Saturday, August 27, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese fine artist embraced by the children's book industry (Interview: Part 2)

I'm back again for the second half of my interview with Benrali, Guyanese author of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: A World Beyond Stars! If you missed part 1, you can check it out here. In this second half, I picked Benrali's brain about his work and the influences behind it.


S: Tell us a little bit about the folkloric elements in your books. Also, what does it mean to you to use folklore as a base, or perhaps a, sort of organizing principle for your stories?

Art by Benrali
Guyana's folklore has always been of interest to me since it is a unique blend between what the indentured Indian servants and African immigrants brought and what the native Amerindians believed already. But with Manni I felt the folklore just blended well for this project. I may or may not keep using folklore for my projects since one of the things we are taught as an illustrator is that each project is different. Folklore, fantasy, ghazals, moongazers and magical sea turtles just seemed to blend well for Manni. I do hope another project comes along that asks for that same blend but who can say? Each book is sort of like a fingerprint; unique in its own way. 

S: Another thing that interests me about your work relates to the illustrations.  On your website and other places your picture books are described as "finely created artist books." I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. What are some of the artistic techniques or influences behind your work as an illustrator?

B: I tend to think of my work as a weaving of multiple periods, styles and schools of thought. I am grateful to Parsons School Of Design and their excellent faculty for broadening my horizons as to all the artists, periods and styles that came before. I am merely scratching at the surface of the training you get as an undergraduate but I wanted to mention it. I can't say my current books have all of these elements but some schools of thought and artists which I have gravitated towards are Balinese rainforest paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Indian and Moghul miniature paintings, Henri Rousseau, as well as some fantasy artists. The list goes on but these are a few.

Detail from Manni: A World Beyond Stars

S: Of major, major interest to me is the relationship between identity and culture and how Caribbean children's authors and illustrators work out those things in and perhaps through their work. You have spoken elsewhere about going through a process of searching for or developing an artistic style for your illustrations. You suggest that the process was really one of searching for an identity within the multiple influences of your Caribbean heritage. Can you speak to us a little about what a Caribbean heritage means to you in terms of your work and the ambitions you have set as a children's author/illustrator?

B: What does Caribbean or Guyanese heritage mean for me? Since I grew up in the States there were no Caribbean artists to look up to as role models. Everyone knows that to be an artist you have to look at art or to be a writer you must read. It wasn't until college that I began the "un-brainwashing" process and started learning about Indian & African art, art from other cultures, periods, styles etc. The saddest part is that most Guyanese & Trinidadian children don't realize they have been brainwashed until after they hit college.

For me it was too late because so many images of American heros from movies and cartoons were already were implanted in my mind and it was impossible for me to undo all the mental damage that was done. How can you turn back time and give back to kids role models, heros or a foundation of their own background when time cannot be turned back? Also, to be honest, I can't think of any Guyanese children's book authors or artists which my parents shared with me. My parents didn't even make an effort so like most kids from Guyanese parents I was left to just deal with it and figure things out as I grew older. 

In regards to your question as to what about Caribbean heritage spurs on my ambitions as an author/illustrator. I can say  our blend of music Calypso, Soca, Reggae and Indian Chutney music makes me proud but I am honest when I say there is nothing within Caribbean or Guyanese books/art that spurs on my work because there are so few examples. Of course there are artists and writers but again, they were not made available to me and they are probably few to begin with. Why is there so little material in Caribbean and Guyanese visual and literary arts to act as a foundation? I believe art and writing novels or picture books were not of high priority for our parents or our grandparents so I am very understanding to that.

One of the most important books which all Caribbeans and Guyanese should read is Eric Williams' From Columbus to Castro: A History of the Caribbean Never have I found a book that answered so many questions  as to why so many things are as they are in Guyana and Trinidad. In regards to the arts, England didn't bring slaves and indentured laborers to Guiana and Trinidad to educate, polish and give a good education; they were brought to the plantations for one thing and that thing was certainly not to create books of poetry with fine detailed art work. 

S: You have two books published under your belt. What have you learned so far about the business of picture books and where do you see yourself headed in the future?

B: I never considered myself a children's book author but I am grateful that the children's book industry has embraced my work. There will always be children so its a market that is there even though it is changing. Whether you are speaking of children's books, nonfiction, or any other genre, the whole industry is changing. I will still write but I probably will start getting into e-books since they are so inexpensive to produce and readers are reading more and more of them. I would really like to get into film and animation and I have a few books which lend themselves well to the screen. At the moment though my third book is due to come out late this winter or maybe in the spring. It is a collection of short stories and poems.

S: Well, thanks so much for chatting with us Benrali!

B: You're welcome Summer and thank you for the opportunity!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Benrali: Guyanese artist mastering the fine art of illustrated books (Interview: Part 1)

Well, I warned you that I would be having some interesting folks on the blog soon and I must say, it has been very interesting indeed probing the creative mind of Benrali, author and illustrator of The Turtle's Dream and Keys and Manni: From A World Beyond Stars. Benrali is the pen name of Aman Waseem Ben Ali, an emerging Guyanese author, artist, poet and screenwriter. 

Born in America to Guyanese parents, Ali graduated from Parsons School Of Design in New York and went on to attend and graduate from Hendriks Graphic Design Institute in Long Island, USA. The scope of his artistic training is evident in his gorgeously illustrated books, which weave together many styles, schools of thought and periods and which Benrali himself has said, are "proof that the Caribbean has no limits in regards to 'style'".

Well, without further ado, I'm pleased to present Part 1 of my conversation with Benrali. (Click here to read Part 2 of the interview).


S: Benrali, your work is very interesting to me for a number of reasons, one of them being that your books, thus far, have been self-published. What made you decide to self-publish?

B: Well, slight correction: I actually didn't self-publish. Looking at the current health of the publishing industry, I decided not to go with a traditional publisher, but rather, to embrace the new cooperative approach to publishing that is fast becoming a viable option. I didn't pay out of my pocket for anything. I had financial backers and partners who helped me create the Dreamworlds Beyond Time corporation which prints and sells my books. Books are only a small portion of our current product line. I created books where the art could be easily used for fine art prints, greeting cards and yes, the bestseller t-shirts!

Greeting Card featuring art
from The Turtle's Dream and Keys
The cooperative approach has worked quite well for me, in fact, I would say it’s the best type of publishing for myself since I didn't have to pay anything except minor expenses that go into shipping. Having financial backing is sort of like having a grant and this gave me flexibility that I would never have received with traditional publishing.  I really like this co-operative method because it gives artists freedom they would never have received otherwise.  

S: It appears that your books weren't explicitly written for children, nevertheless, I think they would appeal strongly to children, which is why I chose to review them here on the blog. In terms of audience and genre, how do you view your books?

B: For the record, I do not label my books as "children's books" but "artist's books".  You may feel that it’s splitting hairs but it’s a very important facet. Children's books are usually carefully watched over from start to finish by editors and art directors and sales reps.  Throughout the project editors, art directors and marketing/sales/distribution rep have a lot to say about what goes where and what should be omitted. A children's book is truly a joint venture. When a traditional book is produced it is a product of many minds. 

An artist's book is VERY different.  An artist book, no matter what the art or genre doesn't have more than one person involved.  It is more like a fine art painting printed in multiples and is guaranteed to be only "artist’s voice" which may or may not appeal to the audience.  Think about an oil painting you are about to buy, how would you feel if you found out there were 3 or 4 other people picking out the colors and changing things around?  My point of view is not that an artist's book is better or worse than a traditional children's book or adult picture book; it’s just different.

S: On the front flap The Turtle's Dream And Keys, it says that you got the idea for the book from a dream you had. In truth, I was taken aback by the dream-like quality of the illustrations in the book. There certainly is a visionary quality to them. The story itself and the language in which it is told, is also dreamy, even a bit esoteric. In your experience, how do children respond to your dream world, and the images in particular?

B: I have to be honest when I say that mostly adults have bought my books.  I have received some feedback from children who love the art and I have heard of one kid who tried to count all the circles and sand in some of the drawings which was flattering but most of the people I get responses from are adults and lovers of art books.

S: You say that Manni: From a World Beyond Stars is the first book of this kind written using the ghazal, an Arabic and Indo-Persian form of rhyming couplets associated with 12th century Eastern mystics. I am fascinated by this marriage of poetry, mysticism and the picturebook form. Can you explain the ghazal to us. Also, what do you think it lends to your story?

B: My father used to produce records with ghazals when I was a baby in the 80's.  One of his records was title "Anjani Anjani" and the singer he used was Veena Ahuja. I mention this because this is where I first heard about ghazals and yes they are mostly used in songs.  When I started high-school I learned about an author and teacher, Agha Shahid Ali who was an authority on ghazals and ghazals written in English. After reading up on some of the rules for ghazals I decided since Manni was a sea turtle from beyond the stars why not give the narrator for the book, Ooni, a truly unique platform.  
I have never heard of a ghazal ever being used in a picture book but I loved the rhyme scheme. I'm almost sure that ghazal pros will object but they have to admit I did stick to the rules calling for exact syllable counts in each line and the second line rhymes throughout the book and the ghazal is sung by the orator which in this case is Ooni. It's his ghazal after all. The story is set in the hours of night when most sea turtles are born so I thought the lullaby quality of the rhyme would be ideal for this work.

S: Yes, I was in fact struck by the song-like quality of the rhyming scheme. Then, when I did my research, I found out that ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians. Are there any plans to turn Manni: From A World Beyond Stars into a sing-along book perhaps? 

B: The thought did cross my partners' minds and I thought it was interesting too since I was at one time an aspiring singer songwriter. I even produced the infamous "demo cd" which went nowhere! Songwriting comes to me a lot easier than entire books so converting it into music shouldn't be that hard. I believe the book has found a more "artbook" and giftbook audience so I would have to think whether or not it would be marketable for children.

More: Read Part 2 of this interview.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dr. Lawrence Sipe, R.I.P.

Today has been a sad day in many respects. The crisis in Japan is weighing heavily on my mind. You really cannot take a single moment of your life --or the lives of your loved ones-- for granted. Then, this evening, that message was acutely reinforced when I learned that my adviser at school passed away today. Dr. Lawrence Sipe was not only my adviser, but my favorite professor at UPenn. He was the first professor I contacted when I was thinking of applying to UPenn. I took his class, Picturebooks and the Practice of Literacy, in my second semester and I'm currently taking his Young Adult Fiction class. I can't believe I won't see him in class next week!

Last Summer, I was often in his office, arranging the picturebooks on the shelves and talking to him about Caribbean children's literature. He was so interested in Caribbean children's books and I often showed him books I was reading. I still have the packet of pretty origami paper he gave me when I was tidying his desk that Summer. He was a reader of my blog and expressed a lot of interest when I told him I had started Anansesem.

Dr. Sipe's areas of expertise lay in children's and young adult literature, early childhood education and emergent literacy. He was an avid reader of children's and young adult books and dedicated his life to studying the ways children develop literary understanding as they talk about and respond to books. He has certainly inspired me on a professional level. I don't think he even knew how much I valued him being my adviser.

Dr. Sipe was also such an amiable little man. He always had a smile and a compliment ready for you. He was quite a character in the School of Education and in class often made us laugh because of the witty, off-the-wall or sarcastic things he would say. GSE students often talked about his children's and young adult literature classes as being the "fun" classes offered at the School. It still hasn't fully registered to me that he is gone. I know many of us at school will be mourning his death and sharing memories of him in the upcoming days.

I am once again reminded to be thankful to God for life. I have to trust that despite the painful things that happen, there is always reason to be hopeful and much to celebrate in life. My thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Sipe's family and with the people of Japan.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Interview: Joanne Gail Johnson's Window Into Caribbean Children's Publishing

Two great interviews in a row, hooray! Today, it's Joanne Gail Johnson that I'm welcoming to the blog. If you know anything about Trinidadian children's literature, indeed about children's literature in the English-speaking Caribbean, then Joanne Gail Johnson is someone who needs no introducing. She is the author of such well-known children's books as Ibis Stew? Oh, no! and Pink Carnival! as well as Sally's Way, Digger's Diner, Go Barefoot, The Scottish-Island Girl and The Donkey and the Racehorse. The Editor of Macmillan Caribbean's Island Fiction fantasy series for tweens and the Regional Adviser of the Caribbean South Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Joanne is no stranger to the world of Caribbean children's publishing. Joanne and I have been exchanging emails for some time, talking about the very issues she discusses below. At a certain point it just seemed like her insights and knowledge were way too valuable and relevant to keep all to myself. So here she is! By the way, how cool is it that I am finally interviewing an author from my own country? Joanne is the first author from Trinidad that I've interviewed! But I digress. To the interview.


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

You're more than welcome Summer. The work you have done in such a short space of time - especially in listing over 500 Caribbean children's titles on your blog from as early as a century ago - is of great service to us all and very inspiring. Thank you!

Although I could be interviewing you about your writing/books (and I would like to do that some time) today I actually want to spend some time talking about another aspect of your work, i.e., your role as Regional Adviser for the Caribbean South chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Please tell us a little bit about the SCBWI and the work of the Caribbean South chapter.

With over 19,000 members, the SCBWI is THE international information and networking not-for-profit society for writers and illustrators at any level of their careers in children's and Young Adult books. The benefits are far too many for me to list here so do investigate for yourself at

What I can add is that I found the SCBWI online in 2003 when the internet started to become not only a professional, but a household tool. I already had a few books published with Macmillan and over the years had spent so much time and money on legal fees and buying 'how to' books to educate myself about the business of it all. I thought, "Ahh, now this is what I needed from the start!" and my next thought was, "I'd really like to share this with others in the Caribbean and especially Trinidad!" because people were always calling or stopping me to ask how to write/ illustrate or get published a children's book they had in mind. I then offered my volunteer services and was invited to become the founding Regional Advisor of our Caribbean South chapter. I encourage writers and illustrators to explore the SCBWI online. In this capacity, I may be contacted via our chapter's blog:

You and I spoke privately before about publishing issues in the Caribbean. You have some strong views about self-publishing as it pertains to Caribbean literature. Please share.

Self-publishing, once dubbed "vanity press" for obvious reasons, features more importantly than ever as an option and is a major part of an evolution that is changing publishing, media in general and how we communicate our ideas with others. I am in favor of it in essence and use it myself. Self-publishing is put to good use when it is relevant however, it may also circumvent the necessary growth and development not only of individuals but of our local and regional publishing industry.

Situations that I consider 'relevant' are:
1. poets
2. personal stories/ self-help industry
3. tie-in media product around which a business is envisioned
4. guru/ expert in anything as a supplement to seminars and workshops
5. an idea in any field or genre so off the wall, that no one will invest in it at first, but yourself

If you self publish to impress a publisher with the finish and look of a book, this only shows one's lack of exposure to the business. The only person you're impressing is yourself. Editors and publishers work in books. There is an industry standard for manuscript submission - once this is met it is accepted as professionally 'impressive'. With self published books, in most cases a publisher may say, "If it's been published already, why should we publish it again?" The idea that a self-published book may work as an advantage in manuscript submission applies only if you have a second, completed manuscript, that may be deemed of of greater creative value, which you have not yet published.

I take issue with the wave of self-publishing in the Caribbean because for the most part these authors are doing themselves and their talent a disservice.The feeling I get is that many are working to circumvent the process of professional competition and know-how. This concerns me because it primarily means lowered standards in general for our children. And yes, of course there are exceptions. My opinions and observations are not absolute.

At one time I believed self publishing was the only way to address what was once a dearth in Caribbean children's books. I have changed my mind about this. Now I have a sense there is a preferred stance of hopeful writers/creatives that sounds sort of defeatist to me. Many talented writers don't even know about, understand or want to try the standard industry process of query letters for example, even if it means getting rejected. This may reveal that we are not thick-skinned enough for the world stage and want some kind of preferential treatment and protection - very unprofessional! There is even such a thing as a 'good' rejection letter i.e. getting professional notes from a working editor in an established publishing house. Getting rejected by a professional who takes the time to tell you why may offer clues about the direction of growth needed. This may be of greater service in building a long term career based on one's craft, than just going straight to press on the steam of your own guaranteed approval and authority. Really, I know you asked me to keep my answers short but this topic could be an entire seminar!

The SBWI does not refuse self-published members but makes a differentiation for reasons of safeguarding quality. The SCBWI does not promote or award self-published books. If the sales are particularly good, this may warrant a second look but this is very seldom the case. We have collectively agreed to remain open and keep an eye on the way technology is influencing this change for better and/ or for worse.

You and the Caribbean South chapter of the SCBWI have taken a strong stance against self-publishing in the Caribbean context yet you yourself have a self-published title. How do you explain this contradiction?

As I explained in your third question, it has its relevance. It is not simply a matter of being against self publishing, it is understanding the playing field and making the best choices for your career at each stage. I sincerely believe we have talent right here in Trinidad who would get properties signed with established publishing houses IF they knew how. Earning such a success puts one on equal footing with your peers anywhere in the world; self-publishing does not.

The main thing in my case is that I got my first book published with Macmillan by sending a query letter in 1998 and going through the industry standard. At that time there was no internet, no Google Search! How blessed we are now as writers to have these tools! I sent my query snail mail! and got back a reply a couple months later with an expression of interest. The person I submitted to had left the post and it wasn't until the next year that I actually met an actual person face to face.

I had had rejections and trial and errors before that success. Earning knowledge through experience gives one clarity about the business of books and debunks any illusions we have about how things work. We take rejection so personally some times. I hear many people lamenting and claiming "victim" when really, in a competitive market their offering is either ill-timed, poorly submitted, or just not as good as the next. Teaching the "know- how" and "how to" of it is part of the work of the SCBWI. I would rather see our writers get contracts from established publishers and enjoy the benefits and prestige than have to start up their own businesses - unless they really, really want to! Because then, we hear all the complaints about the reality of that situation too, when they have no distributor or marketing support for their self published book.

I actually had an editor's interest in publishing Pink Carnival! but declined in the end because after a number of books, readers and anthologized stories I wanted to give myself the freedom to produce the book as I envisioned it and under a new imprint Meaningful Books. I also already had ten years of experience working with a big name like Macmillan and it was interesting to see what I had learned and there were still mistakes made. We are always learning. Mistakes in publishing, especially picture books are very costly. My new imprint is a part of a wider vision and goal to publish a very specific kind of book that does not really exist in the book market and that is an adjunct to my workshops with children, parents and teachers - again, as a part of a business goal. As I see it, a true publisher will actually publish others, and one of the imprint's goals is to do just that. I already have a second title produced and have identified a book by another author that I'd like to put out; it is a matter of resources and timing.

What are your views regarding independent ("indie") versus established publishing houses, either in the Caribbean or internationally?

One of the main problems I take issue with is that book publishers, in Trinidad anyway, are often book sellers and interest groups with 'sure thing' Ministry / text book hook ups. It's not a matter of ethics only but of end results - my concern is that it significantly reduces creative quality for our children generation after generation. And not to mention it limits and suppresses fair play in the market and stunts competitive creativity which is exactly what we need. We would do well to encourage Indie presses yes of course, but not to call a self published book, nor a book seller's press "independent". If an entrepreneur loves books and values her audience then let her invest in her vision and take a risk and then there should be healthy market support for such a venture and government and private sector should be a part of ensuring that such a risk is at least potentially viable.

Locally and regionally, we seem unperturbed by the consequences of business monopolies and have not yet made the connections between this and so many of our problems. In this climate the cultural creatives and artists cannot truly serve society as in developed countries. Breaking into a global market we then re-import to the Caribbean our own culture, may not be right in essence, but in my opinion, it is the route along which an individual will get the best opportunities - and in most entertainment and art fields this applies I think. Even Walcott and Naipaul have suffered in this machine - who is the rest a we?! West Indian authors of poetry and adult fiction have been getting a fair shake with Peepal Tree Press and Egg Box Publishing for example - both based in the UK. Children's books may be deemed less important and 'easy' so we may not be expected perhaps to produce the relative genius of a Beatrix Potter, Shel Silverstein, Enid Blyton or Doctor Seuss for our times and culture. Truly independent publishers here would want to discover and publish unique talent, as a sincere and serious mandate.

What are some of the things that aspiring and self-published Caribbean children's authors need to know in order to successful navigate the often messy world of publishing and does the Caribbean South chapter of the SCBWI provide professional development to help with that?

Absolutely - the help of course is all self-help. Members must discover, investigate and USE the tools and information available. Our mission is to help each other take a 'next step' in our careers- whatever stage we're at. If you have never been published we want to see you published and we want you to have every chance to understand whether or not your work is in fact publishable before you send it out to for consideration; and how to move it in that direction if it isn't. In many instances, editors in a big house will say I will receive unsolicited, unagented manuscripts only from SCBWI members this month and the only place you'll see that published is in our Bulletin magazine which only members receive! Not to mention the opportunity to compete for awards and grants against your international peer group and to apply fro travel grants to one of our three annual conferences where you can attend workshops and seminars and create opportunities to meet with editors and publishers face to face. 

You once shared with me some very interesting information about book piracy and illegal book publishing cartels in the Caribbean. How serious is book piracy in the Caribbean, particularly as it pertains to Caribbean children's/YA books? What can I, as an individual, do to stop or prevent book piracy in the Caribbean?

Yes it's true. Anyone who is in book sales or publishing in the Caribbean knows it. I saw some counterfeit work out of Guyana at a CAPNET conference a few years ago. The quality was amazing! Side by side there was no way to tell. It's not a problem easily solved, I mean the musicians suffer this plight and look at the way bootleg DVDs are culturally accepted. Until we understand that someone's sister, cousin, neighbor, husband etc is earning a living off intellectual property and copyrights it remains an abstract issue from Joe Public's point of view. And we're not very good on making white collar crime a crime anyway so I think this is one of the ways internet purchasing from publisher endorsed sources may help and of course most publishers have a 'official' distributor - at some point it is always going to be a matter of trust in our book sellers to be honest and vigilant. Just be a savvy consumer I guess! 

In our opinion, what would it take for Caribbean children's books to become bestsellers globally?

Well we are already you know. A book that sells on the internet is being sold globally and a book that sells 5,000 copies in the publishing world is already a 'best seller'. I know of course what you mean is a block buster hit perhaps. The reality is, NOBODY knows this answer. JK Rowling and her editors and publishers were not expecting the success she's had. It was unprecedented. Media tie in in the largest growing aspect of children's books and of course our market is just not rigged for these kinds of media and retail avenues and intersections. Well, except as it involves the corporate giants and their agendas. We have so much work to do; it is not a matter of individual talent.

I do believe that striking a chord in the North American/ U.K. market is the best bet - and artists in the developed countries on both sides of the proverbial pond know it and play it that way too. In many cases we are not aware of how much has already been done - what we may think of as new is not necessarily so. I've seen this first hand as an editor looking for teen fiction. It is important to investigate your idea before you invest in it. So many of the stories are similar and yet each author believes his own to be unique and special. Even so, a good story well told is something that never gets old. Networking is crucial - to really break through an author will need a good agent who believes in her work and commits herself to its success. A good agent will wheel and deal aggressively because her commission depends on and goes up when she gets the best deal possible for you!

Perhaps someone reading this is interested in joining the Caribbean South (or the Caribbean North) chapter of the SCBWI. What steps do they need to take?

It's easy! Just go online; Everything is there. You can join and pay online and then request to be listed under the Caribbean South chapter if you are not living in our region. My work is as a volunteer and the organization is a non-profit one so you will see that the content you receive is far out weighs the value of your annual membership. 

Joanne, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. As a new member of the Caribbean South chapter of the SCBWI myself, I look forward to working with you!

Thank you for the opportunity Summer, you have much energy and talent to offer. I trust that we can all work together to create events for our regional chapter that will in time attract international interest and opportunities for our Caribbean talent in children's books.


Born, bred and based in Trinidad, Joanne Gail Johnson is a published children's author of a number of contemporary Caribbean books, series readers and athologized stories with Macmillan Education. She is a dynamic storyteller, and facilitates “Relevant Reading” and “Core Creativity” workshops for students and teachers; including volunteer readers of GSK's Comforting Words Mobile library at the Mt. Hope Children’s Hospital in Trinindad.

Joanne has traveled the length and breadth of Trinidad reading to children of all ages, and recently visited St. Maarten and The Bahamas where she visited both primary and secondary schools. As a children's theatre facilitator, she has worked with UWI’s Creative Arts Centre, The Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and ran her own children's theatre company, The Hamelyn Players, for eight years. In the 90s, her company SUN TV LTD pioneered indigenous cable television in Trinidad producing over 700 hours of 100% Caribbean content; and in 2003 created The First Ever Website for Caribbean Children. This year SUN TV launched its own imprint Meaningful Books with its inaugural title Pink Carnival!. Joanne’s work is generously supported by the Trinidadian NGO, Creative Parenting for the New Era. 

Related Links

Caribbean South Chapter of the SCBWI

Caribbean South Chapter of the SCBWI's Flickr photostream

Meaningful Books

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Interview with Nicholas Da Silva, Dread & Alive Graphic Novel Series Creator

Guess who's on the blog today? Yesiree, today I am genuinely honored to be hosting Nicholas Da Silva, creator/author/illustrator of the critically acclaimed graphic novel series, Dread & Alive. I recently found out about Dread & Alive when I was searching the Web for Caribbean-flavored graphic novels. Da Silva's books were amongst the few results I got and are far and away the most reviewed on the Web. Graphic novels are a genre I'm just getting into and a fascinating one indeed. So it was a pleasure to chat with Nicholas about his inspiring work. Let's check out what this rising star had to say.


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

Thank you, too, my friend! I was delighted to receive your request for an interview and am honored to share my work with your audience.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Nicholas Da Silva interesting and what inspires him?

I think what makes me interesting is that I’m a non-stop dreamer. I’m always dreaming up new ideas to explore whether it’s a new comic book story, a website experiment or a song that fuses multiple genres. I’m also a mixed-media artist who loves to create something different, something people haven’t seen or heard of before. I don’t find pleasure in doing something that has already been done. Inspiration comes to me in many forms. I think music probably is the most important influence on my work.

Let's talk about ZOOLOOK. This is a San Francisco-based new media agency that you founded. Please tell us more about it.

I founded ZOOLOOK back in 1996 as a means to self-publish and promote my work as an independent artist. Through ZOOLOOK, I utilize my design, music and animation skills to develop intellectual properties that promote a multicultural experience, a foundation of my background and upbringing. Some of the IP’s (intellectual properties) I’ve created include Dread & Alive, HITLESS and Cavedudez. 

And of course there’s TGSNT™ (The Greatest Story Never Told). I am told that this is the world's largest digital online storytelling competition and you are its founder. I find this to be extremely cool. Please tell us more!

The Greatest Story Never Told was a global event I created to showcase all the great independent animators, filmmakers and storytellers who embraced flash as their storytelling medium. I really enjoy putting on this event because it brings independent storytellers from around the world together to share their stories to the masses. TGSNT actually spawned another IP for me with the creation of the Cavedudez.

As you know, I am all about Caribbean children’s and YA literature. That’s why I was so excited to learn about your Jamaican-inspired graphic novel Dread & Alive. I read somewhere that Dread & Alive is the first superhero graphic novel ever to feature a Jamaican protagonist. Okay so first of all, why Jamaica? What role does Jamaican history or culture play in the series?

I chose to write Dread & Alive because of my interest in Jamaica’s history, culture, music and its people. When I first began researching the history of Jamaica, I came across the Maroons of Accompong. I was surprised to read about their existence and their story of independence. The more I learned about the Maroons, the more my imagination began to take on a life of its own. Once I added reggae music to the mix, Drew McIntosh and the legend of Dread & Alive was born.

D&A hero, Drew McIntoshy
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what is Dread & Alive about in a nutshell? Incidentally, how old (or young) is the series?

Dread & Alive is a story about respect for all living things. I think it’s a story that is much needed, especially in these times of uncertainty. It’s also a story about one man’s quest to make a difference in the world by addressing problems that exist in our world today that don’t necessarily grab the headlines in mainstream news. The first issue was released on February 6, 2010, on the birthday of international reggae icon Bob Marley. Dread & Alive is geared towards 9 year olds and up. 

Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip or insights about Drew McIntosh (the hero/main character) or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

Drew and I are definitely alike. We both lost our fathers during a time when we were just becoming men. Plus, we share similar travel experiences during our childhood. Drew’s father was just like my dad. He loved to travel the world and experience other cultures.

I keep calling Dread & Alive a graphic novel series but in some places I’ve seen it described as a comic book. I always wanted to know… what’s the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book? Which label do you prefer?

Dread & Alive is actually a graphic novel that is being published as a comic book series. The reason for this is that the series is based on the first novel I wrote entitled Dread & Alive: Book Three, a.k.a. Night of the Animals. The difference between graphic novels and comic books is that the graphic novel is lengthier in size. Plus, the graphic novel has a more complex storylines similar to a novel whereas comic books stretch out a story within an issue.

Dread & Alive is actually a multimedia series with some exciting e-reading options and music collaborations. Please tell us more that. What made you decide to go multimedia with this project? Do you plan to eventually publish the series as traditional hard-copy books?

Music was a key influence in writing the series so I wanted my fans to experience Dread & Alive the way I envisioned it. The music helps the reader feel the vibe of Drew McIntosh as he fights to protect the rights of all living things … humans, animals and the earth. I’ve actually written 2 of the 3 books that make up Dread & Alive…Book One, which chronicles Drew’s life growing up in the Cockpit Country and receiving the amulet and Book Three which follows Drew as the dreadlocked hero armed with his amulet and fighting the good fight. I’m currently writing Book Two. I will offer the 3 novels as a bundle this fall, just in time for Christmas.

In the Caribbean, as far as I know, an indigenous graphic novel/comic book industry is practically non-existent. The only other Caribbean graphic novels I’ve heard of are The Zabime Sisters and Ziggy Marley’s recent title Marijuanaman. Do you have any insights into why this might be so? Also, what do you think are the affordances of this genre?

I do remember Marvel putting out a three issue series on Bob Marley called IRON LION ZION. It focused more on his life but did so in a graphic novel way. I think Bob Marley’s legacy with reggae has made music such a focus in Jamaica for young artists. I think we will start to see more artists venturing into the comic book world. This genre has the ability to educate younger minds by offering entertainment that has bits of history embedded in it. Graphic novels stimulate both sides of our brain. 

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

I always start with a written treatment. I then create outlines from that treatment and add to it as ideas come to me. A script comes next which gets translated into storyboards for each page. Usually one chapter can equate to one comic book issue as in issues #1 and #2 of Dread & Alive. Research also plays an important part of my creative process. In creating Dread & Alive, the goal was to mesh cultural fact with fiction in an effort to tell a compelling story.

Is it just me or is this illustration extremely cool???

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

I was big into comic books and science fiction novels as a kid. I read a lot of Robert Heinlein novels. Any stories that took me to another planet peaked my interest. Today, I read a little bit of everything. My favorite author is Dean Koontz.

Dread & Alive has reached its sixth issue. Congratulations on that by the way. Can you tell us anything about upcoming issues in the series?

Yes indeed! We will see Drew and Brandy join forces with Casey Forrester as they try to stop Gryphon the hunter and his men from hunting an endangered tiger for profit. We will also see Shadowcatcher pursue Drew in his attempts to take back the sacred amulet of the Jamaican Maroons. As a shape-shifter who has the power to make the dead walk among the living, Shadowcatcher will start turning people into zombies and eventually build an army of zombies to go after Drew.

Wow, sounds exciting! And what about readings and appearances? Do you have any lined up and if so, where and when can Nicholas Da Silva be seen in the flesh?

I will be at San Diego’s Comic Con this summer as well as New York’s Comic Con in the fall. I’m also planning to attend the 10th Anniversary of the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC) on May 21, 2011. I was nominated for the sixth annual Glyph Comics Awards as a Rising New Star, which is part of the ECBACC. 

Where we can learn more about your exciting career and where/how can we purchase the Dread & Alive books?

To learn more about what I do at ZOOLOOK and to view the different IPs I have created, you can visit my studio website at To purchase comic books, music, t-shirts, posters and novels from the Dread & Alive series, you can visit and click on MERCH button. We deliver worldwide and ship orders in 24 hours.

Nicholas, thank you so much for chatting with us. I wish you all the best with Dread & Alive and everything else!

Thank you, again for this great opportunity. Much respect and success to Anansesem! One love, always!


Nicholas Da Silva is the founder and creative director/producer of  As an avid reader growing up in the U.S., Nicholas Da Silva was disappointed in the lack of positive multicultural heroes and fictional characters in American literature. Coming from a diverse background, he made a promise to change that by meshing cultural fact with fiction. The result was the publication of two comic book series; HITLESS and Dread & Alive. HITLESS, published in 2007, was the first digital comic book/music series produced for the fourth generation iPOD and SONY PSP. The series featured an original soundtrack produced as the background theme for the comic book series. The award winning series got Nicholas featured in Web Designer Magazines HOT 100 for 2008 three times. It also garnered Nicholas his own Web Designer issue (#143) where he shared his creative vision to the masses.

Nicholas was recently nominated for the 2011 Glyph Awards in the Rising Star category for his work on Dread & Alive. He’s also been featured in Riddim Magazine (Germany) and is the only 4-time recipient of Web Designer Magazine’s HOT 100 honors (2008-2011). He is currently working on his next big comic book project, HITLESS, a spy-thriller/tragic love story that meshes fact with fiction. When Nicholas is not being creative, you can find him, an avid snowboarder, traveling around the world, looking for the perfect snow with his daughter. He also enjoys sampling cuisine from around the world, reading comic books, playing soccer and watching movies that don’t suck.

Related Links

The supercool official Dread & Alive website
(longer bio and lots of cool merchandise including CDs and posters!) 

The supercool Dread & Alive Facebook page

Nicholas Da Silva's Studio Website

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Blog Roundtable: Donna Marie Seim's Thoughts on Equal Representation in Caribbean Children's Literature

Welcome back to this week's Blog Roundtable on race and diversity in Caribbean children's literature! Yesterday we heard aspiring Trinbagonian children's author, Rehannah Khan's thoughts on Caribbean multiculturalism and its relevance to Caribbean children's literature. The day before that, Carmen Milagros Torres, an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico discussed race in Puerto Rican children's literature. If you missed either posts, do go back and take a read; very interesting stuff. Today, I'm pleased to welcome back Donna Marie Seim, an American children's author whose work has previously been featured on the blog (Read Seim's bio below to see how her work fits in with Caribbean children's literature.) Without further ado, here is Donna's completed questionnaire and below that is her post.

Your name (first name alone is fine): Donna
The nationality(ies) you identify with: American
Your self-described racial identity: Caucasian
Your experience reading Caribbean children's and/or YA books, either in print or online (Rate yourself on the following scale of 1 to 10): 10
1 - You haven't read any Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading, but you have read reviews or summaries of such books.
2- At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have NOT read Caribbean children's or YA books outside of required school reading.
3 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
4 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
5 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
6 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
7 - You review Caribbean children's or YA books (on a blog, website, in a newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal or other media outlet) and have read and reviewed AT LEAST 5 such books.
8 -You have read 0-3 Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
9 - You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
10 - You have read MORE THAN 1 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written AND published a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)

Additional comments from Donna: I have read Adult and YA Literature written by both Caribbean and non-Caribbean authors. I have read online and in magazines Caribbean children's literature, mostly featuring Afro-Caribbean characters. I have never read any Caribbean children's literature as required reading. 

Equal Representation in Caribbean Children's Literature

by Donna Marie Seim

This is not an easy topic to give a short answer. The fact that there is not a lot of available Caribbean literature to be found makes assessing the racial depictions at best a difficult task. I must admit that when I did research for my middle grade reader book (Hurricane Mia: A Caribbean Adventure), it was hard to find much out there. Most books about the Caribbean were about pirates, slavery or chick lit. (Cruises with cute boys etc.) I was told to read, Jamaica Kincaid's, Annie John. This is a Caribbean YA book written by a Caribbean author and I was excited to read it. Looking back, I would say it was definitely in the Afro-Caribbean racial category. I did not find it to be complimentary to the Afro-Caribbean image. I would need to write an entire paper on this subject if I discussed it any further.

In my own book, Hurricane Mia: A Caribbean Adventure, my local or island characters are all Afro-Caribbean with the possible exception of Neisha's mother, Bianca, who could have Latino blood in her (however the only clue I gave was her name, Bianca, which sounds as if it could be Hispanic). I was aware that the majority of locals, or islanders on the islands I have written about, are Afro-Caribbean. The minorities of which there are many, hail from other islands, but they live as islanders and are islanders just as the majority are islanders. There are also many Americans and Europeans who have taken on the islands as their home, or in my case my home away from home; we are in the minority. It is interesting to think about the fact that everyone knows exactly who they are and where they came from even if they live full time on the island. The Belongers (Summer's note: Nationals of the Turks and Caicos islands are called 'Belongers.'), the majority of the people whose descendants came from the slave ships, are all of African descent. Even among the Belongers, there are differences and groupings, such as which island you grew up on and on which section of the island you live.

My humble opinion is simply that the outsiders view the majority people of any country as the primary people. There are minorities and newcomers in most countries in the world, not only the Caribbean countries. When one is in the minority you are most definitely aware of it, despite which country you reside in. I think the same thing goes for literature, the majority will most often be given the role of the main characters, unless an author distinctly designs to write about a minority race within the majority. We can debate the terms multi-cultural verses cross cultural. This is all good food for thought. Maybe we should all be more aware of the fact that every country has more than one culture and people, and that the minorities should be represented in literature in equal portions. I believe it is important for children to see themselves in literature and be able to identify with the descriptive character or the image that the illustrator portrays of them. It is a giant task for Caribbean authors to give fair play to all races and nationalities while at the same time being cautious not to misrepresent the images portrayed. At the same time it is important that the young child be able to view the characters or stories with pride, gaining a feeling of self worth without glorifying or over romanticizing the characters themselves.


Donna Marie Seim 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 Turks and Caicos islands 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. Seim owns a home in the Turks and Caicos islands and currently lives in Newbury, Massachusetts, USA with her husband, Martin, and her dog, Rags.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Blog Roundtable: Rehannah Khan's Thoughts on Caribbean Multiculturalism and its Relevance to Children's Literature

Welcome back to this week's Blog Roundtable on race and diversity in Caribbean children's literature! Yesterday we heard Carmen Milagros Torres' thoughts on race in Puerto Rican children's books. If you missed it, do go back and take a read, very interesting stuff. Today, I'm pleased to welcome back Rehannah Khan, a longtime reader of the blog. Rehannah was a guest blogger previously and she always has very thought-provoking things to say. Here is Rehannah's completed questionnaire and below that is her post.Take it away!

Your name (first name alone is fine): Rehannah
The nationality(ies) you identify with: Trinidadian
Your self-described racial identity: Indo-Trinidadian (East Indian descent)
Your experience reading Caribbean children's and/or YA books, either in print or online (Rate yourself on the following scale of 1 to 10): 9

1 - You haven't read any Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading, but you have read reviews or summaries of such books.
2- At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have NOT read Caribbean children's or YA books outside of required school reading.
3 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
4 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
5 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
6 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
7 - You review Caribbean children's or YA books (on a blog, website, in a newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal or other media outlet) and have read and reviewed AT LEAST 5 such books.
8 -You have read 0-3 Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
9 - You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
10 - You have read MORE THAN 1 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written AND published a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)

Caribbean Children's/YA Writers As Multicultural Writers

by Rehannah Khan

Regarding whether to consider Caribbean children's/YA literature as multicultural, I am for it, and thus I have termed my novel (in progress) a "YA Multicultural Fantasy." The reason I justify it is that on the one hand, Caribbean literature is multicultural in the literal sense of the word (that is, about more than one culture, or cultural origins at least). On the other hand, as you have said on your blog, multicultural literature in the US is basically 'minority' literature (which I'm guessing would include the Caribbean). I tend to prefer the literal definition as I consider Caribbean literature on the whole as multicultural literature, though not all multicultural literature is Caribbean, obviously. I suppose this decision has to do with the fact that I have an ethnically diverse cast in my book, and that it's a fantasy. The term 'Caribbean Fantasy' just always sounded too idyllic or superficial to me.

In terms of 'minorities' and 'majorities' and whatnot in the Caribbean, numerically speaking, I suppose Afro-Caribbean people would be the majority or at least the perceived majority (I don't have any figures to back that up). In Trinidad and Guyana, however, Indo-Caribbean people would be considered the majority, again numerically speaking. Taking that further, the majority of these individuals would probably be Hindu. Yet I don't know if other ethnicities or religions are treated necessarily as 'minorities' in the way described in the U.S. Taking myself as an example, since I'm a Muslim Trinidadian of East Indian descent (or Indo-Trinidadian), I would be a minority within a majority, which is itself a minority in the wider Caribbean.

This just makes talk about minorities in the context of the Caribbean thoroughly confusing. What’s considered the minority in one country may not be in another, or may even differ in different islands of the same country (Trinidad and Tobago, for example). Thus I understand your reasoning about multicultural literature being a somewhat unnecessary term in a Caribbean context, when using the American definition of the genre. The term ‘minority’ doesn’t have a very strong meaning in the Caribbean.

That being said, if asked, I would still have to consider myself a ‘minority’ in the Caribbean, given my religious and ethnic background. Again, this is in terms of numbers (which I don’t have exact figures for). Despite this, I wouldn’t say that the experiences of Caribbean people (at least in the same country) of different ethnicities are all that different from each other. Yes, there are differences because of religion, but in my opinion, I don’t think all these differences make that much of...well...a difference. I think it boils down to the way we speak. If you notice, older generations tend to speak a little differently from younger generations, even within the same race, and younger generations of people tend to speak more similarly to each other, regardless of race. What this means is that with every new generation, cultural differences (like language, in particular), get smaller and smaller, and most ‘post-race’ young people, to use your terminology, are capable of appreciating their religious and ethnic heritage, while not letting such differences get in the way of their overall Caribbeaness.

In my opinion though, I would have to say that there has been an under-representation of characters and cultures in Caribbean literature (especially children’s) that are not of African origin. This probably has more to do with the fact that most Caribbean authors are of African descent, who may also be of an older generation and whose experiences may not be as broad culturally as younger generations. Thus, while there may be a cultural ‘minority’ in Caribbean literature and Caribbean children’s literature, I couldn’t say if this is a result of deliberate discrimination or not. However, I also don’t think that Indo-Caribbean (or any other sub-culture) type of books should be a distinct category or subgenre in Caribbean literature. This is perhaps because, although I am of Indian origin, I wouldn’t consider my experiences as having a certain ‘Indianess’ about it, and although I am Muslim, I grew up attending Roman Catholic schools. My experiences are multicultural, and therefore, I write multicultural.

I don’t find the "Caribbean Folklore Diversity" widget box on your blog (Summer's note: Rehannah is referring to the display of Amerindian and Indo-Caribbean kid lit. in the left-hand column of my blog!) offensive, although perhaps it’s a bit unnecessary. Those books seem more historical or folkloric, so perhaps it’s better to classify them as that, along with other books in that genre with different cultural origins. That’s just my opinion though. The fact that you felt the need for that widget in the first place, however, is kind of proof that people of Indian and Amerindian descent (and others) are under-represented in Caribbean children’s books, and Caribbean books on the whole. Furthermore, the title of the Anansi conference (Summer's note: Rehannah is referring to a conference titled 'A is for Anansi: Literature for Children of African' ascent that I presented at in New York last year.) is also more proof that there does seem to be a perceived Caribbean ‘mainstream’ in the US where ‘Caribbean’ in the US means ‘African’. I’m not certain if this is the case in the UK.


Rehannah Azeeyah Khan is a self-taught Trinidadian author of an unpublished children’s book, which she likes to call a "Young Adult Multicultural Fantasy." She is currently seeking publication. A Muslim and former St. Joseph's Convent girl, Rehannah holds a B.Sc. in Information Systems and Management, which thus far has been helpful in giving her some much-needed organizational skills (but perhaps some day she’ll get that MFA!) Rehannah is an avid reader of all genres, and is always happy to get her hands on a great Caribbean read.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Blog Roundtable: Carmen Milagros Torres on Race in Puerto Rican Children's Lit.

Welcome to day 1 of the first ever Blog Roundtable on race and cultural diversity in Caribbean children's/YA books. Today, we will hear from Carmen Milagros Torres, an English Professor at the University of Puerto Rico. This is Carmen's first time on the blog and I'm pleased to have her here: welcome Carmen! Without further ado, let's hear what she had to say!

Oh, and I forgot to say yesterday that Roundtable participants were asked to answer a brief questionnaire. Below is Carmen's completed questionnaire.

Your name (first name alone is fine): Carmen Milagros Rivera
The nationality(ies) you identify with: Puerto Rican
Your self-described racial identity: Afro-Caribbean
Your experience reading Caribbean children's and/or YA books, either in print or online (Rate yourself on the following scale of 1 to 10): 6

1 - You haven't read any Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading, but you have read reviews or summaries of such books.
2- At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have NOT read Caribbean children's or YA books outside of required school reading.
3 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
4 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read 1-3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
5 - At some point in time, you have read Caribbean children's or YA books (AT LEAST 1) as part of required reading for school. You have also read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books that were not required school reading.
6 - You have never read a Caribbean children's or YA book as part of required reading for school. You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books.
7 - You review Caribbean children's or YA books (on a blog, website, in a newspaper, magazine, scholarly journal or other media outlet) and have read and reviewed AT LEAST 5 such books.
8 -You have read 0-3 Caribbean children's or YA books, EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
9 - You have read MORE THAN 3 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written (but not published) a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)
10 - You have read MORE THAN 1 Caribbean children's or YA books EITHER as part of required school reading OR outside of required school reading. You have written AND published a Caribbean children's or YA book(s.)

Race in Puerto Rican Children's Literature

by Carmen Milagros Torres

Puerto Rican children’s literature has not focused its work to the issue of race. Many Puerto Ricans have tried to look away from the reality that a hidden racism exists. These persons have tried to whiten Puerto Rican society to outsiders and this is reflected in its mainstream literature written for children (Loveman, 2007.)

While other Caribbean countries have characters like Anancy the spider that was influenced by its African legacy, in Puerto Rico, the character of traditional literature that stands out is Juan Bobo who is a jibaro. Jibaros have come to represent Puerto Ricans but jibaros are really those white Puerto Ricans who mainly lived in the mountainous center of the island. Jibaros are represented with Spanish physical traits i.e. light skin and straight or soft wavy hair.

Red Comb - PbkHowever, some books have appeared in print that have shown other facets of race in Puerto Rico. An example of the race and diversity in Puerto Rico is the picture book The Red Comb by Fernando Pico. The story takes place in Caimito, a sector in Rio Piedras which is now part of the island’s capital San Juan. This area is mostly populated by Afro-Caribbeans because many liberated slaves established themselves in this community.

Vitita is a young girl who discovers a runaway slave her house yard. In this community lived Pedro Calderon, a mulatto who made an occupation of capturing runaway slaves and returning them to the owners. This contradictory situation where a mulatto was insensitive to the slaves’ oppression shows the way many people in Puerto Rico have looked away and ignored their African heritage. Rosa Bultron, a woman of the community reminds her neighbor that they also carry a past of slavery and oppression. On page four of the book this is presented in the conversation between Rosa Bultron and her neighbor Nepomuceno:

“Have you forgotten that our grandparents came to this island on a tiny, waterlogged
boat after fleeing from an Englishman’s plantation in Antigua?” scolded old Rosa Bultron. “What would have become of them if Pedro Calderon had been alive those days?”

It is with the guidance of Rosa Bultron that Vitita is able to help the runaway slave. At the end of the story, the runaway slave, now called Carmela, becomes part of the community but with a hidden identity. No one in the community except Rosa Bultron and Vitita knew that she was the slave that had recently escaped and Pedro Calderon had tried to capture.

This story presents to children a part of history that mostly goes untold. It highlights the African heritage of our island. In my research which is in the preliminary stage, I found books that deal with Tainos (pre- Columbian inhabitants of the island of Puerto Rico) or characters that represent the European heritage of Puerto Rico. Books like The Red Comb are rarely seen and discussed in schools. These books are not usually found in children’s homes.

Race and the diversity in the Caribbean is a topic that has not been fully explored in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico needs to strengthen its production of children’s books not only in Spanish which is the primary language spoken in the island, but in English as well. Most of the books found for children are those that portray American society and lifestyle distancing more children from their Caribbean heritage. Writers in Puerto Rico must look for ways to get their stories published and more writers should join us in this objective. Publication is very difficult in Puerto Rico which has caused many to desist in entering this field.

Instead of race, identity is the theme that prevails in the books children are exposed to. Books like La Cancion Verde by Doris Troutman and El Coqui que Quiso Ser Sapo by Emmanuel Sunshine Logrono present Puerto Rican identity through the image of the coqui. The coqui is a small brown amphibian similar to a frog that was originally found only in Puerto Rico and sings "Ko-KEE!" during the night. A study of Puerto Rican identity through the coqui should be done, since it is a very popular character in Puerto Rican children’s books and is always associated with the island’s identity.


-González, Jose Luis (1993). Puerto Rico: The Four-Storeyed Country. Princetown, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishing.
-Loveman, Mara & Muniz, Jeronimo O. (2007). How Puerto Rico Became White: Boundary Dynamics and Intercensus Racial Reclassification. American Sociological Review, 72, 915-939.
-Pico, Fernando. (1991). The Red Comb. Rio Piedras, PR: Ediciones Huracan


Carmen Milagros Torres is an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao. She teaches Basic English, Business English as well as Children’s Literature. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in Caribbean Languages and Literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. Her field of specialization is Caribbean Children’s Literature. She teaches Children's Literature at the University of Puerto Rico- Humacao ( and includes Caribbean Literature in her courses. In 2008, she worked with an Electronic Book Project where her students wrote Caribbean stories and presented them in Power Point. They created a blog, the address for which is is Carmen's children's story "Dancing Bomba" was published in the December 2010 issue of Anansesem Caribbean children's ezine.