In Conversation With: Cheryl Foggo on the Personal, Political and Creating Space for Characters of Colour in Children's Literature

Cheryl Foggo is the author of Dear Baobab, illustrated by Qin Leng (Second Story Press). Dear Baobab is about a young boy, Maiko, who moves to North America from his village in Tanzania. He begins to identify with—and converse with—a little spruce tree that grows too close to his house. Rather than destroyed, the tree is ultimately relocated to a forest with the care of Maiko and his new family. It's about displacement, adopted homes and familial support. This summer, Quill & Quire gave Dear Baobab its highly-coveted Starred Review.

I had a chance to correspond with Cheryl about her personal and political journey as a writer, and the absence of people of colour in children's lit.

Julie Wilson: I've been thinking a lot about conversations I've had of late with editors and authors about the over-saturated publishing marketplace. Are there too many books? What constitutes a "necessary" book? Is that a dangerous question to ask? I consider your latest book, Dear Baobab, necessary and essential, yet it clearly comes from a personal place. Do you consider yourself a political writer? For instance, when writing this book, were you consciously responding to an absence of stories about people of colour?

Cheryl Foggo: Although my impulse to write comes from a creative core that I believe was inborn, my choice of subject matter has been influenced by my time, place and situation. That I am a woman, descended from African people who were enslaved in the Americas has politicized my life. That I came of age during the time of the civil rights movement in Canada and the U.S. politicized my outlook. But I grew up in a corner of the world where people who looked like me made up a very small percentage of the population. I needed to develop skills of diplomacy, compromise and trust in order to operate successfully in that world. Because of the hybridity at play in the circumstances that made me who I am, my work has become a melding of the attempt to satisfy the creative core while also being an active voice for positive change. It's important to me that my body of work stands on its literary merit. I write to entertain and explore as well as to educate and touch lives.

I read everything I could get my hands on when I was young, but there was not a single positive portrayal of Black life or a Black character that crossed my path until I was a young woman. Although I know the world has changed and children and young adults have greater access to a wide range of literary materials, I am conscious that the gap is far from closed.

Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo (Second Story Press).

Dear Baobab is a good example of the disparate threads of my life coming together in a piece of work. I have a long time friend who was the unwanted product of a brief liaison between a Ghanian student and a young Dutch woman in the mid-50s. She was plucked out of the foster care system by a mailman and his homemaker wife, who over a number of years fostered more than forty children in Calgary. They eventually adopted some of those children, my friend Mary included. They also fostered a little boy who was ultimately taken in by my parents and became my oldest brother. Entirely by coincidence, it turned out that my father, who was also a mailman, met Mary's adoptive father through the post office. The two families have been friends ever since. Mary could easily have been lost in a foster care system that is sometimes unsuccessful at protecting its constituents—a child of mixed race feeling planted in the wrong place, as my character Maiko does in Dear Baobab. Instead, in the care of the Tidlund family who adopted her, Mary thrived. She grew into a fearless and joyful woman who has at various times owned and flown her own airplane, been the CEO of an oil company, and won so many awards that I've lost track of them.

After a period of soul-searching during an economic downturn, Mary decided that as the luckiest woman in Canada, she should give something back to the world. She started the Mary A. Tidlund Charitable Foundation in 1998 and has since brought medical, educational and anti-poverty initiatives to thousands of people in dozens of communities in Africa, South America, Asia and North America. I have supported the foundation in a variety of ways from its inception, but a couple of years ago I was trying to come up with a way to formalize my support. One day at the end of a walk I rounded the corner to my house and it was as though I saw Maiko sitting on the doorstep beside the spruce tree that grows there, waiting to tell me his story. The writing of Dear Baobab has allowed me to accomplish three aims: write a project that I can use to support the Tidlund Foundation, add a character of colour to the Canadian canon of literature and write a story that honours my own creative impulse.

[Ed. A portion of the author's proceeds from the sale of Dear Baobab will be donated to the Mary A. Tidlund Foundation.]

JW: When children read Dear Baobab, how conscious do you think they are of race and circumstance?

CF: I think most children are aware of difference at an early age, but not of the construct that we call "race". Around the age of ten, depending on how they've been socialized, that abstract concept may begin to carry some meaning. I think, though, that children are very aware of circumstance. I believe even young children will have had some sort of experience in their own lives that will enable them to know what it is like to feel lonely, frightened and out of place, as Maiko does. Their reasons, their own circumstances, for feeling this way may be very different, but they'll recognize the feeling.

JW: I was talking recently to an author about the presentations she gives in classrooms about community, collaboration and peace. She said that children today see themselves as citizens of the world and keenly understand that right and wrong isn't a simplistic notion, it's the way to affect change. Do you see children's literature as a useful tool in this respect?

CF: I believe people around us—our fellow citizens—are affected not only by the words we say, but even by the thoughts we have. The power of words is contained not just in their literal meaning, but in the weight behind them, their historical context, the vibrations they create when they're spoken and by the actions they cause us to take (or not take) when we think them. I believe that power is amplified in written language. Seeing a carefully chosen word on a surface, whether it be a page in a book, a computer screen, or scrawled on the side of a strip mall convenience store hits us on a deep and visceral level. It follows then, that as authors we have access to a powerful tool. Something I'm realizing through answering these questions is that I don't approach writing for children differently from the way I approach writing for teens or adults. I choose the sculptor's chisel, rather than the hammer, no matter the age of my reader.

JW: This seems like a good place to ask which books have carried meaning over the course of your life? Which of these still hold up for youth today? And, are there any books that children have introduced to you to as a adult reader that have similarly impacted you?

CF: The books I loved most when I was a child—Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia—are still being read by children today. Some of them hold up better than others. My brother and I also read every Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans book we could get our hands on. All those books have carried meaning throughout my life; some for the content, some for the memory of curling up in a chair in my aunt's sun-room to savour, and some for the lessons learned. I still use Mrs. Belden's recipe for burgers.

As an adult reader, I have been introduced to many great kids' books by my daughters. I loved Harry Potter and probably wouldn't have read the series if I hadn't had children. When they were little we would visit the library for our weekly bag of books and one or the other of them selected three picture books we all loved so much that we bought them to keep in our permanent collection. Those are The Orphan Boy, Maude and Sally and Avocado Baby.

For six of the years when they were in school we belonged to a mother-daughter book club, through which we read over one hundred YA novels from a wide range of cultural perspectives. It was through the book club that I discovered the work of Christopher Paul Curtis, an African-American author. My favourite of his was The Watsons Go To Birmingham.

JW: Thanks very much for your time, Cheryl. This has been really great.

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Profiled on Who's Who in Black Canada, Cheryl Foggo has been published and produced extensively as a journalist, screenwriter, poet, playwright, writer of fiction and non-fiction and as a young adult novelist. She has a particular interest in sharing the history of Black pioneers on the prairies and has written extensively on that subject in more than two dozen books, magazines and anthologies. A former Governor General's literary award nominee, her books, plays and films have received many other provincial and national awards and nominations, including the Bronze award at the Columbus International Film and Video Festival and the 2008 Harry Jerome Award for Excellence in the Arts. As a lecturer, Ms. Foggo has addressed thousands of adults and children nation-wide and abroad. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays. Her new play Ottawa Street, co-written with Clem Martini, will premiere at the Blyth Theatre Festival in 2012.

October 20, 2011
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