Broader, Better Conversations for Caribbean Children's Literature: Experts Speak Out

Here at Anansesem we have gained the conviction that literary coverage and criticism of Caribbean children's literature can be improved by broader participation and representation in conversations about the literature. Formal, public conversations about our literature for children do not happen nearly enough in informed circles; moreover, a tendency to fixate on deficit views of the literature has narrowed the conversation. We asked industry experts to read this article, Broader, Better Literary Conversations, published in The Nation earlier this year and use it as a point of departure to write a response to the question: How can publishers, editors, scholars and reviewers have broader, better conversations about Caribbean children's literature? Here's what they had to say.

Joanne Gail Johnson, Island Fiction Series (Macmillan) Editor: The greatest “pay days” come when a complete stranger purchases a book with which I am involved, because it is selected from among the available choices, as the one they most want to read; or when my name is recognized, not for the fame, but because it means that they have read and enjoyed a book with which I’m affiliated. These “ Real Reader” moments are the best reviews; my most affluent ‘pay-off’s. Establishing captive audiences through systems: education ministries, libraries, sponsored pre-sales etc. are real, predictable ways to increase sales, but genuine interest from each customer in the free market, paying one-by-one for what we create, is priceless.

With eleven published stories for children and six ‘tween’ novellas as series editor, I have come to understand the authentic power established between books, and paying readers. More than ever, I am interested in conversations that serve this kind of reality-based work for publishers, their writers and editors. Editors today will have broader, better conversations about Caribbean children’s literature when we:

1. Educate ourselves in an ongoing way about: the business of publishing; the relevance of targeting content to specific markets that we know and understand; the importance of the audience in the chain of supply and demand.
2. Develop an interest in the reader as a free-market consumer and not a guaranteed, captive audience i.e. students in a classroom.
3. When we stop trying to motivate publishing and/or sales by lording a sense of moral duty towards readers who share, or don’t share our genre, culture, gender or ethnicity.
4. Relinquish any fetish for folklore and myth as the most identifiable brands of multiculturalism in the international market.
5. Create and/ or support projects that focus on publishing others. Then we really step fully into the objective roles of  ‘editor’ and ‘publisher’.
6. Stay abreast of trends in content, delivery, marketing strategies and relevant technologies.
7. Recognize specific needs in our markets of interest; and we work to serve and fulfill those needs.
8. Identify the role of illustration, visual/cinematic writing, not only in children’s books but as a part of today’s reading/ ie-in media/ publishing evolution.
9. Understand our Caribbean markets are made up of reluctant readers of all ages, and determine to address cultural change in that regard; looking to the value of high concept, low text density and writing that conveys potency with brevity.
10. Aim to make a story or book better. We are not correcting a classroom paper, proof reading for grammar, punctuation etc. we are thinking holistically about the readers’ experiences.
11. Take risks.

Mario Picayo, Publisher, Editorial Campanita/Little Bell Caribbean: My company is in New York, but my main children’s book market is the Caribbean, particularly the Lesser Antilles. I am Cuban, lived in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I visit the region frequently.

As publishers we should discuss many issues, but there are four that are fundamental: broader distribution of Caribbean children’s books between islands, pricing that allows the average citizen to buy the books, more effort in translating books to the languages of the Caribbean (bi or trilingual editions) and the publication of more titles by local authors and illustrators where the books are held to new standards and not defined by U.S. and European classic models of what is “good” literature.

Addressing these issues would help publishers reach a much broader audience within the Caribbean and would help them explore new markets. The Caribbean, including the diasporas and the continental Caribbean of Central and South America, is over 100 million people strong. Improved distribution, better pricing and multilingual books would help the region economically and culturally, and would encourage new generations of authors, illustrators, publishers, and readers. Finally, I would address the issue of what is considered good literature. Books that “speak” to both children and adults through content that reflects their reality, values and culture are often enthusiastically embraced, purchased and turned into best sellers by the communities for which they are written.

So, recapping, my challenge to other publishers of Caribbean children’s titles would be: try and make books available throughout the region and beyond, make them affordable, translate as many titles as possible, and especially help create a literature with the readers in mind, not in a monolithic sense of "Caribbean," but rather giving margin to different forms of expression that might work at regional levels. That means taking chances on local unknown writers and illustrators who may do well connecting with and inspiring their communities, if given a chance to reach them. With the exception of Cuban children’s authors (in Cuba) the doors are almost closed shut to most writers living in the Caribbean. We need to open them wide.

Dr. Sujin B.E. Huggins, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University: When I embarked upon my research into Caribbean children's literature, I was surprised by how little scholarship there was from which I could build, with very few identifiable scholars investigating and delineating its nature, significance, and prevailing characteristics.  In my exploration of the literature, I found that many questions emerged.

One of the most pressing I have identified is the elucidation of the notion of Caribbean as it pertains to juvenile literature. Based on the majority of the works of Caribbean children’s literature that I examined, all that was needed to legitimize the use of the descriptor and its inclusion in the collection was the mere mention of the word “Caribbean” somewhere in the title, with little consideration to the actual content, ideological stance or implicit/explicit agenda. Closer examination of these works by scholars would ultimately expose some of the inconsistencies and help to establish clearer parameters for the literature so that it does a better job of explaining to its reader what their society was, is, will, can, or should be.

Of course, many of the inconsistencies can be attributed to the dominant place of foreign publishing and its complex relationship with the region. Given that most of the picturebooks included in library collections to which Caribbean children have access or sold in regional bookstores are imported from the United Kingdom, what messages are being transmitted to our children with respect to the perception and worth of the societies in which they live?

In the current information age characterized by the inundation, saturation and consumption of foreign media, is it not our responsibility to understand and compare how Caribbean children currently “read” these competing forces and their culture in an attempt to preserve, create, or influence a literary artifact that more effectively tells them about themselves? One effective way to achieve this would be to simply ask the children themselves how they perceive and use the literature and other forms of media and really listen to what they have to say. If we as scholars continue to dig for the answers and advocate for the children and the literature, the impact can be far-reaching and transformative to our Caribbean societies.

Summer Edward, M.S.Ed., Managing Editor of Anansesem and Book Reviewer: Book reviewers have an important role to play in broadening and diversifying the literary conversation. One way we can do this is by committing to writing serious reviews of both traditionally published and self-published books. This is necessary because over the past three years, an average 59% of the children's books published per year in this market have been self-published books. Add this to the fact that more and more online consumers are buying, reading, and buying into these self-published works, and we can see that self-publishing has the potential to define Caribbean children's literature and Caribbean children's reading. Thus the self-published works should be examined seriously. So more serious, critical reviews of self-published works are in order, as opposed to feel-good reviews that merely talk up the books for publicity's sake.  

Reviewers can also broaden the literary conversation by reviewing children's books from former years that have gone unrecognized. There are many children's authors of the last four decades or so whose works have not been examined, or not been examined enough. Many of the landmark and important works of Caribbean children's literature, particularly the seminal works in the genre, have a scant or negligible review history. Now is the time for fresh discussions of these books, and reviewers can and should abet these discussions by bringing rare and out-of-print books to the forefront. Literary coverage tends to favor only the most current releases, but the relative inconspicuousness with which this body of literature has emerged means that coverage now needs to be done retroactively. Reviewers must now act like archivists, gathering, assessing and creating new "readings" of the little known books that are of long-term value.

Of course, we need more fora where serious reviews of Caribbean children's books can be published and circulated, both online and in print. By "serious reviews" I mean reviews that apply professional literary criticism to assessments of children's books, which is to say, reviews that demonstrate an erudite understanding of the history, nature and concerns of this particular genre. A serious review culture means going beyond a reviewing lens which fixates on Caribbean children's books as mere cultural artifacts to be celebrated ipso facto, to reviewing the books with an eye to the more universal priorities of children's literature, namely, the ways in which books address the concerns of childhood, and the propensity of stories to speak to child readers.


As readers of Anansesem and of children's books, YOU are also a part of the literary conversation about Caribbean children's literature. What did you think of the experts' views above? What do you want to see more of when it comes to literary coverage (press, journals, reviews, panel discussions) of children's books? What issues or topics would you like to see publishers and editors spending more time on? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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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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