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Children’s Literature in Jamaica

Robert Morier

As children in the United States, we grow up listening to the stories of Dr. Seuss and Curious George as we fall off to sleep to the sound of our parent’s voices echoing in our dreams. As we start to grow older and the poetry of Shel Silverstein’s, "Where the Sidewalk Ends" no longer holds our imagination as much as it did at eight years old, we begin to read stories that are a reflection of the environment we live within. We engaged ourselves in the lives of such characters as the Hardy Boys and Willy Wonka. What these stories lacked however, are the social issues that are ever present in today’s society. Not all of American children’s literature is without social content, but the literature many of us grew up with was about adventure and mystery. On the other hand, Caribbean children’s literature tends to base its work on survival. The stories of Jamaican folklore for example, tell the tales of the original inhabitants of the Caribbean Island and how they survived colonialism, slavery, poverty, and racism. From generation to generation these stories have been passed down in their original form through oral history.

Oral tradition is a method that I believe is no longer preserved in American culture. Rarely do you read of an individual who was sat down on his grandparent’s knee to hear the childhood stories he or her was told by their grandparents before them. In today’s society, all a child has to do to be entertained is turn on the television, or log on to the internet to hear and read the rhetoric of today’s entertainment industry. Whether it is a lack of communication between parent and child, or a loss of innocence, the tradition of a parent telling the story of his or her ancestors to their children has become a lost art form.


The Anancy Stories

The tradition of oral folklore however, is alive and well on the island of Jamaica, and preserved in the pages of children’s storybooks. Children’s folklore and literature thrives in the stories of Anancy. Anancy is an indestructible and irresistible spider who is both, "fooler and fool, maker and unmade, wily and stupid, subtle and gross, the High God’s accomplice and his rival." (Dance, 11) Anancy is generally a figure of admiration whose cunning and scheming nature reflects the indirection and subtleties necessary for survival and occasionally victory for the Black man in a racist society.

In Jamaica, Anancy, the descendant of a West African deity takes on special significance in a society, which has its roots in a system of slavery. It is as though every slave strove to be Anancy and he who achieved the Spider-form became a kind of hero. Anancy’s greatest attributes however, are his character flaws. Anancy is far from a perfect folk hero, and many of his characteristics are egotistical, selfish, and ignorant. Regardless of the wealth of character flaws he possesses, Anancy has an irresistibility that has been preserved in its most uncorrupted form. As Rex Nettleford states in his introduction to Walter Jekyll’s, Jamaican Song and Story, "in order to cope with an unstraight and crooked world one needs unstraight and crooked paths." (Jekyll, xiii) As a child, playwright and author, Louise Bennett recalls that "everything that happened in the world was caused by Anancy." (Jekyll, ix) As a child Bennett, at the end of each Anancy story, would have to say, "Jack Mandora, me no chose none." This was because Anancy sometimes did very wicked things in his stories, and the children would have to let Jack Mandora, the doorman at Heaven’s door, know that they were not in favor of Anancy’s wicked ways.

The character flaws of Anancy were a direct link to the problems that the people of Jamaica were facing. It was always necessary for the black people of Jamaica to survive. After slavery, that meant moving into the interior away from the plantations. It is here, that Anancy was created and Walter Jekyll was able to document the stories and songs of a dynamic people. Anancy uses his wit and cunning to survive. In many cases, the larger animals of his stories, the Lion, Snake, and Monkeys are representations of the white man in Jamaica. For example in the tale, "Tiger Story, Anancy Story," all of the history of Jamaica and the animals are told as Tiger Stories. It is not until Anancy approaches the tiger and asks him if the stories could be changed to the Anancy Stories that the true survival begins. The tiger, dismisses the spider’s request, and tells him that if he can accomplish two impossible tasks the stories can be called the Anancy stories. Through his trickery, Anancy successfully accomplishes the two successful deeds and forces the Tiger to rename the tales as the Anancy Stories. (Sherlock, 45)

What this represents to the reader and the listener is that the history of Jamaica before Anancy’s accomplishment, was a "white man’s history." Like many colonized West Indian and African countries of the early twentieth century, white colonists believed that the history of these individual countries did not begin until the arrival of the white man. What this tale does is take back the history and stories of Jamaica, and returns them to Anancy and the black people of Jamaica.

When examining the two impossible tasks Anancy was asked to perform for the Tiger, the reader soon realizes that the tasks are representations of the impossibilities that Jamaicans have faced throughout the centuries. One of these tasks requires Anancy to gather a swarm of bees to bring to the Tiger. The bees are very dangerous and could sting Anancy to death if he were to upset, or disturb their environment. The symbolism of this request illustrates the difficulties of bringing together a large group of people, who are not prepared, or are too content with their environment to face the white man, represented as the Tiger. Only through his cunning can Anancy convince the bees to come with him to see the Tiger.

In Jamaican folklore, this type of symbolism demonstrates to the reader and listener the struggles of the people of Jamaica against racism and slavery. The question that should be raised however, is as children did the Anancy Stories signify the struggles of the Jamaican people, or did they come across to children as simply adventure stories, and not stories of survival. Daryl C. Dance, author of Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans states, "As we look at the Anancy stories, we will find that they appeal to us not only because of their drama, excitement, and humor but also because we quickly perceive that, like most animal tales, these are not really about animals but about human beings, and we realize that a part of our attraction is that we recognize ourselves in the antics of these creatures." (Dance, 13) Anancy takes many shapes; at times, he seems to be a man, and at other times, he is an insect, running his web and taking refuge in the ceiling, as author Louise Bennett describes it. What this represents for children is that even though the Anancy Stories are filled with animal characters, their characteristics are so human like that at many times when reading or listening to his stories you begin to feel as though the characters are the same people who are part of your lives and history. The effect of these stories on children was not only morally fulfilling, but pure enjoyment as well. As one interview with a Jamaica youth states…

But the way I learnt Anancy, I knew Anancy as a child, and it was a joy-y-y! We loved to listen to the stories, we loved to hear about this little trickify man, and you know, and one thing we knew, that this man was magic, and we could never be like him. You know — he is a magic man. He could spin a web and become a spider whenever he wanted to [laughter]. You can’t do that, so you better not try the Anancy’s tricks, you know, but it was fun!

This type of "magic man," or prophet in many cases is represented in several histories. Whether it is the magical lyrics of Bob Marley, the powerful speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the cunning of a small spider named Anancy, different cultures tend to glorify individuals and make them their saviors in a sense. Children see this spider perform heroic and sometimes-foolish deeds and they see a human being. It is interesting that sometimes a society so burdened with racism and subordination turns to a figure, or individual as a representative of the people. In South Africa’s case, that would be a person like Nelson Mandela, or Stephen Biko. In Jamaica, that individual is a fictional spider who for over two centuries has represented the hardships of a nation.

In the United States, that type of fictional character, who represents the hardships of a country, is missing. Maybe the reason for this is that today we live in a country that is economically thriving. We are not subjected to the same hardships as the people of Jamaica. The reason however, I believe that a character like Anancy is missing from our society is because we are a country based on technology. Children are sent to school at seven o’clock in the morning and do not arrive home again until seven o’clock at night. There is something missing between parent and child, and in many cases, it is simply communication. I do not mean to give you my own rhetoric on how I think a parent should speak to his or her child. However, it is important to see the fundamental difference between as something as simple as children’s folklore in our society, compared to that of Jamaica to distinguish the importance of a child’s story tale.

Bright Thursdays

"The longing for the love of those who’ve given us life is a natural and blessed thing,; but love can be neither hurried nor forced."

This is the quote that stands above Olive Senior’s short story entitled, "Bright Thursdays." In the Anancy Stories, the problems the main character faced throughout many of his struggles were problems that were coated with adventure and laughter. The candy-coated presentation of the traditional Jamaican folklore is absent in Olive Senior’s, "Bright Thursdays." Senior’s story is directed toward young adolescents, particularly young women growing up in Jamaica. "Bright Thursdays," is included in a compilation of short stories about growing up as a black child in different parts of the world.

"Bright Thursdays" main character is a girl named Laura. Her mother, Myrtle, a single woman struggling to survive in the Jamaican interior, had raised Laura. When Laura’s mother was seventeen she had begun a relationship with a white man from one of the wealthier areas of the island. The father however, abandoned the family when he learned of Myrtle’s pregnancy. Throughout Laura’s childhood, her mother did all she could to get her daughter out of the poverty they were living in. She would spend all of her money on buying Laura better clothes and accessories. She would even go as far as to keep Laura’s skin color as light as possible, by rubbing cocoa butter onto it, so she would be accepted in the white community. (Bolden, 53) The main reason however, for Myrtle’s drive to have Laura look as clean cut as possible was so that she would be able to live with the father’s parents on the coast.

The child however, because of her mother’s strictures, soon felt alienated from other children in the black community. As the author puts it in her story, "Myrtle was busy grooming Laura for a golden future." With this grooming came a lost childhood. Laura was soon invited to the grandparent’s house, with the intent of being shaped into a proper, "white" child. Immediately after Laura’s arrival, you begin to see the problems of not only the characters, but of Jamaican society itself.

Racism is the immediate problem that is described by the author. Upon Laura’s arrival, "Miss Christie (the grandmother) was gratified that she was so much lighter than the photograph." (Bolden, 59) Laura’s mother knew it would be impossible for Laura to be accepted into white society if her skin was too dark. In a letter from Laura’s grandmother to Myrtle in response to her call for help, the grandmother responds, "Besides, people who have children should worry about how they are going to support them before they have them." (Bolden, 56)

Racial lines are also drawn on maps, as well in society. Many of the wealthy white families lived on the shores of the island, away from the interior where much of the black population was located. In her comparisons of her mother’s home to that of grandparent’s, the reader can also see the difference in economic conditions.

"She had grown up in a part of the mountain cockpits where a gravel road was the only thing that broke the monotony of the humpbacked hills and endless hills everywhere." (Bolden, 60) The author describes the feeling Laura had as she stepped off the train into the New World she would live in. "She felt naked and anxious, as if suddenly exposed, and there was nowhere to hide." (Bolden, 61) The most obvious distinction between the two homes was that the grandparents were living on top of a hill, while Myrtle lived between them.

Laura’s father eventually comes back to Jamaica to introduce his parents to his new bride. Upon their arrival, Laura becomes invisible to her white relatives, and most of all her father. It is here that you also hear the feelings of the grandparents towards people from other countries, where Miss Christie states, "these foreign women are really too fresh, you know. Half of them don’t really come from anywhere but they believe that everybody from Jamaica is a monkey and live in trees." (Bolden, 67) Here the reader gets a taste of not only racism sentiments, but class distinctions as well. The comment, "half of them really don’t come from anywhere," lets the reader know how important economics and social status are to Laura’s family.

Laura’s story ends however, just as depressing as it started. As she waits outside for her bus to go to school, her grandmother actually begins to become worried that she has been waiting outside for too long. As Laura’s grandmother and father walk towards her at the end of the driveway, her father shouts, "Oh for chrissake. Why don’t you stop fussing so much about the bloody little bastard." (Bolden, 70) Her reaction can be best described through the story’s final paragraph…

Laura heard no more for after one long moment when her heart somersaulted once there was no time for hearing anything else for her feet of their own volition had set off at a rundown the road and by the time she had got to the school gates she had made herself an orphan and there were no more clouds. (Bolden, 70)

"Big Thursdays," is a story that takes the life of a young adult and through her experiences represents the problems that women and Jamaica face in life. It not only describes racial sentiments towards black Jamaicans, but it demonstrates class distinctions in rural and urban areas. The main character, Laura, is brought from her mother’s home in the interior of Jamaica and is subjected to the scrutiny of this white world. One aspect of the story that tends to stand out above all others however, is Laura’s loss of innocence. While her mother and grandmother attempted to shape Laura into this model of white society, she lost touch with everything around her, especially other children.

"Although she liked the feeling of importance it gave her to get on and off the bus at the school gate — the only child to do so — most times she watched with envy the other children walking home from school, playing, yelling, and rolling in the road. They wore no shoes an she envied them this freedom, for her feet, once free like theirs except for Sundays, were now encased in socks and patent leather shoes handed down for one or the other of the rightful grandchildren who lived in Kingston or New York." (Bolden, 63)

The question that is necessary to ask is, was life better for Laura before the grandparents, or after? After reading this last section, one would believe that Laura was longing for her home in the mountains. She was longing to simply be a child again, and not a prototype of white Jamaican society. It is interesting that the only people that wanted Laura to be accepted into society were the adult characters. The one child in the story did not understand why her father had abandoned her and her mother. Eventually, that innocence was stripped away by her father’s comments.

The two examples of Jamaican children’s literature that have been presented are both different in their presentation and content. The Anancy Stories are geared towards a younger reader or listener. Though dealing with society’s problems and the struggles of the Black Man in white society, the stories of Anancy are lighthearted and filled with an innocent adventure that captivates the reader, old or young. "Bright Thursdays," on the other hand, is stripped of that innocence of childhood and deals with struggle in a much more straightforward context. Adventure or imagery does not mask the problems that Laura must deal with. Laura is faced to deal with the same problems that people of all ages in Jamaica come across everyday, poverty, racism, and elitism.

Everywhere Faces Everywhere

In this third and final section dealing with Jamaican children’s literature, one last type of writing I would like to deal with that has a profound effect on children of all walks of life is poetry. The two books I focused on when dealing with this subject were Everywhere Faces Everywhere by James Berry and Wheel and Come Again, An Anthology of Reggae Poetry edited by Kwame Dawes. Both collections of poetry are different in the sense that one is the biography of one man’s life growing up in Jamaica, and the other is an anthology of reggae poetry, written by several different authors. The reason I include Wheel and Come Again is mainly because Reggae music has such a profound effect on people of all ages in Jamaica, and it is something that the youngest of children are introduced to early in their lives. As we have learned, Reggae music is essentially musical poetry filled with heart and struggle. It is this struggle that Jamaican children learn of early in life.

To start however, the collection of poetry by James Berry successfully captures the spirit of childhood in Jamaica and allows the reader through beautiful imagery to picture the different environment children of Jamaica grow up within. The section of his poetry I would like to particularly focus on is perfectly entitled, Bits of Early Days. For Bits of Early Days, Berry looks back into his Caribbean childhood and finds poetry that open a world of beauty and innocence. The one poem I wanted to include demonstrating the special nature of Jamaican children’s poetry is called "Children’s Voices."

Caves of bats crisscross

under sky of open dusk.

Fowls Crouch in with leaves.

Cows call their pent calves.

Flame tree is quiet, like a hill

carved into a colorful umbrella.

Shouts and laughter clap round

night shaded fruits hanging

and animals grazing.

Children will go on

flinging wide their last

shrieked fun to stars, and delay

that interfering break of sleep.

This poem shows the reader the joy of the author’s childhood and the attitudes of children, "flinging wide their last shrieked fun to stars, and delay that interfering break to sleep." (Berry, 30) When reading his poetry and analyzing his use of wording, the reader gets a sense of a tight grip on childhood. It seems as though childhood is one of the only means of protection in a harsh living environment. James Berry, similar to that of Olive Senior in "Bright Thursdays," demonstrates the importance of childhood and innocence. When that innocence is lost, it is gone forever.

The innocence in Berry’s poetry is not only a reflection of childhood, but it is also a reflection of the beauty of Jamaica. One image in particular that stood out in the poem, "Night Comes Too Soon," was his description of a Jamaican sunset in where he writes…

Here now skyline assembles fire.

The sun collects up to leave.

Its bright following paled,

suddenly all goes. Dusk rushes

in like door closed on windowless room.

Children go a little sad.

The image of a sunset in Jamaica brings out the true color in the imagination. What stands out however, in my mind when reading this poetry, as pessimistic as it may be is, is that childhood is short. It is important to take all the days of your youth and appreciate their worth. When the "children go a little sad," and dusk is rushing in, it seems as though as everyday of childhood passes that child comes closer and closer to a world of uncertainty. This type of literature, as mentioned earlier in the paper is missing in many cases of American children’s works. Perhaps there is a type of pessimism within Jamaican children’s literature due to the island’s history and social conditions. When dealing with racism and poverty, Jamaican children’s literature seems to be much more straightforward about their problems than American authors.

This feeling of straightforward writing is evident in a quote taken from a book of pictures entitled, Jah Pickney. When discussing race in Jamaica, the books sole photographer, Piero Ribelli states…

"It was refreshing to find people referring to themselves and to others casually and simply according to their complexion or origin — especially compared to my experiences in America and Europe where language concerning race is laden with tension." (Ribelli, 14)

Wheel and Come Again, deals as well with the problems of Jamaican society, but in a form we as a class have learned much about, Reggae music. Considering that this is a little off topic from where I was discussing children’s literature and poetry in Jamaican culture, I wanted to include a few sections of a poem written by the author of "Bright Thursdays," Olive Senior, to show the diversity and talent of Jamaican authors. Born in Jamaica in 1941, the talent of Senior is prevalent throughout not only her poetry, but also her short stories as well dealing with Jamaican children.

Meditation on Yellow

At three in the afternoon

you landed here at El Dorado

(for heat engenders gold and

fires the brain)

Had I known I would have

brewed you up some yellow fever-grass

and arsenic

but we were peaceful then

child-like in the yellow dawn of our innocence

so in exchange for a string of islands

and two continents

you gave us a string of beads

and some hawk’s bells

When looking at Senior’s poem, "Meditation on Yellow," the reader again sees the importance of childhood and innocence in the eyes of many Jamaican authors. The words "child-like in the yellow dawn of our innocence," play on the idea of Berry’s poetry that the sunshine of the day is representative of the innocence of youth. When the sun begins to set, and another day passes in the life of a child, something is lost within them. They are forced to grow up before their years like the story, "Bright Thursdays," or they made to struggle through difficult situations in life like Anancy the spider.

Children’s literature in Jamaica is strewn with imagery of beauty and innocence, but as stated several times before beneath that innocence lies an uncertain future. The lives of children are filled with the threat of poverty and racism. Jamaican literature deals with the struggle of life. Just as reggae music includes the rhetoric of protest and hardship, Jamaican children’s literature includes the same life-long problem adults as well as children are forced to deal with throughout life.



Berry, James, Everywhere Faces Everywhere, Simon and Schuster Publishing, New York, 1996

Bolden, Tonya, Rites of Passage: Stories About Growing Up by Black Writers from Around the World, Hyperion Books for Children, New York, 1994

Dance, Daryl, Folklore from Contemporary Jamaicans, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1985

Dawes, Kwame, Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry, Goose Lane Publishing, Canada, 1998

Jekyll, Walter, Jamaican Song and Story, Dover Publications, New York, 1966

Jennings, Linda, A Treasury of Stories from Around the World, Kingfisher Publishing, New York, 1993

Ribelli, Piero, Jah Pickney: Children of Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, Jamaica, 1995

Sherlock, Philip, West Indian Folk-tales, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 1966