Monday, August 16, 2010

Guest Post by Joanne C. Hillhouse, Wadadli Pen Prize Founder

Today I'm really excited to host Joanne C. Hillhouse on the blog for the first time! Joanne is the author of two Caribbean YA books, The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight both published by Macmillan Caribbean and both on the secondary school reading list in Antigua and Barbuda. She lives in Antigua where she works as a freelance writer and editor. Another side of the Willow Bend author that some people may not know is that she is the founder/co-ordinator of the annual Wadadli Youth Pen Prize and its accompanying workshops for young writers in Antigua and Barbuda.

Through the Wadadli Pen movement, Joanne and her team are making a ground-breaking effort to change the culture of writing in the Caribbean by providing incentives and training for promising child and teen writers, thereby setting them along the path to rewarding literary careers. The launching, this year, in Trinidad and Tobago of a similar youth writing award-program, the Allen Prize for Young Writers, gives me hope that youth activism surrounding writing and literature is a trend that is catching on in the Caribbean. I almost weep to think that there could have been opportunities and prizes like these around when I was growing up in Trinidad! Or maybe there were and I just didn't know about them...which is a whole other topic. Anyway, today Joanne is here on the blog to talk about Wadadli Pen. Without further ado, let's here what she had to say.


Wadadli Pen – Nurturing another generation of Antiguan and Barbudan Writers
by Joanne C. Hillhouse

When, earlier in 2010, I started the Wadadli Pen blog – intent on uploading the best of the best from the annual competition which dates back to 2004 – I had no idea it would consume so much of my time. Nor did I know that I would feel so energized by the process.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the stories; and was newly impressed with the young authors who crafted them, and the way their storytelling prods at social issues while revealing a literary maturity I didn’t necessarily have at their age.

So it was, for instance, that I was seeing, with new clarity, the parallels between inaugural winner Gemma George’s 'Stray Dog Prepares for the Storm' and Damani Tabor’s 'Irate Beggar,' one with a dog and the other with a human at their center but both really speaking to the way society recoils from its responsibility to the less fortunate. And when, during a Wadadli Pen Open Mic, hosted monthly by the Best of Books bookstore in Antigua, I read Kemal Nicholson’s 'Ma Belle,' one listener commented on his effective use of irony, I felt proud of all the young writers who’ve been touched by the Pen. It strengthened my resolve to keep the programme alive.

Interestingly, as I prepped the author notes to accompany the story postings, I realized that none of these youngsters, to the best of my knowledge, were bee-lining towards a literary career. Still, I felt fairly certain of two things – they’ll continue writing in some way/shape/form, and their ability to express themselves in this way will be an asset wherever they find themselves.

Where in the world is
Antigua and Barbuda?
One feature of note on the Wadadli Pen blog, in addition to the expanding list of links to literary resources, is the ever expanding list of Antiguan and Barbudan writers – and thanks to John R. Lee of St. Lucia, Caribbean writers. These lists are never done. And that’s a good thing. In fact, as far as the Antigua and Barbuda list is concerned, I’m a little proud that here on this 108 square miles (170, counting Barbuda), we’ve produced such a wealth of publications (alas, very little children’s fiction).

This list is particularly an eye opener because growing up I really wasn’t exposed to/aware of much of what we had created, literally, and, frankly, the output then was paltry compared to the level of activity in the past decade or so. This high level of literary activity makes me fairly confident that young people dreaming of a career in writing will, find inspiration, and dare to believe in the dream.

I hope, therefore, that Wadadli Pen will continue to stir imagination, engender hope, and get young people writing.

I’m in!

As my tanty, bless her soul, would say, God spare life.


Related Sites

Joanne C. Hillhouse on MySpace
Wadadli Youth Pen Prize Blog
Joanne C. Hillhouse's Main Website
Joanne C. Hillhouse's page (Check out her books!)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Donna Marie Seim, Cross-Cultural Children's Writer (Part II of Interview)

We're back for day two of a two-part interview with Donna Marie Seim, author of Simon, Where is Sandy? and Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure. When I learned about Donna and her books, one of the things that really interested me was Donna's strong connection to and love for the Turks and Caicos islands and its people, and what seemed to be her dual sense of belonging as an American writer of Caribbean children's books. Here is Donna again, answering my questions.

You dedicated Where is Simon, Sandy? to the children of The Turks and Caicos Islands and all proceeds from Hurricane Mia! are being donated to the Children’s Programme of the Turks and Caicos National Museum. The T&C National Museum was also instrumental in helping you publish your book. How did your connection to the Museum and to the children of the Turks and Caicos come about?

First I have to make a correction. Hurricane Mia is not donating all profits to the Children’s Programme. We will be donating the proceeds from the launch at the museum and special fund raising events for the museum but it is not in the same category as Where is Simon, Sandy?. WISS, as we affectionately call the book, is owned by the museum. All proceeds from any sales go directly to the museum for the Children’s Programme. The book is the major supporter of the summer camp and the special programs for the children through out the year.

Donna and her friends
at a school in Salt Cay, T&C
My husband and I have always been supporters and members of the T&C National Museum. I sent the story to them because I liked their children’s programme, and felt that they in some way would help to preserve this sweet folk tale that belonged to the island. The museum responded within hours of my sending the story to them and they expressed their wish to make it into a real book!  But it is more than a book, it is a project with many people working hard to make it become the award-winning book that it is. I deeded all my royalties to the Children’s Programme because I felt it would do a great good. The museum needed the money to keep the programme going and the children would only benefit. As a former, teacher, childcare worker and toy storeowner, I have always loved children and the children on these islands are most dear to me.

It has been my pleasure to work with Mr. David Bowen, Cultural Director of the Turks and Caicos Islands. We visited all schools and libraries on each of the six islands with primary schools to read and donate the book, Where is Simon, Sandy?

Have you marketed your books to children in America? How would you like American children to view your books?

Yes, both books, Hurricane Mia! and Where is Simon, Sandy? have been marketed in the United States. And they have both have been received very well. When I visit classrooms with Where is Simon, Sandy?, the children have great interest both in the story and that it is from the Caribbean. We then discuss where these islands are located geographically. Some children have been to different islands and we talk about where they have been and what it was like, how it was different than a vacation in, Florida. I bring along a slide show and the children love to hear about donkeys roaming free and wild horses that trot past your gate.  They are very interested in the children in the photos. We talk about different kinds of food they eat and what the children wear to school and how they wear their hair.

Donna at the Providenciales Primary School
in Providenciales, T&C
We have a pen pal program set up with a school in Providenciales, T&C Islands, and a classroom in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The children write about their pets, draw pictures of themselves, talk about what sports they play and what their favorite foods are. It is a fabulous way for the children in the States to learn about another culture, and a place in the world that is different from where they live, widening their horizons. I think both sides benefit from the letters making their life richer and gaining more understanding of this amazing world we live in.

It is still early to answer directly about Hurricane Mia, except the reviews coming in from Stateside readers are very strong. Many have written that they feel as if the story has carried them to the islands of the Caribbean, and it makes them long to go there. It has been said that if you can transport your reader to another place you have achieved a great accomplishment. My favorite part of reading as a child and now as an adult, is to be completely swept away to another place and time and be totally caught up in a really great story.

Currently, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia! A Caribbean Adventure are available online and in select bookstores in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I’m sure children in other Caribbean islands would enjoy reading the books as well. Are there any plans to make the books more widely available throughout the Caribbean?

Another good question! Distribution is the hardest part of selling to the islands. My publisher is a small publisher and does not have sales reps that far reaching. I have been the major sales force and have worked hard to establish the accounts that we do have. I am currently working on a wider distribution plan, and hopefully we will make more progress in expanding to more islands soon.

Donna marketing her books at the Salt Museum
in Grand Turk, T&C

Donna, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best with your exciting projects and adventures!

Thanks so much Summer, your questions were great, and it was my pleasure!

Detail from Simon, Where is Sandy? illustrated by Susan Spellman

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Meet Donna Marie Seim!

Donna Marie Seim

In the past when I've interviewed authors, the posts have tended to be a bit long (I ask a lot of questions!) so this time around, I'm changing it up. We're going to spend not one, but two days getting to know Donna Marie Seim and her work. She is the author of two children’s books: a picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? and a chapter book, Hurricane Mia! : A Caribbean Adventure, both set in the Caribbean and both illustrated by Susan Spellman. She has also written a memoir, short stories, and Charley!, a soon-to-be-released chapter book. Where is Simon, Sandy? was a recipient of the 2009 Mom's Gold Choice Award (USA) and was also a finalist in the Children's Picture Book category of the 2010 National Indie Excellence Awards (USA.) Seim is a graduate of Ohio State University, and holds a Master's degree in Special Education from Lesley University. When she is not in the Caribbean, she lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, USA with her husband, Martin, and her dog, Rags.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Donna Seim interesting?

Hi, Summer, I guess it is easier to talk about my writing than to talk about myself. My work with children, from being a childcare worker at a residential treatment home, to a teacher of children with special needs, have allowed me a special insight into the hearts of young readers. My years as an owner of a retail toy and book store have also given me the opportunity to see what children like to read and what is out there for them. And my daughter, Kristin, gets the credit for getting me to write down my family stories in my first book, Fifty Cents An Hour: My Life According To Me, which consists of humorous tales from my childhood having grown up in a large Irish Catholic Family on West 158th St. in Cleveland, Ohio. Once I started to write down my stories I was smitten, I had to write! P.S. I have a great sense of humor and I listen really well.

Please tell us about your children’s books. What are they about? Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip - or insights - about Mia or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

Neisha, character in Hurricane Mia!
I have written another picture book, which is currently looking for a publisher. This is again an island-based story of a little girl who tries to catch and tame a wild horse. The main character is Satchi, who learns a hard lesson about what true friendship really is. My second novel, Charley, a biographical fiction, middle grade reader, is set in the early 1900’s. It is a story of a city boy from Boston who finds himself orphaned and placed in a dairy farming family in rural Maine. It is a tender story of a young boy’s quest to find a family.

Mia, illustrated by Susan Spellman
Yes, Summer, you are right on target about an author’s personal relationship with their characters. When you write about a character in a story you carry them around with you, in your head and in your heart. You give them obstacles to overcome and trials to endure, but in the end you want them to win as if they were your own children. The funny thing about Mia is that she is a composite of different complex feelings and emotions. Some of my readers, who know me well, think of Mia as me. But, Mia is very much her own person. It is I, the author, that made up her characteristics and gave her  foibles, but she is not me. Well, maybe a little bit…but not completely. I like to give my characters their own life, personal traits and feelings. The creation of your character to me, is one of the most delicate and yet creative parts of writing. If you have strong characters they help you tell the story!

Your children’s books are set in the Caribbean and everything about the books (the illustrations, language, characters etc.) strike me as being particularly “Caribbean.”  Yet you yourself are not from the Caribbean. Why write children’s books set in the Caribbean? What’s your connection to the region?

Yes Summer, you are correct! Both, Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia, are absolutely set in the Caribbean. I have been traveling to Grand Turk, and the Turks and Caicos Islands for over 35 years! My husband’s parents had a home there for many years. I fell in love with the Island of Grand Turk from my earliest visits. I have met and made treasured friendships with locals, ‘belongers’, as well as people from all over the world. It is a special place, and I have yearned to write about it. My husband and I now own a home on Grand Turk and travel back and forth to our island home. They say that travel inspires a writer and my islands speak to me.

Detail from Hurricane Mia
Illustration by Susan Spellman

It has often been debated whether or not authors can and should write books depicting cultures other than their own. Did you consider this when writing Where is Simon, Sandy? and Hurricane Mia? and what kind of research (if any) did you and your illustrator Susan Spellman do to be able to write and illustrate these books?

This is a very good question! But if I were to follow that rule, I could only write about Irish Catholics living in Cleveland Ohio! Hurricane Mia, is actually a multiplicity of cultures. Mia and her brother are from suburban Boston, they bring along with them their background and cultural traits. The Grandparents are from another generation, with their own values and unbending ways. When writing the story I was especially interested in the two girls interacting, learning and sharing their outlooks and “cultures”. It is Neisha who shares her knowledge of Bush Medicine that turns the tide and gives Mia a focus, to find the tea that cures everything. Mia and Neisha’s cultural differences intertwine throughout the story. They both are strong characters and yet in the end they both rely on each other. They aren’t blended but rather, learn from each other as they each grow to become true friends.

Donna during a sing-along
at the Museum

In preparation for Hurricane Mia I did extensive research, some of which is listed under references at the back of the book, and interestingly enough from part of that research came the kernel for Where is Simon, Sandy?. Bryan Naqqi Manco, at that time an environmental officer of the Turks and Caicos Islands, took my husband and I on an eco tour of North and Middle Caicos. My hopes were to meet a true bush doctor and a granny, (midwife), for my research for Hurricane Mia, and we accomplished that, much to my delight. It was during that trip that Bryan told me the story of a little donkey who wouldn’t quit, and that was the beginning of Where is Simon, Sandy? I wrote it as a short story and sent it to the Turks and Caicos National Museum to put in their newsletter, or to simply read to the children in their Children’s Programme. Interested in preserving any of the oral culture passed down for generations the museum asked me if we could make it into a book. They were thrilled to have an actual folktale from their own island and the project of making the story into Where is Simon, Sandy? began!

The Turks and Caicos
National Museum
Susan and I worked closely together on the artwork. She did some research, but mostly we used my photos taken on these islands. All the gates are actual gates found on Grand Turk and the antique building, which houses the Turks and Caicos National Museum, is depicted with a red tin roof in the last scene. The donkey cart is a true representation of the carts used for generations. The children in their school uniforms are actual children from my photos and some historic photos from the museum. The architecture, Bermudian in design from the days of the salt trade, is accurate down to the tin roofs and limestone walls giving the true timeless character of the island of Grand Turk.

Your first picture book, Where is Simon, Sandy? is about a donkey that wouldn’t quit and is a retelling of a well-known folktale from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Reviewers have claimed that before your book, the folk tale had never been written down before. Is this true? How did you come to learn about the folk tale and what inspired you to put it down on paper?

Oops, I guess I put the cart before the donkey on this question, since I have already told you how it came to be a book! And yes, to my knowledge, it has never been written down in a printed version or book of any kind. Some of the older folks remember it, but with the younger generation it was really beginning to slip away. I was told the donkey’s name was Buster, and someone else told me it was Joe, but there was a donkey who did deliver the water from the well with his master to the townspeople of Cockburn Town. When his master was no longer able to make the route, the donkey did it every day on his own, faithfully stopping at each and every gate at the same time every day. He became a pet or mascot for the town and the children loved to follow after him. I wrote this story because I felt that it was a true island treasure and should be saved and shared with the generations to come. The children on Grand Turk identify with the story and claim it as their own, which it truly is. They are proud of it!

Illustration from Where is Simon, Sandy?

Click here to read part 2 of my interview with Donna Marie Seim.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Interview with Costa Rican Illustrator, Wen Hsu

Ever since I came across Costa Rican illustrtor, Wen Hsu's work, I have been totally enchanted. Because of her, I have fallen in love with molas, the Kuna artform that inspires a lot of her work. In a previous post on Caribbean children's illustration, I made the point that Caribbean children's illustrators need to be more inventive with their work. Well, Ms. Hsu is certainly surpassing my expectations of inventiveness! Her stunning work brings together the intricate dimensionality of traditional Chinese paper cuts and the brightly colored geometrical patterns of molas, to produce indigenous visuals that retain the mythical quality of storytelling. The luminous quality of some of her illustrations gives them a glowing poignancy that somehow reminds me of sand animation, while the geometric designs evoke the studied spirituality of Buddhist sand mandalas. Interviewing Wen Hsu on the blog today, I feel like I am in the company of greatness. It is an honor indeed to present her to my readers. Without further ado, here's what she had to say.


Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Wen, I really appreciate it.

Thank you for your wonderful work with both your blog and ezine. I feel very honoured and am very thankful as well.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Wen Hsu interesting?

I hope that my work is interesting, most especially to children. And I think that if I had to choose one trait that made my work what it is today, it is my mixed/hybrid heritage. Like most of Latin America and the Caribbean, I am fortunate enough to be part of cultural symbiosis. I am myself specifically born in Taiwan, but raised in Costa Rica since I was two years old. This allowed me to grow up in the cultural (and natural) richness of our continent, absorbing all sorts of cultural influences naturally as a child, adolescent and adult. All this background permeates onto my work at all levels, conscious and subconscious.

You have been involved in a lot of different types of projects including museum exhibits, architectural projects, book design, and your own Mareas Couture Headpieces company, yet you repeatedly state on your blog that illustrating children’s books is what you love best. What is it about children’s illustration that speaks so strongly to you?

Ever since my first childhood memories I have loved stories: Reading them, listening to them or making characters and their stories up in my imagination. Since I started playing with stories at such a young age, I started drawing them before I could write. This is how my lifelong love for illustration simply happened, just like that. Stories are still part of my favorite playtime with my niece and other children, and many illustration ideas come from it.

I know next to nothing about Costa Rican children’s illustrators (or children’s writers for that matter.) Here in the islands, children’s illustration is still a very underdeveloped field. What is the status of children’s illustration in Costa Rica right now? Is it a recognized artform/ profession? I have heard of the GAMA Forum of Costa Rican Illustrators. Are children’s illustrators well-represented in GAMA?

Illustration in general is still a rather undeveloped professional field here in Costa Rica as well, even though there are very high quality children's illustrators like Vicky Ramos, Alvaro Borrasé and Feliz Arburola. I believe that the reason for this is that Costa Rica is still a small emerging market, where most creative professions suffer from a lack of standard fees and working processes, as well as the general misconception in the country that it is a sort of "hobby", instead of a profession. Fortunately some disciplines are gradually paving the road, such as Graphic Design, Interior Design and Architecture.

GAMA is a group of Costa Rican illustrators and Illustration fans. It serves mainly as a communication and discussion forum, where we can share experiencies, ideas and career opportunities. In fact, this is where I learned of the NOMA Concourse back in 2008. We have also learned that a first step into evolving the illustration market in Costa Rica is to have some sort of pricing and process standardization. We hope to "educate" our clients and potential team with this and move towards more sustainable professional relationship one step at a time. I believe there are similar situations in a lot of emerging markets and countries around the world. and in a way,we are all pioneers. So it is important to share our experiences and learn together.

Let talk about your work. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice? What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations? What is your process for creating an illustration?

From a few years back and up to today, I am most interested in experimenting with cutting paper and coloring it with different media, mostly watercolors and a little bit of gouache. This works great for children's books as it combines the simple, clean edges and dimensional feel of cut paper with the wondrous variety of textures and color combinations yielded by watercolors and other types of brushwork. This also allows for different styles that can adapt to all age ranges as well, as cultural influences. In Nadi & Xiao Lan for example, I combined the traditional Chinese papercut aesthetics with that of Molas made by the Kuna women in the Caribbean coast of Panama. Although these are very different cultures with extremely strong aesthetic languages, they merged seamlessly when worked together with the same paper cut technique.

The Caribbean coast of Costa Rica (often called the “Caribbean side”) has evolved differently from the rest of the country. I know that in the coastal province of Limón for example, almost half of the inhabitants are Afro-Caribbean or of Afro-Caribbean decent (mainly of Jamaican ancestry), something that is evident in the cuisine, architecture, language and music of that region. How do you view the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and have Caribbean cultures had any influence on your work?

I live in a small city on the Costa Rican Caribbean called Turrialba. It is not in the coast, but the Afro-Caribbean (as well as Asian and Native Costa Rican) influence is very strong and much more evident than in the rest of the country. Although Turrialba officially belongs to the province of Cartago, Turrialbeños (Turrialba locals) consider themselves much more akin to Limón. It was one of the important stops on the old railroad, that started on the port of Limón and transported goods and people to the capital city, thus a big vat of cultural mixes.

I go to the coast all the time and draw much of my inspiration from it. The weather is unmistakeably Caribbean and it definitely has a specific environment that is not found in the rest of Costa Rica and a very important jewel in our country's culture. As you mentioned, everything from architecture to cuisine, music, dance and language has a completely different and unique. In fact, I daresay it is one of the Costa Rican richest cultural "hotspots".

Towards the South of the Caribbean coast, there is also a strong Bribri (Native Costa Rican) influence, which makes for a very evident and unique mix in towns like Manzanillo, Punta Uva, Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. You can find Costa Rican Caribbean food all around the province (and in Turrialba of course), such as Panbón, Rice and Beans, Rondón and Agua de Sapo. In Limón you can see the main Caribbean historical buildings in the province, such as the Black Star Line and the Post Office among many others.

One of Costa Rica's best loved song writers of all time is the calypsonian Walter Ferguson from Cahuita.

You recently finished illustrating and writing a children’s book about the rain forest animals of Costa Rica which you are now pitching to publishers. This is the first book that you have written and submitted for publication. Can you tell us more about this project? What was it like to go from illustrating children’s books to writing one?

It was actually a pretty fun endeavor. This is a rather simple book for younger children, which does not mean it was any easier to conceptualize, write and illustrate. I chose a topic that I know very well from my daily life and personal interests: our local natural world. It feel like it is always better to work with stories and themes that come from my own experience. It feels more intimate and therefore has a truer voice.

What was it like winning the prestigious Noma Concours Prize for Picture Book Illustration and presenting at the ACCU-NOMA Symposium in Tokyo, Japan? What major thing, if any, did you take away from that experience?

It was the biggest surprise. I never would have thought in my wildest dreams that I would be awarded such a prize. The whole experience was might blowing and it was also surprising to realize that Japanese people genuinely appreciate children's book illustration and illustrators. My pieces for the competition were acquired by the Chihiro Foundation and Art Museum, which was also an amazing surprise and honor. This foundation is dedicated to preserving Illustration from all over the world, for today's children and new generations to come.

Thinking back, I think that the major event was to encounter the wide variety of wonderful styles and sensibilities that exist in the World. As I viewed the exhibition of the winning works, I found this incredible kaleidoscope of different values and points of views, as well as the realities and challenges we all encounter in life as individuals, families and communities.

You have worked with people from all over the world. Do you find that there are cultural barriers/language barriers and if so, how do you navigate them? 

Cultural and slight language barriers will always exist when you work in international teams, especially if you work remotely through email or phone, when everybody is in different countries. Luckily there is English as a common language, as well as translators. Usually everybody involved is very patient and understanding. So far, everybody I have worked with has been very kind and great team players. Details and feedback are carefully cross checked and there is definitely a lot of information and emails going back and forth. Fortunately, the projects I have worked on have been a lot of fun.

Having people from different cultures working in the same team can also be a big plus. I have had editors and art directors give me a completely unexpected point of view that I would have otherwise never thought of. All this "rubbing" of cultures and ideas goes into the process and results in a richer book. I think that as long as everybody in the team is open and honest, things will probably run very smoothly.

One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Would you be open to illustrating books by Caribbean children’s authors and if so, do you think you can bring anything fresh or unique to Caribbean children’s books?
Yes, I would definitely be interested in illustrating Caribbean children's books.. I love the tropics, my Costa Rican Caribbean home and all its stories, so it would be a dream come true to bring some of its beauty into books to share with others.

As for bringing something fresh and unique, I like to think that we can all bring some of it to the table, be it illustrators, art directors or writers. In my case, it is perhaps the fact that I live in a part of the Caribbean which is not as well known or labeled as "Caribbean", like some of the islands. The Costa Rican Caribbean, and I believe the Central American Caribbean in general is not very well known. Yet there are very unique elements in the Central American Caribbean that are found nowhere else, like the Garifuna in Honduras and the Bribri-Afro Caribbean zambos in Costa Rica. On the other hand, I also have Chinese/Taiwanese heritage in my background, which is not uncommon in Costa Rica, but is still a bit unknown and unexplored.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

The best and most secure way to contact me is via email, to this address
Also my phone number is (+506) 2556 2272 or (+506) 8384 2813, but email is definitely the surest way to find  me.

Wen, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. It’s been a real pleasure conversing with you. 

Thank you! The pleasure is all mine! It is always wonderful to share with people who love children's books as well as illustrations, so thank you very much for this opportunity.


Born to Chinese parents in Taiwan, Wen Hsu has lived in Costa Rica since she was two years old. She earned an Advanced Degree in Architecture from the University of Costa Rica and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in Rhode Island, USA. Hsu has illustrated several children’s books including Salina by Marianela Ortuño Pinto, Sebastian by Michael Stewart, Historia de un Árbol (History of a Tree) by Ricardo Cie, and For the Love of a Cat, a Buddhist story which she illustrated for Katha, a “profit for all” organization impacting social injustice and economic poverty in urban India. Hsu has received honors for her work as an illustrator, including the Adobe Scholarship for Excellence in Illustration and the 2008 Grand Prize in the prestigious Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustration contest organized by Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) for her own book, Nadi & Xiao Lan. Hsu makes her home in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

Related Links

Wen Hsu’s website
Wen Hsu’s blog

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interview with Trinbagonian Illustrator, Brianna Mccarthy

If you read my last post, you know I'm a sucker for Caribbean illustrators and have made it my business to promote the work they do. It would be remiss of me if I didn't include Brianna Mccarthy in that campaign. Mccarthy is a young lady from Trinidad and Tobago whose talent can only be described as dazzling. In her insistent mastery of a single subject matter, Mccarthy reminds me of the great Impressionist painter Edward Degas, who obsessively depicted dancers (ballerinas) in his art. Only with Mccarthy, it's girls. Mccarthy repeatedly draws and paints girls. Beautiful, colored girls. In doing so she displays her mastery in the depiction of African, East Indian and creole physical features. Truly, in her art I see the working out of a Caribbean aesthetic which recognizes and affirms négritude (black consciousness), antillanité (West Indianness), and créolité (transcultural fusing.) Her art simply radiates color consciousness and métissage.

This is the first time Mccarthy's work is being featured on a children's literature blog. Indeed, when I contacted her to solicit an interview I could sense a sort of pleasant surprise in her response. I see great potential for children's illustration in Mccarthy's work and can easily compare her skill and style in watercolor to that of award-winning African-American children's illustrators, Sharda Strikland, E.B. Lewis and even Jerry Pinkney in some respects. There is such a need for illustrations like hers--unapologetic, eloquent images of beautiful, black people-- not only in the general universe of commercial images, but in children’s illustration in general and Caribbean children's illustration in particular.

I guess you can tell that there's just not enough good things I can say about her work :-)

It's painstakingly detailed....

It's highly conceptual...

It's protagonistic (Caribbean Cinderellas anyone?)...

It's versatile....

It's anecdoctal (Don't these illustrations already seem like part of a story?)...

I recently had the pleasure of picking Brianna's brain about her work. Here's what she had to say.

Brianna, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, I really appreciate it.

Thank you for the opportunity! It’s an honour.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Brianna Mccarthy interesting?

I’m a 26 year old, self taught artist. I’m from Trinidad and Tobago and I do my own thing.

Let’s talk about your art. Your drawings are highly recognizable not only for their signature style, but also for their subject matter. You repeatedly depict black/colored women and girls. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice?

Erte’s (Roman de Tirtoff) work had a huge impact on me. Realizing that there wasn’t much of that kind of art featuring black women was a turning point. I thought, “This is fantastic! But where can I find some where the women look like me?” I’m female, black and West Indian – those come with a host of dynamics. I’m certainly influenced by my ethnic make-up or cultural influences as I want to know them intimately – it’s all very beautiful. Someone asked me once why all my paintings were of Black women. I had to think about it. I knew the answer, but what was it? I happen to be Black, female and West Indian; it’s what I identify with and influences how I see myself – therefore, it comes out in my expression.

What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations?

Watercolour – I love its fluidity. Graphite, acrylic, ink, cloth, paper, a metal ruler and a scapel. Can’t do much without them!

What is your process for creating an illustration?

Almost every mood I go through inspires me to create – I sketch when I’m bored, I sketch when I’m happy, sad, angry. It’s a quirk but I need to have clean hands and space to move around. I try to keep everything I could possibly need close by as stopping to get things that are missing breaks the vibe especially after 4 or 5 hours of concentrating.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Life. Beauty. My dreams and moments of apparent idleness. The inspiration for the set of layered paper collages I made recently came from attempting to makes the faces I drew into simple shapes – I drew long curving lines and incorporated the shapes and features I believed were staples in my faces – the eyes, cheekbones. It was a completely random exercise but it served t o give me a wealth of new ideas and ended up not being that simple at all.

What aspects of your own life or experiences have you brought to your illustrations?

I’d have to say my family – I have three sisters, all very creative, individual and strong. My mother and grandmother as well have influenced what I illustrate and how that comes across. For example, I think much of the jewelry I draw mind reconstructed out of my childhood of searching through my grandmother’s jewelry boxes. I think it’s still something I find enjoyment in; digging through women’s jewelry – it’s amazing fodder for me to create. I discovered that my great aunt’s name was Romancia La Roche and have a picture of her wearing a feathered cloche and jet beads around her neck - I thought it was fantastic! I think a little flair and drama is a wonderful thing – the women I grew up around certainly had and still have that.

On your blog you describe yourself as a “self-taught” artist. Do you really mean to say that you have never engaged in any formal art studies?

That’s exactly it. I have done CXC Visual Art which didn’t actually, in my case, involve much teaching of art. Art classes where mostly opportunities to the homework you failed to do the night before for all your other subjects! Like at many Caribbean Schools, Visual Art wasn’t really considered an important subject at my high school – so much so that Art wasn’t even offered at as an A Level subject. Since then it’s been a process of discovery and revelations. I didn’t even consider studying Visual Art at university; I opted for French at one point and English Literature at another.

You have been told before that your paintings are really illustrations and that you should get into the professional book illustration. The way I have always understood the difference between illustrative art and fine art is that with illustrative art, the illustration is always secondary or subsidiary to the product being illustrated, while with fine art, the painting itself is the critical object and holds first place in the range of values being considered. With illustration, the main concern is selling the product while we can think of fine art as, “art for the sake of art.” Also, the fine artist typically doesn’t have to answer to anybody in the making of the work, while the illustrator does. Given these distinctions, can you see yourself as an illustrator? Or are you more of a fine artist?

Fine artist…which is why the illustrator label always sounds great but never fit me. I don’t follow rules or have anyone to answer to; based on that alone I’d have to say fine artist!

I know you have a full-time job, but if an aspiring or established Caribbean children’s writer saw this interview and wanted you to illustrate their book would you be game? Would you do it?


One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Should you get into professional children’s illustration in the future, what do you think you can bring to the Caribbean picture book aesthetic?

It’s feels great to see local art that jumps out at you, that’s so different it makes you smile. I think traditionally there is a style and a feel to local work. You can tell sometimes because you’ve seen it before. When that tradition is broken and the new style is individual and fresh, I think it’s great. Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring something different to that forum.

Do you sell your work on stock illustration sites and if not, would you ever consider doing so?

No I don’t currently. I never considered it and I can’t see that as an option for me at this point based on the kind of work I do.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

My email address is

Brianna, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best in art and in life.

Thank you so much for the opportunity and the encouragement!


Brianna Mccarthy from Trinidad and Tobago is a 26 year old, people watching, wisdom seeking West Indian who paints, draws and makes girls. Her artwork has been featured on many Afrocentric blogs, including Woman of Color, Kiss My Black Ads, Black Girl with Long Hair, and most recently, Alice in Nappy Land. The beautiful fashion of Mccarthy's colored girls has also earned them the spotlight on fashionista websites like Shen Dove Style, Au Courant Daily and b.vikki vintage. Mccarthy's art has been featured online in Hiddenyou Ezine, Poema Jones and Khristian A. Howell Surface Design and Photography. She holds degrees in English Literature and Psychology from the University of the West Indies and is currently an intern with Trinidadian fashion house, The Cloth.

Related Links

Brianna Mccarthy's Online Portfolio

Brianna Mccarthy's Blog

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Interview with Trinbagonian Illustrator, James Hackett

If you have even the slightest interest in Caribbean illustrators, then James Hackett is a name you must have heard. I am absolutely taken aback by Hackett's work. He's a fellow-Trini and looking at the images in his portfolio I really do feel a sense of home, a satisfying sense of 'Caribbeanness'. I am perhaps most impressed by Mr. Hackett's versatility; his illustrations span a number of styles and working with both traditional and digital media, he is able to produce a wide range of effects. As a children's literature aficionado/scholar, I spend hours pouring over the talent in the international children's illustration market and I can easily compare Hackett's work to that of Ward Jenkins, Lou Simeone, Andrés Martínez Ricci, or Jeff Crowther. At the same time, I think Hackett's cartoonesque work, in combining vector art, urban aesthetics, batik designs and textures, magna comic elements and collage techniques, is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before. Check out these kid-friendly samples from his portfolio (click on images to enlarge):

I have been corresponding with Mr. Hackett and I recently had the chance to pick his brain about his work.


Thanks for agreeing to do this interview James, I really appreciate it.

No problem at all.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes James Hackett interesting?

I like telling stories. I have always tried to do that in my pieces and my work. There is always a story to tell. People like stories especially if they are good and I think I have been lucky enough to have interesting viewpoints that capture people’s imaginations.

On the web and in several print publications, you go by the alias “daaknite.” What’s the story behind the name?

I am a huge fan of Batman. I like what the character stands for: this ever vigilant human being in a world full of crazy people. He exists in this dark world but helps people as broken as he is amazing. I like to think of myself as a Dark Knight, playing on as many puns as you can think of with those references from the romantic to the obvious.

Let’s talk about your art. How would you describe your artwork and your subject matter of choice? What tools or media do you use to create your illustrations?

I like experimenting. Every chance I get I play with things and tools and find stuff that works. With traditional media I tend to work with pastel, watercolours, pencil and ink but these days I prefer mostly to work on the computer. This is primarily because I do not have a lot of space to work as I would like to. The computer keeps it simple for me so I just sketch and scan my concepts and finish them on the computer or work with photographs.

What is your process for creating an illustration?

These days I typically start with a sketch. Because of my graphic design background I see compositions and ways to make them work effectively very quickly in my head. The sketch helps me nail down the vision and once this is scanned I finish the work in Adobe Illustrator ( I have a couple tutorials in my blog that shows this process.) On the computer it is faster for me to work my colours out and tighten up the composition and layer in the details etc.

Although your illustrations typically feature adult concepts and figures, when I look at some of your work, (like the illustrations above) I see the qualities of children’s illustration- bright colors, quirky perspectives, animals with human characteristics, humorous elements, and visuals that subtly but powerfully tell a story. Have you ever illustrated for children and if not, is this something that interests you?

I am quite interested in illustrating for children’s books but I have not had a good opportunity as yet. I would really love to go all out and enhance a well written tale.

What about graphic novels or comic books? Graphic novels are big right now in the young adult literature market. I think Caribbean youth would enjoy locally-flavored graphic novels. What say you?

The thing with graphic novels is they take a lot of time, I have been burned in the past by trying comics and what not. I was young, but now I would really need a lot of time to do one. My heart still would like to try but I will not be able to do it justice at the moment because my head just isn't there yet. It would be nice to visit it in the future however because so many possibilities for stories exist as you suggested.

One of my biggest contentions with Caribbean children’s literature is that too many Caribbean children’s writes are outsourcing illustrators from overseas when there is abundant talent right here in our region. Should you get into professional children’s illustration in the future, what do you think you can bring to the Caribbean children’s book aesthetic?

Well I have been trying to break into the illustration market for the last few years unsuccessfully. For me it has been an uphill battle of discovery. I become more and more professional after each disappointment. I think (I may be wrong) that generally it’s a matter of seeing Illustration as a high craft and approaching the whole matter with professionalism, something that is kind of glossed over here from my experience, so foreigners are leagues ahead of us after the talent factor goes out the window. It is has a lot to do with us here looking at the industry more seriously and being able to garner that respect.

You are in the process of designing Carnival costumes for a children’s band for Carnival 2011. Can you tell us a little bit about this project? The concept behind the band perhaps?

Carnival has given me so many wonderful experiences. I have been involved with it off and on for about 12 years or so. The children’s band will pretty much be like a story book that we expect to expand into costumes and play out into the streets. It is not a revolutionary concept but it is something that makes so much sense. The process starts with a story that features "kidcentric" ideas and themes and then we create designs based on those characters. We plan to release the story as part of the marketing for the children’s band in a few months.

Do you sell your work on stock illustration sites and if not, would you ever consider doing so?

I have thought about it before, just not recently. I may try again at a later date.

How can interested parties (Caribbean children’s writers perhaps?) contact you?

My website has all the contact information.

James, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. It’s been a pleasure conversing with you.

Thanks a lot for seeking me out, it’s encouraging to know that there are a few people looking at what I do.


James Hackett from Trinidad and Tobago is a writer, documentary film-maker, and up-and-coming fashion designer who is perhaps more well-known in Caribbean circles for his work as an illustrator and animator. With over a decade of experience working in print, media and advertising houses in Trinidad and the Caribbean, Hackett’s work has been exhibited in the region and in the United States. His digital/graphic art has been featured in Draconian Switch, Outish Magazine, The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, The Trinidad and Tobago Express and regularly in Caribbean Beat. Hackett’s illustrations bring together his interest in magna comics, batik prints and Caribbean folklore to create upbeat Caribbean images that reflect the pizzazz and vitality of the region. Hackett was a resident illustrator and writer for VoX, the groundbreaking youth-focused magazine that was published in the Sunday Express in Trinidad and Tobago in the late 90’s. At VoX, Hackett was one of the writers behind Tales from Daaknite, the “urban-fiction-meets-folklore/fantasy” serialized stories that became popular among young people in Trinidad and Tobago. James Hackett holds an Associates Degree in Design from John Donaldson Technical Institute (Trinidad) and is currently pursuing a degree in fashion design at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. James Hackett is a member of Zigwa, the Trinbago-based arts collective.

Related Links

Hackett's Print Shop on Facebook

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Interview with Melanie Schwapp

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Melanie, I really appreciate it.

It’s an honor and a great pleasure.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Melanie Schwapp interesting?

I don’t think I’m all that interesting (smile). I think I’m just a typical mother trying to juggle work and looking after her family. If anything makes me interesting it’s how much I enjoy it all, how much I love being with my family and watching my children discover more and more of their world and the part they play in it.

Let's talk about your book, Lally-May's Farm Suss. As far as I know, to "suss" something is to figure something out, to finally grasp something difficult and elusive of understanding. Who is Lally-May and what does she figure out in this book?

Well, that was not the exact interpretation of ‘suss’ according to Lally-May. The book uses the Jamaican dialect interpretation, which is ‘to gossip’. Lally-May is quite a precocious child, and loves to use words that she hears other people use, especially adults. It makes her feel quite ‘grown up’. So she uses the word ‘suss’ to tell her story since she feels that in speaking about herself, she is ‘sussing’. However, Lally-May does very much discover something in the book, a lesson which many children sometimes learn the ‘hard way’ (as we say in Jamaica), and that is, ‘to do as you are told’.

Well you learn something new every day! Here's something else I don't know: the book is based on a Jamaican myth. I’m not Jamaican so forgive my ignorance, but what myth is the book based on?

Ahhh - the dreaded ‘Rolling Calf’! The creature that every child growing up in the country areas of Jamaica fears! According to Jamaican folklore, the rolling calf is the embodiment of evil spirits that roam the countryside at night, wearing a bell around its neck and searching with fiery eyes for some helpless mortal to destroy. It is a myth used many a time to control rambunctious children – ‘if you don’t behave yourself, the rolling calf is going to come for you!’

Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip -or insights- about Lally-May or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

People often ask me who Lally-May is, and I really can’t answer, because she is such a mix of all the children in my life – my own kids along with my nieces and nephews, and also a little of myself as a child. I also used to spend summers at my grandparents’ farm in St. James, and as much as Lally-May does, thought the world revolved around me :). Then in watching my own children grow, I realized that it really is a blessing to be happy in your own skin as a child, since it makes the world so much less threatening. I realized how important it was for my children to know their heritage, how important it was in giving them a proud, solid base so that wherever they ventured in the world, they would always have a foundation beneath their feet. And so, Lally-May was born, from bedtime stories to my children about Jamaican myths and culture, and also from anecdotes to help them deal with difficult situations in their lives.

Kojovi Dawes illustrated Lally-May's Farm Suss. How did his vision of the story coincide with the one in your mind as the author?

Completely! I remember when Kojovi and I first spoke about Lally-May and he laughed at her escapades as if she were as real to him as she was to me. And then when I saw his first sketch, I screamed – it was awesome to see this person that I’d pictured in my mind actually appear right before me. Kojovi was on the exact same page in his interpretation of ALL the characters as I was.

Publishing outlets for Caribbean children's writers are not as numerous as I, personally, think they should be. Please tell us a bit about how you got Lally-May's Farm Suss published.

I must admit, it was a struggle. Not many publishers liked the concept of Lally-May – the voice of a child as exactly a child would speak, with the mistakes in grammar and the way she described people with child-like abandon - the teacher with the very sweet perfume and the housekeeper with the missing teeth. Publishers felt that these factors would be offensive. However, just as I was about to give up, a publisher who’d lived in Japan fell in love with the book, and set me on the path to publishing. Unfortunately, our arrangement fell through, and I continued the process on my own.

Please share with us your creative process. Do you work from an outline or is it a stream of writing? 

My creative process differs according to what I’m writing. When I write for my children, I know what I want to say, and I know where I want the story to end up, so I just make my outline and add the ‘meat’ to the bones. However, when I write my short stories or the novel I’ve just completed, it’s a different process – the characters lead me. Sometimes I find the story going in a totally different direction from where I’d intended, and I catch myself saying “where is this coming from?” It’s from the characters as they grow from flat, one-dimensional figures to three-dimensional PEOPLE, with personalities so strong that they guide the plot. 

What inspired you to write for children?

My three little angels. Bedtimes were an exciting time for us as a family as we looked forward to hearing about another of Lally-May’s escapades, and when they said, “Mom, you should write these down”, I did.

Last month you did a book reading at the Bookland bookstore in New Kingston (Jamaica.) How did that come about and what was the experience like?

Bookland, as a contribution to Literacy Month in Jamaica, has enlisted a number of authors to conduct readings at their New Kingston store. They asked me if I would be one of the contributors and I was excited to do it. It always remains a great honor to me when other people enjoy Lally-May. She was such a personal icon in our family, that to see her appreciated by others is a fulfilling experience. The event was an absolute pleasure. 

Do you have any more readings or book signings lined up and if so, where and when can we see you read?

I have been asked to do another reading at a literacy festival in October.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What are some of your favorite books today?

Oh gosh, the Bobbsey Twins, without a doubt were my favourite childhood books. I loved the closeness of the Bobbsey family, and the intelligence and independence of the children to actually solve mysteries. I actually formed a detective club with my friends to try to solve crimes in our neighborhood. We had lots of meetings, but to date, no crimes solved :).

It’s difficult to pinpoint favorite books today, because I love so many different styles of writing. I love that we are all so different, yet all so human, and that writing expresses this. I really enjoy books that are deeply cultural, like ‘The Kite Runner’, ‘Ancestor Stones’, and all of Andrea Levy and Edwidge Danticat’s novels.

Please share with us your latest project and where we can learn more about your exciting career. Can you tell us anything about your upcoming books?

The novel “The Dew Angels” that I’ve just completed took me nearly six years to write. It is truly a piece of my heart on paper, because it has been my outlet for sadness, happiness and self-actualization for the last six years. It is about a girl growing up in Jamaica and dealing with many of the color and class prejudices that exist silently in our culture. I enjoyed disappearing into the novel, and when I’d finished I felt as if a best friend had just departed from my life. I am now in the process of negotiating its publishing with some agencies.

My ‘career’ however, is still very much being ‘mummy’ and landscaper, and not much to learn about unless you speak to my children :). Hopefully, as my children spread their wings, I will find more time to pursue publishing more of my stories.

Where/how can we purchase Lally-May's Farm Suss?

The book is available at most local bookstores (distributed by Novelty Trading Co.) and on the website ‘’

Melanie, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best in your future career.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to have spoken about my love of writing.