Tanti up a Tree

This is a screen capture from my YouTube live with Trinidad and Tobago poet and artist Danielle Boodoo Fortune, illustrator of my books Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure and The Jungle Outside (from which the above image is taken). You can watch the whole World Book and Copyright Day, April 23rd 2021, broadcast on my AntiguanWriter YouTube channel but I wanted to share part of our conversation, the parts that speak to our efforts to break with convention.

In terms of our own creativity

Me: “The beautiful thing about the creative arts, isn’t it, if you’re doing the thing you’ve always done, then you’re not really creating. For me, as challenging as these new endeavours are, because I always like to experiment, you’re always trying to discover the boundaries not only of your talent, of the ideas that are in your mind, of your potential, of your ability to imagine the world…. as a writer, you don’t get to see the side work as much, but I feel that we do that as well…it’s always about challenging yourself, push your boundaries technically but also express, …for me the things that I’m trying to understand, or the things that I’m trying to explore.”

Dani: “…I’ve actually been thinking this a lot lately that had it not been for specific illustration projects, I would be probably very happy to stay in one comfort zone all the time. …It takes effort of course but it’s good, it’s healthy, and it pushes me to grow and to try new things and to afterwards be like, wow, you know, it worked, and I learned something.”

The conversation immediately above jumped off from Danielle speaking about the challenges of getting the landscape and characters in Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, her first book illustration commission as it turned out, right, especially the main character Dolphin, the Arctic seal, and all the other seals when she’d never drawn seals before. This is a panel from the book shared during the Live. I think she did okay.

And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Danielle’s latest project, announced after our Live, is this colouring book for adults, women especially, and especially mothers:

In terms of race, and diversity in publishing

Me: “I wanted her to be Blacker, I wanted her to be on the dark-skinned side of the spectrum, and I wanted her to have natural (hair)… part of it for me…is in the world of children’s picture books*, we don’t see enough people at the darker end of the spectrum, and especially as people, as characters that children can feel affection for and love and recognize themselves in; so that that becomes almost a mirror that beams it back into themselves, that they are beautiful that, they are loved…so I wanted a grandmother who they could see as their grandmother…obviously, I hope children of all colours read this book but look at me, I wanted the grandmother to be someone who could be my grandmother.”

Dani: “The notes were exciting…. It makes me think of what we automatically go to. …Tanti is so much more of a person and I had fun doing it. She was the character that I kind of got attached to…I was actually really grateful for your notes on Tanti because she’s a really memorable, gorgeous character.”

This discussion was about the efforts to get Tanty, pictured on the The Jungle Outside cover, just right.

*See also We Need Diverse Books.

See also the cover of my other picture book (this one a Caribbean faerie tale illustrated by Barbadian artist Cherise Constant) With Grace:

In terms of Gender

And so we come to the image opening this post, Tanti up a tree.

Me: “One of the folk things that used to be said is, you know, girls shouldn’t climb trees because they might blight the tree. I don’t know if you have that in Trinidad…”

Dani: They will sour the fruits.

(for non-Caribbean readers, blight here suggests that the tree, so offended by being climbed by a girl, won’t bear and, as for the Trinidad variant of the sentiment, well, everyone knows sour guava will nedge your teeth)

Me: Yes, and all of that is a whole mess, it really is, it’s a whole mess. So there’s a part of me that’s bringing that sort of gendered reading in to the story. …it moved me to see that girl up a tree as the most natural thing in the world.

Dani: This might actually be maybe my favourite image in the whole book…to begin with it was interesting to envision Tanti as a girl, and I just kind of fell in love with the character of Tanti because I wish she was my grandmother… she is just so cool. That came to mind as well when I was doing it, that ridiculous saying that girls should not climb trees. I deliberately put a million mangos in the tree and she is so comfortable in that tree…I love this illustration. she is very much in her element and it gave me a fuller sense of Tanti as a character and her relationship with the garden and what she is passing on to Dante as well. I love this one very much.”

I do too. In fact, I dug up my response to Harper Collins’ publishers on first seeing it. I emailed in response:

“Love the image of Tanti up the tree – a Black girl climbing isn’t something you see often – there’s something so joyful about it – it’s Dante’s story but this is an important image – especially when you consider the things said to discourage girls from climbing trees – I might write about that at some point (maybe a tie-in promo essay). Maybe.”

And maybe has become reality.

Thanks for watching the video. Thanks for reading the books. Now go get the books. And if and when you do, post a review. Thanks in advance for that, as well.

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