[Book List] Caribbean Carnival in Books for Children

Illustration by Frané Lessac from DRUMMER BOY OF JOHN JOHN by Mark Greenwood

It's carnival season! Carnival, along with steel pan music, the traditional music of carnival, is one of the things our region is famous for. Although different islands have different carnival origin stories, carnival is a festival with both African and European origins.

Both during slavery and after Emancipation, black Africans who had been forced into slavery in the Caribbean preserved their cultural traditions. The slaves used African masquerade, music, dance and calinda (stick fighting) to celebrate the sugarcane harvest, poke fun at the European slave-holding class, portray their suffering, and even mock the institution of slavery. Slaves were allowed to leave the plantations at Christmastime to spend time with their families in the barrack yards. They used this time to practice their cultural traditions of dance, drumming and chanting. Slaves would dress up in costumes, parodying the elaborate masquerade balls (from which they were banned) staged by the slaveowners at Christmas or to mark the Catholic Lenten season. They would irreverently mimick their owners' mannerisms and strange (strange to the Africans, that is) European dances. The slaves performed these parades both for good luck and to propitiate angry ancestors.

From RAFI AND ROSI CARNIVAL! written and illustrated by Lulu Delacre

At various points, the white colonial elites tried in vain to suppress all of these rituals believing (rightly) that they stirred rebellion in the spirits of Africans. After Emancipation, these festivities and rituals developed into full-fledged, large, annual street parades which brought together both African and European masquerade traditions. From the African traditions, other uniquely Caribbean traditions developed, such as calypso music and steel pan music. Calypso (and its derivative, soca music) and the steel pan are still the official music of modern carnival, but in recent decades, the two art forms have taken on a life of their own, and are now not exclusive to carnival. Steel pan music, in particular, is played all around the world, is used to perform Western classical repertoires, and has made its way into many other genres of music.

Illustration by Irene Luxbacher from MALAIKA'S COSTUME by Nadia L. Hohn

Nowadays, due to the festival's origins, many (not all) Caribbean carnivals occur around Chistmastime, or before Lent and end on Ash Wednesday. During carnival parades, which can last anywhere from two days to a week, the streets are filled with masqueraders in colorful and strikingly creative costumes. Masqueraders frolic, perform African-derived and European-derived dances and rituals, and exuberantly enjoy "playing mas." In the mas, you will see traditional carnival characters such as the Jab Molassie (Blue Devil), Pitchy-Patchy, Horse Head, the Dame Lorraine, and the Vejigante (to name only a few of the many traditional mas characters) depending on which island you're on. There are numerous cultural events in the run-up to the major street parades, such as outdoor fetes, calypso competitions and steel pan competitions. For many, the carnival season is the highlight of the year and during the season, the islands are filled with a palpable atmosphere of celebration. On the other hand, there are many people who, while appreciating the festival's cultural significance, nevertheless dislike carnival, objecting to it on religious grounds, or just finding it too noisy and chaotic.

Although carnival started with enslaved Africans, over the course of centuries, it has become a unifying tradition embraced by Caribbean people of all races. A sub-genre of calypso, called chutney music, was developed by Indo-Caribbean people; chutney blends Indian styles of music with African-derived calypso. Carnival is also a major tourist attraction. Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the biggest and best known Caribbean carnival, but almost all of the Caribbean islands have their own version of carnival. There's Junkanoo in The Bahamas; the Independence Festival in Jamaica; the St. Kitts and Nevis National Carnival in St. Kitts and Nevis; Carnaval Ponceño in Puerto Rico; Crop Over in Barbados; Vincy Mas in St Vincent & the Grenadines; Spicemas in Grenada; Martinique Carnival in Martinique; Defile Kanaval in Haiti; and Batabano in the Cayman Islands, to name a few. In the Caribbean diaspora, there are numerous festivals as well, such as Notting Hill Carnival in London and Caribana in Toronto.

Illustration by Edwin Fontánez from CAMILA QUIERE ESCRIBIR by Matilde García-Arroyo and Hilda E. Quintana

Growing up in Trinidad, my family was never really into playing mas. I did attend annual "jump ups" in primary school. I remember one year I played a "Spanish Girl." My mother had the seamstress in our neighborhood sew me a yellow and red lambada costume that I loved. In some countries, it's seen as politically incorrect and offensive to dress up "like a Mexican" or "like an Indian." In the Caribbean, there is a long tradition of dressing up as the "cultural other" during carnival. It has become an acceptable way of both negotiating and celebrating difference in the Caribbean's highly multicultural societies, and reflects the cosmopolitan outlook of many Caribbean societies.

From VEJIGANTE MASQUERADER written and illustrated by Lulu Delacre

What you've just read is just a small window into a much more complex, deeply storied tradition. It's impossible to do justice to the many elements of carnival in a single post. Whole books have been written on the topic, most of them for adult readers, but there are quite a few books for children that center Caribbean carnival as well. It's important for Caribbean children to grow up understanding the rich history of the festival, and why the grand spectacle of carnival continues to be an important form of cultural and political expression. In their origins, carnival rituals were powerful emancipatory acts for enslaved, oppressed Africans, and a way for them to preserve their cultural practices...practices which survive in the Caribbean today.

Illustration by Sharon Sordo from DANCING AT CARNIVAL written by Christine Platt

Illustration by Sharon Sordo from DANCING AT CARNIVAL written by Christine Platt

Below is a list of books that children everywhere can read to better understand and appreciate the phenomenon that is carnival. A few of the pieces we've published in Anansesem focus on carnival or use carnival as a backdrop; I've listed those below as well.

*All synopses are adapted from the publisher's website or the book's back cover. Inclusion in the list does not constitute an endorsement by Anansesem or its staff. The orange "Own" sticker is used to indicate the book is an #ownvoices one written by a Caribbean author.


From Anansesem

• Helen Williams' book review of Malaika's Costume
• Summer Edward's review of Drummer Boy of John John
• "Dancing Bomba", a short story by Carmen Milagros Torres-Rivera
• "The Vejigantes are Coming", children's nonfiction by Carmen Milagros Torres-Rivera
• "Wings", a short story by Irma Rambaran
• Self-Publishing Journeys: Gail Morong's reflection on the process of writing and self-publishing her picturebook, Lost At Carnival
• Featured Illustrator Spotlight: Daniel O'Brien, author of The Carnival Prince



Malaika's Costume by Nadia L. Hohn

It’s Carnival time. The first Carnival since Malaika’s mother moved to Canada to find a good job and provide for Malaika and her grandmother. Her mother promised she would send money for a costume, but when the money doesn’t arrive, will Malaika still be able to dance in the parade? A heartwarming story about family, community and the celebration of Carnival. Illustrated by Irene Luxbacher. View on Amazon.

Jump Up Time by Lynn Joseph

Carnival is supposed to be a happy time, but Lily wishes it were over. Her family has been working on the gorgeous hummingbird costume for months, but it's Lily's big sister, Christine, who will wear it at the Children's Carnival. Lily doesn't want to wait till next year for her chance to jump up in costume. She wants to play mas now! How Christine's big day turns out to be a big day for Lily as well makes a satisfying story, with lilting dialogue and pastel illustrations that capture the tropical colors and vibrant energy of Carnival in Trinidad. Illustrated by Linda Saport. View on Amazon.

Sky Dancing by Ellen Erwin

Here come the mocko jumbies! Children and adults alike love these colorfully clad Caribbean stilt dancers who move like graceful giants. Ruby and Jamal want to learn how to be stilt walkers, but only boys can join the local mocko jumbie troupe. Follow their adventures in this wryly sweet story of perseverance, friendship, and fun. Illustrated by Renata Fryshara. View on Amazon.

Vejigante Masquerader by Lulu Delacre

Determined to look his best for the upcoming celebration, a young Puerto Rican boy makes a special costume so that he can be a vejigante, or masquerader, in a book that includes a Spanish-English glossary, chants, and instructions for making a vejigante mask. In this touching bilingual story, Lulu Delacre tells the story of a warm, close-knit family and community who help a very determined young boy find the key to his dreams. Illustrated by Lulu Delacre. View on Amazon.

Nini at Carnival by Errol Lloyd

When Carnival arrives everyone is happy dancing and singing in the procession...except Nini. She wants to wear something special at the carnival, but unlike the other children she doesn't have a costume. Then suddenly a mysterious fairy godmother appears, making Nini Queen of the Carnival. Illustrated by Errol Lloyd. View on Amazon.

Sofi and the Magic, Musical Mural by R. M. Ortiz

When Sofi walks through her barrio to the local store, she always passes a huge mural with images from Puerto Rico: musicians, dancers, tropical flowers and her least favorite a vejigante, a character from carnival that wears a scary mask. One day on her way home from the bodega, she stops in front of the mural. Is one of the dancers inviting her to be his partner? "Okay, lets dance," Sofi giggles, and suddenly shes in Old San Juan, surrounded by dancers and musicians playing bongos, tambourines and güiros. This story about an imaginative girl and a magical mural is an engaging exploration of Puerto Rico s cultural traditions as well as an ode to public art and the community it depicts. Illustrated by Maria Dominguez. View on Amazon.

Caribbean Carnival by Jillian Powell

Wear a bright costume, bang a drum, dance and sing. Come and join the carnival as the Caribbean islands celebrate in style! View on Amazon.

Janine and the Carnival by Iolette Thomas

Janine is excited about going to her first Notting Hill Carnival, but when she gets lost it turns out to be not quite so fun. How will she find the rest of the family in the crowd? Illustrated by Jennifer Northway. View on Amazon.

Play Mas'! A Carnival ABC by Dirk Mclean

Join us to jump up on J’ouvert morning! You are invited to Play Mas’ and enjoy a Caribbean Carnival. Whether you are taking part in Trinidad or Toronto, Barbados or Brooklyn, Carnival is a joyous chance to sing, dance, and celebrate life. Carnival is rooted in the French tradition of the Masquerade (Mas’), transformed by African, East Indian, and Spanish culture. Originally, Carnival took place just before the season of Lent. Now, Carnivals are held in places around the world at different times of the year. In this book, each vibrant painting presents a different aspect of Carnival. Detailed information about the celebrations makes it a useful resource as well as an opportunity to share in the fun. There is even a hidden letter to find in each painting. Illustrated by Ras Stone. View on Amazon.

Self-Published Picturebooks

Lost at Carnival by Gail Morong

Lost at Carnival is a story set in Trinidad and Tobago about Akil who becomes separated from his school's mas band when he slips away for a sno-cone. Illustrated by Jackie Hinkson.

The Carnival Prince: When the Robber Calls!
by Daniel J. O'Brien

Come join the boy with the stubby antlers as he explores and frolics through Trinidad and Tobago. He will befriend animals and ancient mythical creatures alike, but these friendships will be tested as they try to save the Carnival season for everyone. Perhaps the clever, yet anxious boy will find his way in the modern world in the process. Illustrated by Daniel J. O'Brien. View on Amazon.

The Masquerade Dance by Carol Ottley-Mitchell

Would you like to dance to the drum drum drum of the masquerade? Well, it is carnival time in St. Kitts-Nevis’ and Saulo is excited to see the masquerades perform and dance and to hear their music. He dreams of dancing the masquerade one day but when they get too close for comfort, Saulo is not sure he is ready for his big debut. Inspired by a very real and incredible young man, The Masquerade Dance tells of a boy who is mesmerized by the drum drum drum of the masquerade beat and dreams of dancing the masquerade. Illustrated by Daniel J. O'Brien. View on Amazon.



The Moko Jumbi Majorette Trilogy by Alscess Lewis-Brown

Lexi dreams about being a majorette in the carnival parade, and not just the usual majorette. She'll kick up her feet and twirl her baton on stilts. But it takes practice and concentration. How can she focus on becoming a moko jumbi majorette when her best friend moves away, a new family moves into the house next door. Where are they from and what sort of people are they anyway? Her mother has other ideas about Lexi s plan, and so does Nordica, a bully at school who will stop at nothing to twist her dreams. And if that weren't enough, a hurricane's on its way! Lexi's so busy coping with loss, worry, and impending disaster, is there room in her life for a dream? This trilogy follows the struggles and triumphs of a Virgin Islander girl who must face the ultimate challenge of believing in herself even when not everyone else does. Illustrated by Cynthia Hatfield. View on Amazon: Book 1, Book 2 and Book 3.

Rafi and Rosi Carnival! by Lulu Delacre

It's time for Carnival! Puerto Rico s joyous holiday is full of sights and sounds to explore. Rosi is determined to show Rafi the best way to enjoy the parade, while Rafi has a plan to make his sister queen for a day. But when Rafi scares Rosi with his terrible vejigante mask, Rosi decides it's time to teach her brother a lesson. This little sister has a few tricks up her sleeve too! Illustrated by Lulu Delacre. View on Amazon.

Carnival by Grace Hallworth

The story is set in the lively world of the Trinidad carnival. It tells the story of Georgie who is desperate to join the masquerade and dance with the steel bands. In great excitement, he puts on his costume and goes with his father to join the crowds. But when Georgie gets separated from his father, the world of carnival becomes scary and confusing. But through his own resourcefulness, Georgie overcomes his fears and can enjoy carnival to the full. Illustrator unknown. View on Amazon.

Dancing at Carnival (Ana & Andrew) by Christine Platt

It's Spring Break! During Carnival, Ana & Andrew travel to visit their family on the island of Trinidad. They love watching the parade and dancing to the music. This year, they learn how their ancestors helped create the holiday! Illustrated by Sharon Sordo. View on Amazon.


Steel Pan Music

As mentioned, steel pan music is one of the staples of carnival celebrations in the Caribbean. The steel pan, also known as the steel drum, was invented in Trinidad and Tobago during World War II. As the story goes, Winston "Spree" Simon, a young Trinidadian boy from the working class community of John John, Laventille, hit upon the idea when he tried to straighten out a dent in his garbage can (an old oil barrel) and realized that each blow of his hammer produced a different pitch. Hearing music in the beating of the oil barrels, Simon began heating the bottom of old oil barrels and biscuit tins, and hammering them into shape. In this way, he created an 8-note ping-pong (tenor pan) which he developed into a 14-note pan a few years later.

Illustration by Charles Keeping from TOWER BLOCKS: POEMS OF THE CITY by Marian Lines

The instrument began to be played in outdoor venues known as steel pan yards and groups of steel pan players formed the first steel pan bands. The steel bands appeared in the streets during Carnival, wearing the instrument from straps hanging around their necks, and providing the popular music of the day to accompany revelers. In 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces, Trinidadians poured into the streets to celebrate the victory with the American and British forces that were stationed on the island. The steel pan bands took to the street as well. Simon was among them, leading his band, the John John Band. In the decades that followed, as the instrument evolved, different types of steel pan were invented, leading to the development of today's highly sophisticated steel orchestra

Illustration by Margaret Chamberlain from MY TWO GRANDADS by Floella Benjamin

Actually, the origins of steel pan music can be traced back to the indigenous drumming brought to the islands by the African slaves as well as the East Indian indentured servants who worked on the sugar plantations as far back as the 16th century. The beating of animal skin drums was an integral part of the Africans' religious and cultural observances, and the slaves also used drumming to communicate messages to each other when planning or staging revolts. When skinned instruments were banned, the slaves invented the tamboo bamboo (from tambour, the French word for drum) by cutting bamboo stalks into different lengths to produce different sounds. The tamboo bamboo bands formed by the slaves were a precursor to the steel bands.

Illustration by Frané Lessac from DRUMMER BOY OF JOHN JOHN by Mark Greenwood

Early tamboo bamboo and steel drum music was the music of the poor and not considered respectable. Rivalry and turf wars between bands was not uncommon, with players using their tamboo bamboo sticks, and even their pans, as weapons. Because of the violence, steel band members were rounded up and thrown into jail. Young members of a steel band group were labeled potential criminals. Tamboo bamboo was banned for a while. Today, tamboo bamboo music is still a feature of carnival celebrations in Trinidad and Tobago, and tamboo bamboo players are know for their great dexterity and virtuoso technique in playing these deceptively simple instruments. From its humble (and sometimes violent) origins, steel pan music has become a highly respected and illustrious musical form that is valued and taught the world over.

Illustration by Alex Brychta from THE STEEL BAND by Roderick Hunt

Although steel band music has become mainstream and is now played all year-round all over the world, because of its history, it is strongly associated with Caribbean carnival. Steel bands in Trinidad have a tradition of re-interpreting the current year's calypsos. During the mas parades, steel bands cruise the streets on the back of huge trucks, playing their own renditions of the season's biggest soca hits. Numerous steel band competitions are also held throughout the Carnival season, but the largest and most exciting one is the national Panorama steel band competition. Panorama is a fierce competition involving virtually all the steel bands in Trinidad and Tobago. The Panorama Finals, which take place each year on the Saturday night prior to Carnival Monday, is a dazzling, culminating spectacle held in the evening at the Grand Stand, Queens Park Savannah, in the capital city of Port-of-Spain. Although Trinidad and Tobago is the home of the steel pan, over time, steel pan music has become associated with the Caribbean in general, and the instrument is played in various islands.

Below are children's books that engage with the Caribbean's rich steel pan lore and heritage. Reading them might even encourage some young person to start learning this unique musical instrument!

Steel Pan Music: Picturebooks

The History of the Steel Band

The steel pan is the only musical instrument to have been invented in the 20th century. The story begins in Trinidad, where the people first begin to use all kinds of metal objects to make music. They collected a wide variety of assorted tins and shaped them and tuned them until they were turned into musical instruments. From Trinidad, the mighty steel orchestra has spread across the world. Includes a CD of Sterling's Angels (children's steel band led by Pan Maestro Sterling Betancourt) playing a range of music. Written by Verna Wilkins and Michael La Rose. Illustrated by Lynne Willey. View on Amazon.

My Two Grandads

Aston's Grandad Roy played in a steel band and Grandad Harry played the trumpet in a brass band. Aston always enjoyed going to visit them and listen to them practise. But soon he wanted to join in. So he asked Grandad Roy to teach him to play the steel drums and then he asked Grandad Harry to teach him to play the trumpet. He loved practising both instruments. Then the school needs a band to play at the school fair, and both grandads want their own band to play. Finaly Aston had an idea - both bands join together to make one big band, and Aston joins in first on steel drums and then on trumpet. This delightful story of a mixed-race family reconciling their very different cultures is a wonderful celebration of diverse cultures. Written by Floella Benjamin. Illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain. View on Amazon.

Drummer Boy of John John

Carnival is coming, and the villagers of John John, Trinidad, are getting ready to jump up and celebrate with music, dancing, and a parade. Best of all, the Roti King has promised free rotis—tasty fried pancakes filled with chicken, herbs, and spices—for the best band in the parade.Young Winston dreams of feasting on those delicious rotis. But there’s a problem: he’s not in a band! Pondering his predicament as he wanders through the village junkyard, Winston makes a curious musical discovery that may be just the ticket to realizing his dream. With ingenuity and the help of his friends, Winston takes on the Carnival bands, drumming his way to victory—and to the Roti King’s prized treat. Musical text and sun-drenched paintings joyously transport readers to the Caribbean, and to this exuberant story inspired by the early life of Winston “Spree” Simon, a pioneer in the development of the steel drum. Written by Mark Greenwood. Illustrated by Frané Lessac. View on Amazon.

The Steel Pan Man of Harlem

A mysterious man appears in Harlem and promises to rid the city of its rats by playing the steel pan drum, in a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin set during the Harlem Renaissance. By the illustrator of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, Almost to Freedom. Written and illustrated by Colin Bootman. View on Amazon.

The Steel Band

Provides information about origins, manufacture, musical arrangements, playing techniques, and many other facets of the steel band. Written by John Bartholomew. Illustrated by Brian Ainsworth. View on Amazon.

The Steel Band

Biff, Chip and Kipper learn about a musical instrument when a Caribbean steel band visits their school. Written by Roderick Hunt. Illustrated by Alex Brychta. View on Amazon.

Steel Pan Music: Self-Published Picturebooks

Boy Boy and the Magic Drum

One day Boy Boy is wandering about at a garbage site in Trinidad when he stumbles across an old man making music on a discarded oil drum from The Factory, and he marvels at the incredible sounds emanating from this piece of steel! Trinidad and Tobago provides the backdrop for this warm and engaging tale of recycling and a child’s dream of making music on his magic drum, a steelpan. Written by Machel Montano. Illustrated by Kenneth Scott. View on Amazon.

Pan Man Presents "The Sweet Sound of Steel"

Inspired by the life of Winston "Spree" Simon, a Trinidadian who is considered the father of the steel pan, the story begins in the 1930s on the twin sister Caribbean islands known as Trinidad and Tobago. In the city of Port of Spain, a ten-year-old boy named Winston loves beating his biscuit tin, but his mother doesn't like all the noise. Find out what Winston discovers about the soul of carnival. Includs a free colouring book which can be downloaded here. Written by Tarquin Lougheide. Illustrated by Craig George.

Legends of Panderica

Legends of Panderica tells the tale of a group of young enthusiastic heroes from the pan academy who make their way to the museum of Natural Pan History. When they arrive, they are stunned to discover that the evil Pandemonium stole all the sacred music tones that gave life to Panderica. Adventure begins as the young heroes journey on a quest to retrieve all the sacred tones and restore the World of Panderica back to order. Written by Brian Benoit. Illustrator unknown.

Lola and The Magic Sticks

It's the first day of forest school and Lola is excited. On the short walk to school, she discovers an object that makes beautiful music when she uses her magic sticks. Follow Lola's adventure as she learns about this amazing instrument. Lola and The Magic Sticks introduces children ages 3 to 8 years old to the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the steel pan. Children will be fascinated as Ms. Gora the grasshopper and Mr. Bola the beetle teach the ladybugs about the steel pan and will be able to hum, sing, and dance along as Lola plays the alphabet song. Written by Mary Cuffy. Illustrator unknown. View on Amazon.


Steel Pan Music: Intermediate

The Adventures of the Magic Steelpan

Nathan and Natasha are fun-loving twins living in the beautiful Caribbean island of Trinidad. On a visit to their grandmother's house, Grandma's stories turn an ordinary day into an extraordinary day into an extraordinary adventure as she uncovers the mystery of their grandfather's special nickname. Curiosity gives way to wonder as the magical secret of a very special steel pan is revealed. Written by Leeanna Williams. Illustrated by Valerie Belgrave.

Ping Pong P-Pan

Mysterious sounds come from the shed where the school's steel band pans are stored. Is someone playing pan? Is it burglars? Or ghosts? Written by Barbara Applin. Illustrator Unknown. View on Amazon.

Fire and Steel

Melissa and her parents lived in a long, narrow white house next door to the Buccaneer’s panyard. So Melissa grew up to the sound of steel pan. Melissa, the only girl and the youngest member of the Bamboo Buccaneers steel band of Trinidad and Tobago, shows her know-it-all cousin Darren, who is visiting from Grenada, a thing or two about being a "pan player" and a courageous person. When an external conflict of nature arises, Melissa is unable to play the pans because she has injured her hands as the result of a decision she made based upon an internal conflict. However, Melissa feels like a winner after playing "Feel the Steel" when she gets a standing ovation, with Darren applauding the loudest of all. Written by Judy Stone. Illustrator Unknown. View on Amazon.

The Steel Band

The head teacher finds Vernon playing drums on an empty waste paper bin, and before long there is a flourishing steel band in the school. Written by Wendy Green. Illustrated by Jennifer Northway. View on Amazon.


Calypso Music


A beautiful Caribbean tale, based on the classic calypso song, about a spirited little donkey who does more than just kick up his heels. This special guy talks and even eats with a fork and knife! This hardcover library bound book comes with CD and online music access.Written by Steven Anderson. Illustrated by Dan Taylor. View on Amazon.


In this in a rendition of a Calypso song, lively illustrations mesh perfectly with the tale of a mischievous donkey who loves his master but longs to join in the fun at the carnival. Written by Raffi. Illustrated by Kate Duke. View on Amazon.

Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies

The composer of "Day-O" and "Jamaica Farewell" offers easy piano and guitar arrangements for these and other festive, foot-stomping calypso classics and for Caribbean folksongs, such as "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," all complemented by vibrant folk-art paintings. Written by Irving Burgie. Illustrated by Frané Lessac. View on Amazon.

About the Author

Summer Edward is the Editor-in-Chief here at Anansesem. Her writing and art have been published in various literary magazines and anthologies. Her home on the web is

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



This Month's Books