It was late one night in the 1990s. I was sitting in the back seat of a car.
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Questions to an author
There are few experiences that match the joy on students’ faces when they come face-to-face with an author. Our children—like children everywhere—enjoy books that reflect themselves and their culture. I realised this more than ever when 35 ten-year-old students in Grade Four who come to me for library classes at the International School of Port-of-Spain got to meet Betty Peter, author of Brown Sugar and Spice, a historical novel set in Trinidad, Grenada and St Lucia.
I am always amazed at the questions students ask and the enthusiasm that they express when they discover local literature. The first question that popped up for Peter was: “What advice would you give us about writing?” Peter answered: “Never lose sight of a really good idea. Get your idea written down immediately. Be willing to rewrite.” Boys as well as girls enjoyed Peter’s historical novel about Harriet’s adventures in the Caribbean during World War II. Boys were not put off that the main character is a girl.
“What they seem to relate to is that it is a story about family,” Peter says. Students’ initial curiosity led to questions such as: “How did you get the name for your book?” They quickly move to questions that separate fact from fiction in the book and asked: “When you were writing the play in the book, were you really thinking like a play and not a book? Did the cook really kill a chicken? Did you really ride a donkey to school?”
Finally, they realised they could ask a general question to distinguish which parts of the novel were real and which parts were made up. “What parts in the book happened and which parts were exaggerated? Which parts were embellished?” they asked. Many of the questions targeted the writing process. Do you ever write so fast you leave words out? Do you get more ideas while you’re writing? How do you know when you’ve written something good?
To the last question, Peter replied, “You really have to feel it inside. Of course you always try to improve what you wrote.” Students then asked: “Where do you get ideas to write about? How do you know when to end a book? Do you just end when you have no more thoughts?” Peter pointed out that the novel begins with the beginning of World War II and ends with the end of the war so that the students could understand different possibilities for the structure of a novel.
When we had read Brown Sugar and Spice together, we identified figures of speech and various literary elements. Still, I was surprised when a student asked: “How is it so easy for you to come up with alliteration?” My favourite question was: “When did you get the idea that your life was so interesting you should write about it for others to read?” They asked: “What do you like better: the suspense or the humour in the novel?”
When Peter turned the tables on them, they said they liked the humour even more than the suspense in her novel. Eventually, students began to seek advice about their own writing. “When I’m writing I find there’s no way to stop. How do you find a place to stop?”
Students talked about Peter’s visit the entire year.
I was equally impressed with the questions I got from Standard Four students at St Joseph Boys’ RC School who read Peter’s book as well as Legend of the St Ann’s Flood, the book I had written about the 1993 flood in St Ann’s. When their teachers, Marvin Libert and Ian Johnson invited me to talk about Legend of the St Ann’s Flood, I realised these two teachers have boys passionate about reading. Their teachers read to them every day, and the boys read at home.
Among the questions they asked were: “How many times did you write this book over? Which folklore character scares you the most and which folklore character do you like the most? How did you come up with the douens as characters in the story? Why did you choose to put folklore characters in a story about a flood? How did you feel upon completion of the book? Who was your favourite and least favourite characters?”
After probing my own background, they asked: “Did you get information from your childhood to write this book?” That, I thought, is a strange question because it’s such a Trinidadian book. Besides, I had said that I wrote the book for my son, Jairzinho, because he kept asking me to read him a Trinidadian book when he was ten, and I couldn’t find any.
A student asked: “Did anyone pick on you in school?” That’s when I knew that I had drawn on my own experiences in school about bullying and unfairness to write this novel. Being astute readers, these students realised that there was something deeper that the reasons I was giving them for writing the book. Once again, I couldn’t help but marvel at the questions readers ask.
• Next week: The most common questions about reading and children that parents ask me.