Review: A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z)

Mario Picayo (Author), Earleen Griswold (Illustrator)
Little Bell Caribbean
Picture book, ages 4 and up

In children's literature, it is not hyperbole to say that alphabet books have been used to introduce children to virtually every topic under the sun, from words used in building and construction, to various aspects of farm life, to the names of fictional monsters. Mario Picayo's A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z) finds itself then, among a vast crowd of such abecedarian picture books on the international children's market, yet the book distinguishes itself by being one of a handful of contemporary alphabet (trade) books to visually and textually present the sights, sounds and tastes of the Caribbean.

Picayo's book can be rightly grouped with other ABC productions in the small universe of contemporary Caribbean children's trade books -- Frane Lessac's Caribbean Alphabet, Dawne Allette's Caribbean Animals, John Agard's Calypso Alphabet, Benjamin Zephaniah's J is for Jamaica, Dirk McLean's Play Mas'! A Carnival ABC, and Valerie Bloom's Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet. Indeed, A Caribbean Journey does seem to combine a lot of the elements of the previous books: McLean's use of alliterative sentences; Bloom's focus on Caribbean edibles; Allette's appreciation of Caribbean fauna; Agard's inclusion of a map of the Caribbean; and like most of the other books, an appended activity at the back of the book. The illustrations in A Caribbean Journey even resemble the childlike gouaches and vibrant tropical panoramas in Lessac's book. However, far from being a copy-cat version of these earlier titles, A Caribbean Journey is rather, in direct conversation with the other books. It extends the gesture, started with the other books, of creating children's literature that Caribbean children can recognize themselves and their experiences in, while also acknowledging the position and potentialities of Caribbean children's books before an international audience.

Detail: A Caribbean Journey from A to Y
On the international market, so-called "multicultural alphabet books" have often been seen as filling a void in multicultural children's publishing. One of the affordances of the alphabetic book is classification; many children's alphabet books read like subject-specific, illustrated catalogues of desert animals, homes around the world, airplanes, dinosaurs, and what have you. Similarly, so-called "multicultural alphabet books" expose children to other, unfamiliar cultures by providing a catalogue of indigenous features and cultural artifacts -- objects, expressions, foods, festivals etc. -- associated with those cultures. Angela Leeper of Kirkus Reviews and MultiCultural Review has noted that "an excellent multicultural alphabet book goes beyond what is expected and offers new insights into the culture." A Caribbean Journey is not only a savvy and intelligent picture book production for its wide-reaching, kid-friendly catalogue of Caribbean cultures. The book must also be commended for the author's studied attempt to recognize similarities between Caribbean cultures while simultaneously avoiding a monolithic representation of the region, something which I think the book succeeds at. In this sense, A Caribbean Journey does indeed go beyond what is expected.

    M is for mongoose. 
    And for delicious mango. 
    It is the letter for mountain. Many of our islands have mountains. Some of them     we can climb (if they are not too steep). 
    And let's not forget two very important Ms: mother and music.

    N is the letter for nutmeg. 
    Nutmeg is a very important fruit (and seed) for many countries, like Grenada,     and it is sold around the world. 
    It is also the letter for nest, where most birds are born.

The words chosen to represent each letter evoke Caribbean landscapes and culturescapes, e.g. 'nutmeg' and 'mango,' and so the text is highly descriptive of the Caribbean region, but "non-exotic" words also feature in the alphabetic catalogue, words like 'nest' and 'mother,' which do not have any particular cultural overtones, but simply extend the number of words beginning with a given letter. Children will enjoy finding all the words on the page that begin with a specific letter. Also, unlike some authors of multicultural alphabet books who have simply listed culturally-loaded words on each page, the author of A Caribbean Journey uses an expository style of prose writing so that children who are unfamiliar with some of the terms or words will find it  easy to grasp the concepts in the book. The rhyming format of many multicultural alphabet books have often made them a favorite with children, and Picayo's non-rhyming text may perhaps suffer in that sense.

Detail: A Caribbean Journey from A to Y
Detail: One of Earleen Griswold's illustrations

Whenever a picture book attempts to represent a culture, there is always a concern that the images and text may not authentically and accurately represent the culture, but rather, will simply stereotype it. A Caribbean Journey avoids some of the stereotyping of previous Caribbean alphabet books (like Lessac's) by showing much ethnic and cultural diversity in the illustrations. The people pictured are visibly of all races and shades of skin. Also, the illustrator, Earleen Griswold, attempts to demythologize the Caribbean landscape, giving us some images of built-up areas and town scenes, rather than the purely pastoral view of the Caribbean that still tends to dominate many Caribbean picture books. Griswold's cheerful pencil and color pencil illustrations with their vibrant colors, complex yet orderly compositions, naive stylized forms, and depictions of lush, tropical landscapes recall Haitian art to a certain extent, and there does seem to be high degree of aesthetic authenticity to these affectingly simple images. Moreover, Cuban-American book and cover designer, Yolanda V. Fundora, has employed her own textile collections to appealing effect, using festive patterned borders, initial letters and backdrops to create the impression of a sort of quirky illuminated manuscript.

A Caribbean Journey is also a good nonfiction text to use in the classroom. Fascinating facts about the Caribbean (did you know there are over seven thousand islands, islets and cayes in the Caribbean Sea?), diverse vocabulary, and lists of Caribbean countries on each page to correspond with each letter of the alphabet, all provide for rich teachable moments during reading. I was surprised to come across the word "slavery" in the book: "S is also the letter for one of the saddest of words: slavery." It speaks volumes to the cultural commitment of this book and reveals the courage of its author, that something so unbearable and yet so central to the Caribbean's history is not omitted; indeed, there is something rather progressive about a contemporary Caribbean children's book that opens up the possibility to discuss the meaning of slavery with young children.

My one critique of the book lies at the end, where the author, as promised, reveals what happens to the 'Z':

    Many of our ancestors lived in Africa, and many of our best traditions came with
    them to the Caribbean. We owe them much. Giving them the last letter in our
    journey will be our small way of saying thank you.

The above text is accompanied by an illustration of two presumably Afro-Caribbean people standing on a Caribbean shore presenting a letter 'Z' to two African people, pictured in a separate frame, against a pastoral African landscape. I have written before about the tendency of many Caribbean children's books to portray Caribbean cultures as utterly Afrocentric. The racial diversity reflected in the illustrations of A Caribbean Journey is ironically negated by this closing tribute, which mentions Africa, but not India, China, or the South American continent, the other predominant "source countries" of Caribbean peoples. I interrogate this not to dispute the truth of the statement; the forerunners of a majority of Caribbean peoples did originate in Africa. However, in light of the overwhelming Afrocentrism of Caribbean children's books written by Caribbean and non-Caribbean authors alike, it is necessary to wonder if a statement such as the one made at the end of A Caribbean Journey may be alienating to non Afro-Caribbean people, children and adults alike.

All in all, A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z) is an ambitious and heart-warming exposition of the Caribbean that combines the best affordances of the picture book form with skilled writing and an ear for the stories, images and emotions contained in words. Caribbean and non-Caribbean children alike will turn to this book again and again to take them on a kid-friendly tour of this rich, colorful region. Reading level: ages 9 -12!

About the author: Mario Picayo was born in Cuba, grew up in Puerto Rico, lived a large part of his adult life in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and currently lives in New York, USA. He is a cultural activist, audiovisual artist, and producer. He has worked for the Smithsonian Institution, the Dominican Republic's Institute of Folklore, and many other cultural organizations in the United States and the Caribbean. Picayo also worked for Sesame Workshop (Sesame Street) as Spanish Editor in their magazine division. In 2004, the New York State assembly made public recognition to his artistic career and of his work as a defender and promoter of Latino and Caribbean culture. Picayo is the Editor at Editorial Campana, a bilingual Latino/Caribbean press in the States. His other children's books include A Very Smart Cat/Una gata muy inteligente. For more information about Mario Picayo, check out his profile over at Anansesem's Managing Editor's blog. 

About the Reviewer

Summer Edward is a freelance writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She is the Founder and Managing Editor of Anansesem, the ezine you're currently reading! She blogs at Summer Edward's Caribbean Children's Literature.

Share on Google Plus

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.
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment


Post a Comment


This Month's Books