Being the head judge for the 2015 Burt Award turned out to be momentous because I feel the three winning novels have refashioned the fledgling canon of Caribbean Young Adult (YA) Literature. YA literature is an important bridge between children’s literature and adult literature. It’s the place where we either spark a life-long love of reading or jump off of the bridge into the abyss of non-readers. When written well - like these three novels - YA literature attracts adult readers as well.
All three of these novels are boldly and undeniably rooted in the Caribbean so they deserve to be among the top three. They break barriers and make links to the world beyond the region and that was noteworthy too. This was a close decision. I tried to imagine readers who would agree with our decision and readers who would scramble the order in every way imaginable, preferring a different novel for the winner. For me, that is all right because it shows just how powerful these three novels are.
Imam Baksh, the author of Children of the Spider grew up splitting his time between urban and rural Guyana. His winning novel, Children of the Spider, is a fast-paced tale of survival where a high-tech world collides with redefined folklore figures who are out of control in Guyana, and it reflects his many varied interests from anime and psychology to stories of monstrosities.
Second-place winner Diana McCaulay author of The Dolphin Catchers is an award-winning Jamaican writer and a lifelong resident of Kingston, Jamaica. She has written two novels: Dog-Heart and Huracan published by Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom. The Dolphin Catchers is her first Young Adult novel. Diana founded the Jamaica Environment Trust in 1991 and still serves as its CEO. The Dolphin Catchers, is the beautiful, touching story of a sensitive, caring boy who refuses to accept the exploitation of his environment or the disappearance of his grandfather.
Third place went to Trinidadian author Lynn Joseph with Dancing in the Rain. Lynn wrote other Young Adult and children’s novels including The Color of My Words. Flowers in the Sky, A Wave in Her Pocket and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister. She is an attorney with a pile of accolades for her fiction writing. Dancing in the Rain features a dreamy, spirited girl in the Dominican Republic who is desperately trying to hold her fractured family together with the personal happiness she conjures up from the beauty she perceives around her.
Lynn, Imam and Diana combined literary genres into a seamless image of Caribbean Young Adult literature with themes that Young Adult readers enjoy: family, friendship, survival, love, technology, the environment.
I marvelled at how Dancing in the Rain transcended literary fiction and became an historical novel when characters from the Dominican Republic are affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. The Dolphin Catchers is literary fiction that falls within the genre of mystery, and Children of the Spider transforms the Caribbean landscape into a technological nightmare giving the popular Young Adult genre of dystopian literature a fresh, new Caribbean look while weaving a web of intrigue with folklore and fantasy.
For me, Children of the Spider conjures up images of the great Guyanese magical realist writer Wilson Harris’s theory of fossil memories, which basically means feelings are passed down from our ancestors and imbedded in our minds as much as anything else in our DNA.
Children of the Spider eerily represents Harris’s magical realism, but in a fresh, new form that also stood out for its humorous dialogue.
As I said at the awards ceremony, “The joy in choosing these three novels for the 2015 Burt Awards is knowing that fans of YA literature and Caribbean literature would be missing something deep inside their reading souls if they never had the opportunity to read these three novels that create a new foundation for bold, innovative writers to remember their roots and reach outward to new literary shores.”
Next week: A behind the scenes look at the judges’ comments on what it takes to be an award-winning writer.