By Dixie-Ann Belle
As they fly their kites, play football, and eat sno cones around the Queen’s Park Savannah, the average Trinidad and Tobago child might not give much thought to the ‘Magnificent Seven’ buildings which line the streets. However, as she drove past them, author and creative, Jeunanne Alkins’ curiosity was often fired by the heritage the buildings represented. She felt moved to explore their potential to encourage interest in built heritage. Seven years later, this dream was realised in the pages of her third self-published children’s book, The Most Magnificent, which she co-wrote with Neala Bhagwansingh.
Since her first book, Ready, Set, Hatch, Alkins has chosen several themes to cover with her small publishing team. She addressed biodiversity in Hatch and explored food origins in Alex the Awesome and the Crazy Quest for the Golden Pod.
In The Most Magnificent she is focusing on heritage and conservation with a whimsical twist.
Children leafing through the pages are introduced to the Magnificent Seven buildings in a whole new way: they have literally come to life. Professor QRC, Lady Hayes Court, Mrs Mille Fleurs, Dr Roomor, The Archbishop, Minister Whitehall, and Sir Stollmeyer each have their own quirks, personalities, and backgrounds.
The story unfolds as they argue among themselves about who is the “most magnificent” – discussing their histories, who is the biggest, who has been there longest – drawing the reader into their stories.
“I really believe that storybooks are designed to be engaging,” says Alkins as she explains her storytelling methods. She revels in the challenge of working with other creatives and seeing ideas evolve.
She enjoyed collaborating with Bhagwansingh and illustrator Sayada Ramdial. She believes that the artist captured her characters beautifully. “The watercolour style makes it feel like artwork,” she observes.
She believes the conversation, comparing accomplishments, is the sort of interaction that appeals to children. Alkins uses touches of humour in her characters’ personalities like Sir Stollmeyer “the forgetful old war hero” and proper Mrs Milles Fleur who retorts that she is just “resting her shutters” when asked if she is asleep.
Alkins uses onomatopoeia (the story starts with the sound of a sneeze) and made careful choices with the typography. “I like to play with words a lot,” she says as she describes “the drama on the page”.
Recounting the diverse history of the buildings and what they represent was one of Alkins’ most ambitious goals. Part of the delay in publishing involved giving a researcher time to uncover intriguing details which are not easy to unearth.
Alkins was fascinated by what she discovered, noting that adults could learn a lot as well. She mentions for example that while Archbishop’s House looks stunning from the outside, many might be unaware of noteworthy details on the inside like the fact that it features a school, an office, and an orchard of fruit trees. Alkins asserts that there is room to explore all the buildings on a deeper level.
While she maintains that the book has a reading level of six and older, Alkins is excited about its potential to reach readers across generations. She notes that old and young can read together.
Reflecting on her close relationship with her own beloved grandmother who has passed, Alkins expresses her fascination with “capturing older stories” and dreams of her book leading to inter-generational bonding, mirroring her relationship with her grandmother.
“The other aim of this book in particular is to encourage conversations between older and younger. I would love for younger audiences – kids – to go back to the older people in their lives and ask them about what they were like when they were young.”
With such a personal stake in this story, Alkins was deeply motivated to finish it despite challenges. She struggled to secure sponsorship. She notes that the return on investment is low for publications like this, and this impedes the potential of printing more copies which would allow her to lower the price so it can be accessible to more readers.
She also is endeavouring to get The Most Magnificent added to the recommended reading lists of local schools. Acknowledging the importance of textbooks, she laments the lack of priority for stories.
“I really need somebody in the ministry or somebody in the educational realm to lobby for storybooks – not just my book. Textbooks are where the focus is at, and storybooks are where the learning really happens.”
Despite this challenge with the school curriculum, Alkins is heartened to find the response has been enthusiastic in the general population. The book has tested very well in her target audience. Children especially have avidly responded to her tale.
She and her team are already exploring the potential of The Most Magnificent finding a wider audience. They are planning to eventually produce it as an audio book. Part of the reason Alkins has been so focused on developing her characters’ personalities is because “the ultimate dream is to animate these stories”.
As she embraces the success of her latest work, Alkins is committed to continue to work with likeminded creatives, to produce narratives which kindle her audiences and, no doubt, to make her grandmother proud.
Dixie-Ann Belle is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. She writes about her work, advice for writers and creative people on her blog https://belleworks.wordpress.com/
The Most Magnificent can be purchased at Caboodle Gifts, Long Circular Road, Maraval; Rainy Days Gift Shop, Ellerslie Plaza, Maraval; Paper Based Bookshop, Normandie Hotel, St Ann’s; Snikla, French Street, Woodbrook; Metropolitan Bookstores, Ariapita Avenue, Woodbrook; Con Brio, Kavanagh Street, Woodbrook and Cocobel Chocolates, Fitt Street, Woodbrook or online at Unqueue or Amazon.