Trini author rewrites the alphabet with local flavours

Trinidadian author Emily Dickson has just published a new children’s book, Tantie’s Kitchen – ABC of Trini Food. This appetising alphabet book uses well-known dishes, fruits and vegetables of Trinidad and Tobago to teach infants their ABCs. Written in rhyming verse with gaily-coloured illustrations, each page features a mouth-watering treat and presents them in an appealing and easily-accessible manner.

Dickson is one of a growing number of children’s book writers from the Caribbean who are concerned about the continuing proliferation of children’s books in the region that reflect foreign cultures. With Tantie’s Kitchen, her aim is to introduce Trinidadian (and Caribbean) preschoolers to words, characters and scenes they can easily relate to, and that make reading fun while instilling in them a sense of cultural identity.

Emily Dickson

“I got the idea to write a Trini ABC book when I was reading to my nephew and niece, who are just toddlers, and realised they didn’t really have local books for their age group,” explains Dickson. “That’s when I decided to write something especially for them – something recognizable, something that they could relate to, and hopefully something that would also be fun for parents to read to their kids … Instead of the typical foreign books that focus on American or British culture, Tantie’s Kitchen teaches young readers that ‘A’ is for Avocado, ‘B’ is for Bake and Shark, ‘C’ is for Callaloo, and ‘D’ is for Doubles!”

The ‘D is for Doubles’ page is quite striking and an eye-opener even for the youngsters. It shows Dickson’s ability to marry phonics with Trinidadian culture in a way that is both entertaining and instructive.  Trinidadian ‘doubles’ is a sandwich made with two flat, fried bread-slices filled with curried chick peas or garbanzo beans, commonly called channa (from Hindi/Bhojpuri “chanaa”). It’s topped with a variety of spicy chutneys and pepper sauce and is one of the most popular fast foods in Trinidad and Tobago. The ‘ Doubles’ page cleverly depicts a sidewalk vendor putting together doubles for three men and a child of different ethnicities while a pothound (mixed-breed dog) cools out near the vendor’s cart. Trinidad, for its part, is one of the Caribbean’s most culturally and ethnically diverse islands.

“As someone who has lived all over the world, something that still amazes me about Trinidad is our diversity and our acceptance of others,” says Dickson. “The ‘Doubles’ page shows a number of different people all eating doubles together and the great thing about our society is that no matter what we look like, we are all Trinis and we all enjoy the same thing! I think this is something that kids understand from a young age. In fact the younger you are, the more colour-blind you tend to be,” she added.

Dickson has good reason for choosing food to capture the kids’ hearts and minds.

“Trinis are very patriotic when it comes to food, and food is a major part of our culture. Also, as kids get older they experience more and more different dishes and their tastes grow. The food theme just sort of clicked — food is very much a part of us as Trinis,” she explained.

The book is illustrated by fellow Trinidadian, Nicholas Dabideen, a first-time children’s book illustrator currently living in Toronto. It’s clear that his aim was to give the book a distinct Trinidadian look and feel while taking the young readers through Tantie’s Kitchen to discover the joys of local foods in a fun new way.

“Nicholas Dabideen’s illustrations are just wonderful and he had a lot of artistic freedom. I think he really captured the fun, playful tone of the book, and yes children like to see bright, vibrant, funny pictures. And I love that in this book the kids look like normal Trini kids and do the things that they do every day. It is a reflection of them, it is something they can recognise and identify with,” said Dickson.

Tantie’s Kitchen is also designed to help preschoolers develop their natural ability for rhythm, and nurture an appreciation for poetry. Several children’s writers and educators from around the world recommend the rhyming structure as an effective tool for capturing young readers’ interest and getting them to develop a love for books. As one author noted, “rhyme introduces children to the music of language, and to the sound qualities of words.”

Australian author and teacher, Gael Cresp who is touted as having “a deep understanding of the role story and rhyme plays in the life of infants and toddlers,” favours rhyming books for children. “Our first sound is our mother’s heart beating out the rhythm of our lives. Thus is rhythm woven into our very bones. Rhyme is rhythm in vowels and consonants,” says Cresp.

Tantie’s Kitchen’ also comes with an Alphabet Tracing Page at the back for the little ones with tiny hands who are learning to write.

With very few publishing opportunities available in the Caribbean, Dickson had little choice but to self-publish in order to get her cherished creation off the ground.  It also means she has to manage the marketing and distribution of the book.

“As a first-time self-publisher, distributing the book internationally is of course a challenge for me, but it will most definitely be available for sale online in the very near future so that people overseas can order the book online and get it shipped directly to them. Of course, if an international publisher decides to ‘adopt’ Tantie’s Kitchen, I would be thrilled! But in the meantime, it is in T&T book stores, and will be online soon.”

Meanwhile, Dickson is working on two more children’s books, one of which she hopes to complete and have in bookstores by the end of 2011.

For more information, please e-mail: emilydickson@yahoo.com. You can also check out Tantie’s Kitchen on Facebook

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