Turtle Beach by Barbara A. Arrindell with illustrator Zavian Archibald
Full disclosure Barbara is a friend of mine and, as a local bookseller, a friend of the Antigua and Barbuda literary community. She is also a Wadadli Pen team member. As if that wasn’t enough conflict of interest, I am a fan of Zavian’s work and have collaborated with her on a couple of my own book projects.
So take as many grains of salt as you need to believe me when I say this is a magical children’s book. Things I like, are, even before I read the book, the cover and the #Blackgirlmagic ness of it all. I fantasize that little Black girls will be saying to their moms, can I have hair like Anais? Because she’s rocking that pink ribboned updo with the beehive aesthetic in all that wonderful natural hair, and styling in her dark-skinned prettiness in that pink dress and those purple tights. Go on, there, Anais. This is no small thing as Black girls don’t often-enough get to see themselves in the world of mainstream children’s books but with the emergence of more #ownvoices stories, such as this one from Collins Big Cat series of children’s books (part of a roll out of several Caribbean titles by the big UK publisher), things may be changing. Something to celebrate.
When the author showed me a preview of the book I was particularly taken in by the art work, though it is no more that I would have expected of Zavian. There’s a signature way she draws her humans (beyond them running the spectrum of Blackness in a single panel) that I find charming – but there’s also a Black Caribbean specificity about how they move (they’re very familiar, nothing feels off-note as often happens when the people are interpreted by artists who’ve never walked in our skin). Or for that matter the world of the story by people who may have walked in our world but don’t inhabit it. The colour of the sea and sand, by moonlight, under a full moon, the gradients, the textures, the quality of the light. There’s a lived-in specificity; but there’s also a magical quality to the whole scene (series of scenes). Zavian’s art work is more imaginative than realistic but the core of the imagination is the Caribbean, and specifically Antigua, and it shows.
The story is one I sort of knew, having been inspired by a real experience of the author’s. It is also one I could relate to having been turtle watching myself and having witnessed both the laying of the eggs, and the cracking of the egg and the mad dash of the hatchlings toward life. You don’t have to have witnessed all of that though to be entranced and enlightened by this story. It is vividly rendered (in fact, there’s one particular panel that I find vaguely horrific which feels like you’re staring in to the very souls of these baby turtles, leaving you no doubt they are alive and have as much of a desire to live as any thing else).
And that is the crux of this environmentally-themed story. It is a gentle (horrific panel aside) introduction to the empathy for other beings that we need as homo sapiens in order to contend with the environmental dilemmas of our day, from pollution to extinction to climate change. It has come to my attention that while children are more aware of environmental issues they are also more burdened, more fatalistic, about it all (this awareness is of course anecdotal but I’ve come across articles pointing to the anxiety climate change awareness has stirred in Generation Z and Z minus). A book like this gives them agency and a sense of hope; a reinforcement that nature knows its course, they can help, and there is a down the road. And that’s good because that’s the energy we need to fight these battles.
Also, in a children’s books, children should get to see themselves, dream, feel joy, and on Turtle Beach on Anais’ birthday on the occasion of the hatching of hundreds of new life, there is that.
Verdict: In terms of vocabulary, attention span, and general literacy-development levels, this is more for slightly older readers (say 7-9), an introductory chapter book if you will, but its appeal runs younger, making it a potentially favourite read-a-long for the not-yet-independent reader. Lots of mommy and daddy quality time built in as it’s conversation starter too.
Fuller disclaimer: my own book The Jungle Outside is a part of this rollout of Collins #ownvoices Caribbean books.
I’ll say only this. When I held the first copy in my hand and flipped through the pages, I flipped through with fresh eyes and new delight, and that is the magic of the art work of my own illustrator, art work which hovers somewhere between ethereal and grounded, Trinidad and Tobago/Caribbean artist Danielle Boodoo-Fortune.
Older Reads (i.e. books completed)…
Cold Case by Faye Kellerman
Finny the Fairy Fish by Diana McCaulay with illustrator Stacey Byer