Spotlight

Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature: Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson






The essay below is a part of our 'Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature' series. During Women's History Month, and in celebration of Anansesem's 10th anniversary, we're publishing essays by or about 10 female trailblazers whose labors, writings, editorial work and foundational research created the growing field of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.


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It seems as if being a scholar of children’s literature was written into my genes; I became hooked on books from the moment I learned how to hold one in my hands. Throughout my childhood, my thirst for books kept growing; as a child, I was always reading and writing stories. In high school, I was sought out by my peers whenever they wanted to know which book to read next. I attended a boarding school and had lots of time on my hands; during that five-year period, I systematically read through my school library. This was when I first encountered British and American classics like Gulliver’s Travels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Black Beauty, as well as series books likes Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene, Frank Dixon’s Hardy Boys series, and Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. These early reading experiences fed my imagination and embedded the literary conventions of story in my mind. All of this was preparing me for my future career as a children’s librarian, university lecturer and writer of stories for young people.

I was eighteen years old when I got my first job at the St. Ann Parish Library. There, I was introduced to the wider world of children’s literature when I was put in charge of Children’s Story Hour. It was my responsibility to select suitable stories to share with the children on Saturday mornings under a huge Poinciana tree on the library grounds. I embraced the opportunity to read as many children’s books as I could. This was when I discovered I really enjoyed reading children’s books. I knew I was naturally inclined towards the humanities but had no idea where this would take me, until I stumbled across the world of children’s books: suddenly my path became clearer.

As an undergrad, I majored in English literature. In 1974, I formally studied children’s literature for the first time while earning my postgraduate diploma in librarianship at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus. I became completely immersed in the field and went on to pursue it as my specialization when I did my PhD at the University of Toronto. My dissertation, which I completed in 1997, was titled “The Voluntary Reading Interests and Habits of Jamaican Sixth Graders.” Since then, the main thrust of my writings and research has been the need for more indigenous Caribbean children’s literature and for our Caribbean realities to be authentically portrayed in books for young readers. It was daunting, but also exciting, to produce scholarly work on Caribbean children’s literature at a time when hardly any research in this area existed.

Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson receiving
an award from Kingston Bookshop in 2002
for her outstanding contribution to children’s
literature
In 1986, I began lecturing on children’s literature at the Department of Library and Information Studies at UWI, Mona where I taught for the next twenty-two years. When I took over the course, its major emphasis was on British and American books, and I expanded the syllabus to include more Caribbean books. To support this shift, I set out to identify and acquire as many Caribbean children’s books as my budget would allow; my book purchases over the years have resulted in one of the largest collections of Caribbean children’s books, currently housed in the Main Library at UWI, Mona. In order to accomplish this mammoth task, I travelled to libraries and bookstores in most of the Caribbean countries as well as to Toronto, London, Washington, D.C, and even to the International Youth Library (Internationale Jugendbibliothek) in Munich, Germany.

One of my most memorable book collection trips was my lecture tour to the UK in 2006 where I delivered several public lectures to librarians and teachers in London and Birmingham. My objective was to educate them about the range of Caribbean children’s literature being published and how these works fitted within critical scholarship in the field. I also spent some time at BookTrust which houses copies of almost every children’s book published in the UK within the last two years; there, I searched through thousands of titles to identify, read and record the Caribbean ones. I then went on to the University of Roehampton’s special children’s literature collection to do the same for all those from the previous years. It was hard but rewarding work as I unearthed many titles most of us in the Caribbean did not even know existed. One of my greatest delights was visiting the British Library and finding a book called Mamma's Black Nurse Stories: West Indian Folklore, one of the earliest Caribbean children’s books published in Britain and written for use in Jamaica.

Before going to work at the University, I was a school librarian at the Camperdown High School from 1972 to 1978. There, based on my strong belief in the power of reading in the lives of children, I started a library club that met for seven years. This was but one of the many kinds of programmes I developed to promote childhood reading. In the process, I became a mentor to two of my students who also became school librarians. At the University, most of my students were teachers, and I hope that I was able to transmit to them some of my passion for children’s literature and also motivate them to develop meaningful literature programmes to touch the hearts and nourish the minds of their students. I know that at least two of my students have gone on to become authors, one of whom won a CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature.

Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson conducting a workshop in 2000

Another aspect of my lifelong involvement in children’s literature has been my own writing. In the early 80s, I wrote hundreds of children’s short stories over a ten-year period for weekly broadcast on Radio Jamaica Rediffusion Limited (RJR). My picture book Manny and the Mermaid, illustrated by Irene M. Huber, was published by the Children's Writers Circle in 1987. My first children’s novel, Jojo’s Treasure Hunt, was published by Carlong Publishers in 2003 and was the runner-up for the Vic Reid Prize for Young Adult Literature in the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards presented by JAMCOPY (Jamaican Copyright Licensing Agency) and the Jamaican Writers Society (JAWS). It also won the Carlong Award for best children’s book. Jojo’s Treasure Hunt tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy who decides to search for fabled treasure after his family is threatened with eviction. I was one of the contributors to the children’s short story anthology Tek mi! noh tek mi!: Caribbean Folktales published by Carlong Publishers in 2008. I self-published my second children’s novel, Tara’s Family Secrets, in 2019.



I have also been a publisher; from 1997 to 2004, I single-handedly edited and published a magazine for Caribbean children called Scribbles. After seven years, I finally had to give this up (much to my regret) because of problems with distribution and sales. I started Scribbles because I felt strongly that Caribbean children needed to see themselves positively portrayed in their reading materials. I have been a strong advocate for this all my life and many of my scholarly papers were written within this context.

Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson (far right) at the launch of her children's magazine, Scribbles, November 1997

Over the years, I have been granted many opportunities to share my knowledge and expertise in the field. I have served as an occasional children’s editor for Carlong Publishers, and as a judge for national and regional children’s book awards. I had the honor and pleasure of serving as one of the judges for the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature in its inaugural year, and I have also served as an adjudicator for the Lignum Vitae Writing Awards. For my lifetime work in librarianship, including my contribution to children’s librarianship and literature, I was awarded a bronze Musgrave Medal (an annual award presented by the Institute of Jamaica in recognition of achievement in art, science, and literature) in 2001.

Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson (front row, fourth from left) at the Musgrave Medal award ceremony in 2001

My many years in the children’s literature field have been extremely rewarding ones; I have enjoyed reading and writing children’s books, researching and producing scholarly articles, conducting writing workshops, interviewing authors, and sharing my knowledge at conferences and in other public spaces. I believe with all my heart that exposure to literature from an early age plays an essential role in developing our creativity and imagination. Above all, literature humanizes us, giving us valuable insights into our own lives and that of others, a process that should start when we are children. I cannot imagine a world without children’s literature in its many genres and formats. I am now retired, but my enthusiasm has not waned; I still continue to read, write and edit stories, conduct workshops, and make public presentations.

SLIDESHOW




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Scholarly Books and Articles by Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson


“Training Paraprofessionals: a Cooperative Venture.” IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) Journal, vol. 12, no. 4, 1986: 285-7.

“Windows on the World: Jamaican Literature for Children.” The School Library: Window on the World: 15th Annual Conference Proceedings of the International Associations of School Librarianship, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1987, pp. 99-112.

“Indigenous English Language Books for Caribbean Children: A Historical Perspective.” Jamaica Library Association Bulletin, 1989/90: 38-46.

“The School Library: a Valuable Partner in the Search for Educational Excellence.” Proceedings of the 1990 Cross-campus Conference on Education, 3rd-6th April, 1990, Kingston: UWI Faculty of Education, 1991, pp. 291-296. (Comps. E.P. Brandon and P.N. Nissen)

“Coming of Age in Caribbean Fiction for the Young.” Bridging the Gap Between Nations: Conference Proceedings of the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL), Kalamazoo, Michigan: IASL, 1991, pp. 191-207. (co-authored with Amy Robertson)

“Sexism in Children’s Books.” In Libraries, Learning and Literacy (ed. Ken Ingram). Kingston: Jamaica Library Association, 1994, pp. 193-221.

“Cyril Palmer: 1930 – (Children’s Writer).” In: Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English. London: Routeledge, 1994, p. 1195.

“Children’s Literature (The Caribbean).” In: Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English. London: Routeledge, 1994, p. 234-236.

“Approaches to Researching Children’s Reading Interests.” In School Librarianship: International Issues and Perspectives (eds. Ken Haycock and Blanche Wools). Seattle: International Association of School Librarianship, 1997, 13 – 17. (Also published in: School Libraries: Imperatives for the 21st Century: Proceedings of the 25th Annual Conference of IASL, Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Seattle; IASL, 1997, 84–89.

“The Role of School Libraries in Quality Education.” In Quality Primary Education: A National Challenge (Jamaica Teachers' Association Report on JTA National Education Conference, May 28 & 29, 1997). Kingston: JTA, 1997, 38 – 39.

“Love and Sex in Rosa Guy’s Trilogy: The Friends, Ruby, and Edith Jackson.” In The Women, the Writer and Caribbean Society (ed. Helen Pyne-Timothy). Los Angeles: Centre for African Caribbean Studies, 1998, 186 – 198.

“Priorities and Strategies for the Twenty-First Century: The Need for Information Literacy.” In Integrando el Centro de Recursos para el Apprendizaje al Curriculum. Semanario Internacional de Bibliotecarios Escolares. Santiago de Chile: Ministerio de Educacion, 1999, pp. 186-198. (Also on CD-ROM)

“El Libro para Ninos y Jovenes en el Caribe Ingles: Entrevista.” Educacion y Biblioteca: Revista Mensuel de Documentacion y Recursos Didacticos, vol, 12, no. 1, 2000: 58-63.

“Black Like Me: Ethnicity and the Child Reader.” Obsidian, vol. 111, no. 1, 2001: 100-114

“The Voluntary Reading Interests of Jamaican Sixth Graders: a survey.” School Libraries Worldwide, vol. 7, no. 1, 2001: 72-81.

“Are You Information Literate?” Daily Gleaner, August 31, 2001, Col. 9

“Finding a Place in the Sun: the Immigrant Experience in Caribbean Children’s Literature.” Children and Libraries, vol. 3, no. 1, 2005: 14-20, 62.

"Children’s Literature in the English-speaking Caribbean.” In Encyclopedia of Caribbean Literature (e.d. D.H. Figuero). Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 165-167.

“School Libraries in the Caribbean: A Jamaican Case Study.” In Caribbean Libraries in the 21st Century: Changes, Challenges and Choices (eds. Cheryl Peltier-Davis and Renwick Shamin). New Jersey: Information Today, 2007, pp. 95-117.

The School Library as a Learning Resource Centre: a Course For Teacher Librarians. Volume 1: Presenter’s Guide. Kingston: Published for OAS by the Department of Library Studies, 1989.

The School Library as a Learning Resource Centre: a Course for Teacher Librarians. Volume 2: Participant’s Text. Kingston: Published for OAS by the Department of Library Studies, 1989.

Sunscapes: A Select Bibliography of Caribbean Literature for Children and Young Adults. Kingston: Jamaica Information Service, 1998.



About the Author

Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson is a retired Jamaican librarian, scholar and university professor based in Jamaica; she is also a children's author. Between 1972 and 1979 she worked as a teacher and school librarian at Meadowbrook High School and Camperdown High School, both in Kingston, Jamaica. For twenty-two years, she lectured on children's literature and library education in the Department of Library and Information Studies at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. She has served as President of the Library and Information Association of Jamaica, as Chair of Jamaica's National Information Literacy Initiative, and as Regional Director of the International Association of School Librarianship (IASL).


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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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