Welcome back! Today we’re learning more about Caribbean children’s literature with our guest, Summer Edward. Even though my focus is usually on the problems facing US authors, it’s important to remember that publishing communities around the world have their own unique struggles, some of which are directly linked to the legacy of colonialism…
You’ve done a lot of research on Caribbean children’s literature. What makes it distinctive?
I have done some research on Caribbean children’s literature; nothing published so far, although I’m trying. I myself am still learning. In terms of cross-cultural comparisons, I do know a few things:
- Caribbean children’s literature is distinctive in the sense that, unlike American or European children’s literature for example, it has remained largely outside of the classroom. Caribbean trade books for children and teenagers have not infiltrated Caribbean schools because the Caribbean school system favors the use of textbooks and readers rather than trade books to teach reading instruction.
- In terms of the content of the books, there are certain universal themes that can be found in children’s literature from around the world and this holds true for Caribbean children’s lit. At the same time, historically, the content of many Caribbean children’s books has tended to fall into certain predictable categories, with an over-reliance on folk tales, counting books, rhyming books, “Caribbean fruit books” (see my blog post.) This is what African-American children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop calls the “holidays and festivals syndrome.” So you will find a plethora of Caribbean children’s books covering the “Four F’s”: food, festivals, folklore, and fashion (although fashion, not so much.) In recent years, however, things have been changing. There seems to be an emerging awareness amongst those of us drawn to writing Caribbean children’s/YA books that it’s time for us to try new things, to create stories and characters that speak to modern-day Caribbean children’s everyday experiences, stories that broach a range of topics.
- To focus on the positives, Caribbean children’s literature is distinctive because it is still evolving and figuring out what it wants to be. This means that we are in an exciting stage right now where we are slowly but surely beginning to experiment with new genres, story lines, approaches, and strategies. The Caribbean book publishing and marketing infrastructure has not yet evolved to the stage where we are able to produce entire cultures of reading around our books, but I’d like to think that we are currently heading in that direction.
What does Caribbean literature offer children here in the US?
Caribbean children’s literature, when read in the U.S., is a form of multicultural literature that offers American children windows into Caribbean cultures and experiences. Also, let’s not forget that Caribbean and Caribbean-American people make up a small but growing and significant percentage of the American population. The recent institution of Caribbean-American heritage month and the persistent push by Caribbean-American community leaders in the last few years to include Caribbean/West Indian as an ethnic category on the U.S. census, tells me that Caribbean people in America want politicians and the general public to recognize that there are political, economic, and social issues specific to Caribbean immigrant communities in America.
It’s the same thing with children’s books. Caribbean-American children need to see themselves, their cultures, their concerns, and the contributions of their people in books as much as other groups of American children do. They need books that will teach them about their Caribbean heritage as well as books that will bridge the gap between their Caribbean and American cultures or realities. I think Caribbean children’s literature in the US has the powerful potential to open up doors for cross-cultural dialogue in American classrooms and learning spaces, as well as to help Caribbean-American children and young people work out their often parallel identities.
In a recent article, you criticized Caribbean illustrators and the quality of their work, yet you often feature these same illustrators on your blog. Ultimately, what message are you trying to send?
You’re referring to a recent blog post I wrote titled ‘Caribbean Picture Books: The Importance of the Caribbean Illustrator.’ To be clear, I have made critiques of Caribbean illustrations in the past and will continue to do so; however, I have also highlighted the quality work being done by Caribbean artists. In terms of illustration, I do two things on my blog: I interview Caribbean artists/illustrators and I critique the illustrations in Caribbean children’s books. In both cases, I tend to feature art that I consider to be of a higher quality and artists who I have reason to believe are serious about illustration. By “higher quality illustrations” I’m not just talking about my subjective tastes; rather, I’m referring to the potential of illustrations to authentically capture and reflect Caribbean culture(s) while completing or somehow complementing the written text of a children’s book. I will never shy away from making critiques because I believe criticism is important for any art form to move forward and improve itself.
In the Caribbean, children’s illustration is not an established field the way it is in America or Europe. We have no children’s illustration societies, agencies, or professional studios, no degrees, certificates, or college courses in the discipline. Very few Caribbean artists consciously choose to use the title “children’s illustrator” (or even “illustrator” for that matter) because in many Caribbean countries it’s simply not a lucrative profession at this point in time. There are no incentives (awards, fellowships etc.) for aspiring children’s illustrators and the current children’s publishing mechanism is insufficient to support children’s illustration as a full-time job. Here and there you will find some self-taught artists who have taken on a children’s illustration project or two because the writer happened to know them through a friend of a friend.
Ultimately, the message I am trying to send is that we can no longer be content with a few self-taught, unrecognized Caribbean children’s illustrators. We need to do more to instill in the Caribbean mindset a sense of the importance of the role of the illustrator, much in the way that we in the Caribbean have come to understand the importance of the role of the storyteller/griot. If you think of Caribbean artists in general, there needs to be a way to tap the abundant artistic talent in the region so that Caribbean people’s artistic expressions can become commercial, sustainable, and socially useful. Children’s illustration is one uncharted territory that I believe will breathe new life into Caribbean artistic expressions while boosting the status of Caribbean children’s literature. However, we need a paradigm shift whereby people come to see Caribbean illustration as a highly creative, highly respected, “high” art form that builds upon raw talent, but that also should be approached as a discipline requiring study and expertise. For this to happen there must first be a serious investment (scholarly, educational, financial) in the programs, training, incentives, and infrastructure that make children’s illustration a valid, viable, and visible profession and art form.
Thanks so much for sharing your insights with us, Summer!