Volumes of Pleasure
By Summer Edward, M.Ed., RYT 200
*For the purposes of this article, the phrase ‘children’s and young adult books’ has been abbreviated to ‘CYA books.’
I’m pleased to share a project I’ve been working on for the past couple of months: Anansesem, the online magazine covering Caribbean children’s and young adult literature, has just launched our new-and-improved Anansesem Online Bookstore, which can be found here. Amazon.com now has a monopoly on online book shopping worldwide and so, at Anansesem, we’ve chosen to partner with them through their Amazon Affiliate Program.
I’m skilled in HTML and along with being Anansesem’s editor-in-chief, I’m also the front-to-end web developer behind the Anansesem website’s design. I designed and coded the Anansesem Online Bookstore myself, a process of painstaking coding that took me a little over month, and that has resulted in what I hope is an effectively simple, minimalist interface.
The new online bookstore, however, is really the fruit of years of independent research and archival work I’ve done with the long-term goal of building a detailed and comprehensive working bibliography of Caribbean CYA (children’s and young adult) books. The books are organized by country, and further grouped into 3 sub-sections: Picture Books, Intermediate (i.e. early readers, chapter books, children’s comic books and middle grade novels) and High School (i.e. YA books and comic books for teen readers).
The most distinctive thing, however, about the new Anansesem Online Bookstore is that it carries only ‘own voices’ books. You may be unfamiliar with the term ‘own voices.’ Coined by Dutch YA author Corinne Duyvis in 2015, it’s a term that’s now widely used in the publishing world to refer to books for which the protagonist and the author share a historically marginalized racial or cultural identity. The need for the term ‘own voices’ as a distinguishing marker arose due to the long history, in traditional publishing, of majority-group authors being given free rein to write books depicting minority group characters, and the equally long history of minority-group writers not being given the same kind of access to tell their own stories.
In Anansesem’s old online bookstore, we lumped Caribbean CYA books written by cultural outsiders together with own voices books. This time around, in building the new-and-improved Anansesem Online Bookstore, I sought to give own voices Caribbean CYA books the exclusive virtual shelf space they deserve. My hope is that these virtual bookshelves will be a stepping stone for individuals and organizations looking to create vibrant, exclusive physical spaces for housing, displaying and selling Caribbean CYA books in the real world.
Many online bookstores, literary coverage outlets and reader advisory websites/sources that sell or highlight Caribbean CYA books aren’t discriminate about the authorship of the books they identify as ‘Caribbean.’ Even YALSA, the USA’s national Young Adult Library Services Association, once published this list of “YA Books that Feature Haitian Culture” which only included 2 own voices YA books by Haitian American authors. The tendency for own voices Caribbean CYA books to get lost in the mix is also made plain when one attempts to shop for Caribbean CYA books directly on global online marketplaces like AbeBooks.com or Amazon.com.
Indeed, there are drawbacks to searching/shopping for Caribbean children’s and YA books directly on websites like Amazon.com. Amazon.com doesn’t tell you which Caribbean CYA books displayed on its search results pages are own voices books. Also, Amazon’s search engine isn’t optimized for finding CYA books from specific Caribbean countries; for example, if you search for ‘Jamaican children’s books’ on Amazon.com, you’ll get a lot of irrelevant results including (for some reason) textbooks (lots of them) and cookbooks. Likewise, if you search for ‘Caribbean children’s books’ directly on Amazon’s website, their search results will show you a lot of CYA books from South and Central America, which while wonderful to know about, aren’t Caribbean books, and thus aren’t what you’re looking for.
The Anansesem Online Bookstore overcomes these hurdles by providing a carefully curated niche bookstore that marries the ease and accessibility of Amazon.com with Anansesem’s trusted expertise in the Caribbean CYA books marketplace. Using the Anansesem Online Bookstore to find Caribbean CYA books will save you the frustration of irrelevant search results (and thus long search times), and give you quick, convenient access to only those own voices CYA books written by Caribbean people themselves. These are high quality traditionally published CYA books, as well as self-published books of cultural interest, as identified by Anansesem’s editors and expert advisors. Also, because the Anansesem Online Bookstore carries only CYA books, it’s safe for children to browse since there’s no risk of children’s being accidentally exposed to disturbing or inappropriate content, as can happen when browsing Amazon.com.
One of the questions I had to answer in building the new Anansesem Online Bookstore was, Who counts as an ‘own voices’ Caribbean author? There is so much migration into, out of, and between the Caribbean islands which means that Caribbean identity can be very fluid. A few of the books in the Anansesem Online Bookstore are written by expats from North America and Europe who have settled permanently in the Caribbean. In the Cayman Islands, we even have a situation where the majority of children’s books penned by residents have been written by white expats.
After thinking carefully about the complexities, I ultimately chose not to include CYA books written by expats who lived for a period of time in the Caribbean but who have now returned to their countries of origin. I also chose not to include books by expats who moved to the Caribbean in their adulthood. I’ve chosen to identify an expat author as a cultural insider (and thus an own voices author) only if they relocated to the Caribbean during their formative years (childhood or early-mid adolescence when one’s sense of cultural identity is indelibly formed) and lived in the Caribbean for an extended period of time.
In organizing the Anansesem Online Bookstore and deciding where to place books, there were some instances where I chose to define ‘own voices’ loosely. For example, the middle grade novel The Magic Shell can be found in the ‘Dominican Republic’ section of the store, because although the author, Nicholas Mohr, is Puerto Rican, the book’s protagonist is Dominican. Likewise, the middle grade novel, The Color of My Words, is by a Trinbagonian author but can be found in the ‘Dominican Republic’ section of the store because the story is set in the Dominican Republic. Books like these are not ‘own voices’ books proper, but they are ‘own voices’ titles in the sense that the author is a Caribbean person, albeit not from the specific Caribbean culture/country depicted in their book. Except in those few cases, generally speaking, each country section of the Anansesem Online Bookstore features books by authors from that Caribbean country.
When it comes to books written by Caribbean expats (i.e., Caribbean people living abroad), on several occasions, I chose to omit a book because the content of the book did not ‘look toward’ or concern itself with Caribbean spaces, cultures or communities. An example is the picture book Mother Crocodile by Rosa Guy; the late Rosa Guy was Trinbagonian American, but Mother Crocodile is an adaptation of a Senegalese folktale and is set in Africa. Of course, Caribbean CYA authors are free to write about whatever they want (it may even signal a particular kind of progress when they write work that expands beyond the expected topics), but to meet the specific goals of the Anansesem Online Bookstore, I have unapologetically included only books that depict Caribbean people and places.
The Anansesem Online Bookstore serves as a useful visual representation (one can even say a ‘visual map’) of the body of children’s and YA literature written and illustrated by Caribbean people. Children’s books are a very visual medium. There is a lot of value in simply being able to look at, critique and analyze Caribbean CYA book covers collectively and make comparisons. As a visual resource, the Anansesem Online Bookstore can help us to envision new directions for Caribbean CYA book covers and illustration. This is important since many own voices Caribbean CYA books, particularly young adult books, are not making the grade when it comes to appealing, culturally relevant and meaningful book cover design.
Sourcing the covers of the books in the new Anansesem Online Bookstore was hard work. I had to contact publishers to request high-quality scans of covers that are unavailable on the Web, and I used every research skill and resource at my disposal to track down book covers that are hard to find. I wanted to ensure that the Anansesem Online Bookstore has a high display quality; too often, when one searches for Caribbean CYA books (particularly the older, out-of-print ones) on the Internet, or even in brick-and-mortar libraries, all one finds is faded, worn, poorly scanned, low-resolution and damaged book covers. This can be demoralizing to Caribbean people and discouraging to readers in general. There are many critical Caribbean literary works for children’s and young adults that are ripe for, and deserve, re-printings, including updated covers.
I’m proud that, on a visual level, the Anansesem Online Bookstore offers a beautiful and attractive display of high-resolution, clear, bright Caribbean CYA book covers. Literary pleasure is an important principle that we have always elevated and honored at Anansesem. As Caribbean people, looking at images of ourselves (even challenging or dissatisfying images) or at things we’ve created should be pleasurable in the sense that the images and creations, when presented with the loving care and respect that they deserve, provide food for the cultural soul. Building the Anansesem Online Bookstore these past few months, the main emotion I experienced as the store came together, was pleasure. I realize this pleasure stems from lifting up myself and my community, and from being able to amass, access and behold compelling proof of the wonderful things we (meaning Caribbean writers, illustrators and publishers) have accomplished. Simply put, it’s the pleasure of the shock of recognition at seeing myself and my culture authentically represented in stories and children’s illustration. I always hope that the work we’re doing at Anansesem helps every Caribbean person we reach to have the same powerful experience and feel lifted.
The books you will currently find in the new Anansesem Online Bookstore are only a start. In the upcoming months, I’ll be adding more books on an ongoing basis, including Spanish-language books and more Kreyol-language books. You can expect the bookstore’s offerings to expand significantly. I will also be adding a special tag to help shoppers identify which books are self-published books.
Although the Anansesem Online Bookstore is my personal pet project, I could not have built it without the reader advisory expertise provided by others. Upon asking for her input, Anansesem advisory board member, Margarita Engle, was happy to bring my attention to some own voices Cuban CYA books I had missed. Anansesem contributor Joanne C. Hillhouse’s comprehensive blog, Wadadli Pen, was an extremely helpful resource for confirming the nationalities of authors of CYA books related to Antigua and Barbuda. The old blog of the North Caribbean chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was useful for a similar reason. Thanks to the folks behind the Latinx in Kid Lit and Teaching for Change websites for their helpful book lists. My family too, must be thanked, for putting up with my distracted states while I slogged away on this bookstore project.
There’s no brick-and-mortar bookstore or library one can walk into and browse a collection of Caribbean children’s and YA literature that’s as extensive as what you will find in the Anansesem Online Bookstore. I hope that the Anansesem Online Bookstore will help to quell exaggerated perceptions of the scarcity of Caribbean CYA books; while there is certainly a glaring under-representation of Caribbean own voices CYA literature, at this point, there is also now a critical mass of these works (enough to build an MFA program in Caribbean children’s writing, for example) and growing attention to this vital area of the Caribbean’s literary landscape.
My hope is that, even as work is being done all over the Caribbean to increase and build distribution channels to get proper representation for Caribbean CYA books in brick-and-mortar libraries and bookstores, and at book fairs and publishing conferences, the Anansesem Online Bookstore will be a useful resource for academics, book bloggers/reviewers, reader advisory professionals, English teachers, and anyone interested in reading and learning about Caribbean literature for children and youth.
Interested in having your children’s or YA book added to the Anansesem Online Bookstore? Own voices authors can submit a request here.