[Interview] "Many grains make a beach": Mario Picayo, Caribbean Children's Publishing Pioneer

Mario Picayo
Just as Caribbean literature for adults had André Deutsch in the 1950s, Caribbean literature for children has its present-day idiosyncratic publishing pioneer in the person of Mario Picayo. Only unlike Deutsch, Picayo was born here.

A Cuban by birth and Puerto Rican by upbringing, Picayo is publishing's equivalent of the travelling salesman. And yes, Picayo is selling books his independent publishing company Editorial Campana sells innovative bilingual Caribbean children's books through its Little Bell Caribbean imprintbut it's really culture that Picayo is selling more than anything, or perhaps more correctly, a way of seeing ourselves. His company's children's books are thoughtfully packaged conduits of culture, given in absolutely good faith to the children he meets in his extensive travels throughout the region.

Or at least, that is the way I think Picayo sees it. I've known him long enough to know that the idea of self-sufficiency cultural self-sufficiency that is― strongly colors his motives as a publisher. Indeed, from our conversations, I can tell you that Picayo seems bent on using an indigenous mode of literary production and literary celebration to promote cultural ownership wholesale. For Picayo, it's really about abolishing the old gatekeepers and building a new publishing model that privileges our worlds and our stories.

And just as John Calder once called Deutsch an "entrepreneur of the imagination," the same can be said of Picayo. A tireless innovator and canvasser, he is one of the most familiar faces in Caribbean children's publishing. Beyond pushing the mathematical envelope, he may actually be re-plotting the entire curve. Recently, Picayo took time out from his busy schedule to respond to my interview prompts.


Summer Edward: There's an interesting story about your picture book, a story involving two first ladies, am I right?

Mario Picayo: Yes. In 2008 the First Lady of the United States Virgin Islands, Cecile de Jongh, decided that the gift from the Office of the Governor to the children of the Territory for the December Holiday Season should be a book. After a long search, they chose A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z) by me. The gift was enthusiastically embraced by kids, parents, teachers and librarians. A copy of A Caribbean Journey from A to Y (Read and Discover What Happened to the Z) was handed to Michelle Obama by Ms. deJongh as a gift for her daughters. I was surprised when weeks later I received a photograph capturing the moment, signed by the two First Ladies. Later I also received a note from Michelle Obama thanking me for the book. It remains our best-selling title.

SE: What's the U.S. Virgin Islands Summer Reading Challenge and how is Little Bell involved? 

Picayo with a fan at this year's launch of
the SR Challenge
MP: That first book and the idea of free Little Bell books for the kids raised the subject of literacy in the Territory and the need to promote reading. The following year governor, John deJongh, implemented the Summer Reading Challenge, asking kids from K to 8th grade to read five books during the summer. A celebratory party at the end of the summer was held and prizes were given, including Kindles. On December of that same year, the Office of the Governor decided to give one book, written and illustrated by Virgin Islanders, to the children. We helped edit and produce the book. Efa and the Mosquito became the second title in what now has become a yearly tradition: the creation and distribution, at no charge to the children of the Territory, of a hardcover, fully illustrated book written and illustrated by Virgin Islanders. No project gives me more satisfaction than working on this initiative.

SE: You did a promotional tour where you visited 17 islands in 1 month. What was that like? 

Picayo at the Best of Books bookstore in Antigua
MP: Friends from all over the Caribbean that heard about the USVI Summer Reading Challenge inspired us to present it to other Caribbean nations. It took lots of preparation plus the assistance of many people. I started with St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix in December of 2011. Then off to (in random order): Dominica, Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua, Grenada, St Vincent and three of the Grenadines: Bequia, Mayreau and Union Island, St. Marteen, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Nevis, Saba and finally the International Book Fair in Havana, Cuba. I donated a set of the books from the Virgin Islands initiative to the National Library of each island, and to many schools as well. I spoke, and listened, to authors, teachers, students, librarians and members of the Ministries of Education of most of the islands visited. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the project has now taken center stage for us.

SE: How would you describe your independent publishing company, Editorial Campana/Little Bell Caribbean, in a nutshell?

Union Island children receive books
from Editorial Campana
MP: Our company (Editorial Campana) is focused on particular themes and genres. My native Caribbean is the epicenter. The Lesser Antilles is an expensive area to work with. Expensive and logistically complex, but what we do down island is needed. Creating books by local authors and illustrators and giving them for free to the kids transcends business calculations. Kids need to see themselves, their lives, the lives of their parents and grandparents and the nature around them in books. Local authors become role models and the books dispel, even if slightly, the myth that everything cultural and educational has to come from abroad. We have our own magicians and heroes, and a history rich enough for a million books. We are storytellers by tradition. I make it possible for those stories to be preserved and shared in the form of books. My contribution is only a grain of sand, but many grains make a beach.

SE: You speak English and Spanish. Is translation of Caribbean titles for young readers something your company is focused on? 

MP: It is crucial that books get translated. Our region is small, and divided more by language than by water. There is so much to learn from each other, and language is a huge barrier. Another goal of our project is to make as many bilingual or trilingual books as possible. For this year's Virgin Islands holiday book, titled I am the Virgin Islands by Tiphanie Yanick and Moses Djeli, we will do a Spanish translation which can be downloaded for free from our webpage. Parents, or teachers can cut the strips of text and add them to the appropriate pages. It is not a perfect solution, but at the very least it will serve as a bilingual educational tool and will open the book to many, many children, and adults that could not read it otherwise.

SE: What was your experience like at the International Havana Book Fair?

Picayo on a panel at the International
Havana Book Fair
MP:The International Havana Book Fair (IHBF) was certainly inspiring. It was dedicated to the Caribbean Region and next year it will honor Angola. European, Canadian and Latin American publishers were well represented. It is one of the most important cultural events in Cuba attracting millions of visitors. The book industry is subsidized so book prices are very low. Converted to USD, most books are in the 45 to 75 cents range. Gente Nueva, the largest publisher of C-Y-A literature, releases about one hundred titles per year, but there are many other publishers.

A novelty for the last two years are pop-up books. I found five titles and bought one of each for about 2 USD. I also met many Cuban illustrators. Some are very traditional and some border on the experimental but most of them are very good. IHBF and my contact with local children book creators taught me that much can be done with little resources. What is mostly needed is the elementary understanding that a country's best investment is in the education of its children. Ignore that simple corollary, and the price that is paid is high and the consequences irreversible for another generation, or two.



About the Interviewer...

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia Reviewsx salon and The Caribbean Writer (forthcoming). She was selected to participate in the Cropper Foundation Caribbean Creative Writers Workshop.

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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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  1. AnonymousJuly 04, 2012

    Very good article in a beautiful online magazine.
    I'm happy to taste the Caribbean.
    Living so many years in the Caribbean I'm surprised
    by seeing this perfect initiative of promoting reading.
    One thing is knowing it, but a whole other thing is really doing it.
    This must be one of the very few places in the world,
    where kids get books for free to promote literacy.
    The books are very well done, a high quality print, hard cover
    and very beautifully illustrated and designed. A real treat.
    Holding them in your hands is very inviting.
    The stories are also very Caribbean and recognizable.
    A to y, getting a picture of the Caribbean, it's islands and typical things,
    is like making this Caribbean journey yourself.
    Which kid doesn't want to get on this plane?
    Efa and the mosquito and The lesson box, are universal themes for the Caribbean,
    which can be read and enjoyed on every island.
    Indeed we need many more grains of sand,
    to make this beautiful Caribbean beach,
    which should embrace all the islands.
    Keep up the good work Mario,
    Leo Regals



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