The Importance of Caribbean Children's Literature

Summer Edward, from online magazine Anansesem, is bringing Caribbean stories and illustrations to a wider audience. Here the team reflect on their progress and the work still to be done

We founded Anansesem in 2010 to fill a big gap in children’s and young adult (YA) books. There were—and are—no other English-language publications devoted to Caribbean children’s and YA literature, and we set out to provide a platform for it. We publish, review and highlight talented Caribbean writers and illustrators of books for young people, and act as a forum for discussions about publishing from the region. The magazine is run by Caribbean people, so our coverage is culturally grounded and authoritative.

We marked our eighth anniversary in May, and we’re both surprised and pleased to still be going strong. To date we’ve produced 12 issues and featured more than 100 voices in Caribbean fiction, non-fiction, poetry and illustration. The magazine has been a launching pad for an online bookstore, events, advocacy and community conversations. We’ve tried to counter the myth of scarcity that is so often evoked when people talk about Caribbean voices in children’s and YA books, and we’re helping to create a pool of talent that literary scouts and publishing houses can dip into. Many of the writers and illustrators we've published have gone on to get book deals and earn wider recognition.

The recent scandal around people from the Windrush generation who came to settle in the UK after the Second World War has put Caribbean culture in the news. Among this group you’ll find children’s and YA authors like Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Trish Cooke, Alex Pascall, the late James Berry, Faustin Charles, Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard and Malorie Blackman, who was Children’s Laureate from 2013 to 2015. Anansesem has published work and interviews with some of these authors, and we’re proud to have helped them build an audience in the UK.

Windrushers and others filled a gap by writing and distributing stories in which Caribbean communities in the UK could see themselves reflected, and their books remain important in the UK’s multicultural landscape today. Verna Wilkins is a Windrusher who founded Tamarind Books, the UK’s first publisher of so-called ‘multicultural’ children’s books. The Bogle-L’Ouverture / Walter Rodney Bookshop, founded by Eric and Jessica Huntley in London in 1975, was one of the first bookshops to give UK audiences access to children’s and YA books from the Caribbean. Other Windrushers like Andrew Salkey, Errol Lloyd and Petronella Breinburg wrote books set in the Caribbean, capturing in their stories important aspects of Caribbean history and lived experience through the lens of childhood.

Although much has been done, there is a strong need to discover and publish more contemporaneous Caribbean writing for children and young adults in the UK. There are many challenges, like a shortage of literary agents willing to represent authentically Caribbean stories, a lack of resources for things like cover design, and insufficient professional development opportunities for writers based in the Caribbean. Anansesem is currently conducting a survey to understand and publicize the challenges that Caribbean writers face in getting their work in front of young readers, and we will be sharing the results with publishers and agencies worldwide.

But there is already much more Caribbean literature for children and young adults than a lot of people seem to think. The archives from all Caribbean countries go back decades, but few bricks-and-mortar libraries and bookstores stock these books, and universities have only recently begun to study and theorize all the stories and illustrations. Unsurprisingly, many people aren’t yet aware of the full breadth, depth and vibrancy of this body of literature.

Caribbean literature has so much to offer and delight in. The region and its storytelling traditions have many unique qualities, and when they are coupled with the established appeal of the children’s story, an uncommon kind of literary magic results. We encourage people to resist the easy notion of scarcity and explore this special world.

Learn more about Anansesem here.