Introducing Yolanda Marshall
Inspired by Toni Morrison’s advice: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
By Eleanor P. Sam
The Guyanese community’s Last Lap Lime celebration, held annually during the Caribbean Carnival, was especially memorable in 2019. Yes, it was before the pandemic and there was a hot August sun, and many smiling faces everywhere with the pulse of Soca in the air and rich smells drifting over from the food booths. But what stood out for me most on that day was meeting Yolanda Marshall. There she was in the writer’s booth next to me, a fellow author, her book also on display but written for children, a person so full of positive energy, generosity and creative joy that I hoped we could be friends.
Both of us see writing as the building of roads and bridges to our culture and history. We also believe in the power and pleasure of seeing ourselves represented in all walks of life and expressed in literature. When children see themselves in the stories they hear and read they value who they are, where they come from and they feel included in the Canadian community.
Yolanda speaks to children about what she cherishes, remembers and has discovered in the many pasts and presents that our people carry with them. Originally a poet, she understands the ability of words to create visions of these experiences with stories rooted in African legends and mythologies, traditional and contemporary Caribbean life, foods and delicacies, music, dance and celebration.
She began writing poems at the age of 8 and published her first book of poetry in 2008. It was titled Obayifo, after the name of a witch in the Ashanti tribe’s traditions in Ghana. The book was filled with jazz-like song poems invoking Caribbean folklore and coloured by her own reflections. The poetry continued with ‘Messages On Dried Leaves.”
Yolanda comes to children’s literature by way of motherhood and the birth of her son in 2015, as well as a frustrating search for books to read and share with him, books that included the cultural heritage, contribution and living presence of Caribbean people. So she took inspiration from Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s advice: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Accordingly, her initial children’s book was born: “Keman’s First Carnival,” about a young, Black Canadian child’s first experience of Toronto’s Caribbean Carnival.
The second children’s book, “A Piece of Black Cake for Santa,” (2017) was re-released in 2019. Illustrated by South African artist Subi Bosa, it explored in words and images the Caribbean style of Christmas holidays by focusing on a delicacy found in most Caribbean homes at this time of the year. This book was recently adopted and traditionally published by Chalkboard Publishing.
And Yolanda can be practical and show kids how to start a business while still drawing on their heritage. Her third book, “Sweet Sorrel Stand” blends Caribbean and West African elements by showcasing the Roselle Hibiscus (Sorrel), native to West Africa, and loved by Caribbeans as a drink. Better than lemonade on a hot day, it proved a commercial success for the young
entrepreneurs as well.
She carried on with “Miles Away in the Caribbean,” in 2019. It describes a Canadian boy’s tropical journey to fifteen CARICOM Caribbean nations, sampling their foods, individual cultures, traditions, and landmarks on the way. The character was named after her son, Miles, who have visited many of these countries. This book educates children about the Caribbean.
“My Soca Birthday Party: with Jollof Rice and Steel Pans”, published by Chalkboard Publishing came out last year. With a title like that you can imagine the heady blend of music and the delicious West African dish she serves up. Not surprisingly, it was named one of CBC’s best picture books of 2020.
Her most recent title, “C is for Carnival,” also traditionally published, appeared on 1st August 2021, and the federal government’s official recognition of Emancipation Day. A rhyming alphabet book with vibrant illustrations, each letter denotes some aspect of our Canadian Carnival celebrations and culture.
Yolanda Marshall is a literary treasure, bringing the gifts of Caribbean and African celebrations and cultures to the minds and hearts of our children. Her books can be found in the Toronto Public libraries, Indigo, Amazon, and many local bookstores. For more visit www.ytmarshall.com
Eleanor P. Sam is a Toronto based novelist, born on a sugar plantation in Guyana, South America, with West and Central African ancestry.