There was once a time when I would have flinched from a patriotic slogan like “Caribbean and Proud.” I would’ve found it simplistic, resisted the ideological inconsistency of patriotism, and questioned the practical uses of pride. Now, after knocking about the world quite a bit, I can say readily that I’m proud to be Caribbean.
I’ve come to prize Caribbeaness: our deep respect for ritual and tradition; our group-oriented, relationship-centered living; our mastery of nuance and the nonverbal; our flexibility and openness; our shared spirituality that cuts across religions; our innate spirit of hospitality; our common yet cosmopolitan identities. These are things of beauty and sources of great strength.
So it is jarring when, in my line of work, I repeatedly meet young people of Caribbean descent who suffer from low self-worth. Far too many Caribbean kids and teens experience internalized invisibility that makes them vulnerable to dehumanizing stereotypes. Without nearly enough narrative redemption afforded to them in the global tapestry of storytelling that shapes and helps heal us all, Caribbean kids are in danger of forging “an incomplete life narrative, pocked with gaps, ‘dead spots,’ and chronic feelings of alienation and emptiness,” to borrow trauma psychologist Kari A. Gleiser’s words.
The antidote I offer them—one of potentially many—is books and stories. We need an ever expanding passel of books that un-diminish Caribbean kids and their cultures. Books that help give them the audience their voices deserve. Stories that dismantle the internal barriers that can arise when one comes from a small place in a big world. Here at Kirkus, I intend to share as many good ones as I can. For now, here are four:
Sofía Acosta Makes a Scene by Emma Otheguy (Knopf, Jan. 25): Ten-year-old Sofía, born in the U.S. to Cuban immigrants, feels out of place in her predominantly White suburban town; ditto in her family of accomplished ballet dancers. When newly arrived immigrants encounter xenophobia in Sofía’s community, she learns to be an advocate for both them and herself. Illuminations of class and immigration dynamics and insights about the importance of authenticity offer much to preteen readers growing in social, and self-, awareness.
A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, Feb. 8): Set in the Caribbean-inspired fictional island of St. Rita and steeped in Afro-Caribbean folklore, this book dives into the underbelly of grief and the realm of underwater fantasy alike. Black 12-year-old Kela is mourning her dead mother when she strikes upon a magical soul-storing comb in a sea cave. Its owner, the dangerous mermaid Ophidia, promises to bring Kela’s mother back to life in exchange for the comb, but there will be grave consequences in this poignant, gripping contemporary tale of loss and letting go.
Pilar Ramirez and the Escape From Zafa by Julian Randall (Henry Holt, March 1): Randall’s children’s novel debut kicks off his high-octane duology starring an intrepid Afro–Dominican American girl. In her quest to solve the mystery of her cousin’s disappearance half a century ago in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship, 12-year-old Pilar, an aspiring filmmaker with a budding social conscience, finds herself on the supernatural island of Zafa, where she must save her cousin from the mythical demon El Cuco.
Singing With Elephants by Margarita Engle (Viking, May 31): In 1946, Chilean author and Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral moved to Santa Barbara, California. This is the fictional account of Mistral’s friendship with Oriol, a recently immigrated Cuban-born 11-year-old girl (described as “brownish” and “chubby”) who is learning much from the elephants she helps care for in her parents’ veterinary clinic. Readers will witness the power of the pen and intergenerational friendship to help a young person escape the maze of unbelonging.
Summer Edward is a young readers’ editor.