Guest post by Joshua Cartwright
In March 2020 The Granny JJ Adventures: Guyana’s Daily Detective became the first children’s book written entirely in Creole to enter the Guyanese educational system. This alone was a victory—increasing representation for a language that isn’t the official tongue (English) even though most local people speak it—but the character of Granny JJ had more work to do than this.
Glenda and I created The Granny JJ Adventures book as a mirror designed to show the Guyanese themselves—and the best of their culture. It’s a cultural ark for this and the next generations that brings along with it the humour, warmth, and character of the people in a land where life is hard—and the temptation to do wrong to get ahead is often right around the next corner.
The real Granny JJ
We needed a character that embodied strong values and who was already relatable (rather than coming across preachy). That character was Miss Juliet: Granny JJ.
Granny JJ is an old and crabby Guyanese Grandmother (of unspecified age) who can’t help but get involved with everyday mysteries and troubles within the homes and communities she lives in. In Creole terms—she fast! (nosy!)
She’s had a hard life herself—ten children, divorced—but she has a kind heart, hates injustice with a passion, and always has a pithy word of advice for young and old. Does she sound too good to be true?
In fact, JJ is based upon a real Miss Juliet—Glenda’s mother—who lives in Guyana and who is respected by her community. This fact became a key motivation for creating the character.
Whether she was outsmarting her grandchildren who were stealing milk powder or catching scamps selling suspiciously cheap fried chicken, we wanted to recognise, honour, and amplify the stories of women like Miss Juliet who would tackle these issues in everyday life.
You see, there are lots of Granny JJs in Guyana (and indeed other Caribbean countries) who teach children good values, work hard, make sacrifices, and can easily be taken for granted. Our daughter Seraphina, now ten, (who is dual heritage English and Guyanese) doesn’t get to see her Granny often (as we live in England and travel is expensive, Covid aside).
We wanted her to know the land her mother came from, and as I, her father, am an author perhaps I could create a world in a book to give her an insight. And why not all the children of Guyana? Let’s aim to impact the whole country.
Once we’d agreed that, things started falling together. Glenda and I both teach children’s classes at church and Glenda is not only a Creole speaker but also an experienced childcare professional and teacher who could guide me how to write in Creole for a younger audience.
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The Granny JJ Adventures–Weaving the character together
But the most fun part was weaving Granny’s character together. My wife and I are both Christians so Granny’s strong sense of right and wrong was something we could blend in straight away. In this were values we wanted Granny to communicate: honesty, compassion, love, and calling out wrong-doing when she sees it.
Glenda had told me many stories about her childhood: how she and her siblings would steal milk powder, why they were afraid of dogs, and how her mother had stopped cousins from fighting with a gun and a cutlass (a long chopping blade). These began to form parts of stories where there was a crime or a conflict.
Daily life in Guyana is characterized by playing sal-in, sal-out in the yard, waking up early to sell all day, dealing with corruption, and in the centre of all this, good food. I enjoyed learning about all of these aspects—and driving my stepchildren mad asking for Creole words ( “till dem nah wan fuh talk tuh we nah moh!”)
All these tales—plus plenty of news reports from local papers became parts of ‘adventures’ that Granny could solve and could teach our readers the following message: “Good prevails if you stand up for it!”
Researching Guyanese proverbs was most instructive—I could hear the Granny in my mind become wiser and more Guyanese as she told those she’d caught:
“When big tree fall goat chew on leaf!” (When an important person falls from grace, regular people will scorn or attack him.)
“You can’t plant plantain and reap Cassava!” (You reap what you sow.)
“Cat a ketch rat but he teef he massa fish.” (Good and evil come from the same source.)
All of these elements enabled us to make Granny someone who, like the real Granny, had a word for every occasion. And knowing how sharp Guyanese grandmothers can be we created scenarios that would seem ridiculous but cause a few laughs—Granny caught the children stealing by spreading milk powder on the floor so their footprints would show up the next morning!
Ultimately, we want young people to realise that their elders have value through stories that ‘could’ have happened. Maybe that will happen when they’re reading with Grandma, or by themselves. We heard of one little girl in Jamaica who got a copy and she won’t let anyone else read it!
Granny speaks in the UK too!
I’d grown up mostly hearing “the Queen’s English” on TV and although there is now a plethora of regional accents on screen, that’s not so much the case with books. For example, I love Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and the Anna Hibiscus series. But the English in them is still standard British English despite the fact that the characters would speak it differently in their real lives.
On release, we decided to offer The Granny JJ Adventures to UK libraries and local authorities. Because Creole is a different way of speaking English the book was bought as part of diversity literature.
We also wrote a guest piece for Education Today arguing that although British English is the primary language of England, children should be taught about other dialects. The way we see it is this: we live in a world where children need to be taught to accept differences sooner rather than later.
Although we all need a common standard of English to communicate, tolerance and understanding of linguistic difference enables us to have the flexibility to thrive in different environments.
Since the release of the first book we’ve released three other books of stories and Granny JJ’s Caribbean A-Z. With the same driving idea—why does everything have to be created for an English audience—we filled the alphabet book with 26 items more common to the Caribbean. So yes, A is for Ant (those nasty biting red ones) but Z is for Zinc!
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A little about Guyana…
Guyana, South America is a country above Brazil of about 800,000 people. It’s mostly covered by jungle, and the majority of the population lives along the coastal regions. Its diverse citizens include East Indians, people of African descent, Chinese, Portuguese, ex-patriot Europeans, and the Amerindians—the jungle people.
This ‘land of six peoples,’ as it is called, officially speaks English but the local linga franca is Creole—British English with added words from other languages.
This language—rich in idioms, proverbs, and ever-evolving new words contains a wealth of wisdom which is in danger of being lost.
Joshua Cartwright is the author of 19 books including The Granny JJ Adventures: Guyana’s Daily Detective and the Jesus and Me series. He’s married to Glenda, an author herself of Seraphina Angel and Marvellous Mel, who provides Joshua with child psychology, cultural, and language advice. Together they aim to inspire a new generation of children to learn important life lessons earlier rather than later. You can learn more about Joshua on his author website.