In My Own Words...Joanne Gail Johnson
My Caribbean Children’s Books are “Self Organized Learning Environments”
Joanne Gail Johnson
It enthralls me that children can really know some things; and very important things I mean.
Today I sit and pay attention to life just as I did as a child. My one-eyed cat, Sweetheart, is curled around the computer mouse, not-so-patiently waiting for some love. (The cat and me too!) Outside my picture window is a picture, worthy of its window: the buxom northern range bathed in a sea of golden light. The ordinary life of neighbors can be heard in the mowing of grass and raking of leaves. Their cars swishing by on the main road I cannot see, remind me that I am grateful. I am grateful for the simplicity, the stillness of these writing hours when the dishes and unmade beds can wait…
During this time, I commune with what I know. I feel confident that there is a housewife in Milan, a billionaire executive in Tokyo, a farmer in Jamaica, a drug trafficker in Bombay and a children’s book author in Wales with whom I have much in common.
I know we each want respect.
We may pursue it in a variety of ways and fulfill it to varying degrees, but the desire itself is universal. It is this ‘sameness’ that I tap into before I explore the infinite palette of details; before the characters in the story at hand are defined and named; before the ins and outs of a plot unfold. Potentially, it is my awareness of that resonant quality of universality that lends foundation to even a few lines of “silly” rhyme. It is what gives a children’s author the courage to hone her craft.
I heard it said that V.S. Naipaul, in a lecture at U.W.I. during his two million dollar, 2007 visit to Trinidad, responded to a question about Caribbean children’s literature by saying something to this effect: “There is no such thing. Children are in fact not capable of understanding any work which could qualify as literature.”
This amounts to hearsay, I know. But I will address the thought itself and will acknowledge first that the tone of the word “literature” spoken in the mouth of a Nobel Laureate dictates a very capital and intimidating “L.” Even so, I will risk a bit of adventure. I can admit here that it took some time to refer comfortably to myself as an author, with or without a capital A. (Or any other superlative letters tacked to the end of my given name as proof that there is indeed some measure of craft supporting my “smaller” creative choices - seeing that, from a novelist’s perspective, I don’t actually write as many actual words for my audience.)
I dare add that we are learning today so much more about that race of humans we call “Children.” They are so very much like the others called “Adults.” It has been said that a good children’s book will bring out the child in an adult and the adult in a child. Many works considered “Classics” today, achieve this: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet to name a few.
Allow me now, to Google search instead of Oxford Dictionary the word “literature”…
Many definitions are provided, (including one I never knew - “a card game for six players”):
· Creative writing of recognized artistic value
· Published writings in a particular style on a particular subject
· The art of written works - Literally translated, means "acquaintance with letters" (from Latin littera letter)
My work, thus far, may be more akin to that of Sugata Mitra’s “Self Organized Learning System” than to any man or woman of letters. My professional and creative goals include a strong intention to cultivate in Caribbean children, the habit of reading; indeed, learning for the sake of pleasure. In my humble opinion, picture books are unsurpassed as teaching tools. I write by conceiving visually and depend on illustrations not because it is ‘easy’ to do so, but to create a shared schema through which I may communicate concepts well beyond the temporary reading level of my audience.
Since 1998, Macmillan-Caribbean has published a number of my children’s books, easy readers, and stories. I embrace the privilege whole-heartedly and recognize that I am just beginning. I have not even approached writing anything of the capital “L” type yet. Even so, no one sets out to write something “easy” or inconsequential, at least not I. On the other hand, I certainly never intended to pen the next great West Indian classic, even in the context of - if Mr. Naipaul will allow – children’s literature. One must concede, at the very least, working authors in my field prepare the ground for passionate, discerning adult readers who will keep Mr. Naipaul and other “serious” West Indian novelists, poets and journalists in business.
Writing children’s books is for me the fulfillment of a deep, childhood knowing that I, and by extension “all ah we,” deserve to have books that reflect the diverse and unique Trini-Caribbean world we see and hear. Quite-o-quite-o, way back when, I was convicted of our cultural worthiness, and this was long before I read Miguel Street, my first Naipaul classic. This was when Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter were walking me through English country lanes. Far more than a peep through their foreign windows, they gifted me with that universal awareness of the feeling of RESPECT.
Joanne’s latest children’s book is a contemporary Caribbean version of the Aesop’s fable, The Donkey and The Racehorse” (Macmillan-Caribbean). It hit stores in December 2010 and is now available online at Amazon and in Trinidad at R.I.K. Books. Wholesale orders at www.macmillan-caribbean.com
About Joanne Gail Johnson
Born, bred and based in Trinidad, Joanne is a published children's author of a number of contemporary Caribbean books, readers and stories with Macmillan-Caribbean; and is the series editor responsible for acquisitions of Macmillan's 'tween' novella series Island Fiction. Joanne is also the founding Regional Advisor of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Caribbean South Chapter. She is a dynamic storyteller, and facilitates both “Relevant Reading” and “Core Creativity” workshops for students and teachers; including volunteer readers of the Comforting Words Mobile library at Mt. Hope Children’s Hospital.
As children's theatre facilitator, she has worked with UWI’s Creative Arts Centre, and The Trinidad Theatre Workshop. As an actor, Joanne was last seen on stage in Walcott’s Remembrance, which the Nobel Laureate himself directed in St. Lucia and in Trinidad; and on the small screen in the ever-popular Earth TV Caribbean soap series, Westwood Park. These days Joanne tours schools and libraries regionally, and recently visited St. Maarten and The Bahamas.
In 2009, she authored a tertiary level course in Creativity for CREDI - Catholic Institute. Last year, 2010, St. Francois Girls’ College produced her young adult play The Last of the Super Models, which she also directed, on a national stage at Queen’s Hall. 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 www.caribbeanchildren.com: 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 NGO, Creative Parenting for the New Era: "We are convinced that Joanne's focus on nurturing the emotional intelligence of children through her books is a powerful contradiction of the violence many children experience daily in their homes, schools, on the streets and in the media." Joan Bishop MA, CEO