[Interview] Caribbean Children's Literature: A Library Perspective With Janice Ferdinand

Our special series of interviews with librarians continues today. Join our editor-in-chief, Summer Edward, as she investigates forward-thinking children's library projects across the Caribbean and the crucial role librarians everywhere play in broadening awareness of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.

Janice Ferdinad is the school librarian at the Juanita Gardine Elementary School in St. Croix. She graduated from the University of the Virgin Islands and has served as coordinator of the Young Writers’ Camp, sponsored by the national V.I. Writing Project (VIWP). In 2014, her initiative, "Bookopoly: An Interactive Project to Encourage Student Reading", received an Anderson Family Teacher Grant from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. She lives in Christiansted, St. Croix.

Janice and I met earlier this year when I led a workshop titled 'Healing Through Children's Stories: 10 Talents for Cultivating a Caribbean Children's Book Harvest' in St. Croix, under the auspices of the U. S. Virgin Islands Literary Festival and Book Fair and the U.S Virgin Islands Department of Education. The event took place in the school library and was attended by elementary school and high school teachers from across the three main islands. Janice helped set up, and participated in, the workshop and afterward, she and I chatted about the rewards and challenges of school librarianship in the territories.

Janice Ferdinand (far left), myself (far right), and some of the U. S. Virgin Islands teachers who attended the 'Healing Through Children's Stories: 10 Talents for Cultivating a Caribbean Children's Book Harvest' workshop, pictured here in the library of the Juanita Gardine Elementary School where the workshop was held.


Summer Edward: Children can always go to the public libraries in their communities, so why is it important for schools, and even classrooms, to have their own libraries as well?

Janice Ferdinand: School and classroom libraries tremendously enrich learning and influence literacy by giving children daily, on-demand access to books that pique their interest. Surrounding young learners with books says to them that literacy/reading matters. We read for pleasure and delve in for information as well. School libraries highlight great authors, variety in genres, as well as subject matter content. The books in the school library expose students to new vocabulary, an array of authentic writings, factual information and attractive places in real life, and teach them about elements of storytelling like voice and conflict among characters. What I particularly like are the discussions, in the corners of these libraries, among adults and students, or student-to-student, and observing how they decipher the wording of a difficult text in order to comprehend the author’s meaning.

Accessing titles from the public libraries in my area is simple if families want to do so, but that’s as far as it goes. I believe all local libraries should have modern-day titles, appealing activities, and tech tools, otherwise they fail in anchoring literacy throughout communities. Creative planning and sufficient funding are needed to bring about change in St. Croix. The professionals needed in our public libraries are within our communities.

SE: We chatted a bit before about the difficulty of finding short Caribbean picture books (books less than 900 words long) that are suited for quick read-alouds in the classroom. The majority of Caribbean picture books are really picture storybooks which have longer text lengths of 900-2,000 words. Why are short, quick Caribbean children’s books important for child readers?

JF: The youngest readers in my school are best served with quick picture books. They are always intrigued by the comical or real-life characters, rhyme and catchy rhythm in the text. Students quickly grasp the familiar settings and dialects, and are engaged by the fast-paced and concise form. These short-paced texts with less wording are designed to induce lots of laughter, voice and pitch changes during read-alouds, and spontaneous applause. Each story teaches a valuable lesson that young readers internalize. Caribbean picture books are much-needed culturally-relevant introductions to the world of words.

SE: I looked around the library at Juanita Gardine Elementary School and was pleased to find a number of Caribbean children’s and young adult books, but most of the books are American and British books. I imagine this is also true for other school libraries across the U.S. Virgin Islands. What do you think is necessary in order for this to change?

JF: Access, access, access! Librarians need updated publications, flyers and links to reputable websites that highlight new Caribbean releases. Sadly, some librarians stick to the curriculum, which is still Americentric and Eurocentric, and buy only those types of books. I am always looking for published Caribbean stories because I was raised listening to the oral traditions from the elders. I do quick online searches or visit the local bookstores, but with these methods, it's hard to find a good sampling of what might be available. A suggestion is for Caribbean children's and young adult authors to send library guides, advertising flyers or emails to department chairpersons, reading councils, librarian associations, and librarians. There are so many great children's books out there that are not getting the publicity.

SE: It’s easy for the Caribbean books in the school library to get lost in the shuffle. How do you ensure that the Caribbean books are visible to students and how do you help students recognize the distinct value of Caribbean children’s/YA literature?

The Caribbean Literature Section in my library is a standout because it is strategically placed in an area that everyone passes by. Each school year, I plan and execute a new look for this section because I strongly believe that books unique to our region and diaspora are paramount. Organizing an area that stimulates the senses with appealing designs, headings, and pictures is key. Namely, indigenous foods, colloquial sayings, flora and fauna, cultural elements like moko jumbies, Caribbean people and places. Then, I read aloud a host of Caribbean stories with different grade levels using the text to teach lessons and reading/comprehension strategies. I love when students return to the Caribbean Literature Section to reread a favorite. I know I’ve struck rare gold when a teacher diverts from the American curriculum and requests a Caribbean story to teach a lesson.

SE: What difficulties do school librarians in St. Croix face in terms of adding Caribbean children’s and young adult books to their collections? Are there perhaps gatekeepers you have to get past?

JF: School librarians on St. Croix are independently charged to order books for their libraries when funding is approved. Each school librarian is unique. If building a Caribbean collection is not important to the librarian, that section of the library can be limited or neglected. As the faces of librarians change, the availability of Caribbean titles can be negatively affected.

The gatekeepers in my area are the individuals that grant funding for new items. Teacher-librarians should not be the only ones leading the discussions about the need for Caribbean storybooks in schools. The school district has an overarching responsibility as well. It’s imperative that school librarians extend their expertise to the district, and spend time learning how various titles tie-in to a content skill or fit the different interests and personalities of children who want to read just for pleasure. It’s important to persevere when it comes to finding, ordering and exposing children to quality books about "us”!

We have to also encourage each other to continue writing authentic Caribbean stories and then talk and teach about why children and young adults should see themselves in the books they read and learn from. It’s how culture is passed on!

SE: In your experience, are teachers in St. Croix aware of the Caribbean children’s and young adult books that are available to them in school libraries, and are they using these books enough in the classroom?

JF: Many teachers are conditioned to use the American books that accompany their curriculum guides even though they can use any text to teach a skill. It’s rare for a teacher to request a Caribbean story to teach a skill/lesson. When we are celebrating Virgin Islands History Month, there are slightly more requests for books to tie in with a school-wide theme or for a visitor to read aloud. Many believe Caribbean books are solely for occasions like these when we want to explicitly teach children about our culture, but when exposed to our students on an everyday basis, Caribbean books win hands-down because of students’ familiarity with aspects of the story which heightens interest to listen and learn more.

SE: In terms of developing the school library collection and deciding which books to purchase, do you think it’s important to get input from students and parents? Is this something that you do?

JF: Each year, I request input from students and teachers. I find that students have a lengthier wish list than their teachers because students are heavily influenced by a variety of advertisements online and on television. Likewise, if they are hooked on the first volume of a great read, then they want to continue that series. Some teachers, on the other hand, just rely on the librarian to make collection choices. For the past five years, I’ve noticed that some teachers only request a tie-in text when it is time for them to present a lesson that will be observed by the building administrator. When this occurs, I have to locate specific titles from other school libraries. To garner more suggestions from staff, I regularly attend grade-level planning meetings just to listen in on the types of skills teachers are working on, and then I begin the work of deciding what to add to the collection.

SE: Do you have any tips for teachers who want to build a classroom library?

JF: Each classroom library should be comfortable, vibrant, organized by subject/genre, and employ a user-friendly system to check books in and out. It is vital that students are empowered to organize this space.

SE: What, for you, are the most rewarding aspects of being a school librarian?

JF: Being a librarian is such an empowering and flexible role. I love to see students reading, but when the boys in particular huddle together on the rug and are intensely engrossed in a book of their choice, that stands out! I’ve been supported by administration and intermediate teachers in the planning and execution of school-wide activities. My school’s largest celebration so far was the first Battle of the Books Competition on St. Croix. Each year, there is a new twist to keep students interested in reading. So far, we have celebrated literacy with book parades, challenges, pajama reads, and independent explorations. Each successful event makes the job all the more rewarding. The icing on the cake is to hear a child say, “I love to come to the library!” or when former students stop in to say, "We miss this library, can we still check out books?”


Next week, the first installment of this series on Caribbean children's librarianship closes with an interview with Cherie Miot Abbanat, CEO of Haiti Projects, Inc., Founder of The Haiti Projects’ Community Library, and Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Links to all of the interviews in this series will be archived on our website on this page.

About the Interviewer

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

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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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