Bridges that Lead to the Past: Testimonial Tales in Children’s Literature

by Keila K. Alemán

Caribbean children’s literature may differ from adult narratives in terms of how these texts rework history. According to Dash (1998), “The Caribbean became a fantasy theater for the imaginations of travelers, adventurers, and missionaries: communities whose relations with Europe had been longer and more complex than anywhere else” (24). These settlers created a distorted image of the Caribbean, interpreting history and society as they saw fit. Even today, there is still a shroud of mysticism and exoticism surrounding the islands by those who are in the dark about what lies beneath the paradise façade. Contemporary Caribbean authors attempt to rework history in order to reveal alternative readings of our past. Through narrative, usually intended for adult readers, we are (sometimes) able to uncover the secrets hidden beneath centuries of historical abuse, repression and silence.

On the other hand, children may have difficulties understanding and even learning the history of their country. Due to modernity and all the advances it has brought, children seem unaware of not only their country’s history, but their own roots as well. Depending solely on the school system to learn about the past has proven to be a double-edged sword. Through formal education, some children may gain an accurate and in-depth understanding of their national history; others, might not be as fortunate. Yet there is a source besides the educational system that can convey information about the past in an accurate and truthful manner: the traditional storyteller.

In many young adult and children’s books, the story is told from a storyteller’s point of view, and most of the time, this weaver of tales is an elder figure. Why an elder character? As someone who has lived through countless events, this person can provide their audience with first hand experiences and perceptions that younger children have not yet had. Not all Caribbean books for children deal with history and how its events generate transitions from the past to the present. Yet, it should not be overlooked that some of them do. Such is the case with books like Claudette Adams’ step reader The Village Storyteller, and the picturebook by Juliet Barclay, Miri and the Magic Door. These testimonial tales not only appeal to a child’s imagination, but they also describe a reality that many younger generations are no longer aware of.

The Village Storyteller could be interpreted as a retelling of the narrators’ experiences when she was a young girl. Tante Lou, who has grown up in the story setting, has taken on the responsibility of sharing with her audience, the village children, tales of her childhood. In The Village Storyteller the reader is treated to a vision of a life that was far simpler from what Fancy village currently experiences. Through Tante Lou’s stories the children discover a history of their village they were unfamiliar with.

Tante Lou describes to the children how Fancy has changed since she was a little girl: “When I was small, there were patches of tall green stalks of sugarcane in almost every yard” (Adams 6); this observation expresses the significant changes the village has undergone. From this memory of sugarcane and its abundance, it could be assumed that at some point the island was touched by slavery and a sugar-based economy. When asked by the children how Fancy came about its name, Tante Lou replies: “It was named after I was born. Maybe it was something to do with buying a motor car. Or perhaps it was about the waterfall near the entrance of the village” (Adams 6). At these remarks the children quickly shout out, “What waterfall and what motor car?” (Adams 6). Their questions expose how oblivious they were of their village’s origin, thus, it is up to Tante Lou, the storyteller, to fill in the historical gaps.

One of the purposes of the storyteller, which is usually a grandparent or village elder, is to connect the past with the present. These elder characters lived through challenging historical times, and even though their stories of the past are not always told in an explicit manner it is up to the audience to read between the lines. At the urging of Jessie, who pleads with Tante Lou to tell them how things were in the “old days”, the old woman says:

In those days money was scarce but we had everything that we needed. We bartered chickens for butter, flour, sugar, and everyone was happy doing that. But can you do that nowadays? Can you take live chickens into the supermarket and exchange them for something you want? …Life was so simple back then (Adams 18).

It is this simplicity Tante Lou seems to yearn for and that she wants to get across to the children.

The Village Storyteller also highlights the importance of village elders as a link between Africa and the Caribbean. Their wisdom helped preserve the culture of their homeland, Africa. Even though Tante Lou does not mention Africa or the past, elements in the illustrations, for example, how she dresses and her head-tie, demonstrate the continuing influence this continent still has. Thus, apart from the written tale in itself, there is another aspect of children’s storybooks that should be considered: their illustrations. Through wonderful and creative drawings, artists are able to covey a historical reality that existed long before readers were born. The illustrations carry a message as powerful as the story and should be given the same significance and attention.

In the book, Miri and the Magic Door, the main character, Miri, embarks in a wonderful adventure back in time. The illustrator, Xiomara Sera's artwork presents Havana (where the story is set) to readers. For those little girls and boys who have never seen a single picture of Havana because they are too young or unfamiliar with a country other than their own, these illustrations allow them to better imagine this part of Cuba is and how it used to be centuries before. When Miri goes through the magical door nothing seems quite as it was before. The buildings are there and so is the street and the trees, but the port is full of ship's masts and the square is full of horses. Sera is able to illustrate Cuba in the era of piracy and days long gone and forgotten. The drawings portray the vibrant scenery of an island that is filled with history, and these colorful depictions are what attract the children to the story.

As Miri’s travels conclude and she returns to her current time, the young girl realizes that “she’s traveled back to Now. A ship hoots loudly, leaving the port. Tourists take photographs of the old fort. A radio’s blaring the baseball scores. Electric light shines through half open doors” (Barclay 46). This book juxtaposes the past with the present, narrating the tale of a child who shares an adventure with a pirate and his crew aboard a ship. Highly imaginative, the detailed drawings display the difference between the Cuba of the past and the Cuba of the present.

Children’s books like the ones discussed above do more than simply entertain and teach young boys and girls about simple or complex sentence structures; they establish a cultural link that could be quickly forgotten without these narratives. Characters like the village elder and Miri, a young girl relating her adventures to her mother, serve as bridges between cultures. These tools ensure that the words of wisdom, fables, and knowledge of the Caribbean past will remain in the minds and hearts of generations of children, as long as they are willing to sit down and listen to a storyteller who has knowledge to impart.


Adams, C.M. (2003). The village storyteller. Macmillian Publishers: Malaysia.

Barclay, J. (2007) Miri and the magic door. Macmillian Publishers: Thailand.

Dash, M. J. (1998). “Tropes and tropicality” in The other America: Caribbean literature in a new world context. The University Press of Virginia: 21-42.


About the author

Keila Alemán is a doctoral student in Literature and Languages of the English Speaking Caribbean in the Department of English Graduate Program at the University of Puerto Rico. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Comparative Literature and a Master’s Degree in English Literature with a focus on British Literature. Her areas of interest are young adult and children’s literature in the Caribbean and the literature of the Chinese diaspora in the islands. Currently, Keila is working as a research assistant and aiding in the completion of a book focusing on myth performance in African diaspora.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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