Tue | Jun 22, 2021

Adventures of a Jamaican Mermaid, new children’s book from dancehall act

Published:Sunday | July 21, 2019 | 12:00 AMSade Gardner - Gleaner Writer
Halle Bailey

Long before the fracas about black actress Halle Bailey playing Disney’s live-action Little Mermaid, Jamaican dancehall artiste Ce’cile had invested in a dark-skinned character of her own, a Jamaican mermaid, which she imprinted on her daughter’s T-shirt and swimwear line.

The vision was born in 2016 after Ce’cile, alongside kids’ party planner Kasandra Henry, struggled to find dark-skinned characters for her daughter’s Frozen and Little Mermaid-themed birthday parties. The idea transcended beyond clothing to a children’s book, geared at matters of self-identity, self-love, patriotism, and culture appreciation. Though copies of the text were issued to a select few in 2018, it was the criticism hurled at Bailey that inspired Ce’cile to publicise the project, co-conceptualised with Henry.

“When I saw the uproar, I couldn’t believe people were being negative about it, so I decided to make a post sharing the importance of our kids being able to identify and see things that look like them and love the skin they are in,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

“I had the book printed because I wanted to see what it would look like, and I gave some copies to friends and business people to tell me what they thought about the story. I presented one to my daughter, which she read at her school. I wasn’t sure how it would have been received, but people are saying they like the idea. I need to finish and get it out there ’cause people want it, so we’re going to go to printing real soon.”

Titled Oceana, Adventures of a Jamaican Mermaid, the storybook follows the ‘sea to land girl’ journey of a St Thomas-bred mermaid who befriends a surfer boy and his pet dog. In building the character, Ce’cile said that she sought the nostalgia of Caribbean-laced children’s books she read as a child.

“I remember reading books about the little buses, books that were about us, Kingston, going to your grandmother’s house, you know, Jamaican books,” she said. “I also remember reading a book Escape to Last Man’s Peak, with some kids at an orphanage who had to walk from one end of Jamaica to the other end, and I remember how I felt reading those books. I saw myself in how the kids dressed and how dem plait dem hair. I had books that I identified with so much, but now with this technology and social media age, even if you have two school books that kids can identify with, the majority of what they will see and what becomes popular is not them.”

Not surprisingly, Oceana is a sucker for Jamaican music, which plays a key role in her development.

“I’m a musician, so I had to put a little of me in it,” she said. “She learns about reggae and dancehall, and this influences how she becomes the ‘land girl’. One of the concepts I’m coming up with is music for the kids. I have already contacted some of our most famous artistes to be part of it, so it’s going to be super interesting.”

Everything is intentional, from the surfer boy from St Thomas (a parish known for beaches and weather ideal for surfing) to the boy’s father, a musician and farmer, as Ce’cile aspires to teach youngsters to respect farming and learn more about the industry. She described this venture as a tree with several branches and said she hoped the book would be the start of a series.

“The main thing is to have our kids see things that they can identify with, not just in the way they look, but in where they are from, their country, what it is like to be patriotic, farming ... and as I am doing this, it’s just ways I think I can grow my daughter.”

Writing is innate

Though this will be her first published book, Ce’cile revealed that she has penned several unpublished books like Life Notes & Love Quotes, her own coffee table read.

“I’m a writer. It is something I do all the time. It’s very easy for me,” she said. “My favourite subjects in school were English language and literature, and I started out writing poetry and short stories before I was writing songs so this is a love for me. I just hope the kids like it and it resonates with them ’cause, you know, it’s probably different from what I am thinking in my head. I would love to release my personal book that I have been working on for years. Hopefully we can get to that.”

Until then, the creative is making slight adjustments to the book to then fast-track the process of releasing it on all major platforms. This, however, is presenting its challenges.

“It’s very hard to do business in Jamaica sometimes,” she said. “You try to go somewhere, and it’s not like you want to throw your name around, you want to go through the process, but sometimes, when you go some places and you’re trying to be patriotic and print it in Jamaica, they are very nonchalant. A lot of times you end up doing things in China, and then somebody will criticise you for it not knowing how hard you tried to do it in your own country even though it was going to be more expensive. Hopefully, in time, we can do things about us and have it taken seriously.”