Last month I had the pleasure of meeting Carol Ottley-Mitchell, author and publisher of the Caribbean Adventure Series. Carol kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her books and her role as publisher/promoter of Caribbean children’s literature.
Describe your evolution from reader to writer to publisher–did any particular book inspire you as a child? Why write for children and why focus on the Caribbean?
Evolution…perfect description. I read voraciously as a child, everything I could put my eyes on. My drive to write my own books developed when I had my children. They inherited my love of reading and fell in love with Roald Dahl, the Magic Tree House, and many others. I wanted them to also read books that reflected their heritage, so I searched for books with children of color and—even more importantly to me—children of the Caribbean. I was frustrated with the choices. There are good Caribbean-based books for children out there, but I found that many of the ones I came across were difficult to read or emphasized stereotypes that were not necessarily a part of how I saw myself as a Caribbean person. The straw that broke the camel’s back may have been one book, I believe it was a Macmillan publication, in which a family was having a snack and the children were snickering about what Daddy was drinking, which turned out, from the illustration, to be “Rum.” I could not see how this added value to a story aimed at 6-year-olds and I determined to do better.
I went up to Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts (one of my favorite places in the world) one April and I thought—what a great place for a kid to have an adventure, and the Caribbean Adventure Series was born!
The second reason that I write about the Caribbean is that I believe in writing about what I know. I have lived in the US on and off for 15 years, but I have never quite assimilated. I would not feel comfortable writing about a society that I appreciate but often don’t understand. This may also explain why after living for three years in Ghana, I have only written one story set in Africa.
African American author Sherley Anne Williams once despaired that there was nowhere in the past she could go (as a black woman) and be free. Your three black child protagonists journey into the past but race never seems to be a problem for them–even in the 1600s. How do you want black children to relate to the past?
The first book in the Caribbean Adventure Series, Adventure at Brimstone Hill, kind of wrote itself. There was never a drawing board with a master plan of how it would end. Not the textbook approach to writing, I know. When I got to the point where the children travel into the past and meet the British General, I was stuck for quite a while. It wasn’t writer’s block; I was battling with a big question. How would a white General react to two black children showing up in his office with a monkey, no less? Did I want to introduce a discussion of slavery and black-white relations into this particular book? I decided to stick to my plan to create a light book that portrayed children in the Caribbean the way that they may see themselves. Many black Caribbean children have the benefit of growing up in an environment where they are the majority, where the successful adults around them also look like them. So it would be natural for the children to meet a Caucasian on their island and question his legitimacy rather than their own.
While the Caribbean Adventure Series is not intended to influence how children relate to the past from the point of view of race, it does reflect how I would recommend that our children relate to their past. It is important for children to understand why we of African descent are in the Caribbean, not in a way that engenders bitterness or self-hatred, but in a way that develops the self-confidence that comes with knowing one’s history.
What are the greatest rewards and the biggest challenges of being a publisher?
Rewards? The children, always the children. When we were in Ghana, children who had read the books or been at one of my readings would approach me to compliment the books or to say “Auntie, when is the next book coming out?” This never gets old and makes my day, perhaps my year, and inspires me to keep writing and to keep looking for good children’s books to publish.
Challenges? How much time do I have? Just kidding. If I had to pick one thing, I would say that the biggest challenge is marketing. Now that my publishing company CaribbeanReads has six books in distribution, we have a good understanding of the process of getting the books from raw manuscript to the press. The difficult part, once you have the book, is to get the word out that you have published a fantastic book and to get people (besides your family and friends) to buy a copy.
What is your vision for the future re: literacy in the black community and/or the African diaspora?
The future of literacy in the African diaspora has to be viewed from both a demand and a supply side. We need to read, read, read. As black people, we often have to overcome initial expectations about our abilities and our level of intelligence. We should not overcompensate, but we need the tools to ensure that when we go into that job interview, into the board room, or show up for school that we can contribute in a way that forces others to forget their preconceptions and question their prejudices. Being able to speak intelligently about our area of expertise and more is an important part of that and reading widely helps.
On the supply side, we need to have more books written that portray black people—our past, our present, and our future—in a balanced, reality-based light. I remember a friend of mine from Ghana saying that from years of watching African soap operas, she thought that relationships were supposed to be male-dominated and violent and so accepted such relationships as being natural. What we read about ourselves and how we see ourselves portrayed affects our psyche. No race is uniform and our literature should reflect that.
It has been great chatting with you!
Carol is an Information Technology professional. Her main profession is as General Manager of Leyton Microcomputer Services, an Information Technology firm based in St. Kitts. Born in Nevis, Carol has lived in several Caribbean countries. She spent a large part of her formative years in Trinidad, where one of her favorite pastimes was competing with her father to see who could compose the best humorous lyrics to existing songs. This was just the beginning of her interest in creative writing. Currently, Carol lives and writes in Virginia. Carol is married with two children who are her inspiration and her biggest critics. (Author Photo by Jaxon Photography)