Celebrating 10: Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature

Children's literature is a field that’s held my fascination for over a decade now (to tell the whole truth, I’ve been fascinated by children’s books since I was, well, a child reading them). I've loved delving into its history, and within arm’s reach of my desk I always keep a couple of texts I consider staples on craft and foundations: the classic Children and Books by Zena Sutherland; Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children by Katherine Patterson (gifted to me years ago by a neighborhood friend I co-led a teen girls book club with); Joy Cowley’s Writing from the Heart: How to Write for Children (I had her sign it when I attended one of her Highlights Foundation workshops); The Potential of Picture Books: From Visual Literacy to Aesthetic Understanding by Barbara Kiefer (purchased for a course back in grad school and then couldn't bear to part with it); Charlotte Huck's Children's Literature: A Brief Guide by Barbara Kiefer and Cynthia Tyson (in which my “ten tips for selecting multicultural literature” appears); Bridges to Understanding: Envisioning the World through Children's Books by Linda M. Pavonetti (one of several books gifted to me by Rowman & Littlefield in return for peer-reviewing a proposal for a multicultural children’s literature textbook; it's a useful annotated bibliography sponsored by the USSBY); and Multicultural Children's Literature by Donna E. Norton. They're well-thumbed books that have traveled with me across oceans, surviving house moves and country moves, and they’re all written by women.

When it comes to the history of the field, the 'Great Lady of Children's Literature' tradition in the USA has been firmly established. The American women whose seminal work created and shaped the field as we know it are legends in the children's literature world and their contributions have been richly memorialized (see "New England Book Women: Their Increasing Influence" by way of example). Reading and learning about what they accomplished, and their strong quirky personalities, has inspired and instructed me over the years.

There's Anne Carroll Moore who, in the early 1900s, helped make libraries all over the world a welcoming place for children at a time when boys under 14 years old and girls of any age were forbidden to enter them, and whose set of standards for children's literature, "The Four Respects," still guides us. There’s Ursula K. Nordstrom, who did groundbreaking work during her run as editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper and Row from 1940 to 1973. Louise Seaman Bechtel was the first person to head a juvenile department at a major American publisher. Margaret K. McElderry was the first children's book editor to be given her own imprint (I'm putting it out in the universe that I want my own imprint one day, because hey, why not?). Caroline Hewins was an influential children's librarian responsible for instituting children's rooms at libraries. Bertha Mahoney was the founder of Horn Book Magazine, one of the field's most distinguished journals (in whose pages I've been honored to have my own writing on Caribbean children’s literature appear). There’s also Elinor Whitney Field, co-founder of Horn Book Magazine; Alice Jordan, who headed children's work at the Boston Public Library from 1902 to 1940; and Clara Whitehill, who opened Brooklyn's first children's public library in 1914, and was one of the first people to design children's rooms at libraries and train children's librarians.

These remarkable women were all white and American. Over a decade ago, during my graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, while taking a course on multicultural children’s literature taught by a wonderful professor named Dr. Susan Browne (the only black professor I had at UPenn), I also learned about American women of color whose contributions to children's literature were just as prolific and revolutionary. There’s Augusta Braxton Baker whose library work, advocacy and bibliographic studies from the 1930’s onward catalyzed the ongoing humanization of the image of black people in children's literature. There’s Dr. Henrietta Mays Smith, who was an early proponent of noisy, interactive children's libraries and advocated tirelessly for quality and diversity in children’s literature. Pura Belpré was the first Latinx librarian at the New York Public Library; she pioneered bilingual children's library programs and is the namesake of the prestigious Pura Belpré Award. Dr. Rudine Simms Bishops, still very much alive, has become known as the 'mother of multicultural children's literature' and her groundbreaking research and much-cited 'mirrors, windows, sliding glass doors' metaphor has virtually come to define the field. Virginia Hamilton, an African American woman, broke racial barriers by winning every major national and international prize for children's writing. My advisor at UPenn, the late great children’s literature scholar Lawrence Sipe, spoke as highly of these American women of color as he did about their white counterparts whose biographies are more widely known.

In every country, women have been at the forefront of every children's literature-related field, from children's publishing to children's librarianship to children's book-selling, and yet when they’re women of color, their work has too often been under-recognized to the point of being diminished and dismissed.

I find the stories of how all these legendary women made a life and an entire field out of their love and respect for children's books, and their devotion to the children who read them, deeply engrossing. As pioneering children's librarians, esteemed children's book reviewers, brilliant researchers, influential writers and tone-setting children's editors, these women found useful work for their hands and supported themselves financially during an era in history when women were expected to devote their lives entirely to domestic pursuits. They understood that work with children and books was both a profession and higher calling, and they gained respect for children’s literature at a time when many people and institutions didn’t take it seriously. The women listed above are inspirational, aspirational figures, to say the least.

The 'Great Lady of Children's Literature' tradition isn't just an American phenomenon though. In every country, women have been at the forefront of every children's literature-related field, from children's publishing to children's librarianship to children's book-selling, and yet when they’re women of color, their work has too often been under-recognized to the point of being diminished and dismissed. That's certainly been the case in the Caribbean. Well, at Anansesem, we’ve always tried to do our part to fix that.

As Anansesem celebrates our 10th anniversary, it's fitting then that we celebrate the trailblazers whose labors, writings, editorial work and foundational research created the still fledgling, but increasingly growing, field of Caribbean children's and young adult literature. Most of these Caribbean women of color you won't hear nearly enough about at Caribbean literary festivals and little has been written about most of them; yet, without their remarkable wayfinding, none of us working to elevate Caribbean literature for the young to the status it deserves would be where we are today, and anyone seeking to understand the trajectory and role of children's literature within Caribbean societies would have little material to work with. The names and contributions of these Caribbean women (all of whom are now in their swanky 60s or older!) deserve a place in the international 'Great Lady of Children's Literature' pantheon. As “minders of make-believe” (to borrow Leonard S. Marcus's term) they’ve set the stage for the cultural and commercial burgeoning of a distinctive Caribbean literature for the young.

That's why we're celebrating 10 of them during Women's History Month and as part of Anansesem's ongoing 10th anniversary celebrations. They are Dr. Cherrell Shelley-Robinson (Jamaica), Diane Browne (Jamaica), Franck Paul (Haiti), Hazel Campbell (Jamaica), Jessica Huntley (Guyana/the UK), Jocelyne Trouillot-Lévy (Haiti), Julie Morton (Trinidad and Tobago), Lucía Amelia Cabral (Cuba), Margarita Luciano López (Dominican Republic) and Tere Marichal-Lugo (Puerto Rico). Each week, we’ll post essays by (or about, in the case of those deceased) these Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature looking back at their remarkable pioneering careers. We're beyond honored to be able to share their stories. Stay tuned!

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

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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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