Ten years after the publication of her first novel for children, Angel’s Grace, teacher and freelance editor Tracey Baptiste took the middle grade fiction scene by storm with her 2015 novel The Jumbies, the story of Severine, a sinister Afro-Caribbean spirit bent on vengeance, and Corinne, a tenacious girl who must defeat her. Baptiste returns to the heroes of her series opener, taking them to West Africa, where the mythology of the jumbies may have originated, and where they must battle a new supernatural foe. Baptiste spoke with PW about finding connections between Caribbean and West African folklore, incorporating difficult historical elements into novels for young readers, and creating complex villains that challenge readers.
What was your path to becoming a children’s book writer?
Since I was really little, I wanted to write. Being little, you don’t know there’s a difference between writing for adults and writing for children. The first book I tried writing was an adult romance novel. I was 12—it was awful. It was about me and my best friend living in nearby apartments. Then I read Rosa Guy’s The Friends, which mirrored my experience as a new immigrant living in Brooklyn, trying to acclimate to a new culture. It spoke to me so much that I decided to write for kids just like me.
I thought I’d be a picture book writer. I got my first agent on a picture book, which we weren’t able to sell. I decided to try to write something longer; I didn’t think I had the stamina for a novel, but decided that whatever happened I was going to finish. I sold Angel’s Grace on the first couple of chapters, then had to work on it for a very long time with my editor at Simon Schuster. I didn’t know what I was doing with Angel’s Grace. I wasn’t active in the kid lit community, plus it was just emerging. I didn’t have the connections I have now, so it was very easy for the first book to fall under the radar. After that I didn’t publish any fiction for a long time, though I did write many nonfiction books. My career took off again with The Jumbies.
How do your Trinidadian roots influence the stories you choose to tell? Your American roots?
All three of my novels are set in the Caribbean. Angel’s Grace is takes place in and follows 13-year-old expat Grace during her summer vacation, which is very much what happens with expats: kids are sent back to spend summer with family. With The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies, I decided to make the setting a generalized Caribbean island because I wanted to have a lot of Trinidadian influences and wanted to embrace the islands as a whole. So anyone reading it from the Caribbean could read it as their native. Angel’s Grace is more influenced by American roots; it incorporates a lot of what I grew up with when I moved to the United States and then went back to Trinidad. It’s almost reverse immigration; you’re bringing your Americanness with you. You’re trying to be Trini but really aren’t anymore.
What is it about Caribbean and West African folklore that appeals to you?
I grew up with this kind of folklore, listening as a really little kid. These stories of thrilling and frightening creatures that come out at night to eat you were formative. Only later did I realize that, because of the slave trade, these stories come from West African folklore as well. As a child, you don’t make that connection. With Rise of the Jumbies I really tried to bridge the two.
What type of research did you conduct while writing The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies?
I read a lot of mythology, whatever was available. Caribbean and West African storytelling is mostly an oral tradition, so I read as much as I could. I took all the little pieces I could find and cobbled them together. The stories can really vary quite wildly, so I tried to pull out the commonalities and use those as the main traits for the jumbies. I also read a lot of fairy and folktales from other Caribbean islands. “The Magic Orange Tree” is a Haitian fairy tale, the bones of which are used within The Jumbies, where an orange tree plays a very prominent role. I read some Jamaican folktales featuring two boys, which I also put into The Jumbies. I read widely for The Jumbies to round out the story with as much mythology as I could. With Rise, I knew I wanted to explore Mama D’Leau and Mami Wata [a Caribbean river spirit and South African water spirit, respectively]. I watched documentaries and did research to combine and make them seem that they might be the same, with one story being brought over with the slave trade. I leave it as a maybe because we’re not really sure. I play a little bit with that uncertainty.
In Rise of the Jumbies, Corinne and her friends learn about the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy. How did you balance this intrinsically dark history with the adventure and mythological aspects of the story?
I think using a lot of humor cuts those moments of horrible tension in the book. Something dreadful and awful happens and you don’t want to stay in that place, so I go to something funny happening. Bouki and Malik have the role of making things lighter, so in these moments, when things are really scary and frightening, they add levity to the proceedings. That’s probably why I can go a little bit deeper, have little pockets, then move on. The characters are still in the midst of this huge adventure, so I basically just keep moving along and don’t stay in one place for too long.
The villains in your novels are complex, which, in turn, makes them worthy opponents to Corinne and her friends. What notes do you aim to hit when creating a villainous character?
I really would like to create villains that would be heroes in other stories. I round them out in such a way that sometimes they’re good and they make good points. Mama D’Leau could easily be a hero, but for Corinne she absolutely is not. In The Jumbies, Severine is a hero if you are a jumbie. It’s really important for villains to have complexity because it leaves the reader unsettled, questioning what is good and what is bad. It makes you think more critically; people are not all good or all bad.
What does your writing process look like? Do you outline, start with a specific scene, or free write?
My process is such a mess. I never know how to answer this question. With the exception of the book I’m working on now, I don’t outline. This outline almost killed me. I tend to have snippets of ideas that I write down. They’re random and from anywhere in the book, then, when I have enough of these pieces, I can begin to string them together. I get a notebook and begin writing longhand at the point I think is the beginning. When I get sick of [writing longhand], then I start typing. A lot of times I won’t even look at the notebook, I do it from memory, changing as I go. Then I go back and try to fill in.
It’s incredibly messy and probably not the most efficient process. Well, I know it’s not efficient. Every time I work on a new book, I try a new angle. I’ve tried Scrivener, sticky notes on the wall, and writing on long rolls of craft paper. It works—I eventually get a story—but I feel like it’s all bad. I’m certain there are other writers with better processes in place. Once I have a first draft, I’ve made it through the gauntlet, but getting to the first draft is painful.
You’ve also written several nonfiction books for young readers. How does your process differ when approaching nonfiction vs. fiction?
For nonfiction, the information is out there, so it’s just a matter of putting research together in an interesting way. I do research, using sticky notes as I go, with short notes about what I’m interested in. When the research is done, I’ll use OneNote. Then I put them in order, going back through the sticky notes to decide what information will go within each chapter. From there, I can tool around, moving information and finding how it all fits. It’s very methodical, but there are still surprising things or unplanned bits, so I’ll go back and do more research.
When you were writing The Jumbies, did you already know you wanted to do a sequel?
I had an idea for a second book and knew I wanted to do mermaids. When The Jumbies was sold as one book, I closed the door on a sequel. I still had an idea of how I could move forward, but hadn’t left a lot open for a sequel.
Is that why both novels stand on their own?
Yes, Rise of the Jumbies had to be able to stand on its own, just in case nobody knew what The Jumbies was. Doing revision for the first made it something that stood alone, so the second had to be the same. Now it’s the style of the series.
Can readers look forward to more stories set in the world of The Jumbies?
Maybe. There has been talk. I went so big in the second book, but I’m not sure where I would go, or if I could execute it.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a story set in a computer world. I can’t say much about it. It’s another adventure, but is older middle grade/younger YA. It’s kicking my butt. I’m still at the point where things are really messy.
How does your professional background impact your writing process and the way you approach storytelling?
I was a classroom teacher, then an editor for McGraw-Hill. Being a teacher and thinking about how teachers use books in classrooms is still in the back of my mind when I write. I think about beautiful vocabulary and context clues. I don’t think thematically, but I put in little references to other things, like literature and songs. That’s super fun for me. I write for kids and the adults that might be sharing or buying for kids.
How do you balance work as a freelance editor and consultant with your own writing?
I’ve been doing much less editing and consulting because writing has taken over considerably. I turn down a lot of work that comes my way because of writing or my presentation schedule. I still do picture book editing because it takes less time. A novel can take weeks, but I can edit a picture book over the course of a week.
How did you become involved with the Brown Bookshelf blog project?
My first foray was an interview about Angel’s Grace. I knew a few people who wrote for the blog and was asked to come on board. I was already doing volunteer work for We Need Diverse Books at that point. I really like what [Brown Bookshelf] does. It offers a lot of really good information in an industry where [people of color] have a lot less stake.
The main thing we do is feature new and debut authors. We provide a full spread and interview to give a nice big push. It’s time consuming; we put a lot of time into [deciding] who to feature because it’s over a 28-day period, which is limiting.
What is the best advice about writing or publication that you’ve received?
I’ve received a lot of advice, not all of it good. The best advice is to read as much as you can— and not just in your genre. Absorb language as much as you can. You pick up so many things from other writers, including other ways of doing things and new ideas.
Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste. Algonquin, $16.95 Sept. ISBN 978-1-61620-665-9