Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature: Diane Browne

The essay below is a part of our 'Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature' series. During Women's History Month, and in celebration of Anansesem's 10th anniversary, we're publishing essays by or about 10 female trailblazers whose labors, writings, editorial work and foundational research created the growing field of Caribbean children's and young adult literature.


Growing up in Jamaica, the children’s books we were exposed to were mainly British or American books. Heroines with blonde curls inhabited their pages. I longed to see people who looked like me and the people I knew in stories, to prove that we could be heroes/heroines too. There was always Anancy, the trickster spider, whom we enjoyed, and I knew he belonged to us, but he wasn’t a person. Stories are used to socialise children and, at that time, European children’s books reflected racist colonial thinking. Consider how the golliwog doll, an anti-Black caricature, in some of their stories would have impacted us. My eldest daughter remembers that the golliwog was always getting into and causing trouble. Subtle brainwashing? As a young mother, I realized that there was nothing for my children, both girls, to read with which they could identify. I would have to write for them.

In 1979, I won a children’s story contest run by UNESCO in celebration of the Year of the Child. Then, in 1980, I was one of a team of three hired by the Ministry of Education to write for a project called the Doctor Bird Reading Series (named after the Doctor Bird, the national bird of Jamaica). These were supplementary readers for grades 4-6. The idea was that presenting school reading material as storybooks instead of textbooks would motivate the children to read. Imagine going to work every day to write! We wrote every morning and edited as a group every afternoon. This project used a number of local artists, giving them exposure too. When we went into schools to meet with our target audience, we discovered that the children thought all writers were either dead or foreigners. I like to think that the Doctor Bird books helped a generation of Jamaican children to debunk that myth and realize they could be writers too.

Every now and then I run into adults who read the Doctor Bird books during their school days and are delighted to know they are meeting one of the authors. I recall working on a project with at-risk youth (boys) and when asked what books they had read one boy mentioned a Doctor Bird title. I grinned and slowly it dawned on them that I was the author. The conversation went something like this: “Is she write it? Miss, is you write it?” (with wonder in his voice) “Yes, is me write it.” “Yes man, is she write it.” Grins and laughter all around, and I felt so pleased. We cannot underestimate the effect of books, especially culturally relevant stories, on the lives of our children. In an island where disposable income is often limited, these books from the Ministry of Education may be the only books some children will ever own. I also receive emails from Jamaicans overseas who remember the Doctor Bird books from their childhood and want to know how they can purchase them for their children.

Other Jamaican children’s writers had come before us, other Jamaican children’s books had been published, and important work had been done. However, I think I can truthfully say this was the first major project in the island to produce so many storybooks for children that reflected and validated them and their lives. There were books for each grade at the appropriate reading level. I wrote 23 of the stories/selections including non-fiction pieces. This was the real beginning of my writing career.

The Children’s Writers Circle, a group of writers started by Pat Persaud and Billy Hall in 1983, also played a significant role in the development of Jamaica’s children’s writing scene. I was one of the editors. Pat Persaud was brilliant at marketing and getting sponsorship from the private sector. It was a productive time for us. The books, in black and white, were not expensive, therefore the libraries could purchase a decent number of copies. Members of the Circle would drive around to the various bookshops selling their books. By then, two of my children’s stories, "Debonair the Donkey" and "Gammon and the Woman Tongue Trees," had won gold medals in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s (JCDC) writing competitions. Gammon and the Woman’s Tongue Trees was actually published as a picture storybook by the Children’s Writers Circle in 1987. Eventually, many members of the Circle migrated and the group officially disbanded in 2006.

While working at Heinemann Caribbean as an editor, I was asked to develop a Children’s Publishing Department. We published five children’s books, (the stories were anonymously submitted to a panel and included my own story, "Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune," which was selected). They were attractively packaged and published in 1990. We launched them with fanfare, bookmarks, labels and children dressed as characters. However, there was always the issue of competition from overseas books, many of which were excess inventory from large print runs; these foreign books easily outsold anything we could produce. Therefore, although the Heinemann books were excellent, continuing to reprint them was not viable. This challenge continues.

I have written over forty children’s stories, some of which became published books. The themes in my stories tend to be identity, the hero/heroine growing into some kind of mastery, validation of the Jamaican space (our culture, our folksongs etc.), and family. All of my stories do not necessarily have a happily-ever-after ending, but they are all hopeful stories.

My picture book Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune (1990) connected with a lot of readers. In the story Cordelia is teased by the other children in her village because she has red hair and dark skin. They sing ‘Cordelia Brown whe mek you head so red,’ a folk song I have loved ever since I was a little girl. Cordelia decides to run away to seek her fortune so that no one would ever tease her again. On her way, she meets an old lady who has been all over the world doing just that-seeking her fortune-and learns a valuable lesson. Suffice it to say, Cordelia’s red hair becomes important in the search for fame and fortune. An American edition of the book was published by Harcourt Brace for libraries in the USA. I have no idea how that happened, but the agreement was a publisher-to-publisher agreement so I did not strike it rich. The American edition was a much larger hard-copy book and they anglicized the Jamaican Creole so that the folk song became, ‘Cordelia Brown, why is your hair so red?’

In 2004, I received a bronze Musgrave Medal (an annual award by the Institute of Jamaica in recognition of achievement in art, science, and literature) in recognition of my contribution to Jamaican children’s literature. It is wonderful to be recognized by one’s peers. In 2006, I was hired by the Ministry of Education to serve as the Production Manager for the books in their Literacy 1-2-3 programme; I edited the texts and monitored the artwork supplied by various Jamaican writers and artists. Like the Doctor Bird books, the Literacy 1-2-3 books are leveled readers (they are for grades 1-3), but they are printed in full colour. When the books arrived back from the printer they were gorgeous; looking at them for the first time, I realized I had come full circle; I was now helping to usher in a new generation of books that Jamaican children would grow up reading in school.

Diane Browne receiving the Musgrave Medal from Sir Roy Augier in 2004

In 2011, my children’s story, The Happiness Dress, won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in the children’s story category and I self-published it in 2016. I had written the story long before and as the final submission date for the competition drew near, I took it out and another ending appeared in my mind; as they say, let your stories rest for a while and then take them out and see what happens. The story shows very simply the importance of fathers in girls’ lives and how a child who receives affirmation that s/he is special gains self-confidence. There is no preaching in the book, just characters sharing their feelings.

Abigail’s Glorious Hair is another picture storybook that I self-published in 2016. Around that time, a lot of ‘hair books’ aimed at black girls were appearing and the trend hasn’t slowed down; that’s good since we have a lot of issues to work though when it comes to our hair. When I was a child, adults would say it was a pity that the sun spoilt my hair. I knew that to be rubbish. When I had daughters I knew I had to strike a blow at this hair issue once and for all, but the story hadn’t come to me yet. Then my first granddaughter was born and it soon became clear that we had a tightly curled lion’s mane on our hands. Her little brother loved her hair, and I loved combing it, that feeling of belonging and love, and so my hair book became a book about the loving female ritual of combing our hair. To quote the story:
Mum brushes and combs out and her fingers are going through my hair, one, two, twist; one, two, twist; one, two, twist . . . and love flows through her fingers and I feel snug and safe.

The picture on the front of the book is exactly how my granddaughter looks when her hair is twisted-out. The joyful expression on her face is real. This book still sells very well. A friend said that her grandchildren knew they were beautiful, but when they read the book, they believed it even more. We cannot measure the effect of stories on our children but we know that it is real. I love these anecdotes from readers that prove it. I am happy that both The Happiness Dress and Abigail’s Glorious Hair have since been picked up by the young Jamaican publishing house, Blue Banyan Books.

I have delivered numerous children’s writing workshop in Jamaica, and the wider Caribbean, including in multilingual Curacao. Others in the region have the same desire to develop books for children, and face the same challenges that we do. I’ve also given presentations at conferences, in Jamaica and overseas, about the importance of indigenous reading material for children and was an author for the Miami Book Fair’s Outreach Visits to Schools in 1991 where we sang the correct version of ‘Cordelia Brown.’

Diane Browne leading reading activities in a school

I tend to write books that are linked to whatever interests me at the time. I wrote three time-travel books, because Jamaican children can time-travel too. Two of the books in this series go back to pivotal events in our history: the 1907 earthquake and Hurricane Charlie in 1951. I love the research that goes into historical books like these. In the most recent book, Whispering Winds, Time of Secrets, which I self-published on Amazon in 2019, the young characters travel to the future where they find a dystopian Jamaica. Bath Fountain, a mineral spring in Jamaica, plays a central role in this story as it does in a legend I rewrote for the Doctor Bird Series. I love to make these kind of links in my writing and they often happen in a sort of serendipitous way.

We know that the main character in a book should grow or learn, not in a boring pedantic way but in a meaningful way. My characters usually do this as the story evolves. Young adult (YA) stories, my most recent interest, allow much scope for characters to grow. Writing YA fiction, I found that I grew as an author as well. Island Princess in Brooklyn, published by Carlong Publishers in 2011, is one of my YA books and explores migration, which is a part of the fabric of Jamaican life. The protagonist, Princess, doesn’t want to leave her granny in Jamaica to join her mother, whom she barely knows, in Brooklyn. Upon her arrival in America, Princess is very negative about everything, making it harder for her to settle down. Princess certainly grows by the end of the book. When I started to write the story I actually didn’t like her but by the time I finished the book, she had become one of my favourite characters that I’ve created. Most of my father’s family migrated to the USA, so I drew upon my family history in writing this story. When I wrote Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune it was almost a lament about the migration that was taking place then. I knew my relatives had good reasons to migrate, but I wanted them to stay. Many years later, I’ve come to terms with migration, which always happens with an island people, and now I can have a heroine, Princess, who comes to term with it too.

Many readers have loved Island Princess in Brooklyn, including readers from Puerto Rico and as far as Uganda. Princess’ story is all of our stories. Last month I got an email from a thirteen-year-old whose class was reading Island Princess in Brooklyn. She used one word to describe what she thought of the book: amazing.


Books and Short Stories by Diane Browne

The Funny Grey Cloud, Ministry of Education, Jamaica, 1978

Various stories/excerpts published in the LMW Primary Language Arts Series, Ministry of Education, Jamaica, 1980

Titles in the Doctor Bird Reading Series, Ministry of Education, Jamaica, 1980 (reprinted 2002-2005):
-Sweet, Sweet Mango Tree
-The Cat Woman & the Spinning Wheel
-An Angel of Mercy
-Those Who Left Jamaica

"Once Upon a Starlight", in The Big River and Other Stories, Children’s Writers Circle, Jamaica, 1983

Gammon and the Woman’s Tongue Trees, in Jamaica Journal (vol. 17. No.1), 1984. (Gold Medal in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's writing competition)

Various stories/excerpts in New Caribbean Junior Readers, Ginn & Co. UK, 1984

Things I Like, Children’s Writers Circle, Jamaica, 1984

Debonair the Donkey, JCDC, Jamaica, 1986 (Gold Medal in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission's writing competition)

Gammon and the Woman’s Tongue Trees, Children’s Writers Circle, Jamaica, 1987

Cordelia Finds Fame Fame and Fortune, Heinemann Caribbean Publishers, 1990 (Best Children's Book Award from the Book Industry Association of Jamaica)

"Peter’s Secret", in Just Suppose and Other Stories, Children’s Writers Circle, Jamaica, 1990

"Gammon and the Woman’s Tongue Trees" in A World of Children’s Stories, Friendship Press, USA, 1993

Cordelia Finds Fame and Fortune, Harcourt Brace, USA, (American Edition) 1994

"Once Upon A Starlight" in Scribbles Magazine, Jamaica, 1997

"Great Gran’s Gift" in Scribbles Magazine, Jamaica, 1998

Tourism Activity Books for Grades 1, 2 & 3 (written for the Big Tourism Competition), Jamaica Tourist Board, 2001
-We Can Be Tourists Too: Shari & Tony
-A Tour for Tourists

Various stories and excerpts in the Caribbean Language Arts Series, Carlong Publishers, 2002

A Tumbling World...A Time of Fire, Arawak Publications, 2002

Every Little Thing Will be All Right, Carlong Publishers, 2003

Teaching about HIV and AIDS in the Caribbean, (co-author), Macmillan Caribbean, 2006

Titles in the Get Caught Reading! Cricket Readers Series, Ginn, UK, 2007
-Six Runs! (co-author)
-Peter's New Bat
-Magic Bat
-Twins in a Spin (co-author)

The Ring and the Roaring Water (sequel to A Tumbling World...A Time of Fire), self-published, 2008

Island Princess in Brooklyn, Carlong Publishers, 2011 (Shortlisted for the inaugural Burt Award for Young adult Caribbean Literature, 2014)

Ebony and the Auntie of the Starlight: A Caribbean Cinderella Story, self-published, 2014

Abigail’s Glorious Hair, self-published, 2016, republished by Blue Banyan Books

The Happiness Dress, 2016, self-published, 2016, republished by Blue Banyan Books (2011 Commonwealth Short Story Prize in the children’s story category)

Whispering Winds, Time of Secrets (sequel to The Ring and the Roaring Water), self-published, 2019

About the Author

Diane Browne is an award-winning writer, editor and publishing consultant who is one of Jamaica's most prolific children's authors. She has been a visiting author for the Students’ Encounter Programme at the Miami Book Fair, and has presented at international conferences put on by the National Association of Teachers of English, the International Association of School Librarianship, the International Reading Association and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. She frequently participates as a trainer/consultant in workshops for both writers of children’s fiction and textbooks, in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Her most recent picture books are Abigail’s Glorious Hair and The Happiness Dress. A number of her books are now available as e-books on Amazon. 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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