Saturday, April 4, 2015

Children's Books from or about Africa







This is the first of a series of posts I am writing for persons who would like to purchase multicultural books for Jamaican children, and would appreciate suggestions about what is available and appropriate. I hope that this list will also be useful for teachers, librarians, book distributers and corporate donors. This post has 20 books from and about Africa. I have been somewhat arbitrary in my selection, mainly from the website of Africa Access Review. One post cannot cover this vast continent, so there will be a part 2 at some point.
The first 10 books on the list are for younger children (aged 4-7), but not for them to read on their own, because of the level of vocabulary, the sentence structure and the concepts. They are, however, ideal for reading aloud and for discussion.    

1.     Ais for Africa by Ifeoma Onyefulu (Puffin Books 1997)  – good information about Nigeria, suitable for Jamaican Basic Schools.  Ifeoma Onyefulu has written many more beautifully illustrated books for this age group.
2.     The Magic Gourd by Baba Wague Diakite (Scholastic 2003)  - a folktale from Mali about kindness and generosity. Good for reading aloud to 4 – 7 year-olds. 
3.     A Gift from Childhood by Baba Wague Diakite (Groundwood Books 2010) - a story about traditional village life in Mali. 
4.     KenteColors by Debbi Chocolate (Walker Children’s 1997) - about the traditional kente cloth of the Ashante people of Ghana  
5.     Handa’s Hen by Eileen Browne (Candlewick 2011) – a simple counting story set in Kenya.   
6.     Catch That Goat by Polly Alakija (Barefoot Books 2002) – set in Nigeria, a goat gets away and runs through the town’s market. Grade 1 children should be able to read this simple story on their own. Younger children could tell the story from the illustrations.
7.     Babu’s Song by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Lee and Low Books 2003) – with the help of Babu, his mute grandfather, Bernard is able to go to school.
8.     Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber (Henry Holt and Co 2009) – living in an orphanage on the border of Somalia and Kenya, Muktar remembers the time when he lived with his family and the camels.  This book would also be of interest to older children who could read it for themselves. 
9.     Zeraffa Giraffa by Quarto Generic (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2014) – the amazing  true story of  Zeraffa, a giraffe who was sent as a gift by the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt to King Charles X of France in 1826. 
10.  Circle Unbroken by Margo Theis Raven (Square Fish 2007) – the story of how the art of basket-making was taken from Africa to the Carolinas. Is there a similar story of the way in which the art of basket-making was brought to Jamaica?  


   The following 10 books are suitable for children aged 8-12 to read on their own.
1.     Sundiata:Lion King of Mali by David Wisniewski. (HMH Books for Young Readers; 1999) In the thirteenth century, Sundiata overcame physical handicaps, social disgrace, and strong opposition to rule the West African trading empire of Mali. A good book for teachers to read aloud to grades 2 & 3 children, and for older children to read on their own. 
2.     The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo (Harper Trophy 2002) – 2 children are smuggled out of Nigeria when their mother is killed in political unrest. The difficulties they face as refugees in London.  This story won a Carnegie Medal UK and many other awards.  
3.    Nelson Mandela The Long Walk to Freedom by Chris Van Wyk and Nelson Mandela (Macmillan 2009) – an abridged version of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. 
4.     The No.1 Car Spotter by Atinuke  (Kane Miller Book Pub; June 2011) – No 1 is bright, plucky and resourceful – a fantastic character for Atinuke’s new series
5.     How the Leopard got his Claws by Chinua Achebe (Candlewick Press 2011)  – a fable about the dangers of power taken by force.
6.     The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba (Dial Books for Young Readers 2012)the true story of how this author, as a teenager, built a functional windmill from junkyard scraps in Malawi.  
7.     Pharoah’s Boat by David Weitzman (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children 2009) - the story of how one of the greatest boats of ancient Egypt came to be built.
8.     Seeds of Change – Planting a Path to Peace by Jen Johnson (Lee and Low Books 2010) - tree planting movement in Kenya spearheaded by Wangari Maathai and other women, and opposed by government and multinationals. 
9.     Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane Diouf  (Chronicle Books 2001)– a young girl in West Africa is in a hurry to grow up, but she learns that she must earn her braids. 
10.  Mystery of MeerkatHill by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor 2013) – one of several children’s detective stories, about Precious Ramotswe, set in Botswana. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Pearson’s Stepping Stones Series

I wrote “Errol’s Taxi” many years ago and rewrote it after several rejections, so it was ready to go out again. In January 2012, on a week’s notice, I submitted it to Pearson Caribbean for consideration for their Stepping Stones Series. One year later, I received an email to say that they were interested, after which followed the editing process. In August 2013, I received copies of the book. I wanted to know where they would be available for purchase, but was informed that they would not be put in bookshops. Instead, their agents would be taking inspection copies to schools, after which the schools would put in their orders with the distributer, Carlong, with the intention that the schools would receive books for use in the 2014-15 school year.
I was interested to see what titles were in the series, their reading levels and authors. However, this information seems to be one of the most closely guarded secrets in the publishing industry. On Pearson’s facebook page, the last entry was in 2013, and the videos on that page are unavailable. To get on to Pearson’s website caribbean.pearson.com/steppingstones, you have to log in and there are no instructions for registering. All I could find out was that there were 6 levels, with 10 books in each level. They are colour coded with red being the first level.
Since I had an interest in acquiring suitable texts for emergent readers, I found out that I could purchase single copies of some of the books from Carlong. I placed my order based on titles only from what they had in stock. They turned out to be from green (for the average grade 1 reader) and blue and purple levels (for grade 2). On reading the 25 books, I found that only 5 of them had specifically Caribbean content.  
These were, at the Green Level
1.     “Selling Bread” by Melissa Balgobin  – the story of  Eric Williams, first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago.
At the Blue Level
2.     “Save My Baby Turtles” by Lucille Wilkinson – set in Trinidad, but applicable to most Caribbean Islands.
At the Purple Level
3.     “Fish Outta Water” by Joanne Hillhouse (Award-winning Antiguan author) – an arctic seal gets transported to the Caribbean.
4.     “Ruby Chick” by Patricia Cuff (retired Jamaican Librarian) – a chicken is lured into the mongoose den.
5.     “Errol’s Taxi” by Helen Williams – Errol uses his taxi to transport goats he steals.
The other titles, while being entertaining or informative for children, are comparable in content to any series of books for beginning readers, such as Harper’s “I Can Read” series and Scholastic’s levelled readers, which are on sale in local bookshops at a lower price – Ja$550.00 compared with Pearson’s – some for Ja$940.00 or and others for $670.00.
At the Green Level are:
1.     “Chicken Licken” by Alison Hawes – a rewrite of the old story about the chicken who says “The sky is falling”. The nut illustrated is a hazel nut, unknown to Caribbean children.
2.     “Chloe the Chameleon” by Celia Warren – the chameleon turns all colours of the rainbow in her attempt to catch the fly.
3.     “Fizzkid Liz” by Linda Strachan – the inventor gets into trouble with her time-travel pogo stick.
4.     “Space Ant” by Celia Warren – lost in space, the ant finally finds there is no place like home.
5.     “The Whale in the Well” by Maureen Haselhurst – how the whale gets out of the well and what she sees.
6.     “How Does Water Change?” by George Huxley – the 3 states of matter.
7.     “Where Do All the Puddles Go?” by David Tunkin – the water cycle. Previously published by National Geographic 2003.
8.     “Night Animals” by Claire Llewellyn – bat, fox, kiwi, owl and raccoon.
At the Blue Level:
1       1.   “Bananas for Breakfast” by Jane Langford – elephants squabble over bananas. I have a problem with the illustrations, which show 5 bunches of bananas on one tree. All Caribbean children know there is only one bunch per tree, but children who’ve never seen a banana tree could be misled. This book was previously published by Rigby in 2003.
2.     “On Safari” by Claire Llewellyn – animals seen in safari parks.
3.     “Poles Apart” by Celia Warren – travels around the world with a walrus and a penguin.
4.     “The Cherokee Little People” by MariJo Moore – a Native American tale. 

5.     “The Giant Jumperee” by Julia Donaldson – Rabbit, Cat, Bear, Elephant and Frog try to find out what the terrifying thing is in Rabbit’s burrow. It is written in the form of a play, so children can act the parts. Previously published by Pearson in 2000.
6.     “Presto’s New Pet” by Damian Harvey – Presto the Wizard goes in search of an unusual pet.
7.     “Changing Shape” by Greg Pyers – animals that change shape to look different.
At the Purple Level:
1.             “King Crab is Coming” by Damian Harvey – but the fish get away before he comes.
2.     “The Rat Princess” by Michaela Morgan – King Rat wants his daughter to marry the most important husband in China, but she wants to marry Grey Rat.
3.     “Count on Your Body” by Kurt Baze – gives numbers of bones, muscles, sweat glands, hairs and other information about the body.
4.     “Living in Space” by Angela Royston – how astronauts carry out their daily activities living in a space station.
5.     “The Seven Continents” by Monica Hughes – the size, climate, people, flora and fauna of each of the 7 continents.
There were 3 titles which I decided not to buy, so I don’t know their levels. They were:
“Art in the Past”; “The Inventions of Thomas Edison”; and “The Greedy Snake”.
About the Authors:
Most of the authors are in the UK and have written hundreds of children’s books between them. The fiction authors include
Julia Donaldson (author of The Gruffalo) ; Damian Harvey ; Maureen Haselhurst; Alison Hawes; Jane Langford; Michaela Morgan; Linda Strachan ; and Celia Warren
The non-fiction authors include:
Claire Llewellyn, Greg Pyers, Angela Royston and David Tunkin.
 A non-UK author, MariJo Moore, of Cherokee, Irish and Dutch ancestry is an author of numerous books on Native Americans.

All the books are beautifully illustrated, with either drawings or photographs. Illustrations are important in children’s books, because they provide interest and clues to the text. There is a tendency to refer to books by their titles and authors, even though the names of the illustrators are on the covers. The following illustrators contributed to the Stepping Stones Series:
Ilias Arahovitis, Zavian Archibald, Kurt Baze, Trevor Dunton, Emma Garner, Clive Goodyear,

Rob Hefferan, Sophie Keen, Paul Korky, Gustavo Mazali, Andy Parker, Michael Reid, Janet Samuel, Andrew Selby, Emma Shaw-Smith, Mike Terry, Sholto Walker and Woody.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Concert at Mountambrin Feb 22, 2015

There will be another not-to-be missed concert at Mountambrin on Sunday, February 22, 2015 at 2 p.m. Details are in this poster. The cost is Ja$3000.00. Information on how to get to Mountambrin is given below. 


Nestled in the cool, rain-blessed hills of Westmoreland is Mountambrin, the home of Dr. Russell Gruhlke -  optometrist/farmer, Canute Gruhlke - manager of the property, and Lesbert Lee - wood-carver. It consists of the original house where Alex Haley wrote "Roots", a number of individual cottages in unusual architectural styles, the Mountambrin Tower, with views of the Westmoreland Plains,  and the Theatre Gallery, all surrounded by luxuriant vegetation in lovingly tended gardens.

To reach Mountambrin, on the road from Montego Bay to Sav-la-Mar, take a left turn at Whithorn and drive a little over a mile up the road to Darliston. Turn left along Toad Road, signed to Mountambrin.  If you doubt you are on the right track, don't worry. After a mile you will reach your destination. Admire the views and vegetation along the way.
After parking, take the opportunity to stroll around the gardens and admire the sculptures before the concert begins.
Gardens at Mountambrin


Inside the Theater Gallery 


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Promotion of Caribbean Children's Literature

On January 31, 2015, Summer Edward tweeted, “We want to bring together a community around Caribbean children’s lit. Any ideas?” I’m not sure what  she has in mind, but to me the intention of it would be to promote Caribbean children’s lit, by persuading people to sell, buy, borrow, donate, write, publish and READ books set in the Caribbean about Caribbean children.
The community includes children, parents, teachers, librarians, education officers, Ministries of Education, CXC, authors, publishers, book distributers, booksellers, corporate donors, members of the diaspora and well-wishers – in a word – everybody!
The messages I would like to get across are:
  1. Children need to see themselves in books. (See comments by Summer Edwards, Diane Browne and Curdella Forbes in my blog on August 6, 2014)
  2. Children who read for pleasure perform better in all subject areas (including math). See my blog of September 23, 2014)
  3. Children are more likely to read a book of their own choosing than a book chosen for them by someone else.
  4. There are many Caribbean titles available, but people don’t know about them, plus we need many more.

I refer now specifically to the challenge to get this message across in Jamaica, as this is where I live.
Many children don’t know that Jamaicans write books or that there are any books about children like themselves.
Parents, even if they are aware of Caribbean books, are reluctant to buy them, because they can't afford them, or know more about foreign books and think they are better, or will buy books by authors they read as a child.
Teachers are too busy trying to get through the curriculum to devote time to reading. They also prescribe a myriad of workbooks, although written by Jamaicans, are of dubious educational value, are poorly written and contain inaccurate and misleading information. They are also expensive, so parents being required to buy these have no money for books for children to read for pleasure.
Librarians are doing their best with resource restraints. The Jamaica Library Service always includes Caribbean lit in their annual Reading Competition.
The Ministry of Education has produced some very good books, such as the Doctor Bird Series, and Literacy 1-2-3, but what happens to them when they get into the schools? Do education officers follow up? When I was doing some volunteer teaching at a primary school, I was able to look at only a few of these. I understand that workshops were held to instruct teachers in how to use them. Why not video-tape these workshops and have them available on Youtube? Why not have these books for sale?

Authors want to promote their books, but cannot afford to. Publishers in Jamaica, such as LMH, Carlong, Bluemoon, and Arawak are doing what they can with limited resources. Distributers such as Novelty Trading, do promote Caribbean authors to a limited extent, especially at the Calabash Literary Festival, but they too have to focus on the bottom line. Booksellers are reluctant to carry Caribbean children’s lit because “it doesn’t sell” or “it won’t sell”. This is a Catch 22 situation as the books won’t sell if they’re not prominently displayed in the bookshops. Even when they are displayed, they are sometimes withdrawn because “they are not selling”. This was the case with the Island Fiction Series in Fontana in Montego Bay (the display is set up by Novelty Trading). In their place was a whole shelf filled with the Wimpy Kid. Couldn’t a little space have been devoted to the Island Fiction Series? Obviously they’re not going to sell if they’re not there!
Island Fiction Series was later replaced by Wimpy Kid
Corporate donors are very generous when donating books for children. Unfortunately, whoever is advising them does not recommend any Caribbean books. For example, Western Union in its  I-PLEDGE  (‘I Promise to Lend Encouragement to Develop Growth in Education) has a Reading Week when senior executives and staff from GraceKennedy, GraceKennedy agents, private individuals, celebrities and media personalities visit select schools in April each year to read to students and donate books to their school libraries. I have taken part in this initiative since 2010, and suggested that they include Caribbean books, but I have never been able to speak directly to the person who chooses the (foreign) books to send to the schools.  
Every year, Great ShapeInc visits Jamaica and brings in hundreds of boxes of books, with the help and support of Sandals Foundation. A team of volunteers spends two weeks in Jamaica distributing these books and teaching in selected schools. Many of these books are series which a publisher is no longer producing, so they are given away. Georgene Crowe and Gretchen Lee, the innovators and implementers of this programme, make sure that the books are suitable but they have no other control over what books are donated. Georgene kindly purchased a copy of Delroy in the Marog Kingdom for Kendal Primary School, where they were running part of their programme, when I went to do a book reading there. Sandals Foundation has other literacy projects in different parts of Jamaica, There is also NEET  Negril Education Environment Trust which builds libraries and donates books. I failed in my efforts to get in touch with them.
From the diaspora, Natalie Bennett runs the Granville Reading and Art Programme, which includes a Summer School for which she brings in books which have been donated. Most of these books originate out of the USA.   When I listen to Dervan Malcolm’s  programme on Power 106 on Saturday mornings, I hear of other people, such as Leo Gilling and Karlene Largie (President of  Union of  Jamaican Alumni Associations) in the diaspora who are interested in education.
One of the problems with this information age is that there is so much information that one gets deafened by it. Everybody is trying to get his voice heard. Success comes to those who have the opportunity and speak the loudest and the most frequently. Perhaps if authors can get together and speak as one voice (we did that quite well on Multicultural Children’s Book Day) and we can target key persons such as Ministers of Education, CXC, Presidents of Teachers/ Principals Associations, Presidents of National PTA’s, Board Members of Bookshops/ Book Distributers/ Publishers,  CEO’s of Corporate Foundations, Presidents of Students Unions, and Media Houses with simple, eye-catching, memorable, promotional material, (no meetings, please!) we could begin to form a community supporting Caribbean children’s lit.

  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

About Delroy in the Marog Kingdom

Delroy in the Marog Kingdom: “If you look into River Mumma’s eyes, something terrible going happen to you.” Too late, Delroy remembers his mother’s warning. Is drowning his fate or is something worse in store? Becoming a marog is only the beginning. The king of these unusual frogs has chosen Delroy to succeed him, but first he must retrieve the king’s magical stone from a venomous snake. Slogging through underground caves and tunnels, Delroy is tempted to give up and wonders whether he will ever return to his former life. 
Available on amazon.




Helen Williams (pen-name Billy Elm) has lived and worked in Jamaica since graduating from Oxford University in the UK. For 38 years she taught all ages of children. Now retired, she has taken up writing for children.  DELROY IN THE MAROG KINGDOM is her first published novel. Her other publications include a short story “Finding My Roots” in Tony Bradman’s Anthology, ALL IN THE FAMILY and ERROL’S TAXI, a reader in Pearson’s Stepping Stones Series. 




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ananse Sound Splash 2014

Amina Blackwood-Meeks
Ananse worked hard to disrupt the 6th leg of his Sound Splash at Montego Bay Community College on Saturday, November 22, 2014. Amina Blackwood-Meeks was delayed on the road, and some of the presenters had been informed that the conference was to begin at 1:00 p.m., so the conference itself didn’t start until 12:30 p.m. Perhaps Ananse was not pleased that 3 of the presenters were white women, with other than Jamaican accents and that the other 3 were brown women. Where were the Jamaican men? Professor Fred Hickling, who was to have chaired the conference was struck down with chikungunya, and Philip Clarke, the Montego Bay organizer, had to attend a funeral. However, I hope Ananse has forgiven us now, having heard that our presentations were in his favour, and that his story-telling conference is taking on an international flavor. 

Young storyteller
The late start also gave a chance for people whose names were not on the programme to make a contribution. School children told their stories.
One boy (whose name I will add asap) told the well-known “Cinderella” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. He remembered, retold and certainly renewed these stories with such confidence in a language all of us could understand, a blend of creole and standard English, with an appealing rhythm. 
Dr. Angella Samuels-Harris
Principal, MBCC
Then Dr. Samuels-Harris, Principal of Montego Bay Community College, surprised us by telling “Big Boy” and Ananse stories. 
The charming Ms. Sophia McIntosh, Human Resource Lecturer/ Toastmaster and chairperson for the conference, prevailed on me to read “Errol’s Taxi”. Ananse at work again. Perhaps I should have declined to read, as this festival about the oral tradition. If I had known I was going to be asked to read, this is not what I would have chosen. It is a reader in Pearson’s Stepping Stone series, which has 6 levels, with 10 books in each level, for emergent readers to read. I wrote Errol’s Taxi at least 8 years ago, and since several publishers rejected it, I was happy that Pearson accepted it. However, the story which ended up in print is not the same story I wrote. As Mary Nelson said in her presentation “sly messages slip in”. Although I can’t write creole, I usually write dialogue in non-standard English. That was edited out. As Diane Browne said “They want standard English”. Only the setting and the characters remained Jamaican. I would love to hear the boy who told the Cinderella story retell and renew “Errol’s Taxi” in his lyrical voice.
The conference finally began and we were not disappointed. Amina Blackwood Meeks welcomed us all her usual energetic manner.
Presenters l-r: Barry Marshall, Jeri Barnes, Denise Valentine and Mary Nelson

Jeri Barnes, with Barry Marshall helping with the power-point presentation, spoke on “Revitalizing Traditional Stories – A Cultural Imperative”. She discussed what it is about a story that endures – we are part of a story, we keep expecting stories, we expect conflict and resolution. When we tell a story our brains light up and the listener’s brains light up also. We share stories to communicate and share our culture.
Barre Toelken’s twin laws of folklore – conservatism and dynamism. Stories evolve – the extent to which they remain the same or change depends on what the tellers of these stories choose to keep or to add. Stories change because they are open to multiple interpretations, the socio-cultural context changes and because we tend to distort stories.
Old stories have advice. Some stories are as relevant now as they were when they were written but can be told in new ways. Jeri encouraged us to share the old stories, by telling them in our way, in our voice and with spice.
Denise Valentine, Professional Storyteller, Historical Performer, Archivist, from Philadelphia,  USA, whose maternal great-grandparents are from Portland, Jamaica, spoke on “Storytelling, History and Reconstruction”. She highlighted the damaging effects of suppressing the truth when historical information is passed from one generation to the next.
“…unspoken from our past are making the soil toxic, this sickness prevents generative energy and collective innovation from being able to help shift the community forward.” (Katie Boone – Storytelling & Healing | The Art of Hosting).
This has relevance for the descendants of enslaved people in the U.S.A. Ms. Valentine gave examples such as George Washington having slaves and taking them to Philadelphia, where the remains of slave quarters were found within feet of Liberty Bell, but they didn’t want people to know.
We can reveal the truth in stories by reclaiming names and honoring ancestors. Content for stories gleaned from research into historical documents can be woven into traditional story structure. Ms. Valentine showed how this can be done by telling a story herself, in which a girl who had been born into slavery was told her history by an elderly enslaved woman.
Mary Nelson chose to speak on “Ananse and Cultural Decolonization”. She is from Wales, where, when she was a child, the Welsh language was not used in schools, and example of colonizers, (the English) attempting to cut off the Welsh from their culture. Similar attempts were made to cut off enslaved people from their culture without them being aware of what was happening. Ananse stories have been used to portray Jamaicans as tricksters, but these same Ananse Stories can be redesigned to show Ananse as hero or mentor, and the colonizers as shape-shifters and villains. Among the Asante people of Ghana, Ananse was synonymous with skill and wisdom of speech. Surely these abilities should be respected and sought after? Hence the purpose of this storytelling festival – to focus attention on the unique value of Jamaica’s rich oral tradition and its potential for enhancing national development.
My presentation was entitled “If we don’t tell our story, who will?” You can read the full text on my blog post of November 23, 2014.
The final speaker was Gloria Malcolm Foster, story teller, teacher, entertainer, and healer. Her presentation was entitled “Saluting my Grandmother”.
I regret that we didn't have more time to spend with the presenters, and that there were no break-out groups in which the members of the audience could have had a more interactive experience. I nonetheless hope that those in attendance were inspired by what they heard to themselves become storytellers or story-writers. 


Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Paper Presented at Jamaican Storytelling Conference 2014

 If we don’t tell our stories, who will?
 Paper presented at Ananse Sound Splash: Storytelling Conference and Festival  
November 2014

This written version is more or less what I presented, and I have included links.
Helen Williams at mic
Introduction
After graduating from Oxford University in the UK, Helen Williams embarked on a 38-year teaching career, 34 years of which were in Jamaica, at Rusea’s and Green Island High Schools, Lucea Prep School (as founding principal) and Montego Bay Community College. Since retiring, she has taken up writing for children.
Her short story “Finding My Roots” was published in Tony Bradman’s Anthology, ALL IN THE FAMILY in 2008.
DELROY IN THE MAROG KINGDOM, a chapter book in the Island Fiction Series, published by Macmillan Caribbean in 2009, under the penname Billy Elm, won the people’s choice award for Best Children’s Chapter Book in the BIAJ’s biennial awards 2011. It was chosen by the Jamaica Library Service to be read by children aged 9-12 in the Annual Reading Competition 2011.  
ERROL’S TAXI, a reader in Pearson’s Stepping Stones Series, was published in 2013.
A short story, FLASH, won a silver medal, and an award for Best Junior Short Story in JCDC’s Creative Writing Contest in 2010. It is self-published as an e-book. 

Presentation
Robert McKee, a well-known creative writing instructor, said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”
Who is telling our stories, my story, your story? If we don’t tell our stories, who will?
I know this festival is about the oral tradition, but I beg the forgiveness of the organizers in including mention of written stories, because I write. But I also affirm that the telling of stories gave birth to their writing.   
I now make 2 assertions, which I’d like you to remember if you don’t remember anything else.
1.     Jamaican children need to hear about themselves in stories, see themselves in picture books, and read about themselves in books, not as tricksters, shape shifters and villains, but as heroes and heroines, mentors, heralds and gatekeepers.
2.     Reading for pleasure is the single most important educational activity for a child. It improves comprehension, it increases vocabulary and improves grammar. It even improves math scores.
I would like now to discuss the importance of telling of stories to children. Repeating point #1, Jamaican children need to hear themselves and about themselves in stories.
Before children learn to read, they need to hear stories. Thus they learn to listen, hold ideas in their heads and follow stories. They need to remember and retell. They learn to experience emotions and situations vicariously. Whether they recognize themselves or others in a story, they feel empathy for characters in stories.  They will transfer these skills when they learn to read. How often do our Basic School and Grade 1 teachers tell children stories? What stories? How many different stories? There should be a story time every day, with a variety of stories repeated often. Are teachers taught to be storytellers?
Now here’s a dilemma. Stories can be told in creole, but children are not taught to read creole. Although creole is written, and is easy to read, they are taught to read English. Countless studies have shown that children, who learn to read in their mother tongue, transfer that skill to the reading of a second language better than if they were taught to read in that second language, but suggest that common-sense approach in Jamaica, and there is an uproar. Ask a creole speaking 5-year-old to remember and retell a story told to him in standard English. He will retell it in creole. Look at the comments on Facebook by Jamaicans, who learnt to read and write in English, and transferred that skill to the writing of creole. But if you present a child in the first few grades of primary school with text in creole, they will have difficulty reading it. So we are stuck with teaching the reading of standard English, with its countless idiosyncrasies in spelling, grammar and syntax, for the time being.
Expanding on point #2: Reading for pleasure is the single most important educational activity for a child, but most Jamaican children are short-changed by not having enough books available for them to look at in Basic School, or for them to read in every grade of primary school, and certainly not enough about people like themselves. Even in the USA, where in 2010, 14% of the population was African American or African, only 4.5 % of the books were about them; while 63% of the population was Caucasian (and not Hispanic), and 91% of the books were about them. (See my blog Racial and cultural bias in books for children.)

When I went to teach at Green Island Secondary School (as it was then) in 1974, I was in the library when the librarian opened boxes of new books. Many of them were Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The children pounced on them, wanting to borrow them immediately.  I wondered, “Where were the books by Jamaican authors?” I didn’t see them in the bookshops either. The only Jamaican author that came to my notice was Orlando Patterson. His “Children of Sisyphus” had been prescribed for the older students. There was a big argument in the staff room about whether the students should be allowed to read this book. I didn’t read it myself until recently and now wonder what those students made of it.
Years later, I was to discover that there were at that time many wonderful stories set in Jamaica written by Jamaicans – Jean D’Costa, Vic Reid, Andrew Salkey, Everard Palmer, James Berry and since then many more by Diane Browne, Hazel Campbell, Cherrell Shelley-Robinson, Jean Gouldbourne and others, published by LMH and Carlong in their Sand Pebbles Series. (See a list of books for 8-12 year-olds on my blog.) Why were/ are these books not prominently displayed in the bookshops? Because, according to the boards of these bookshops, they won’t sell. Obviously they won’t sell if you don’t stock them or display them. Parents read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and books by Enid Blyton, which are prominently displayed in the bookshops so that’s what they buy for their children. 
Island Fiction on the shelves in Fontana, MoBay
Novelty Trading distributes books, including my book “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom”. It was on the shelf in Fontana Pharmacy, Montego Bay, along with other Island Fiction Books, then I didn’t see it again. On enquiring, I was told it wasn’t selling, so was removed to make space for other books. What other books? Do they really need the space to display 50 copies of the Diary of the Wimpy Kid?
So, that’s part of my story. If I don’t tell my story, who will? Going back to 1974: assuming that there was a dearth of children’s books by Jamaican authors, I was presumptuous enough to think that I could contribute in that area. I started a story in 1981, and worked on it sporadically over the next 2 decades, starting by writing long-hand, then using a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter and finally a word processor. When I retired in 2003, not knowing how to get a book published, I started to read “How to” books on writing fiction, and I took a UCLA online course on children’s writing. The book I’d been working on went into a box under the bed, and my energies went into writing adventure stories for boys. I wrote four of these, none yet published but I’m always optimistic.
My break came in 2007, with 2 stories at once. My short story Finding My Roots was published in an anthology “All in the Family” edited by Tony Bradman. This story included a great house, a moonshine baby, a rolling calf and Grandma Aggie’s Tamarind Switch (my original title!).
My chapter book “Delroy in the Marog Kingdom” was accepted by editor Joanne Gail Johnson’s for inclusion in Macmillan Caribbean’s ‘Island Fiction Series.’ The requirement was for Fantasty, Sci Fi and Folklore set in the Caribbean. The fantasy – Delroy turns into a marog – a type of frog. The folklore – River Mumma. (No Sci-Fi – I’m not a fan of that genre.) What turned out to be pivotal was that in my research on frogs, I found a Taino legend that if mothers went away leaving their children hungry, the children would turn into frogs. Normally, no Taino mother would have done this, but when the Spaniards enslaved them, it happened. It happened also to a Taino princess, who tried to drown herself, but, as Jamaican legend tells, she was turned into River Mumma. I have written 2 sequels to the published book – “Delroy and theMarog Princess” in which she returns to Delroy’s village in human form, available on Amazon as an ebook.  In “The Last of the Marogs”, Delroy time-travels to the time of the Tainos.This story won a silver medal in the JCDC Creative Writing Contest 2013, but is not yet published.
The treasury of Jamaican culture and history, and the infinite variety of settings and characters is my inspiration and can be yours too. Our children need many, many more Jamaican  stories - there aren't nearly enough. Don't forget they need illustrations as well. With the advent of the tablets in schools project, and the ease of e-publishing, the doors of opportunity for you to write for them are thrown wide open. But don’t expect to make money immediately – do it for love.
If we don’t tell our story, who will?

TO FOLLOW in a future post: An account of other most interesting presentations at the conference.
I welcome comments and questions on this post.