Among his numerous achievements, Derek Walcott has often been praised for his ability to fuse the classics, history and Caribbean folklore into a poetic admixture that pays tribute to the pristine beauty and cultural richness of the islands and affirms the validity of the Caribbean experience.
For example, his book Omeros, hailed as a masterpiece, resonates with inferences to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as he spins a Hellenic tale of love, desire and rivalry, recreating the Homeric drama in the Creole setting of his native St Lucia.
This seeming need to sculpt new worlds from the indigenous clay and landscape of the Caribbean and recast ancient tales in new settings, is an urge that many writers from the region can easily identify with. A case in point is Trinidadian author, Joanne Gail Johnson who recently launched her latest children’s book The Donkey and the Racehorse. It’s a contemporary Caribbean version of one of Aesop’s fables, much-loved by children of all nationalities and cultures.
In its original sense, a fable denotes a brief, succinct fictional story written in prose or verse that features animals, plants, inanimate objects, mythical creatures, even forces of nature, which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities). It is used to impart a moral lesson and help kids understand the complicated world of adults.
Johnson has made it clear that she never intended to “pen the next great West Indian classic,” even in the context of children’s literature. Nevertheless, her version of The Donkey and the Racehorse is, for the most part, a good read that should capture youngsters’ imaginations and give them food for thought. It’s told with simple but engaging characters and settings, all brought to life by the delightful illustrations of Carole Anne Ferris. They capture the irritable charm of Trinidad and its people and the colourful radiance of the island’s natural beauty. The 48-page storybook published by Macmillan Caribbean is designed to appeal to children aged 7-14.
It tells the story of Donkey who leaves her quiet seaside village of Toco to go in search of fame, fortune and adventure in the north-eastern town of Sangre Grande. She confesses to her friend, Black Bird that she’s fed up with her life. “I’ve been grazing there along the roadside, day in day out, week in week out, year after year. I’m fed up!” she complains. Black Bird can’t figure out why on earth Donkey would want to leave the peaceful life of her seaside village for the heat and noise of the town. Donkey is insistent. She’s optimistic she’ll achieve her dreams. “I can feel it in my tail,” she assures Black Bird. Along with her feathered friend she treks down to Sangre Grande and from there onto Arima, encountering humans and forming new friendships along the way. She eventually ends up at a farm for racehorses where she’s adopted and renamed Millie. She starts a new life and dreams of winning races in a donkey derby. But the big question is can Donkey cut it in the demanding and fast-paced world of the racing stables in Arima and will her grand dreams come true?
“More than a visit to our island countryside, my contemporary Caribbean version of The Donkey and The Racehorse is an age-appropriate story of ‘journey,’ Johnson explains. “Considering the archetypes of “the donkey” – humility and helpfulness, and “the race horse” – arrogance and ambition – is the deeper journey for the thoughtful reader,”
The book is written not just for Caribbean children. Johnson believes that kids can easily relate to its message, regardless of their nationality or culture. It also ushers them into a world which, though it may be unfamiliar, will be fun to explore.
“My seven year old loves reading Elisabeth Cody’s The Top Job set in New York, or trekking across the English countryside with Beatrix Potter’s Jemimah Puddle Duck and Dick King-Smith’s Golden Goose. Caribbean children’s books and stories, however, are the only ones that allow him, and children everywhere, to adventure our contemporary world through a small island lens – no less fun!”
She added: “As a cultural ambassador, my books offer a world view from our Trinidadian nook. My aim is also to risk expanding our expression beyond the traditional retelling of Afro-/Indo- folklore. We accept the worlds and works – the realistic and fantastic – of our counterparts everywhere in the world, almost unquestioningly. I have believed since my own childhood, readers in general are adventurers like me and would be just as happy to meet a donkey from Toco, Trinidad as she makes her way to Arima in search of fame and fortune; even, and especially if they have never heard those place names before!
“The real work is not in mimicking but in sincerely embracing an individual expression – exactly because there are so few sources of our island-specific reflection. The more committed we are to our place on planet Earth, to our unique details, both individual and cultural, the more potential there is to tap into an essence that is universally appealing.”
Like Johnson, Anneke Forzani, president and founder of Language Lizard LLC, which publishes bilingual, dual language and multicultural children’s books CDs and posters, also believes that fables and folktales are great tools to teach kids about the consequences of “good and bad behavior, the importance of cooperation, and the rewards of courage and ingenuity.”
In an article entitled World Folktales and Fables: Effective Teaching Tools to Educate and Entertain Children, she notes, “Reading world folktales and fables is not only a wonderful way to entertain and bond with children, it is also an effective way to educate them. The stories in classic folklore offer both social lessons as well as an opportunity to teach about cultures and languages.”
Joanne Johnson is a television producer, children s book author and series editor of Macmillan’s Island Fiction series. The Donkey and the Racehorse is her sixth book and ninth story published by Macmillan Caribbean. It’s available at RIK Bookstores throughout Trinidad and at international and online bookstores, including Amazon