written by Lulu Delacre


Anansesem is currently accepting submissions for our May 2019 issue. The issue will be guest edited by Sujei Lugo Vázquez, and will be titled Y este cuento (no) ha terminado: rebuilding, rewriting and resisting in Puerto Rico. The issue will spotlight stories, images, experiences, and projects in post-Hurricane María Puerto Rico connected to children's and young adult (YA) literature.

We want to highlight local and community art, literacy, and storytelling efforts for youth in Puerto Rico; Puerto Rican children’s authors and illustrators' work and experiences; Puerto Rican/Caribbean youth voices and experiences in writing and art; and works that intersect children’s literature with any of the following: activism, art, education, the environment, sustainability, food justice, housing rights, colonization and imperialism, and re-imagining a new future for Puerto Rico.

Poetry, short fiction and non-fiction, illustrations, comics, photographs, book reviews, and reflections are being accepted. Send in up to five poems, images, panels, and illustrations. Written pieces must be no more than 2,000 words max. We will accept .pdf, .docx, and .jpeg formats.

Submissions are limited to Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Caribbean peoples living in Puerto Rico. Works may be in English, Spanish, Bilingual and Spanglish.

Include name(s), contact information and brief (up to 75 words) biographical notes.

Send up to two submissions to sujeilugo@gmail.com with “Anansesem Puerto Rico Issue — Poetry” or “Anansesem Puerto Rico Issue —  Prose” etc. in the subject line.

Deadline: January 15, 2019.




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 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.


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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.


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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.

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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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Interviews