Great Ladies of Caribbean Children's Literature: Julie Morton

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.


One of the unhappy memories of my first teaching appointment was of five-year-old children in my charge without books or paper, some with pencils no more than two inches long. I had to tear paper into small squares so they could write the alphabet and math sums. The results were not collectibles, needless to say. Perhaps it was there that the germ of an idea for publishing entered my head, although I did not initially recognize it as such. The year was 1957. What if children could have copybooks of their own, designed to save their work and show their progress throughout the school term?

That thought must have lodged in a remote corner of my brain as over the next few years I went from one teaching appointment to another, off to Toronto where I earned a degree in Fine Arts at York University, and back to Trinidad no longer wanting to teach in a classroom. Instead, I went into commercial advertising and it was then that I became involved in publishing of annual reports, newspaper ads and television ads. I learned about pre-production, how to lay out a page, and how to write copy. I filled in a lot of blanks myself in an effort to become more knowledgeable about publishing.

I founded my publishing house, Morton Salvatori Publishers Limited (later renamed Morton Publishing), in Port of Spain in 1974. The first book we published was a book by John Newel Lewis, a well-known English architect, artist and illustrator who worked in Czechoslovakia and London before migrating to Trinidad in 1953. The book was called Nobody In His Right Mind (1974) and it recorded his illustrations of Carnival as he experienced it during his years as a Carnival judge. I think I can say that we were pioneers in the publishing business. We started publishing books at a time when publishing activity in Trinidad and Tobago was limited to leaflets, tracts, posters, cards, and a few annual reports.

Morton books at the printery being packaged for export to Jamaica

Then came a series of books for children which I published for advertising clients to promote various products for children, mainly for Nestlé Trinidad and Tobago Limited, a food and beverage company. Among the first of these was a colouring book to promote sales of Pink Panther chocolates, a strawberry flavoured pink candy bar made by Nestlé in the 70s. Those books for children produced for Nestlé were followed by a range of cookbooks aligned to their products, including milk, pasta etc.

Then came my foray into publishing my own fiction books for children- very risky business! I self-published a few of my own children’s stories as picture books: The House of Gold (1988) about a young girl lured from her home on a hillside by the mesmerizing sight of a golden house beyond the rainforest; Looking for the Pawi (1988), illustrated by my daughter Leigh Morton, in which four children and their grandfather journey through the forests of Trinidad in search of the rare bird; an abecedarian picture book titled A Wacky, Wonderful, West Indian Alphabet (1992) that I illustrated myself; A Turtle Called Phil, illustrated by Canadian artist Phil Barber, about a shy turtle who dreams about being an artist and gets his wish with the support of his friends; and Snailblazer about a young boy, Miren, his pet snail Hercules, and the race to become the fastest snail in the valley.

The first children’s book I wrote and self-published, however, was called The Magical Mystical Ibis (1981); it was illustrated by Lisa Henry Chu Foon, a Swedish artist who moved to Trinidad in 1971. This picture book invites readers to travel with the Scarlet Ibises (the national bird of Trinidad and Tobago) through storms and mystical swamplands to the lush, green Caroni Plain and experience their joy and fear in the land they have learned to love and must leave. The printer and I tried for hardcover, but let’s call it an experiment; it didn’t look so good. Nevertheless, we were brave enough to launch it formally and were very encouraged by the response from the public.

It was a learning experience for the printers and for me. Things improved after that and the quality of our books got better. We started to publish the works of other Trinbagonian children’s writers. The Lights of Divali (1988), written by Amina Ibrahim Ali and illustrated by Richard Ackoon, tells the story of a young boy, Suresh, and his family’s preparation for the Hindu festival. The Call of the Wild (2002) by Vilma Dubé, illustrated by Leigh Morton, is a story in verse about Myrtle, a leatherback turtle, who journeys to the shores of Trinidad to lay her eggs. Legend of the Pitch Lake, written and illustrated by Leigh Morton, recounts the legend of an Amerindian village that was punished by the gods for killing the sacred hummingbirds for their beautiful feathers. Treasures of the Caribbean, illustrated by Leigh Morton and Nicole Leotaud, is a storybook-colouring book combo featuring stories about real and mythical Caribbean sea creatures. We also published many colouring books, activity books and school readers, including the New Century Readers for children ages 7-11 which focused on Caribbean life studies and environmental themes.

We would have continued indefinitely except for the fact that no bank would fund us. That has not changed. There is so much more we could and should do in this field. Credit has to be given to Caribbean Paper and Printed Products Limited, founded in Aranguez, Trinidad in 1993, for their interest in developing and finessing book publishing. Needless to say, hardcover books are now a breeze.

Then came computers, specifically, in our case, the Macintosh. My then business partner became very excited about the possibilities after reading about it in Time magazine. We acquired two of them and they changed the face of our fledgling operation.

CAPNET, the Caribbean Publishers Network, was a brilliant initiative started by Ian Randle of Jamaica, along with Ken Jaikaransingh and Jeremy Taylor of Trinidad. I joined the network later on and subsequently became Secretary and then President. Many good things came out of CAPNET. The first project I was involved in as Secretary was a very successful week-long book exhibition and seminar, called Bookfest, that was held in Trinidad. It was international in scope: we had exhibitors, writers, speakers and publishers from all over the world. The event was well attended and all publishers recorded good sales.

Subsequently, CAPNET took part in the Frankfurt Book Show, the Canadian/American Library Conference in Toronto, the Zimbabwe Book Show and the London Book Show, among others. CAPNET also had its own conferences and book events in Curacao, Jamaica, Cuba and Barbados. At every event the Caribbean exhibited as a unit and was well represented by most of the publishers with their publications. I wish I could say that we made lots of money. We didn’t. But it was a very interesting time in my life.

Leigh Morton and Nicole Leotaud discussing illustrations for children's books during a CrossCulture Programme (CCP) seminar sponsored by UNESCO

In August 2014, I opened Morton’s Bookstore, which I believe was the first children’s bookstore in Trinidad. Unfortunately, in November 2019, I had to close the bookstore due to high rents and the fact that many parents can barely afford to buy books for their children, aside from school books. We do however maintain a space for storage and distribution of our preschool range in Port of Spain. I may reopen the bookstore in the future. Running it was a good experience. Adults came in with kids and stayed to talk and ask advice on choosing books; in the case of preschoolers, many customers wanted to talk about how to approach reading. The store was an open space with book shelves lining the walls, and an alphabet/number mat made in a hopscotch design in bright colours, on which kids could jump and count. We carried books for children up to age 12.

Old article on Morton's Bookstore
in the Trinidad Express newspaper
Because of financial challenges, Morton Publishing has had to limit our publishing output. For the last four years we have concentrated solely on educational books for kids. I have gone back to the original reason I became interested in publishing- developing and publishing a range of books for preschoolers. The pre-school age, between 2 and 6 years, is when children develop and learn faster than at any other time in their lives. There is so much research on child development to back this up, so it is amazing that many "First World" countries are still debating this concept. The range of preschool books is incomplete, and may never be completed, because as I go on, I am finding new ways to teach children. There is no need to explain how difficult it was breaking new ground as a local children’s publisher; we had some hostile reactions to our work and it has taken more than 20 years to reach this stage of success, but now schools all over Trinidad and Tobago are using our preschool range of books and bookstores purchase wholesale for redistribution. In fact, our preschool range is distributed only through booksellers. We have just a small portion of the market, but that is slowly increasing.

Aside from books for preschoolers, I have always been interested in publishing children’s stories that address environmental concerns. In 1993, I wrote and published a series of reading books with workbooks for primary schools. Called the Green Readers, these books all focus on the environment. Now more than ever there is need for a series like this that integrates into the story information about climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases, epidemics like CORVID 19, and other prevailing concerns. We are revising and redoing artwork to re-publish the Green Readers for schools later this year. In 2009, I served as the Art Director for another environmentally-themed picture book, Shaggy Parrot and Reggae Band, illustrated by John Mendes and written by a team of Jamaican children's writers which included Jana Bent, Rupert Brent III, Nicole Hoo Fatt, Kellie Magnus, Rebecca Parker and Veronica Salter.

There are so many beautiful and important Caribbean children’s stories yet to be published; I hope I can find a way to get back to that soon.

About the Author

Julie Morton was born and raised in Trinidad where she has lived all her life. She studied at Naparima Teachers' College, entered the teaching profession and graduated with a Diploma in Education. During a four year stay in Toronto, Canada, she attended York University to study Fine Arts and Ryerson College where she did courses in Fashion Art among others. She is the founder of Morton Publishing, based in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Morton Books, a children’s bookstore also based in Port of Spain, which she ran for 6 years. She consults with and offers advice for young authors who wish to publish.

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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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