In and Out of Worlds

Read2Me! participants at St Margaret’s Primary School, St John, Barbados

Pupils of St Margaret's Primary in St John show their best "lightning bolts." We would use Usain Bolt's trademark pose and other fun stretches to prepare for our storybook travels. (Photo: S. A. Devonish)

The drive to Glenburnie takes you east to a part of St. John that is so far flung it is practically in the ocean.

I made it my escape every Tuesday for six weeks to read to schoolchildren there.

It’s a drive that leaves behind the stalled air of the city and suburbs and briskly propels you into rural Barbados, where the air and light make a storyteller feel she’s not in Barbados at all. The first time, there was an unexpected detour, a right instead of a left, an overshooting of banana plantation with the plants encased in blue plastic. You can’t miss them, the headmistress of St. Margaret’s Primary assured me when issuing directions, but we did and ended up in nearby St. Martin’s Bay—a fishing village straight out of a postcard with its cut-up coastline and stubborn stretch of road rambling more or less parallel to the Atlantic thrashing mere feet away.

We stopped for redirections from a fisherman (I like to think he was a fisherman) going about his business. An ordinary enough exchange; like stopping anyone on a street anywhere else. But the ocean was smashing itself hysterically against rocks rising like architecture behind him and so, as he pointed us back up into the hillside, it felt like we were in a stormy expressionist painting.

Five minutes later, we reached the school. It lay at the foot of a gently winding descent, in the cradle of a T-junction; the ocean still startlingly visible and audible but below us now and buffered by vegetation and housetops. Just a short hop away, as the road continued its dip and curve, was a church. A lasting memory of my six weeks of storytelling will be of standing outside the nearly emptied school in that wide junction, the Atlantic fortissimo, the wind a chorus in the trees; and St. Margaret’s Church’s organist in accompaniment. If it had been a Hitchcock thriller or film noir, the strains of an organist practicing his craft might have lent foreboding to that already somewhat liminal space. But on the Tuesday afternoon in question, with the blue-blue horizon drawn as if with protractor, it was the most apt sound, and a peaceful counterpoint to sporadic yells from the schoolyard: a small clutch of children still awaiting pickup, still at play.

                                                        Charlotte's Web, E.B White's timeless classic. He also wrote Stuart Little. 

While I was learning St. John and figuring out what and how to read to seven-, eight- and nine-year-old Barbadians, Islamic extremists half a world away had taken issue with the publishers of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and were holding Paris to bloody ransom. Around this time, Oxford University Press (OUP), renowned UK publisher of dictionaries and other learning material, released an advisory to its contributors concerning the representation—and I am not making this up—of pigs, pork and anything else swine-related in their books and stories.

OUP’s Twitter page lit up with outrage. The publisher was giving in to extremism and intolerance, suppressing freedom of expression, creativity and imagination, came the cries. Tweeters speculated about a nursery rhyme world with not even one little pig, let alone three; of Winnie the Pooh without Piglet, of Dr. Seuss raising us to the dubious rhyming delights of green eggs and soybean loaf—and, horrors, of bookshelves stripped of E.B. White’s timeless classic Charlotte’s Web with its porcine hero.

It was all a nonsense, of course; just a simple advisory to a literary community to use care, and more than that—common sense—in the creation of new material for a global audience in these changing and ever more uncertain times; to consider that a loveable pig character might be less well-received in some cultures, and to have a Plan B.

The ranting was all a bit of fun, but the story did make me pause. You see, by purest coincidence, Charlotte’s Web was the book I read to children of Class 1 at that school in Glenburnie where the air is different and the Atlantic fills your eyes and ears and nostrils. Where you turn right by the banana plants protected by plastic of a different blue from the horizon drawn with a protractor, and where the church organ sounds in the bright afternoon. I also paused, amused, because the reading programme of which I was a part, was sponsored (you’ve guessed it) by OUP.

To the children of Class 2, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. No pork products or protagonists there, but the famed tale of a young white boy and his adventure on the Mississippi River with Jim, an escaped slave, remains as controversial now as when Mark Twain wrote it in 1884. Now that’s a book that should come with an advisory.

The titles, selected by the two class teachers, both contain words, ideas, customs, and conventions of another time and place—over half a century ago for Charlotte’s Web and from 131 years ago in the case of Huckleberry Finn. It was a fascinating challenge, especially in this increasingly technocentric age, attempting to bring both stories, both of these other worlds, to life for Barbadian children in 2015. The 7- and 8-year-olds were charmed by White’s descriptions of farmyard life, and of Wilbur the Pig’s quest for friendship and, yes, freedom. They also were drawn to the magical spider Charlotte (an Anansi figure if ever there was one) and Fern, the farmer’s daughter, who both, literally, save Wilbur’s bacon.

I was familiar with White (through his essays and as one half of Strunk & White, authors of the seminal writer’s guide Elements of Style); but I had not read Charlotte’s Web before, only seen the end of the film once. With the exception of one boy in the group, none of the children had read it either. That boy, I can see his eyes bright still, so excited to spill the tale that I had to confer the status of “storykeeper” on him, introduced the concept of spoilers and of not giving them away. By Week Three, he’d caught on.

I gave the children research. They had to tell me what White’s initials stood for. There were some inventive answers, especially in the weeks leading up to the celebration of Errol Barrow Day! But eventually they were able to tell me a thing or two about Elwyn Brooks White and to speculate how his own real-life experiences of owning a farm might have shaped the magic of Charlotte’s Web.

The pupils, many of them growing up around livestock themselves, also shared their own amusing observations about animal behaviour.

                                                          The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; controversial then and now.

Some weeks, I read to the children; other weeks, they read to me or we chain-read, holding our books or passing them around the tight circle in a kind of literary communion. The slightly older children in Class 2 were quieter but no less engaged in their embrace of Twain’s young runaway, his bravery and defiance; his taking to the river. The boys in the group in particular, their mouths, eyes and ears as wide open as mine taking in the nearby Atlantic.

Huck Finn is Twain’s social commentary on the American South and the ills of slavery. The descriptions and dialogue are in language that is of the day and can be interpreted as racist, the tone brutally racial—Twain is offering us a slice of realism, after all, but he’s also mocking that southern regime. The novel’s theme, its overriding commentary, is anti-slavery, anti-racist. It is a tricky tome; in the United States especially, critics, educators and parents remain divided over the book’s suitability for teaching in classrooms.

I know I stumbled, albeit for perhaps different reasons. More than once I felt the need to interrupt Twain’s flow and my own to re-establish—often mid-sentence—the context of the tale for the children: to remind them when and where it was set, who Jim was, what slavery was. As a storyteller, I interrupt myself all the time to discuss something with an audience, but never before have I felt such responsibility. Maybe it was because my young, eager, susceptible audience was the same colour as a character that was being so racially stereotyped and so casually portrayed. I felt I could not gloss over the passages in which Jim appeared. One part of me itched to deliver revisionist history lessons, maybe even discuss what Jim’s lot might be today, if he were suddenly transplanted into our modern world; another part was acutely aware I was there as storyteller, not social scientist (although are they not one and the same?) In the end, Time called the shots: we never had enough of it and by the end of the six weeks hadn’t moved much beyond the fugitives taking to the river. I was also guided by the expectation in the eyes of children who were there, ultimately, to witness an adventure about a boy only a few years older than they. Both class teachers vowed to continue the stories. Hopefully, they were able to deliver the history lessons, too.

I know both sets of children, the Class 1s and 2s, were touched by what we read. When time came to write group poems inspired by the stories, it was as if they were travelers, back to their own place in the world, ready to record their shared experience. It was humbling, for sure, to see them debating—nay, haggling—over the best single word to describe Huck or Wilbur.

                                        Class 1 pupils oversee the creation of their Charlotte's Web group poem poster.

                                                          Give The Ball To The Poet—A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry

Me now, I was stepping out of my world every Tuesday to join the children in theirs. I thought often about this. I delighted in being in their corner of Barbados, but once I got there it was only to step out of St. John to enter White’s world and Twain’s: into their other worlds. It left me with a vague nagging feeling that we were neglecting our own doorstep but salve came from reading poems to them—always poems, with their magic ability to deliver worlds, to leap across space and time in the least amount of words and still so woefully under explored in our schools, in all our lives—and from reading folktales and short stories from other spheres, including Barbados and the Caribbean.

I made particular good use of a new anthology of Caribbean poetry titled Give the Ball to the Poet published last year (2014) by the Commonwealth Education Trust. It’s a gem both to look at and read. It’s gone straight in my storyteller’s emergency kit. The poems in it (including one of my own) brought us back to our world. One of them—by noted Guyanese playwright and poet John Agard—was a full-on celebration of Barbadian National Hero Sir Garfield Sobers.

Mr. Agard: I expect you’re used to having your poems roared back at you by halls full of excited children, but have you ever had one roared by bright, shining faces in a small reading room in a school in the cradle of a quiet junction in the eastern part of Barbados—a school so far flung you’re practically in the Atlantic? Where, to find it, you must turn right at the bananas in blue that’s not the blue of a straight-lined horizon. Where music from a nearby church accompanies the ocean song and where, just 30 minutes from town, the air and light are different. And where it is possible to step in and out of worlds, and in and out of Time, by the simple opening and closing of books.

• Linda M. Deane is a coordinator of Read2Me!, a programme that sends writers and storytellers into Barbadian schools and is part of ArtsEtc’s and Writers Ink literacy outreach. The programme was sponsored by Oxford University Press, Days Books, and Apex Eye Clinic.