Spotlight

Jamaica's Children's Writers Circle (1983-2006): A Retrospective



CWC members, clockwise from left top: 1. Lorrise DaCosta 2. Hazel Campbell 3. Jean Forbes 4. Diane Browne 5. Pat Persaud




Formed by a group of Jamaicans in 1983, the Children's Writer's Circle (CWC) set a blueprint for what community-based children's publishing looks like and can achieve. In the 80s and 90s, their members, mostly women, spearheaded many important initiatives that advanced the enterprise of Jamaican and regional children's literature. We are honoured to share this never-before-published missive from the CWC archives with a current afterword by founding member and long-time children’s book activist Diane Browne.



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The Children's Writers Circle: How It All Began

Lorrise DaCosta, Chairman of the Children's Writers Circle

May 2006


More than 20 years ago a journalist, Billy Hall, and a creative preschool teacher, Pat Persaud, got together, collaborated with each other, and became co-founders of The Children's Writers Circle. They encouraged their friends, and others who had a passion for literature to join the group. Those of us whom they recruited caught their vision and, armed with dreams and limitless imaginations, were ushered into the world of writing.

This was the first chapter in the story of The Children's Writers Circle. The story with all its ups and downs, still continues today. If we had any concept then of how difficult the world of writing would have been, we probably would have declined the invitation and not become involved at all. But, we would have missed the joys and the satisfaction of writing for children.

With limited resources, armed only with a dream, a name, imagination, and a great deal of enthusiasm, we officially launched The Children's Writers Circle in 1983 at a seminar which focused on the writing of stories for Jamaican children. 

The founding members then were Pat Persaud, Billy Hall, Diane Browne, Michael Record, Lorrise DaCosta, Jean Forbes, Pauline Bain, Berna McIntosh and Eda Jackson. Other members who joined later include Jerrie Isaacs, Rutty Mitchell and Hazel Campbell.

Each of us, we later discovered, had a unique writing style, a style which reflected our singular assortment of experience and insight, but a style which nevertheless required refining and grooming. We endeavored to nurture each others ' novel style, studying the components of memorable literature for children, and integrating an understanding of those components into our own writing.

Our editors, Michael Record, Diane Browne and Jean Forbes, never allowed us to forget that embodied in the objectives of The Children's Writers Circle is the word “excellence.” So when anyone wrote scripts that seemed like cardboard, cut out and pasted on a background, instead of a real environment where believable people lived, laughed, cried, struggled, and achieved, we were sent back, again and again, to improve our craft.


Objectives of the Children's Writers Circle


The concern which underlay the decision to form the Circle was a perceived need to produce in Jamaica, literary materials, relevant to Jamaican children under twelve years of age. Our mission was stated as “facilitating the art of reading among Jamaican children and encouraging the development of creative expressions by promoting writing skills.” 

I have used the word “relevant.” I hope that you will allow me to spend a few moments clarifying exactly what “relevant” should and should not mean. We in the Circle are fully aware that the term “relevant” has, in recent years, acquired socio-political connotations when used in the context of children's writing. Too often, in the English-speaking world, relevance has been the inspiration for materials aimed consciously at the concerns of children— often, specifically, working class and deprived children— as these concerns were understood by middle-class professors of social consciousness.

In other words, so-called “relevant” material has been conceived in a spirit of patronage and written by those “above” for those “below”, whom, the authors believed, could not possibly be expected to understand anything outside the range of their own limited experience, or to appreciate any language richer or more subtle than those they were likely to encounter in their daily lives. An unmixed diet of such material would, I suggest, result in the cultural and linguistic impoverishment of the child exposed to it. 

Fantasy has long been the central ingredient of some of the best loved writings for children. I believe that each one of us would be the poorer had we not read in our formative years stories such as Grimm’s fairy tales, Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island, the Alice books, and I could go on. No one could say that a child should not be exposed to these great works because they are not relevant to the cultural surroundings in which that child has the fortune or — misfortune  — to be born. We are agreed however, that as part of the English-speaking family, materially deprived children can benefit richly from such works, not only as a means of escape from everyday reality, but because of the introduction that these books afford to great ideas and great language. They are a training of the mind. 

Our Creole is at best a very sinewy and vigorous language with many of the same qualities as the English of the King James Bible. If we are agreed, however, that Jamaican children should be brought up as part of the English-speaking family, we should recognize the special difficulties— and opportunities— arising from the influences of Creole. We have tried, in the material that we write for our children, to take into account their culture and heritage, which should nevertheless prepare them for their place in the English-speaking world, while still celebrating their Jamaican culture and heritage. 

One of our major concerns is the production of good local material which our children will not only enjoy, but with which they can also identify. If it is good, the over-twelves will enjoy it as well. It is with these considerations in mind, therefore, that the Circle was constituted:

  • To bring together Jamaicans who are serious about writing for children
  • To focus attention on the dearth of materials suitable for the under-twelve age group
  • To ensure that the materials prepared are of a high literary standard
  • To make a social contribution by focusing attention on issues of morality and Christian values


Through all our trials and frustrations we have tried to hold fast to these ideals.


Achievements


What has the Children's Writers Circle achieved over the years, since we came into existence? You may very well ask. To date, we have published twelve books, hosted numerous seminars on writing for children and earned many medals and certificates of merit for writing short stories from the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, although many of these are yet to be published. Individually, we have also earned many medals. 

Getting our stories published has been the Circle's greatest challenge. We have adopted many creative and innovative strategies to enhance the publishing of our materials. What continues to be a challenge is the need to find ways of marketing, exposing, and making our books accessible and available to the children who need them the most. We have employed creative strategies such as:

  • Hosting Authors Day at preparatory schools
  • Conducting children's reading corners in leading bookstores
  • Participating in book fairs
  • Soliciting service clubs and financial institutions to underwrite the cost of our books, as gifts to libraries and prep school libraries, as well as to children who need books but are unable to afford them
  • Co-financing the cost of publication, although many of these stories are yet to be published.


In closing, I share with you some factors that make us proud to be Circle members. We did some things that hadn't been done before. A group of inexperienced writers, mainly women, and many unheard of before, have created an opportunity to contribute to our society. We have managed to stay together to sustain our vision, our creativity and our passion for writing stories for children. Our mandate will always be writing for children. Now more than ever, our society needs our efforts in writing creatively to enlighten, to educate and to entertain our children.

We need to write for children, but we also need to pray for those children who live in an X- rated world. Who are born in places where we wouldn't be caught dead. Who stare at photographers from behind barbed wires. Who watch their parents die. Whose monsters are real. Whose nightmares come in the daytime. Who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep. Who will grab the hand of anyone kind enough to offer it. Who never get a second chance. Who live and move, but have no being. And also, for those we smother.


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This speech was delivered by the then President, Lorrise DaCosta, at the last public event held by the CWC. The guest speaker was Jean D’Costa whose book Jenny and the General (Carlong Publishers) was launched at that function. We tried to keep the CWC going but the main drawback was that persons interested in writing also wanted avenues for quick publishing which we cound not guarantee. Funds and funding possibilites dried up, some persons became heavily involved in further academic study, membership dwindled and it became increasingly hard for the committed few to continue. 

To revive the CWC, it needs to be registered with the Government and keep the kinds of records this demands. One of the main deterrents to the continued existence of this kind of group is that it is based entirely on voluntary service which often, for various very legitimate reasons, cannot be sustained. The organization needs some kind of established secretariat, with at least one body paid to control and carry out its functions on a regular basis. 

The CWC was not the main contributer to the numbers of children’s books published in Jamaica. There were a few established publishers doing this for some time. Also, some books were self-published. What the CWC did was to encourage new writers and emphasize training for children’s writers. At its most vibrant stage, different aspects of writing for children were discussed at regular monthly meetings attended by 10 to 12 persons. Meetings were sometimes held at the president’s home and sometimes in schools, or the main library’s reading room which was a more central location for those travelling by bus.

The Children’s Writers Circle served a good purpose at a time when there was little publicity about and access to Jamaican children’s books. However, as indicated above, it became increasingly difficult to maintain activities in a group that was dependent on volunteers. 

It is important to note also that times have changed. There are now a number of younger children’s writers; there are some three new children’s publishers run by these younger writers. In addition, self-publishing with its option for either e-books or hardcopies, or both, has resulted in many new writers being able to see their stories in print. What is significant is that self-publishing has not always resulted in inferior packaging. Our children’s writers and publishers have been able to produce material of quality. And although marketing and the selling of books in a small market remain a challenge, one can say that the future for Jamaican children’s books is encouraging.


Selection of Children's Books Published by the CWC


Childhood Whispers by Pat Persaud, CWC, 1988
Children! Children! by Pat Persaud, CWC, 1986
Gammon and the Woman’s Tongue Trees by Diane Browne, CWC, 1987.
Just Suppose So and Other Stories by Diane Browne, Lorrise Da Costa, Paula Ellis, Jean Forbes, Berna McIntosh, Eda Haejsib and Pat Persaud. Edited by Diane Browne and Michael Reckord, illustarted by Andrea Haynes, CWC, 1990
Little People by Pat Persaud, illustrated by Cathi Levy, 1984
The Big River and Other Stories, CWC, 1984
Things I Like by Diane Browne, CWC, 1984.
Tipsy by Pat Persaud; edited by Elaine Brooks; illustrated by Cathi Levy, CWC, 1986


About the Author

Diane Browne has been writing for more than 20 years. Her children’s stories have been published in the United Kingdom, in the USA and in Jamaica. She has won gold medals for her children’s stories in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s literary competitions and her books have won awards from the Book Industry Association of Jamaica. She received the Bronze Musgrave Medal in 2004 for her work in children’s literature. In 2011, she won the Special Prize for a Story for Children in the Commonwealth Foundation short story competition. In 2014, her YA book, Island Princess in Brooklyn, was shortlisted for the inaugural CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. Most recently, she self-published the 2016 picturebooks Abigail’s Glorious Hair and The Happiness Dress.


About the Author

Lorrise DaCosta is the author of two short story collections for children, Double Trouble and Other Stories and Just Suppose and Other Stories, both published by the Children's Writers Circle. In the 1994 National Literary Arts Competition sponsored by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, she won a silver medal and a certificate of merit. She also won bronze medals in 1989 and 1990. She holds a diploma in writing for children from the Institute of Children's Literature in Connecticut, USA.

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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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