April 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Tracey Baptiste on Writing, Trinidadian Folklore, and Scary Stories | Under the Covers

Tracey Baptiste’s latest middle grade novel, The Jumbies (Algonquin, 2015), is a fascinating adventure JUmbiesstory full of spooky creatures inspired by Trinidadian folklore. Baptiste delivered a keynote speech at KidLitCon, which took place in Baltimore this past October. The author had interesting things to say about her genesis as a writer as well as the influences that her own childhood had on The Jumbies. She spoke with SLJ about her creative process and the need for diverse books for middle grade readers.


You’ve published two well-regarded novels—Angel’s Grace (S. & S., 2005) and The Jumbies—and you’ve written many works of nonfiction, including several author biographies in the “Who Wrote That?” series (Chelsea House). Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? Does one kind of writing develop skills that are useful in the other?

I really don’t have a preference. Though it has been easier to get nonfiction books into print for me so far, that may not always be the case. At the moment, there’s a lot more interest in my fiction than my nonfiction. But I have a few nonfiction ideas kicking around that I’d like to get to. I love doing research and finding out new things, so that’s the appeal of nonfiction to me, though there’s plenty of research in fiction as well. For both types of writing, the story is paramount. My fiction storytelling skills come into play when I try to find the story in a series of facts, and my research skills for nonfiction get a workout when I revise fiction.


There has been a recent push in the schools to get children to read more nonfiction. Some readers are very reluctant. What do you do to make your writing appealing? Can you give teachers and librarians any tips on how to “sell” nonfiction to readers?

It’s the story that makes a nonfiction book appealing. What’s interesting about it? Why would kids care about this topic? Making sure that nonfiction has meaning for children is what makes it “sell.”


I loved your account of using a family typewriter on the sly to write; clearly, you have wanted to be a writer for a long time. What were some of the books you read as a child that motivated you to share your own stories? What were the topics of some of the first stories you wrote?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was three. My mother bought me any book I wanted, and I was inspired by the covers that had the authors’ names. I wanted that—my name on the cover of a book! I read a lot of fairy tales as a young child and anthologies of stories. As I got older, I read Judy Blume, Paul Zindel, and several Caribbean writers like V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, Herbert de Lisser, and Rosa Guy. It was Guy’s novel The Friends (1973) that made me want to write for children. Until then, I thought I was going to grow up and write romance.

I wish I still had all of my old notebooks. I don’t recall too many of those early stories, but I bet most of them were about kids in school. One of the earliest ones I remember was written my freshman year of college, about a kid at a psychologist’s office who was surly. I have no idea what that was about, but it had a lighthouse looking over the ocean, and one of the best early comments I got from my writing professor was that the descriptions of the ocean sights and sounds were wonderful.


You said that you consider The Jumbies to be more of an adventure book than a horror book. Did you spend a lot of time outdoors as a child? Do you think that there is a greater need for outdoor adventure books now that children don’t have as much opportunity to run around in nature unchaperoned?

For a Caribbean kid, there’s no reason not to go outside. I had a playhouse in the yard, and my mother would bring my meals out there because I went out first thing in the morning and would not return until after dinner. I climbed trees and rocks, ran around, walked to my grandmothers’ houses, played with the dogs. I was pretty much always outside.

It was a huge surprise to me that The Jumbies was [classified as] horror. It had honestly never occurred to me. My son wanted an adventure story, and I was trying to satisfy his desire for a book that he would want to read. Kids definitely don’t get a lot of outdoor time by themselves now. My kids never do unless it’s just in our backyard, which is a shame. There are a lot of things you can discover walking through a forested area by yourself. And it’s really magical to feel cut off from everyone else. Hopefully books like this will help kids who don’t have the opportunity to run around by themselves get some sense of wonder and connection, though it’s no substitute for a real outdoor experience. We have several nature reserves near my home, so my children have a chance to explore those, but never by themselves. I know they’re missing out.



Photo by Latifah Abdur

While The Jumbies has dangerous swamps and evil creatures, Angel’s Grace addresses some real life fears about being in an unfamiliar place and being unsure about one’s identity. Why do you think middle grade readers like to read about scary things?

There’s security in reading a scary story because you can always close the book and feel safe. But it can also be therapeutic. Kids don’t have happy-go-lucky lives, as much as we want to think that they do. They are small people in a world of giants, where they have no control over what happens and when. As a matter of fact, they are bound to obey even when they don’t want to. It is difficult. Then when even more difficult things happen, it adds to the feeling of insecurity and helplessness. In a book, they can see that while sometimes there are difficult things that have to be dealt with, they don’t always stay that way. Things change. It may not be easy, or even simple, but better times do come. Scary stories that have a resolution give kids the hope that some of the things in their lives can resolve as well.


Angel’s Grace predates the We Need Diverse Books movement by many years, and The Jumbies had a great cover featuring the main character, Corinne, as well as her friends. Do you feel it was it easier to get a nonwhite character on the cover of your book in 2015 than it was in 2005?

The interesting thing about Angel’s Grace is that [the protagonist] gets the full-faced “hero” shot on the cover, but part of her face is missing. The book is about identity and not knowing exactly what your identity is, so I understand the choice, and I think it’s a really amazing cover, but later on I started to notice that a lot of covers that feature people of color have a similar treatment, where part of the person’s face is missing. Even in 2015. So it’s interesting. I had very little to do with either cover, so I was pleasantly surprised in both cases. Grace on the cover of my debut is obviously a brown-skinned girl, and Corinne, Bouki, and Malik on the cover of The Jumbies are even more clearly dark-skinned. Both covers were presented to me toward the end of the marketing/design/editorial discussions, so I didn’t have to ask anyone to make sure that these covers represented the people in the stories accurately. My experience has been very positive in this regard.


We talk a lot about books as windows or mirrors, but I am often surprised by what my readers feel is their “mirror.” It would be easy to describe you as a writer from Trinidad or a New Jersey writer; how would you describe yourself?

The things that we consider to be mirrors can be very wide-ranging. A friend of mine, Ramin Ganeshram, said that she once got an email from a boy in Indiana about her book Stir It Up, which features a brown-skinned Indian girl, because what he had identified with was the cooking. That common love was a mirror for him. So mirrors are not only about ethnicity and culture, though that is VERY important. I am a lot of things and all of them at the same time. It would be hard to pin down, but Trinidadian, African/Indian, feminist, mom, and educator are among the words I’d use.


I was fascinated by your descriptions of how large a part folklore plays in daily life in Trinidad; for instance, some people back into the house after dark to avoid jumbies coming in with them. Mythology and folklore books are huge now; have you considered writing a nonfiction book about the folklore of Trinidad?

Yes! I would really love to do it. But when? Finding the time to put in the research—and it would be a lot of face-to-face research because so little is written down—is a bit daunting. I do want to do it though. That’s another book I would have loved to have had as a kid.


What do you like best about attending events where you meet other people from the children’s literature community? Do you find inspiration for your writing?

Kid lit people are the best. They are all dedicated to children and literacy, which I think is the most important thing we can focus on. Meeting other authors is a huge thrill always. I am a total fangirl. But meeting teachers is also very energizing. I often return from events feeling exhausted but thrilled to keep on writing.


Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.



  1. Thanks so much for interviewing me, Karen!