Writer Tracy Baptiste was born in Trinidad where she grew up on fairy tales and the spoken folk tales of the island, including stories about creatures called jumbies. The mythical monsters inspired her to write her own Caribbean folk tale for middle schoolers.
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Now, she’s written a sequel that dives further into island mythology, as well as the darker side of its history. The novel, Rise of the Jumbies, centers around Corinne, the fiercely independent and half-jumbie main character. During her adventures throughout the book, Corinnne travels to West Africa, home of jumbie mythology, where she learns about the history of the Atlantic slave trade.
Baptiste first heard about jumbies when she was a child.
“They will eat you if they get half the chance to eat you,” she jokes. As a kid, she heard stories about how jumbies would keep kids in line at night by hovering outside their homes and making sure they didn’t wander around or leave the house.
Baptiste spoke with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the mythological inspiration behind the novel’s characters, how she addressed slavery in a book for young readers and why exploring that dark history is important for children.
On how she included so much mythology into the book
Well, I did a lot of reading, as much as I could. Because these are oral traditions, there really isn’t a lot of stuff written down about jumbies, but there were a few stories I could find and what I did find is that there are jumbie-like creatures throughout the Caribbean. So I read as much as I could about all of these different creatures and then I combined it with the stories that I remember as a child.
On why she incorporated the history of the slave trade
I think it’s really important to have that history and have that history be explored. I think there’s a lot of shame in this history, there’s a lot of pain in this history. And I thought that with this particular story and using Mama Dl’eau and the mermaids, I could address the things that have happened, but also have it be attached to something that was beautiful.
On why sharing that history with young readers is important
Children who are of African descent are going to hear these stories. And I remember when my son was, I think maybe he was five, and he was in kindergarten and he came home and he had just heard about slavery at school. I think maybe it was Black History Month. And he was just so upset about it and couldn’t reconcile who he was with you know, these stories that he was hearing.
And you know, kids have to deal with this. They have to deal with the fact that this is a thing that has happened, and that this is a thing that happened to their ancestors. And it’s a thing that has happened because of the way that people look, nothing else, no other reason. And grappling with something like that is really difficult for little children. And so I felt giving them this kind of story where something horrible happened, but something beautiful resulted from it, would be some small amount of comfort.
NPR’s Digital News intern Isabel Dobrin produced this story for the Web.