May 14, 2012

The Responsibility of Children’s Books Authors in Postcolonial Societies

Do you hear me? Do you see me? 
Considerations on the responsibility of the author of children’s books in post colonial societies.

By Diane Browne

At some time when I was younger, I wished that there were stories about us, as "normal people," living our way of life--not just folktales and duppy stories. I eventually decided to write stories, to show not only that we are normal, but that we are important; we don’t need to be a princess with long golden hair; we don’t need snow or haystacks; we don’t need to be in a foreign land to be somebody in a book.

However, even as we replace the socialization of books of colonialism and give voice to our own children, I think that we have some responsibilities. Some of them are obvious. Like authors everywhere, we must respect the child by writing an engaging story, our characters should be worthy of the reader’s attention, and the topic and setting relevant to the child.

The characters. Replacing the blonde princess with the Amerindian princess should not be used as an escape valve as we struggle to come to terms with ourselves. Of course, we can have a story with an Amerindian Princess or River Mumma if that’s what our story requires. We know that our characters should reflect the major ethnic group/s in our country. This need not stop us from writing about other ethnic groups, should we wish. Our character, from whatever background, will call to us, and we will tell his/her story in a particular place at a particular time. And in our multiethnic, multi-religious region, we know that all characters are due respect.

So shouldn’t we know what our character looks like? This is often left to the illustrator guided by the artwork brief. Some writers feel that is enough. However, I like to use words to describe my characters, because, just as: “If I am not in a book, this means I don’t really exist , then “If you can’t describe me, am I okay, acceptable?" So, I find words to describe my character’s appearance including HAIR!

We do not want to mention hair. I even wondered if I dared mention it in this post. However, there was a recent symposium on black beauty at one of our universities (reported in the press) at which "good hair/bad hair" came up as a concern. So you see the words used to describe us/divide us are still alive in 2012. (And before you say anything, I grew up with "What a pity the girl didn’t get the good hair!" and perception is reality; then, I found myself, and gradually, I became okay). So, perhaps it is our responsibility to find the bold and beautiful words to describe ourselves and our wonderful hair. We have to make our children know that we know they are ALL beautiful.

Language: English or Creole. Respect is due both languages. I write the narrative in standard English as it is spoken by us. I believe that we have a responsibility to reinforce the use and understanding of this universal language which our children need to pass exams, get a job, work/live elsewhere. I use a modified Creole for the authenticity of dialogue. It’s up to writers how much Creole they use in the dialogue. This decision will be affected by the perceived target audience; for example, if we wish the story to be understood in other countries, even within the Caribbean.

Language can also define a character’s social standing. Although deeper Creole usually identifies those from rural areas or from the lower socio-economic group, my concern is never to stereotype a particular group. I am more likely to use variations of Creole within in one family, or according to situation; for example, we get excited, we use Creole.

Family type. We have a number of family types represented in our region; the nuclear, extended, single parent, grandmothers raising children. Even if we believe firmly in the 'correctness" of one type, we have the responsibility to see that no child should read our book and feel that it negates him/her, or diminishes the efforts made by the family/significant others in that child’s life.

Controversial topics.Even when we know situations exist which are injurious to our children, we don’t usually write about them: abuse, drugs, and gangs. Perhaps because our societies are so small, we do not want to appear to be pointing a finger recklessly. Perhaps we think topics like this are better suited to the young adult group. Perhaps we wonder if these could be the responsibility of the writer in a postcolonial society?

Well, if they are our realities then surely we have a responsibility to write about them also. However, a word of caution. It’s best not to write about something unless you can handle it authentically. You have to decide if you want to take on the challenge of the topic; if so, then do the research; present a real character with whom the reader can empathize, and produce a practical and safe solution in keeping with the reality of that character’s life.

The ending to a story needn’t be happily ever after, but I believe that it should present an understanding of life, which gives the reader hope. If we can’t do this for our young readers, why write?

Does this all sound too clinical? Well actually you consider these things, internalize them, and then you write a great story. It’s like the foundation for a building; you don’t see it when the building is completed, but it is there. Consider how other countries have used their folktales and children’s literature to socialize their peoples? Now consider how these stories from the developed world have been used to socialize us. We do have a responsibility to our children, to write our stories, to validate ourselves and our lives.

About Diane Brown

Diane Browne is the author of Children's Literature blog ( as well as a writer and editor of textbooks. She teaches writing workshops in children's fiction and textbook writing, both in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Diane’s books have been published by Heinemann Caribbean, Carlong Publishers, Arawak Publications, the Ministry of Education, Jamaica; Ginn, UK; Harcourt, Friendship Press, USA. Her most recent books are time travel adventure novels for the 9-13 year age group, The Ring and the Roaring Water (back to 1951 and Hurricane Charlie) and A Tumbling World ... A Time of Fire (1907 earthquake in Kingston). Ms. Browne is a recipient of a Bronze Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Jamaica.



Unknown said...

Much food for thought here. There are some issues which are difficult to solve, example writing for the younger children about abuse, drugs and other social ills, in such a way that teachers and parents don't get alarmed. Of course it can be done, but it seems to me that many of our adults would rather not have these subjects in books for children ( unless perhaps it is a school text?? and even then !!!). Fiction can be too realistic for many. I once read to a group of parents, one of whom told me that she would not buy my book for her child because I had a gunman in one of the stories.(very,very minor, incidental character in keeping with the setting) Even the term was offensive to her.

When my 11 year old grandson asked for the meanings of carnal abuse and buggery after listening to a news broadcast, I explained. He obviously was ready for an explanation, but I am thinking that a story which made it obvious what these things are even for his age group would be frowned on by the gatekeepers. Nevertheless, we press on with our writing, doing what we can.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Hazel,

Thanks for the comment. I think it begins with parent involvement in the reading choices of their children, so on a very basic level I can understand the parent's concern about the "gunman."

But I wonder about the motive. Many parents in Jamaica get worked up about Jamaican authors who write about "gunmen" but ignore the violence books by hmmmm , Neil Gaiman, whose book I loved.

The whole point of a book is to begin a conversation between the writer and reader, but the conversation can't begin if we ignore the writer's work because it is "too real."