Beyond the “Four Fs”: Caribbean Own Voices


In “Foreign Correspondence: Beyond the ‘Four Fs’: Caribbean Own Voices,” Summer Edward (in The Horn Book Magazine) expresses the need for publishing children’s literature that does not repeat worn-out tropes (such as “the tried-and-tested immigrant story”) and that does not rely on the “Four Fs” (folklore, food, fashion, and festivals) to target a mainly white, middle-class, non-Caribbean audience. [Check out her reading list at the end!]

In 2013 Deborah Ahenkorah, cofounder and executive director of Golden Baobab (a social enterprise aimed at promoting African children’s literature), wrote an article in The Huffington Post titled “Where Are the Stories for African Children?” In it she decried the relative absence of books in which African children could see their physical likenesses, beliefs, and immediate everyday experiences reflected. [. . .]

The Caribbean is one of the most culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse regions on earth. It comprises thirty-one island territories and over seven hundred islands in the Caribbean Sea, as well as those parts of the surrounding continental mainlands historically linked to it; at least fifty-nine languages are spoken. Unfortunately, its history is also one of deep-seated colonialism, imperialism, and racism — battles that are still being waged today and that shape the ongoing perception, and resultant marginalization, of a varied and vibrant region. What this can mean for children’s books is that still, and all too often, others are telling our stories at the expense of authenticity and “own voices,” leading to the perpetuation of a North American/European outsider view of our cultures. And with the big conglomerate publishers as competitors, homegrown Caribbean-based publishers hardly stand a chance.

Caribbean people as a group have often been overlooked in children’s book diversity discussions, even by campaigns such as We Need Diverse Books. My own analysis over a six-year period reveals that, on average, only fifty-eight English-language children’s and young adult books with Caribbean protagonists or by Caribbean authors are published annually, and sixty-two percent of them are self-published. This includes books published in the Caribbean, North America, and elsewhere. The Américas Award for children’s and YA literature, an award that specifically recognizes Caribbean American communities, does an excellent job of rewarding exemplary books for young people, but it is, in effect, a Latino award: in its twenty-four-year history, only seven of the awarded titles have been Anglophone Caribbean books. Caribbean American Heritage Month (June), established to highlight the longstanding, significant contributions of Caribbean people to American society, is yet to be recognized across the children’s literature world. Very few publishing trade magazines bother to highlight Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean children’s and YA authors and books. (Hispanophone Caribbean books are often recognized as Latino literature.)

[. . .] These outsider-sanctioned books tend to repeat the same worn-out tropes — usually it’s the tried-and-tested immigrant story. They continually fall back on the “Four Fs” approach to package Caribbean culture (folklore, food, fashion, and festivals) for consumption by a mainly white, middle-class, non-Caribbean audience. These narrowly focused and often distorted narratives limit and trivialize Caribbean people and culture.

Where are the children’s books about a city-dwelling Jamaican child coping with the death of her pet, or an Antiguan child using his imagination to entertain himself on a sick day, or an affluent Haitian teen who (God forbid) stays in the Caribbean and falls in love for the first time? This is not to say that Caribbean children’s books should never be problem- or issue-based, but there should be much more room for stories of magic, fantasy, humor, and the everyday, albeit stories that don’t put the Caribbean child in a stereotypical box filled with sun, sea, and sand. Too many of the so-called “Caribbean-themed” books have the trappings of tokenism. One can almost imagine Caribbean readers turning their collective backs on these books and saying, “No thanks, I’m not your teachable moment.”

Lately, there have been some promising signs. The Burt Award for own voices in Caribbean YA literature was established in 2014 by the Canadian Organization for Development Through Education. Anansesem (, the online children’s literature magazine I started in 2010, provides a public forum for discussion and publication of Caribbean children’s stories by both adults and children. And there are a growing number of children’s and YA publishers set up and run by Caribbean people: Editorial Gente Nueva, Educa Vision, PLB Editions, LMH Publishing, Blue Banyan Books, and Campanita Books/Little Bell Caribbean, to name a few. [. . .]

A Selection of Caribbean-set Own Voices Books

Picture Books
The Secret Footprints (Knopf, 2000) by Julia Alvarez; illus. by Fabian Negrin

Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music (Houghton, 2015) by Margarita Engle; illus. by Rafael López

Malaika’s Costume (Groundwood, 2016) by Nadia L. Hohn; illus. by Irene Luxbacher

Running the Road to ABC (Simon, 1996) by Denizé Lauture; illus. by Reynold Ruffins

In the Land of the Shak Shak Tree (Macmillan Caribbean, 2005) by Jade Small; illus. by Rachel Parker

Hurricane (Tamarind, 2008) by Verna Allette Wilkins; illus. by Tim Clarey

Intermediate/Middle School
Secrets of Tamarind (Feiwel, 2011) by Nadia Aguiar

The Jumbies (Algonquin, 2015) by Tracey Baptiste

In the Shade of the Níspero Tree (Orchard Books, 1999) by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand

Tales from the Caribbean (Puffin Classics, 2017) by Trish Cooke

Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 (The Royal Diaries) (Scholastic, 2005) by Edwidge Danticat

Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words (Atheneum, 2016) by Margarita Engle

Blue Mountain Trouble (Levine/Scholastic, 2009) by Martin Mordecai

Why Does the Coquí Sing? (Holiday, 2004) by Barbara Garland Polikoff

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba (Holt, 2009) by Margarita Engle

The Sugar Island (Houghton, 2000) by Ivonne Lamazares

Nothing like Love (Doubleday Canada, 2015) by Sabrina Ramnanan

Black Rock (Serpent’s Tail, 2009) by Amanda Smyth

Amor and Summer Secrets (Kensington, 2008) by Diana Rodriguez Wallach


From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Read Summer Edward’s Horn Book interview with Deborah Ahenkorah, Torchbearer for African Children’s Publishing. And visit

For full article, see

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