Interview with Children’s Author Elizabeth Turnbull

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What inspired to you to begin the Janjak & Freda series?

I noticed that there aren’t many children’s books about Haiti, and there are even fewer that are accessible to Haitian children in Kreyol. Most books published are in French, and I really wanted children in Haiti to have the opportunity to read a book about people just like them in their own language.

Additionally, I noticed that most of the children’s books about Haiti that are available in the US deal with very heavy subjects––they have a social agenda as much as a literary one. That can be very good for many reasons, but I believe that children in the US need to understand that children in Haiti aren’t all that different from them––at least not in the ways that really matter.

Do Janjak & Freda remind you of any of the friends you had growing up?

They remind me of all the friends I had growing up. While they certainly have plenty of their own personality, Janjak and Freda were born out of the memories I have from rural Haiti.

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Can you explain why you felt that it was so important to create a bilingual English/Haitian Creole children’s series?

One of my favorite things about books is the power they have to transport us to different places, introduce us to different people, and help us form a connection that moves beyond borders or language or tradition.

I wanted Haitian children and American children to both be able to pick up the same book and connect to the same characters and go on the same adventure. I have a vision in my head of a Haitian child and an American child sitting side by side reading the book together. Even if they can’t speak to one another, they can share a common experience. I’d like to think that’s happening somewhere.

Was the illustrator ever able to travel to Haiti?

The illustrator, Mark Jones, lives and works in the UK—that means travel to Haiti was going to be very costly and not practical for the scope of the project. But it was essential to me that the characters in the book look authentically Haitian because I want Haitian children to feel a connection to the story. Mark had lived and worked in different parts of the world, so he was practiced in drawing people of many different cultures. He’s a wonderfully talented artist. I inundated him with photos of Haitians and Haitian children, and that that gave him a feel for how to draw the characters. I was so pleased with how the characters turned out—especially Janjak and Freda!

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What resources/research did he do to recreate the liveliness and vibrancy of the Iron Market?

Mark and I shared a Pinterest board for easy collaboration. I posted a ton of images to help him out and he did some research on his own, too. In the end, the hardest part, he told me, was all the fruit. It took him many hours to get the fruit, vegetables, and other small details to look right for the reader.

What was your goal when you began writing?  Did that change as you progressed?

For years my mother and I had plotted about me writing a bilingual children’s book, and we’d make up a million different stories as we’d take walks around her neighborhood. Eventually, the concept of Janjak and Freda was born. I wanted to have two Haitian children––a boy and a girl––travel around Haiti and introduce children to different places as well as different concepts.

As I progressed, I realized that I had too much to say. So I had to cut out a lot. And there’s still a lot of text! But all in all, I’d like to think that I was able to stay true to the original intent, even if some of the details changed along the way.

What’s next for Janjak & Freda?

Janjak and Freda go to the ocean on their next adventure. This story will be a way to introduce children to the beaches and ocean life of Haiti while also presenting the very real issue of pollution. I think Janjak and Freda are going to help clean up a beach and they’re going to make some interesting friends along the way! The book is still being written, but it will be published in 2015.

Can you tell us a little bit about your other book, Bonnwit Kabrit?

Bonnwit Kabrit is a book very dear to my heart! It was born out of the writing process for Janjak and Freda. One night when I finished the runaway goat scene, I had the word Kabrit stuck in my head. And then I began to make up words that would rhyme with Kabrit. Soon, I had a bedtime rhyme written.

The idea is very similar to Goodnight Moon. Children are introduced to scenes around the country and then one by one they say “bonnwit” (goodnight) to them. The book is in English but there are Kreyol words sprinkled throughout. It’s a sweet bedtime book, and I wrote it with my godson in mind. They day I got to read it to him was a Very Good Day.

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Bonus! Anything else that you’d really like to share about this series, your childhood in Haiti, writing or other things you’ve learned?

I owe a big thank you to Haiti Hub for the Janjak and Freda series. I was having a really hard time coming up with the names of the main characters, and Carlo was kind enough to share a list of names with me. Once I read through them, I knew right way that we had to have a Janjak and a Freda. So in some way, this story belongs to Haiti Hub and your members, too. Mèsi anpil!

by Erin Nguyen on October 16, 2014

The team at HaitiHub was so grateful to have had the opportunity to sit down with Elizabeth to learn more about her books.  All of her books are available on Amazon, they are also available for bulk order purchase through Lightmessages Publishing, please message books@lightmessages.com.  A portion of the proceeds from Janjak & Freda go to sponsor children in Haiti.

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