It’s April, which means poetry month; but this year I thought I’d do something a little different with the blog, which is to look at poets who write in prose and vice versa. I’ll start with someone known almost exclusively for his poetry. When I think of John Agard, I picture him introducing the world to John Blanke, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the many unknown Black British people who have come face-to-face with white British curiosity, hostility or confusion. His early poem, “Listen Mister Oxford Don” (1967) focuses on the English language in its many variations—from the “Oxford” version to patois. Agard has, with Grace Nichols, produced collections of nursery rhymes that twist the “standard” English version with a Caribbean spin as well. His attention to language makes Agard a great poet, even better when you can hear him speak it in his Guyanese lilt.
But Agard started out publishing in Britain with something quite different. His first children’s book, published by Bodley Head in 1979, was a middle grade chapter book about an eight-year-old girl in Georgetown, Guyana, who loves writing letters and delivering the post. Letters for Lettie takes the reader all around Georgetown, from Lettie’s home to school to a Christmas-time carnival. “If a day passed without Lettie writing a letter, then something was wrong” (7), Agard writes. The book is important because it gave readers—both those who had a home connection to Guyana and those who didn’t even know it existed—a sense of the modern Caribbean. The illustrations by Errol Lloyd present a picture of middle-class Georgetown, with single-family homes and children riding bikes. This may seem unimportant, except that the British Caribbean community in 1979 was often seen as connected with urban tower blocks and poverty, unable to succeed in the British education system, and Lloyd’s illustrations and Agard’s text remind readers that many Caribbean people came from educated backgrounds. This is underscored in Letters for Lettie because the main character does not just write letters to people. She has a poet’s mind, and writes letters to inanimate objects and even abstract concepts. Lettie writes a letter to blue and then one to green, calling the latter “the most beesybody colour I’ve ever seen” (56). Agard’s book in many ways acts as a companion to Agard’s partner (and fellow poet) Grace Nichols’ early novel, Leslyn in London, which describes a young girl’s bewilderment upon arriving in cold, gray London after living her childhood in warm and colourful Georgetown. Both Lettie and Leslyn are in love with words—Lettie writes letters and Leslyn compares language in Georgetown and London. The manuscripts (in several versions!) of both these novels have just been added to the archived collections at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for the Children’s Book, and I’m looking forward to examining their collections more closely.
Almost thirty years after he published Letters for Lettie, Agard produced another book about a young girl in love with words, Shona, Word Detective (Barrington Stoke 2018). Although Shona is of a similar age as Lettie, the book itself is aimed at a different kind of reader. Agard’s Letters for Lettie has about 100 pages of dense (though not generally complicated) text, with carefully spaced, realistic illustrations; Shona, Word Detective is considerably shorter, about half as long, and with frequent, cartoon-like illustrations (by Michael Broad). Shona, like all Barrington Stoke titles, is designed to be dyslexic-friendly, and to provide high interest reading for the young person who might otherwise be reluctant to pick up a book. Despite this, however, Agard does not suggest that reluctance to read might equate to disinterest in literature. The book centers on a girl who is in love with words—spoken and written. In many ways, Shona has much in common with “Listen Mister Oxford Don,” as both poem and book examine words and language as flexible, changing, and not the purview of experts but of ordinary people. Shona sees a news programme about dying languages and begins to think about what it means to keep language alive. With the help of her teacher, Shona realizes that she can play a role in maintaining and growing a language. She and her classmates, who come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, bring items into school; the names of these things (and their pictures) are added to a Language Tree, a symbol of the living nature of language. Many of the items that students bring in have names that bring to mind other meanings or other cultures. For example, one student brings in a Maang Tikka and notes that most of the children might be thinking they were going to get something to eat because of the connection to Chicken Tikka Masala—but this Tikka is a jeweled headdress suitable for a wedding (38). Another student brings in “the figure of a spiderman” (40), Anansi, the spider trickster. Although the student who brought in the Anansi has Ghanaian relatives, Anansi is a trickster throughout the parts of the world affected by the transatlantic slave trade, and his name and character changes as he moves from place to place. The flexibility of language is a key lesson of the book; without flexibility, the language dies just as readily as if the people who speak it die out.
Agard’s book also examines the science of language, though in a reasonably simple fashion. A female scientist—the one that Shona saw on the news report that got her thinking about languages in the first place—has made it her mission to save dying languages, and one of the ways that she does this is through teaching parrots to learn the pronunciations of words. Professor Crystal-Bloomer has made it her mission to locate and save dying languages. She will do this scientifically when she can—but she also uses activism of varying kinds, staging protests and having a friend play a narrow-minded “expert” on television arguing that everyone should speak the same language (English) to highlight how dreary the world would be without language variation. Agard subtly teaches children that not only are there multiple ways to describe a thing, there are multiple ways to stand up for something you believe in. Agard’s Shona teaches children to care about words because words are powerful.
Although Agard is best known for his poetry, his novels for children embrace a similar sensibility to his poetic work: words matter. And even if you are only armed “wit human breath” (https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=listen+mr+oxford+don&view=detail&mid=16D8BC8D927AEBA9925116D8BC8D927AEBA99251&FORM=VIRE), as Agard says in “Listen Mr Oxford Don,” you can change the world with the words you choose and the stories you tell.