BLOGGER ON BOOK (2021) – QUICK TAKES III

I do these Quick Takes for books for which I won’t be doing a full review but might still have something to say – this is the 3rd 2021 Quick Takes page; for the first, go here and for the second, go here. Search Blogger on Books Quick Takes or go to the main page of the respective year for previous Quick Takes.

The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 12 Number 1 Summer 2019The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books is now online, at least back to 2011, so you can read them at your leisure. Granted, they’re not really leisure reads; they are scholarly journals, edited by Professor Paget Henry of Brown University, and Antigua and Barbuda. I did not read this cover to cover but I will say that the articles on Barbuda make for interesting reading, whether you agree with the point of view or not, and I rarely did. “Barbuda has not only been eclipsed, but has remained 30 to 40 years behind Antigua” (Paget Henry) makes me want to push back, by what measure and what is the reason. (See also my previous review of Dreamland Barbuda by resident Barbudan Asha Frank). Paget’s Barbuda piece (the Review’s leading feature essay ‘After the Storms: Barbuda and Antigua Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’) does turn me around on one of my assumptions, my overzealousness in insisting that Barbuda and Antigua are a part of each other naturally and in every other way, as natural as if Barbuda were any other village in the twin state of Antigua and Barbuda. But Barbuda is not Willikies (i.e. not just another village); no, it is its own thing, a separate state and should be understood and respected as such if we want to secure this strained union. That’s the thing about the Review, a product of the Antigua and Barbuda Studies Association, it may challenge your ideas and assumptions (a good thing) and, though I didn’t and still don’t like how small a part of it actual book reviews have become, it’s moved beyond being a review of literary works in to a researched publication discussing historical and contemporary Antigua and Barbuda. If that’s of interest to you, this will be.

The Lost Sketch Book by Guyanese author Imam Baksh with Grenadian artist Stacey Byer is one of my favourites in the Collins Big Cat line of Caribbean children’s picture books; no surprise here as I’ve been a fan of his award winning teen/young adult fiction which is speculative in the most imaginative yet Caribbean-specific way. The approach here is minimalist in terms of set-up, which I think children will appreciate. Baksh jumps straight in to the dialogue between the two main characters, girls in uniform en route to or from school, and lets the dialogue do the heavy lifting. “She says I’m packing too much cricket in to my brain and there’s no space for anything else,” for example is a poignant line rich with social commentary that gives you backstory and characterization and context/setting (in companion with the images) with no fuss. The found sketch book is a bit of a plot convenience (but no less so, I suppose, than a wardrobe that conveniently opens to a magical otherworld). Speaking of worlds, the landscape via the illustrations is evocative of Guyana with its inland waterways between the residences. But the sketchbook, conveniently showing up or not, is a very cool concept that it’s easy to imagine young characters, and their young readers, embracing rather than questioning (as my adult brain kind of wanted to do). The book’s rules are revealed – no money??? Or maybe nothing for yourself? – rather than told, which is always good. And this curiousity re the rules of the book rather than how does this book even exist and where does it come from will keep the young readers engaged. The book has consequences, like any choice in life; you draw flowers you will get bees, and these bees look angry. There is an environmental message re bees here but the telling of it is not heavy handed. These characters, these girls, know things in a way that feels realistic, and inclusive whether your jam is art, science, or sports. And it’s cool to see them trouble shoot their way around the obstacles thrown up by this magical book in a way that reinforces intelligence and a giving spirit. Girls in cricket aren’t as rare as they once were but it’s still cool and empowering to see the girl with a cricket bat in her hand (much like Tanti up a tree in my Big Cat book The Jungle Outside). I hope images like these help normalize girls doing things some might consider to be ‘boy things’ (see my discussion with illustrator Danielle Boodoo Georges on what girls were told about climbing trees, see what the main character in Baksh’s book is told just pages ago about her love for cricket). I think it’s clever to end the story with the rules of the magical book as written by one of the characters. So, all in all I loved this book (both books), and find it consistent with the author’s oeuvre, which I’ve found to have strong, athletic and adventurous females, some element of fantasy, some mystery to be solved or problem to trouble shoot, within a Caribbean setting that just is. It’s very accessible for young readers and I can see it becoming a favourite of a young girl who is in to art, science, and sports, or perhaps just likes a bit of fantasy.

How to become a Calypsonian is written by Guyanese writer Desryn Collins, who works as curriculum officer in Antigua and Barbuda where she has lived for many years, with illustrator Ricky Sanchez Ayala, who is US-based, from the Dominican Republic. First, it’s good to see calypso included in the Big Cat series of children’s books which much like How to be a Knight in 10 Easy Stages (previously reviewed on this site) is meant to engage and teach children in a playful way (in a way that encourages them to give it a go/play act it). So it’s a colourful, sort of generalized, non-fiction calypso how-to that in broad strokes captures the connection to Africa and, with a good sense of fun, the joyfulness of calypso but not immediately the gravitas and sadness this genre can also evoke (in mainstream Western culture, calypso is often portrayed as kitsch but growing up in the Caribbean, it could be fun and broad, yes, but also deep and heartfelt). I do wish the book had done more to capture how calypso incorporates the nuances of the Black Caribbean experience and its history – in particular, it sort of skips right past chattel slavery and colonialism, which much like the negro spiritual and blues in the US (vis-a-vis chattel slavery and Jim Crow, racism writ large), helped shape the genre. Yes, it is a children’s book but I wish it hadn’t jumped straight from Africa to 19th century in Trinidad – something feels missing. The book does go on to show that the calypsonian absorbs the conversations and lived experiences of the people around him, which is important; and the genre’s emphasis on writing (lyricism), also important. Page 18 may be my favourite page as it captures the essence of calypso writing in a way that children can understand. “You can sing about animals when you really mean tot talk about people. ..make your song funny , but make your listeners think about something important.” Yes, it doesn’t always have to be funny (I come from the Shelly Tobitt-Short Shirt era of calypso which emphasized social justice over humor) but it does have layers of meaning. Given that the author Is Antigua based, I would have appreciated some reference, especially with our rich calypso tradition and three Sunshine Hall of Fame artists making up our Big Three of Antiguan calypso. Okay, so I am being a bit nitpicky (and very adult); I wouldn’t be writing about this book though if I didn’t think overall it serves as a good general introduction to calypso for children, though perhaps especially children not from the Caribbean. NOTE: As with my own The Jungle Outside, and Turtle Beach, Finny the Fairy Fish, The Wonder of the World Leaf (mentioned or reviewed on this site), this book is part of the Collins Big Cat series, specifically part of the rollout of books by Caribbean authors and these were complimentary copies not necessarily for review, but this is what I do.

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