Featured Posts

Book Giveaway: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle

To celebrate World Poetry Day and International Day of Forests (March 21, 2016), we'll be giving away a copy of Newbery Honoree and Pura Belpré winner Margarita Engle's middle grade to young adult novel, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal!

Masterfully written in melodic free verse poetry, Silver People "brings to life every bit of Panama, from the horrible working conditions of the islanders, forced to dig the canal for next-to-nothing wages, to the lush forest and wildlife" (School Library Journal). Engle has described the book as "my personal love letter to [the endangered] tropical rain forests." Many thanks to Margarita Engle for generously donating a signed copy of the book.

Quick 'n' Easy Instructions

  • To be entered into the draw to win, you must fill out and submit the entry form below.
  • Giveaway is open until March 20, 2016 at midnight EST.
  • You must be at least 18 years of age to enter. 
  • The winner will be chosen randomly on World Poetry Day/International Day of Forests (March 21, 2016).
Okay so here's how it works. Some questions on the entry form are entirely optional, others you absolutely must fill out. Fields marked with a red asterisk must be completed. Filling out the optional questions earns you extra entries. Extra entries are a good thing you know, because they increase your chances of winning. The number of extra entries earned per question is indicated after each question on the form. If you fill out the form now and complete more extra entries later, you may enter again (We’ll add them to your first entries).

Thank you for entering, good luck and enjoy #WorldPoetryDay and #IntForestDay!

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Special Segment: Self-Publishing Journeys

by Summer Edward

Five self-published children's authors share their personal reflections and sound off on the self-publishing debate.

Early on in my practice as a children's literature blogger, I received an email from Trinbagonian children's author Joanne Gail Johnson that still remains salient in my mind. Johnson, someone who has successfully navigated the traditional publishing path and published several well-received children's books with a major Caribbean publisher, wrote to offer me her opinion on self-publishing.

I had been blogging about Caribbean children's books for a while and would occasionally highlight a self-published book that I thought was valuable for whatever reason. Johnson was not flat-out against self-publishing, but shared her reservations that self-publishing could undermine the development of a serious children's publishing institution. She wrote:

"I resist promoting the idea of self publishing... for now I see that we are circumventing the development of our talent pool by not taking authors to task on the work of professional development the art of query letters, the joy of rejection and perseverance and the victory of making it to the top of the list over hundreds, even thousands of others in an international peer group. This is the vision that will really grow our talent."

Since then, I have been quietly mulling over the self-publishing dilemma. Self-publishing is still a relatively new frontier and many are grappling with the complexities of this paradigm of making books, including the shifting dynamics of authorship and power ushered in by the self-publishing movement. Does self-publishing contribute to a culture of amateur professionalism in Caribbean children's publishing? And given the less than stellar track record of traditional publishing systems, both here in the Caribbean and worldwide, to foster the children's literature of developing countries such as our own, is amateur professionalism necessarily a bad thing at this point?

We really do not have the answers. We can, however, cite one analysis showing that 63% of the English-language Caribbean children's and YA books released in 2013 were self-published books (compared to 56% in 2011 and 58% in 2012). The fact is, self-publishing of Caribbean children's books is steadily on the rise. With that in mind, we are taking the stance that it behooves us to inquire into the self-publishing trend, or movement if you will. This is what our Self-Publishing Journeys feature is all about.

Here at Anansesem, we made it our policy early on to only review traditionally published books. We have sometimes done interviews with self-published authors, and when we have done so we have always been careful to select authors whose works and work ethic demonstrate a certain critical level of engagement with the possibilities and responsibilities of writing for children. Our Self-Publishing Journey's segment is no different. We asked five children's authors who have enjoyed both objective and subjective success, and who have shown commitment to the external path of children's authorship and to the internal path of developing their craft, to write reflections on their experiences with self-publishing. Here's what they had to say.

Stacey Alfonso-Mills 

Books: The Boys of Sinclair Hill-Fun in the Backyard (2009), The Boys of Sinclair Hill-The PrincessThe Treasure and The Blue Dragon (2011), and Manatee has a Question (2014)
Country: Trinidad and Tobago
>> Click to read

Bish Denham

Books: Anansi and Company: Retold Jamaican Tales (2013)
Country: U.S. Virgin Islands/USA
>>Click to read

Kellie Magnus

Books: Little Lion Goes to School (2003), Little Lion at Bat (2007), Little Lion Goes for Gold (2008), Shaggy Parrot and the Reggae Band (2009, co-author)
Country: Jamaica
>>Click to read

Jo-Anne Mason

Books: Paddy, the Goat That Saved Rainbow Island (2003, republished as Paddy the Goat That Saved Anguilla), Trixy the Monkey That Ate Nevis (2012), The Perfect Shell (2012)
Country: Anguilla
>>Click to read

Geoffrey Philp

Books: Marcus and the Amazons (2011), Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories (2012), The Christmas Dutch Pot Baby (2012)
Country: Jamaica/USA
>>Click to read

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Awakening an Interest in History: Interview with Caribbean Adventure Series Author, Carol Mitchell-Ottley

Carol Mitchell-Ottley talks to Summer Edward about her latest middle grade novel, Fury on Soufriere Hills, being nominated for the 2014 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and more.

Photo by: Livingstone Jackson

Born in Nevis, Carol Ottley-Mitchell loves books and kids. She has lived in and traveled to many Caribbean countries. She is the author of the Caribbean Adventure Series books, the Chee Chee picturebook series, as well as the picturebook Seascapes, and the YA book, Another Day. Shortly after learning of her Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award nomination, Ottley-Mitchell spoke to Summer Edward about her approach to writing, the business of publishing, and the life of a children's author.


S. E.: Let’s talk about your latest book. Fury on Soufriere Hills is Book 4 in the Caribbean Adventure Series. What is it about?

C. M-O.: Fury on Soufriere Hills, or Fury as we affectionately call it, is about volcanoes, adventure, and Amerindians. Mark and Kyle, two characters that feature in earlier books in the Caribbean Adventure Series, hike with a group to the top of Mount Liamiagua in St. Kitts. Frankie, a defiant younger boy, is along for the hike. When Mark attempts to rescue Frankie from the edge of Mount Liamiagua’s crater, they both tumble over the edge. They find themselves in very unfamiliar territory and soon realise that they have not only traveled into the past, as evidenced by the appearance of a Carib boy, but they have for the first time traveled in space, from St. Kitts to the foot of the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat. The Carib boy saves their lives and in return, with Chee Chee’s help, they are able to assist the Caribs when the volcano threatens to erupt.

S.E.: The 1996 eruption of the Soufriere volcano is one of those watershed moments in recent Caribbean history, certainly in the history of Caribbean natural disasters. How does one tackle the reality of natural disasters in a work of children’s fiction? It certainly is a pertinent issue in today’s world isn’t it? 

C. M-O.: Natural disasters and the possible impact of global warming are certainly topical issues and Fury tackles the very relevant issue of a child who is displaced by a natural disaster. My intention in the Caribbean Adventure Series is first and foremost to draw young readers in with secret tunnels, pirate ships, kidnappers, and erupting volcanoes galore. As a result, I introduce serious issues in the lightest manner possible without being trite.

For example, the first book in the series, Adventure at Brimstone Hill is set in the Caribbean in the 17th century and so it is impossible to ignore the reality of slavery, however, it is not the center of the story and so I touch on it very briefly. Similarly in Fury, although one of the characters is angry about being displaced by the volcanic eruptions, unlike many real-life refugees, he is living in a safe environment and in the end … well, I’ll let you read the book to see how it all turns out.

S.E.: The Caribbean Adventure Series is a time-travel/historical fiction/adventure series of children’s novels set in various Caribbean islands. In the world of fiction, it’s something that’s rarely ever been done. You’re reimagining aspects of Caribbean history that are simultaneously over-stereotyped and underexamined―pirates, the physical landscape, and in Fury on Soufriere Hills, the indigenous Amerindians, and you’re doing it for a children’s audience. Do you ever feel like you’re farming in an empty plot? I guess I want to know what it takes to build up these kinds of stories from scratch?

C. M-O.: To be honest, I never thought of the series as being ground-breaking, but perhaps in the Caribbean context it is. I am very happy to be filling a niche that may be needed, awakening an interest in Caribbean history by placing modern day children into past scenarios.

To a large extent the stories build themselves. The initial spark might be something that I see or read and then the rest of the ideas come as I write. Often the original ideas are discarded and replaced with more feasible ones. Sometimes I am stuck for long periods. In Fury, the children in the book sat in the shadow of the volcano eruption in Montserrat for months as I tried out different scenarios for escape. I don’t necessarily recommend this approach to writing, but it is what works for me.

S.E.: The Caribbean Adventure Series is your most recognizable work, but you’ve also authored the Chee Chee’s Adventure Series, which is a picturebook  series, and another picturebook, Seascapes. Do you thrive more writing novels or picturebooks and why? 

C. M-O.: If I had to choose, I would have to say that I am a short story writer at heart. There is something satisfying about putting a complete idea across in one sitting. As I write this I can picture the satisfied looks on children’s faces after hearing the ‘happily ever after’ ending of a story. However, I also enjoy the scope for depth and revelation that the novel affords and Caribbean children novels are what I think is necessary to fulfill my desire to encourage Caribbean children of all ages to read. I have already written two more short stories to finish up the Chee Chee’s Adventure Series, and I have been commissioned to do some short stories on a particular topic. My plan is, however, to focus on novels going forward.

S.E.: This August you self-published your first young adult novel, Another Day, a book about a fifteen-year-old teen who struggles to find her place in a new environment. What inspired your crossover from children’s literature to young adult fiction? And while we’re talking YA, what do you make of the Caribbean YA market today? 

C. M-O.: I started Another Day several years ago while I was living in Ghana. I was working on one of the Caribbean Adventure Series books when the story popped into my head of a girl going through a difficult time after moving to a new country and communicating via messenger with the best friend that she left behind. At the time I thought it was a short story so I started writing it, but it began to morph into something more and I had to put it aside while I completed the work that I had in process. While I was battling with the ending for Fury, I came across the story in my notebook and decided to make it my next project.

So the reality is that I did not make a conscious decision to write a young adult novel. The story that I started in Ghana was about a teenager who was having experiences involving alcohol, drugs, and romance and so one could say that it announced itself as a young adult novel. Once I decided to complete Another Day, I read a lot of novels with teenaged protagonists to help me to prepare, however, I must admit that none of them were by Caribbean authors or even Caribbean themed. I am really familiar with very few YA novels by Caribbean authors, and my impression is that we really need many more Caribbean books for this age group. I’ve read a couple of books that are labelled as young adult because the main protagonists are teens, however, I find that they are so explicitly focused on the sexual aspect of the coming of age experience that I would recommend only to the oldest tranche of the YA group.

S.E.: You are well known for your writing, but you’re also a publisher. Give us an overview of your publishing house, CaribbeanReads. 

CaribbeanReads is a small publishing company dedicated to serving talented Caribbean authors. Our aim is to make publishing more accessible to potential Caribbean authors and to increase the number of high-quality books about and for the Caribbean. Basically CaribbeanReads offers all of the services necessary to get the book from a draft into a finished product, for example, editing, type-setting, layout, and illustration. We do not provide any major marketing effort. Things have been moving slowly but we are working with a couple of authors.

Signing books at the Montserrat Public Library
S.E.: Most children’s authors will tell you that they aren’t in this field for the money. What has the commercial side of being a children’s author taught you?

C. M-O.: Relatively few children’s authors make it big enough to make a comfortable living on writing alone and I do believe that most of us are driven by a passion for words and expression. Children’s authors in the Caribbean are perhaps at an even greater disadvantage because of a number of issues including lack of resources, the small market size and problems distributing books across geographically diverse markets. I honestly write because I have to and I am driven forward by the thought that my work may encourage even one child to read.

I recently received an email from a colleague who told me that her nephew was in the hospital for a few days and in that time, without the distraction of the TV and other electronics, he picked up the second book in the Caribbean Adventure Series, Pirates at Port Royal. He read it and regaled her with details about the story all the way home from the hospital. This is what keeps me going.

I think that it is very important, however, that parents begin to encourage and support Caribbean children’s authors by insisting that the education system incorporate a wider range of quality Caribbean children’s literature into the curriculum.

S.E.: You were nominated for the 2014 international Astrid Lindgren Memorial award. It’s the world’s largest children’s literature award and only a few Caribbean children’s authors have ever been nominated. Do you think this nomination signals a new era for Caribbean children’s literature? 

C. M-O.: I certainly hope that my nomination will shine a spot light on Caribbean children’s literature and encourage more nominating bodies to actively seek out and submit our work.

S.E.: You have two children, you travel, you run a publishing house, and yet you somehow find time to write. From one writer to another, please tell me how you do it!

C. M-O.: Very little sleep and lots of caffeine. Just kidding. I’m not sure that I’m a good model. When I look at how many books Enid Blyton churned out, or the number of books in the Magic Tree House series, I feel like a real slacker with only nine books under my belt.

But seriously, the basic principal is consistency. Carve out a couple hours out of your day that you dedicate to writing and stick with it as much as possible. For me, this is at night after the children have gone to bed at which point I try to dedicate two hours to writing. Sometimes this plan works better than others, but even when I don’t get it done for a while, I get back on track whenever I can. In addition, I’m always turning over my work-in-process in my head, scribbling notes on a scene while I’m cooking or recording ideas (handsfree) on my phone while I’m driving.

S.E.: You’ve collaborated with UK illustrator Ann-Catherine Loo on the Caribbean Adventures Series books. Her artistic style― realistic pencil illustrations― embraces literal representation. Historically, Caribbean children’s book illustration has favored cartoon, folk, or impressionistic styles, so the illustrative realism of the CAS books seems like a notable illustrative shift in Caribbean children’s literature. Is this something you actively thought about in your choice of an illustrator? What might illustrative realism contribute to Caribbean children’s literature in general?

C. M-O.: I came across Ann-Catherine when I was just starting out and we have had a wonderful partnership over the years. I was looking for someone who could deliver in a short time frame and with whom I could maintain a very professional relationship. Illustrative realism—I did not have a term for it then, but I knew it when I saw it—was my top priority in choosing an illustrator. I believe that Caribbean children really need to see themselves portrayed in books the way they see themselves in the mirror. I wanted children to pick up my books because they were drawn to the images on the front cover. The look of a book is of paramount importance in encouraging a child to read, and too often we don’t pay enough attention to cover design as a medium for drawing children (and parents) towards our books.

So, I reviewed the work of several artists, especially looking at the way that they portrayed people of colour before settling on Ann-Catherine. I was also very upfront with her about why I chose her and what I wanted from the illustrations. Since the Caribbean Adventure Series I have worked with two Caribbean illustrators, Vanessa Soodeen who illustrated Seascapes and Cherise Ward who illustrated Another Day. These ladies reaffirmed my belief in Caribbean illustrators. Both women were extremely professional, handled my indecision with great patience, and produced exceptional work. I intend to continue to use Ann-Catherine for future publications for the Caribbean Adventure Series and the Chee Chee’s Adventures, however, I hope to continue to discover Caribbean artists in subsequent publications.

S.E.: I’ve heard the complaint that too many successful Caribbean children’s writers live abroad. You were born in Nevis and spent most of your adult life between the Caribbean, the US and Ghana. Travel seems to be a way of life for you. Is there a case to be made for travelling and migration in terms of the writing life? Also, I’m curious, why Ghana? 

C. M-O.: The number of successful Caribbean writer’s living abroad begs the question: are they successful because they have moved abroad or does the experience of living abroad improve their writing thus making them successful? The answer is probably a little bit of both. It is difficult to become a successful author in the Caribbean. The publishing houses are few and tend to focus on academic publications. Many publishers in the US and the UK focus on books produced by their nationals. As a result, migration is often a key ingredient for successful authors.

In addition, the Bible’s pronouncement that “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown …” is too often proven true in the Caribbean context. We tend to wait for our artists to receive foreign accolades before we recognize them at home. On the other hand, while I don’t think that foreign experience is a necessary ingredient in a writer, I will say that experiencing other cultures helps you to better describe your own because you can identify, appreciate, and thus portray the idiosyncrasies more clearly.

Sharing Chee Chee's story with kindergartners
S.E.: The life of an author is interesting, even more so the life of a children’s author. Children’s authors always tell the best stories about their work, especially their encounters with children. What’s one thing that a child reader did or said that you will never forget?

C. M-O.: Do I have to choose just one? One of the best parts of my job as a children’s writer is doing school visits. I relish the interactions with the children and the fresh perspectives that they express. One of my more heartening experiences was when I did a book launch/writing workshop in Ghana. I invited a number of children, mainly expatriates, but there was a road block on the main thoroughfare to get to the venue and so many people were unable to attend. It turned out that there was a reading programme finishing up at the venue just as we were getting ready to start. It had been attended by disadvantaged children in the neighbourhood who had difficulty reading. I invited those children to join in the workshop. At first their participation was tentative but by the end they were raising their hands and thoroughly enjoying the activities. It was wonderful because their life experiences brought a new perspective into the discussions. I sincerely believe that the event resonated longer with those children than most of the original invitees for whom access to books and education was never an issue.



About the Interviewer

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia Review, The Caribbean Writersx salon and more. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Small Axe Literary Prize in the fiction category. She blogs at www.summeredward.com.

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by Patricia Whittle

Den a how dis ya tess so hard?
Teacher never teachi, for mi study a yard.
But how dem gi wi wa dem no teach Miss?
Sey mi fi shut up for a exam dis?

Miss mi nah look pon nobaddy paper!
Gwan mark up mi paper for mi no kya.
Afta dem gi wi tess pon wa dem no teach
Dem come tell lie bout people a cheat.

Teck di paper Miss, an gwan!
A so all a unnu carry awn
Bout Principal wi deal wid mi behaviour!
A pure foolishness a gwan ya!

The Intelligent Iguana by Sayada Ramdial

About the Author

Patricia Whittle is a Jamaican librarian and a teacher of English Literature. She writes stories, plays and poems. She is the author of two books, Johnny, Mass Tom and the Fatal Error: Three Short Plays and Mi Waan Fi Publish A Book: An Anthology Of Jamaican Dialect Poems.

About the Illustrator

Sayada Ramdial is an illustrator and graphic artist from Trinidad and Tobago. She is the artist behind "Designed For A Smile", a line of greeting cards celebrating the spirit of Trinidad and Tobago Christmas. In 2012, she graduated with honours from SCAD, University for Creative Careers, where she earned her B.F.A in Illustration, with a minor in Drawing.

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Shining a Light on the Human Condition in Books for Children: Interview with Vashanti Rahaman

While children's author Vashanti Rahaman has mostly stayed out of the limelight, her picturebooks shine a light on the human condition. Indeed, they might be best described as illuminating stories that engage and challenge children without speaking down to them. She recently spoke to Summer Edward about the power of literature to help children understand the human condition, bridging cultural gaps, and navigating the world of publishing.

Vashanti Rahaman is the author of the picturebooks O Christmas Tree, Read for Me, Mama, and A Little Salmon for Witness: A Story from Trinidad. Her latest picturebook Divali Rose, was described as "[An] appealing, multilayered story" by School Library Journal. Born in Trinidad, she received her B.S. at Mt. Allison University in Canada. Her articles and short stories for children have been published in Highlights, Pockets, and Cricket magazines. She lives in Missouri, USA.


S.E.: How did you come to write for children? 

V. R.: I was new to America (the USA) and had young children. This exposed me to the richness of children's literature here, of which I had, previously, been only vaguely aware. Like many parents I often thought, as I read to my children: 'I could write something like that'. My first attempts were more in the nature of a mental exercise than anything else.

S.E.: Three of your picture books-- O Christmas Tree, Read for Me, Mama and Divali Rose-- were published by Boyds Mills Press. I did a tour of their offices in Honesdale earlier this year and I find them to be an interesting publisher. What would you say has been the best thing about your working relationship with Boyds Mills? 

V. R.: The very first story I actually sold was to Highlights for Children, and Boyds Mills Press published my first picture book. All along, Kent Brown and his editors worked hard to help me become a better writer, and to keep me writing. I might even venture to say that they saw more potential in my writing than I did.

S.E.: I read Divali Rose earlier this year and was struck by the maturity of the story. A young boy struggles to understand the resentments between different generations of Indo-Trinidadian immigrants. Do you see children's literature as having a role to play in addressing social issues like prejudice? 

V. R.: I teach high school Chemistry and Biology. In the sciences, a model is a partial representation of some aspect of the natural world which is used to study, understand and explain that selected part of the world. Using the word "model" in that same sense, I consider works of literature, including children's literature, to be models of the human condition, and the human condition includes negative responses to the existence of those deemed to be "other".

If, as adults, we honestly look back to the thought processes we had as children we will find that our younger selves were, indeed, quite mature in their attempts to understand the human condition, given the paucity of our experiences at that time. Children's literature adds to, or confirms, or questions, a child's experience of the world.

S.E.: O Christmas Tree is another rather mature picturebook. Anslem, the little boy in the story, comes to understand that Caribbean ways of observing and celebrating Christmas are just as valid and meaningful as imported European and American traditions. O Christmas Tree was first published in 1996; do you think the story is still relevant for young readers today? 

V. R.: The problem of valuing their own cultures in the face of pressure from dominant cultures is an ever present reality for many young readers. It takes many faces but is recognizable, if you are aware of the potential for its existence. I have found that children have a remarkable ability to find parallels to their own lives in what are, to them, alien stories.

S.E.: In your picturebooks, elders are typically figured as cultural stewards who reminisce or impart lessons about the past to a child. For example, the Aaji in A Little Salmon for Witness: A Story from Trinidad remembers a time when everyone in her village ate smoked salmon as a way of observing Good Friday, inspiring her grandson to work hard to buy a piece of salmon for her. Can you speak about the role of remembering and cultural transmission in your stories?

V. R.: Actually, the setting I originally had in mind when I wrote the story was the city of San Fernando in Trinidad. It is interesting that it ended up looking like a village to almost everyone else. But, to address your question," elders are cultural stewards who reminisce or impart lessons about the past to a child". When they are unable to carry out or even abdicate that role, a void is created in a child's experience of the world. I think, in retrospect, that my stories were indeed often an exercise in cultural transmission to my children. My husband and I are  immigrants from what used to be the British Caribbean, and we were bringing up our children in a small American mid-western university town, far away from relatives and from other British Caribbean immigrants.

S.E.: You were born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Dominica for many years before moving to the United States. You now live in Missouri. As an author, do you find it difficult bridging the gaps between your Caribbean background, your semi-rural mid-western American life, and the demands and expectations of metropolitan American publishers/editors? 

V. R.: I was born in Trinidad, moved as a very young child to England and India with my parents, and eventually settled with them in Dominica where we lived all through my elementary and high school years.  We visited our relatives in Trinidad yearly, and my parents and brothers returned to Trinidad while I was in college in Canada. After graduation, I joined them in Trinidad for about 8 years before moving to the USA with my husband and our first son who was still a baby.  I've been bridging cultural gaps all my life. That has made me quite comfortable with having to look at the world through another's eyes and trying to help others see the world through mine.

As for metropolitan American publishers/editors, I have had very good mentoring editors whose high expectations were welcome. Publishers, however, may have wished that I had been more involved in the marketing of my work, but I cannot blame that on either my Caribbean background or my semi-rural mid-western life. I can only blame it on the place I allowed writing to have in my life.

S.E.: I enjoyed your short story "Round and Round Music" in Kahani children's magazine. You've also published short children's stories in Highlights for Children, Pockets, and Cricket. How would you describe your short stories for children? 

V. R.: Most of my writing has been short stories and articles for children. I write for the children I have known, to share with them things I've learned that might interest them, as well as my thoughts and experiences and glimpses of my personal models of the human condition. I have enormous respect for the ability of children to build their own models of the human condition from the experiences to which they have access.

S.E.: Indo-Caribbean children's authors are a minority in the field and Caribbean children's stories disproportionately feature Afro-Caribbean characters over characters of other ethnicities. Do you think of yourself as an anomaly and do bring an awareness of cultural representation to your work? 

Writers write who they are. In that regard, we are all anomalies. Indo-Caribbean people are a minority in the world. Most of the Indian diaspora is outside of the Caribbean. Most of the people of the Caribbean are of African descent. By some estimates there are more than ten times more people of African descent than there are people of  Indian descent in the Caribbean. So I am not sure that the presence of Afro-Caribbean characters in Caribbean children' stories is really disproportionate.

My awareness of being from the Caribbean does include my memories of my visits to relatives in Trinidad as a child, but it also includes experiences during my formative years in Dominica where my being of Indian descent had nothing of the socio-political baggage that it had in Trinidad because, in Dominica, people of Indian descent were recent and few. I grew up aware of myself, and being treated by others, more as a unique individual than as a member of a demographically significant ethnic group.

S.E.: You haven't done a lot of interviews in the past, in fact, it seems like you've kept a rather low profile as an author. Have you deliberately avoided the public side of being a children's author? 

V. R.: I simply haven't made room for it in my life. It was a tradeoff. Other things were more important.

S.E.: As a Caribbean children's writer living abroad, what has been the most interesting or challenging thing about navigating the publishing world in the States? 

V. R.: To tell the truth, navigating the publishing world was like backpacking through a foreign country without a map and with only a tenuous grasp of the local language, depending on the kindness of strangers to help me find my way. It was enormous fun. And I was lucky.

I am of a generation that grew up communicating with the outside world through the postal services. To begin with, that is how I communicated with the publishing world. As electronic communication became more common I used that happily. I found that writers and editors do very well writing to each other.

What amused me most was the way my stories looked and sounded to others. I am keenly aware that the story each reader reads is different from the story I wrote, and different from the story that other readers read, and I am content and delighted that it should be so.

S.E.: Your last children's book was published in 2008; a lot has changed in the world of children's publishing since then. Are you still writing and how do you see your future as a children's author in the current landscape? 

V. R.: I had taught high school biological sciences and maths in Trinidad, so after my sons left for College, I decided to go back to teaching full time. That meant first going back to school to get a teaching certificate for my state, and later getting a Masters degree in science education. I teach in a very small rural high school in a town not far from the one where I live, and I enjoy it thoroughly. Now I tell my stories of cultural transmission to my students, but this time the culture I am transmitting to them is the culture of science. The result of all of this is that the empty space in my mind, which I need to be able to write, is filled most of the time now with lesson plans.  I do write for publication occasionally, still. My writing for Kahani for example, was done after I started teaching and the final re-writes of Divali Rose were also done during that time. I have not given up on writing, though. Perhaps after I retire in four or five years, or so, I will re-enter the brave new world of children's writing more fully.

S.E.: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your experience as a children's author?

V. R.: I enjoy the process of writing: the research, the playing with words, and the re-writing. Then, when I offer my writing to publishers and editors and readers, I enjoy watching the transformation that happens as my work takes on a life of its own, independent of me.



About the Interviewer

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia ReviewThe Caribbean Writersx salon and more. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Small Axe Literary Prize in the fiction category. She blogs at www.summeredward.com.

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The Vejigantes are Coming

by Carmen Milagros-Torres

A vegigante by Erick Ortiz Gelpi
When February arrives, the people of Ponce, Puerto Rico prepare for their special festival, the Carnival of Ponce. It is a week-long celebration full of music, dancing, and parades. The Carnival of Ponce has been celebrated in Puerto Rico for hundreds of years. The most important part of this celebration are the masked vejigantes in their bright costumes.

The vejigantes look like colorful monsters that leap and dance to the beat of the drums. Wearing bright, satiny jumpers with wing-like sleeves, they look like human bats. But the most important part of the vejigante costume is the mask.

The masks are made of layers of paper and glue known as paper-mâché. The dried mask is painted in bright yellows, reds, purples, and blues. The artisans then paint complex designs with circles, squares, triangles, or big and small rectangles. All the masks have horns. Some have two horns, some have three, some have seven horns. One mask even has thirteen.

The vejigantes also carry a vejiga, a bag made of cow bladder that is filled with pebbles. The vejiga makes a maraca-like sound as the vejigante swings it trying to hit the people. As the vejigante walk in the parade, the watch the crowd of people. Suddenly, they jump and start chasing any person they see.  They swing the vejiga trying to catch the person who laughs and runs. The crowd cheers at the vejigantes. The vejigante jumps and dances in the crowd and then returns back to the parade.

The vejigantes love to dance.  They move to the rhythm of bomba, the traditional music of Puerto Rico.  This music originated in Africa and is mainly produced by the bomba drum which is made from a barrel. The bomba musician sits behind the drum as he pounds out the rhythm: TUN-TUN-tun-tun, TUN-TUN-tun-tun, TUN-TUN-tun-tun.

When the vejigantes hear the music, they begin to dance. Vejigantes dressed in blue, vejigantes dressed in yellow, vejigantes dressed in green, and vejigantes dressed in purple. And all dance to the rhythm of TUN-TUN-tun-tun. As they walk down the street you can hear, “The vejigantes are coming!” The children shout and dance, twirling round and round. The vejigantes jump and dance and join the children’s dance.

Then comes the round of chants. The vejigantes and children chant silly songs about the vejigantes and the carnival:

Vejigantes: Knock, knock, knock, knock!
Children:         The vejigantes eat coconut!
Vejigantes: Pru-cu-ta, pru-cu-ta!
Children:         How good is all that?
Vejigantes: That old woman is a witch!
Children:         A witch she is!
Vejigantes: And her eyes are the color...
Children:         of chocolate!
Vejigantes: Vejigante to the water!
Children:         Bread and onion!
Vejigantes: Vejigante ate mango !
Children:         And even licked his toes!
Vejigantes: Knock, knock, knock, knock!
Children:         The vejigantes eat coconut!
Vejigantes: La-ri-O, la-ri-O!
Children:         La-ri-O, la-ri-O!
Vejigantes: La-ri,la-ri, la-ri-O!
Children:         La-ri,la-ri, la-ri-O!

And then the vejigantes once more dance to the rhythm of bomba. When the music ends, the vejigantes leave the carnival. They will return next February to dance and play more pranks.


About the author...

Carmen Milagros Torres is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao. She is currently completing a PhD in Caribbean Linguistics. Her interests include photography, crocheting and reading children's literature, especially Caribbean children's books which highlight the Afro-Caribbean experience.

About the illustrator...

Erick Ortiz Gelpi is a plastic artist and visual arts teacher from Peñuelas, Puerto Rico. He has participated in numerous collective and individual art expositions. His illustrations have appeared in The Caribbean Voice newspaper published in New York.

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Featured Illustrators: Laura James

Laura James

Anna Carries Water is Olive Senior's upcoming picturebook (Tradewind Books, 2014), set in Jamaica, about a girl learning to balance water from the spring on her head. Laura James illustrated Anna Carries Water, her debut work as a children's illustrator. James created the illustrations using acrylic on canvas.

Anna, the youngest of six children, cannot carry water on her head like the rest of her siblings. In the illustration titled "Hurry up Anna!", Anna's sisters and brothers wait while she tries her best to get the coffee can on her head. They are ready to go and she is still trying to balance her can. They don’t think she can do it and they are tired of waiting.

In the illustration, "Home From the Spring", the children walk in a straight line; all except Anna are balancing water on their heads. James confesses: "This is one of my favorite pictures because I was able to show a lot of foliage and a bit of the countryside, and the orange leaf trees that I enjoyed painting. I was also happy to be able to get the Jamaican flag in this one." The illustration, "Oh No, Cows!", shows Anna as she comes face to face with one of Mr. Johnson’s cows; she is very afraid of them and thinks they are out to get her! Of course they are not, and this fear actually helps her to finally balance her water can on her head. Because she is afraid she doesn’t think about it, but puts the can on her head and takes off running!

"Hurry up, Anna!"

Oh no, cows!

Laura on what Caribbean children's illustration means to her:

"I was very delighted to make the illustrations for this book, written by celebrated Jamaican-Canadian author Olive Senior, and set in Jamaica. This was my first time illustrating a children’s picture book, and I worked on the paintings for about a year. I like to use vibrant colors and painting foliage and lush scenes, and interesting animals, so making these pictures for a Caribbean story was great. It is also nice to share the story with children in the States who are unfamiliar with Caribbean scenes and language, explaining what ‘dasheen’ is, etc. Also sharing the struggles of having to fetch water for daily use and talking about water conservation with young children has been a plus."

Home from the Spring

Laura James, a self-taught painter of Antiguan heritage, has been working as a professional artist and illustrator for over twenty years. She has organized many exhibitions and special projects, including initiating a successful crowd-funding campaign to bring culturally relevant religious art to a remote area in Haiti. Ms. James is currently at work on an ongoing series of paintings titled Nannies and Other Mothers where she tells the stories of countless women who leave their families to come to America, UK, or Canada in search of a better life, taking jobs as domestic workers. The Nanny Series – A Postcolonial Reading incorporates a paper and slide presentation around this project and was first presented at the 2nd ISA Forum of Sociology in Buenos Aires, Argentina in August 2012. James work is widely collected and exhibited and her images have been published in numerous publications and media. She lives and works in the Bronx, New York.

View more of Laura's work here:


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Rolling Calf

by Lisa E. Dunn

Chased by Gary Dunn
One morning, before the break of day, Papa and Jay got dressed and walked down the road to wait on the bus. They were going to the city and had to catch the only bus that passed their house at four-thirty in the morning.

It was a cold and misty morning and the place was so quiet that you could hear the wind whistling. Jay was afraid. He’d heard stories about all sorts of ghosts who walked this road trying to find their homes and families.

Papa and Jay had been waiting for only five minutes, when Papa suddenly remembered something that he had forgotten in the house. “Wait here, I won’t be long” he said. And off he was, leaving Jay all alone...

Jay didn’t know how long his father was gone. All he knew was that it was the scariest time in his life. Soon after his father left, everything changed. The place was no longer as quiet as before, the trees seemed to be clashing loudly against each other. And the mist got so thick that, looking down, Jay could hardly see his shoes. The place also seemed darker than before; there were hardly any street lights except the one at Mrs. Mark’s gate, and even that one Jay could barely see.

Everything seemed to come alive, and then – out of nowhere – came the clanking sound of chains.

Cla-clang! Cla-clang! Cla-clang clang!

Rump! Rump! Rump!

Something was coming in Jay’s direction with great speed. He couldn’t tell what it was, just heard the sound of chains dragging towards him and the stumping sound of something running as if it was being chased.

Then he remembered: “Yesterday was Mr. Mike’s funeral”. Mr. Mike was an old man who worked in the market, he was a butcher.

Jay was overtaken by fright. Oh dear! What was he supposed to do? He could not run because his father told him to stay put. If he moved and the bus passed he’d surely be in trouble. He had to stay!

But should he close his eyes? He wanted to. He was too afraid to keep them open. But he also worried that if he did shut his eyes, he would not be able to see what was coming at him. What to do? He was still pondering this question, when his eyes made the decision for him: they closed by themselves.

Jay was getting hotter and hotter by the second. His heart was beating loudly and felt like it was moving out of his chest into his throat.

The sounds of the chains were getting closer, louder and heavier.

Jay could feel the threat of whatever was coming on the back of his neck. Goose pimples were all over him. He held up his shaking hands and put them over his face and realized it was dripping with sweat.
His mind started chanting loudly, the same chant over and over:

Rolling calf, rolling calf
Don’t you stay
To see the rolling calf
Get out of the way
Of the rolling calf

“Whoi! Whoi! Whoi! Somebody help me ! Mr. Mike…the rolling calf is coming for me!”

Jay took off. He ran into the direction of his house. His knees were up to his chest and his feet gave him great speed.

“Help me! Help me! It’s coming for me!” he shouted while running as fast as he could. Without realizing it he ran straight into his father, who was as frightened as Jay was. Trying to find out what could have caused such fear in Jay, he held Jay and said, “Boy, what’s the matter?”

“Rolling calf! rolling calf!” Jay answered.

“Rolling Calf?” Papa held Jay aside and looked over his shoulder, down the road. Then Papa smiled, and, looking at his frightened son, he said, “I didn’t know Mr. Joe’s cow was a rolling calf?”

“No, not Mr. Joe’s cow. A rolling calf is down there…”

Jay spun around and looked down the road. But there was no rolling calf… Only Mr. Joe’s red cow. The animal had gotten loose.

“I thought … I was certain…I thought it was a rolling calf…” Jay mumbled.

“Did you see the rolling calf?” Papa asked.

“No, I didn’t! I heard it coming and shut my eyes and ran up here.” Jay answered.

“So you thought Mr. Joe’s cow was a rolling calf?” Jay’s father laughed and laughed and laughed. Then he said, “Let’s catch your rolling calf, tie it to a tree and send a message to Mr. Joe.”

When they got on the bus, the only thing Jay could think of was how he had just acted. He had run from something that had not even been there.

It was funny; Jay had created his own fear and had run from it. He’d also had his father laughing and he knew that his father would tell his mom all about it when they got home.

But that morning had also made Jay stronger. He decided that from then on he would bravely face anything that came towards him before making assumptions.


About the author

Lisa E. Dunn is a Jamaican living in Manchester, Jamaica. She has a BSc. degree in Public Administration from the University of the West Indies, Mona, and is working on the thesis for her Master’s degree in Government. In 2009, she co-founded the A Brighter Day Foundation, with the mission of easing the burden of poverty affecting Jamaican children. Through this foundation she has worked to increase literacy in schools by donating books to schools and leading reading sessions with children in schools. Her experiences working to increase literacy have led her to add to the existing body of children's literature by writing her own books. Every story written is based on the experiences of real life children and is intended to teach, to inspire, or simply to entertain.

About the illustrator

Gary Dunn is a Jamaican freelance artist and entrepreneur in the hospitality management field. He has a passion for art, which was his major in school. His interests include drawing, painting and graphic design.

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Silver People and The Adventure of History: Interview with Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle talks to Summer Edward about her upcoming middle grade to young adult novel, Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal, her love of rain forests, imagining the historical past and more.

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American winner of the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino. Her award winning young adult novels in verse include The Surrender Tree, The Poet Slave of Cuba, Tropical Secrets, and The Firefly Letters. Engle’s most recent books are The Lightning Dreamer and When You Wander. Her new middle grade chapter book, Mountain Dog, was published in August 2013. Margarita's upcoming book, Silver People: Voices From the Panama Canal, will be released in 2014. She lives in central California where she enjoys helping her husband with his volunteer work for wilderness search and rescue dog training programs.


S.E.: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal is your upcoming children’s novel from Harcourt Publishers and University of Queensland Press. The book’s release will coincide with the centenary of the Panama Canal in 2014. What is the story behind this book and what inspired you to tell the story of the “silver people” 100 years later? 

M. E.: Long ago, when I was still working as a botanist, I was treated kindly by silver people of Jamaican ancestry, in a remote corner of Costa Rica’s rain forest. I was surprised to learn that they were the descendants of a massive labor force of imported Panama Canal “diggers” who were abandoned by the U.S. at the end of the project, and had to spread out in search of work on banana plantations. This book is written in honor of all the “silver people” from all the Caribbean islands and southern Europe, who were paid silver, while Americans and northern Europeans received gold, simply based on skin color. Silver People is also my personal love letter to tropical rain forests.

S.E.: What was something surprising or interesting that you learnt, either about Panamanian history or about yourself (or both), while researching and writing Silver People?  

M.E.: I knew about the Panama Canal Zone’s U.S.-imposed, apartheid-like system of racial discrimination, because my Cuban mother talked about it when I was a child. I was only vaguely aware that most of the Panama Canal’s incomprehensibly vast excavation was accomplished by Caribbean islanders with shovels, not modern equipment. I had no idea that there were hundreds of thousands of laborers, over a period of decades that began with a disastrous attempt by France, and ended with a successful one by the U.S.

S.E.: As a children’s and young adult writer, you are known for your historical picturebooks and verse novels that combine poetry, history and biography to tell stories about the Cuban experience. How and why did you hit upon this particular “formula” if you will, for writing books? Why the verse novel form in particular?

M.E.: It is a passion. When I was writing my first two young adult verse novels, The Poet Slave of Cuba, and The Surrender Tree, I fell madly in love with the form. Now, every time I try to go back to prose, I find myself feeling unsatisfied. I need free verse. This form allows me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence. I am more interested in asking questions with my books, than in trying to answer them. My recurring question is, “What did it feel like to live in that time and place? I invite modern young readers to join me in wondering about the young people of long ago, who often managed to make hopeful choices in times that must have seemed hopeless.

A writer's life: Conducting historical research
S.E.: Your books are largely biographies and so your characters are either imagined historical people or real life historical figures like the Swedish traveler Fredrika Bremer in Firefly Letters and the celebrated Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano in Poet Slave of Cuba. What are some of the things you have had to consider when bringing historical characters to life in general and in Silver People in particular?

M.E.: Because my books are verse novels rather than academic biographies, “poetic license” allows me to imagine missing details. Nevertheless, I am happiest when a first person diary is available, which was true for both Bremer and Manzano. I did not have to imagine events, because they wrote about their own lives, and all I had to do was wonder how those events felt.

In the case of Silver People, I read many first person accounts, in order to develop composite characters. The topic of Panama Canal construction is so incredibly enormous that I could only portray a few people. Many characters were written out of early drafts, in order to avoid losing the emotional impact of wondering about the lives of individuals. I chose to focus on a Cuban character for reasons of cultural familiarity, even though the vast majority of laborers were from Jamaica and Barbados. I hope writers from those islands, and from Panama, will also offer their own portrayals, which I will be eager to read.

S.E.: Typically your books have multiple characters who speak in first-person free verse. In Silver People, along with the voices of the West Indian labourers, you’ve included the voices of the animals and trees of the Panama rainforest. Tell us a bit about what voice means to you and about the nature of voice in your work. How do you go about creating unique voices for your characters and is this difficult to do?

M.E.: Writing the voices of animals and trees came so naturally to me that I don’t know if I will ever feel entirely human again. Perhaps it is because I am a botanist and birdwatcher, married to an entomologist, but also because I love to imagine. Imagine the tropics without rain forest. Imagine the future without biological diversity. Imagine the laments of falling trees, the protests of howler monkeys, the survival strategies of butterflies and snakes… I hope children can learn some basic rain forest biology from these voices. I also hope they learn about balance. The Panama Canal was the first modern engineering project of its magnitude.  Even today, it is viewed as a symbol of man’s conquest of nature. Imagine if someday, somehow, people who are just children now, will grow up to be adults who learn how to balance “progress” and conservation. I hope teachers will let children choose voices to read out loud. What twelve-year-old would not instinctively understand the territorial rage of howlers, or the shy camouflage of sloths?

S.E.: You were born in Los Angeles, the child of a Cuban immigrant mother, and have lived in the United States all your life. Cuban history, culture and people figure predominantly in your work. How have you maintained your connection to Cuba and what made you focus on Cuba as your writing material?

M.E.: Childhood summers in Cuba were the magnet that keeps drawing me back. I have returned many times since 1991, but during the worst of Cold War isolation, from before the 1962 Missile Crisis until after the fall of the Soviet Union, I could not travel to Cuba. Those were decades of imagining. The island became more than a real place. It was the emotional center of my childhood’s universe, and now it is the magic-realistic center of my poetry. I just completed a childhood memoir that has helped me clarify my hyphenated self.  I have, however, also branched out. Two of my new books for younger children, When You Wander, and Mountain Dog, are set in the U.S., because my husband is a volunteer K-9 handler, and our dogs are wilderness SAR dogs, trained to find lost hikers in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I spend part of every weekend hiding in the forest near Yosemite, so the dogs can practice finding a lost person. It is a huge part of my “real life.” I also have a picture book called Tiny Rabbit’s BIG WISH, coming out in March, and one due out next year, about orangutans, inspired by a visit to a wildlife refuge in Borneo.

S.E.: I always look forward to seeing the cover art for your books; I find the covers quite distinctive. Raúl Colón did the cover art for Silver People and also for Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. I am a Raúl Colón fan myself. Do you ever collaborate with illustrators and do you place a high value on what the covers of your books look like?

M.E.: Thank you!  I am so incredibly fortunate to have wonderful editors who choose marvelous artists. Most of my covers are by illustrators chosen by Reka Simonsen. I am a Raúl Colón fan too, so I am thrilled that he agreed to do two of my book covers. When I saw Silver People, it took my breath away. The faces, the forest, the butterflies, frog, monkey…it’s absolutely perfect for this story, because he painted beauty and hope, but there is a shovel too. Hard work. A struggle…

S.E.: Most children’s writers come to the craft of writing stories for children with a specific vision for reaching child readers. What is the hope or message that propels you as a children’s author and what do you think Caribbean children in particular can gain from reading your books?

M.E.: I hope children from the Caribbean will realize that their history has not yet been told. Only the mainland view is available for most topics. Young people will be the ones who can grow up and research, write, correct errors of misunderstanding…I also hope that children from any background will be able to identify with the universal themes of freedom and justice. I hope readers enjoy the adventure of history, experiencing books as a form of time travel. I hope they fall in love with poetry---I know some teachers avoid poetry because they assume it will be hard to understand, but that’s not true of novels written in free verse. These books have friendly pages, with just a few simple words, and a great deal of open space that can be filled in by the reader’s own imagination. I hope children will see my books as gardens where they can plant their own thoughts.



About the Interviewer

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia ReviewThe Caribbean Writersx salon and more. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Small Axe Literary Prize in the fiction category. She blogs at www.summeredward.com.

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