Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature: Jessica Huntley

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.


My late mother, Jessica Huntley (1927-1913), was a co-founder of one of the UK’s first Black publishing houses. Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications (named after two Caribbean heroes, Paul Bogle and Toussaint L’Ouverture) was born when the radical Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, a friend of my parents, was banned from re-entering Jamaica to resume his lectureship at the University of the West Indies in 1968. The company’s first publications were two books for adult audiences: Walter Rodney’s seminal work, The Groundings with My Brothers was published in 1969 and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, also by Rodney, followed a few years later in 1972.

Bust of Jessica Huntley, sculpted for her 70th birthday by
Jamaican-born African artist, Fowokan (George Kelly). A bronze
replica of the bust can be seen in the Huntley Room at the
London Metropolitan Museum.
At first, these books and others related to the stories of African, Caribbean and Latin American people were sold alongside posters, greeting cards and crafts, from my parents’ living room in West Ealing, London. In 1974, they moved their activities to business premises nearby, opening the Bogle L’Ouverture Bookshop (in 1980 it was renamed the Walter Rodney Bookshop) in Chignell Place. The bookshop was not just a place where books were sold. It became a meeting hub for like-minded people where my mother listened to, advised and supported those who visited.

Bogle-L’Overture Publications’s existence depended heavily on the enthusiasm and drive of my mother for whom, to paraphrase the title of her and my father’s joint biography, Doing Nothing Is Not An Option. This mantra played out in her lifelong work as a publisher, bookseller and activist, greatly benefiting the lives of Black children and young adults in the UK.

Jessica’s strong social conscience was planted in her as a child growing up in Guyana. Her father passed away when she was very young and she was raised alongside three brothers by her strict God-fearing mother. My grandmother instilled in my mother a sense of pride, loyalty, and independence. As she became aware of the class and racial divisions resulting from colonial rule, Jessica was motivated to act when she encountered unjust policies. Financial constraints meant that she didn’t finish high school, but she had no qualms supporting the drive to close the gender pay gap at the Briana Shirt Factory in Georgetown. In 1953, she co-founded the Women’s Progressive Organisation to advocate for women’s issues in the People’s Progressive Party’s fight for independence.

When she joined my father in the UK in 1958, it became apparent to my mother and others of the Windrush generation that the racist policies of the day negatively impacted young people of African and Caribbean descent. One such policy was the so-called ‘sus’ law. This was a stop-and-search law that permitted police officers to stop, search and potentially arrest people suspected of frequenting or loitering in public places with criminal intent. In the 1970s and 1980s, this law targeted young Black men, a large number of whom were arrested for no good reason. Many young people and their parents sought the counsel of my mother, who was a founding member of the Black Parents Movement, established circa 1974/5. Jessica tapped into the social networks she formed at the Walter Rodney Bookshop to co-ordinate legal representation, protests and information campaigns in support of affected families.

The Black Parents Movement not only contested wrongful arrests of Black juveniles, but also challenged deportation orders, school suspensions/exclusions, and housing injustices. Its members also established Supplementary Saturday Schools. In the 1960s, the Supplementary School Movement was a grassroots effort by parents and teachers across the UK to counter the miseducation of Black youth. At the supplementary schools, Black children and youth were taught the ‘Three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) and given resources that reflected their own lives and racial/cultural heritage.

Jessica was painfully aware that many Caribbean and African children in the UK were labelled as ‘educationally subnormal’ and that the school curriculum provided them with very little knowledge of their history and heritage. She believed these problems could be remedied through culturally relevant education, particularly by providing Black children with access to books that reflected their experiences. In 1972, Bogle-L’Overture Publications published their first children’s book: Getting to Know Ourselves by a Grenadian couple, Phyllis and Bernard Coard. This coloring storybook, published by Jessica, introduces the concept of slavery by explaining why two children born in Jamaica look similar to two children born in Africa. It was one of the first children’s books published in the UK that enabled Black children to learn about their history.

Another children’s book, Rain Falling Sun Shining by Odette Thomas, was published in 1975. It presents a modern take on traditional Caribbean nursery rhymes, playground chants and folk songs, setting them to new melodies to engage pre-schoolers and their carers with memories of life ‘back home.’ Like so many of Bogle-L’Overture Publications’s titles, it was illustrated by the Jamaican-born artist, Errol Lloyd. Ackee, Breadfruit, Callaloo: An Edible Alphabet (1999) by Jamaican-born children’s author Valerie Bloom was another book that targeted primary school-aged children. Its bold and colourful pages introduce the reader to the fruits and vegetables of Jamaica, using poetry as the medium.

The publishing company also catered to the needs of teens; several young adult novels written by Andrew Salkey, the renowned Jamaican-Panamanian broadcaster and lecturer, were donated to Bogle-L’Overture Publications in its early days, including Danny Jones (1980), The River that Disappeared (1979) and Anancy’s Score (1973). Salkey also served as an editor of some of the publishing house’s books for young readers, such as Caribbean Folk Tales and Legends (1992), a collection of short stories by authors from the diaspora, some of which were written in dialect.

Click on book covers to zoom in.

My mother recognised that there was a gap in the market for a children’s series on important Caribbean historical figures, and so she and my father published three biographies for young readers written by my father, Eric Huntley: Two Lives: Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole (1993), Marcus Garvey: A Biography (1987) and The Life and Times of Cheddi Jagan (1994).

Jessica Huntley at her bookshop in the 1980s
During the 1980s, Jessica thrived as manager of the bookshop. Long before it was commonplace for bookstores to host events, she ensured that the Walter Rodney Bookshop acted as a venue for book launches, school workshops and meetings. It became a welcoming place where teachers brought their students to meet the musicians, poets and storytellers of the Black diaspora, from Louise “Miss Lou” Bennet-Coverly to Sam Selvon, and Ellen Kuzwayo to Ntozake Shange. Black children and youth were able to participate in discussions, hear perspectives never broadcast in the mainstream, and see positive representations of people who looked like them. Sometimes they came for relationship advice, sometimes to gather information. Librarians came regularly seeking to buy multicultural books for their young patrons. There were times when more books were loaned rather than sold; Jessica believed she was providing a community service.

Jessica supported young people’s endeavours, particularly when it came to their self-expression. Dread Beat and Blood, published by Bogle-L’Overture Publications in 1975, is a seminal work by Linton Kwesi Johnson; a collection of ‘dub-poetry,’ it gave voice to children of the Windrush-era West Indian migrants. Thanks in large part to the vision and encouragement of Jessica, many other Caribbean-UK writers of works for children and young adults got their publishing break.

Jessica Huntley speaking to young women at the Walter Rodney Bookshop in the 1980s

It is incredible to think that despite her humble beginnings growing up in a tenement yard in Guyana, her unfinished secondary school education, and her complete lack of experience in publishing, my mother was able to establish a small but widely influential self-funded publishing company. Due to financial difficulties, the Walter Rodney Bookshop was forced to close in 1990. For a woman like Jessica who thrived on face-to-face personal contact this was a great loss. However, the publishing aspect of the business continues today. Jessica’s contributions to literature for children and youth of the Black diaspora are considerable and have been documented in total at the Huntley Archives, the first major deposit of records from London's Black Caribbean community at the London Metropolitan Archives.

About the Author

Accabre Rutlin is a biology/psychology teacher, poet and artist based in London. She is the daughter of the pioneering Guyanese-British publishers and activists Jessica and Eric Huntley and the author of two books of poetry for young readers: At School Today (1977) and Easter Monday Blues (1992). Her children's poems have appeared in Spotlight on Poetry: Poems Around the World 1 (1999) and The New Oxford Treasury of Children's Poems (1995). She serves on the board of trustees of the Friends of the Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives (FHALMA). Her portrait was part of the No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990 exhibition at The Guildhall.

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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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