Tracey Baptiste has written numerous nonfiction books for children and the YA novel Angel’s Grace. The Jumbies, a creepy tale that captures the spirit and folklore of Baptiste’s native Trinidad, is her first middle-grade novel. Tracy took time out to chat with us about telling the stories from her childhood, writing for the middle-grade audience, and books from her childhood that inspired her.
JA: Tracey, you’ve written for both middle-grade and the young- adult audiences. Can you tell us a little bit about how the process differs between middle-grade and YA? Do you prefer writing for one audience over the other?
TB: My first novel, Angel’s Grace, was billed as YA, but the protagonist, Grace, was only thirteen, just two years older than Corinne in The Jumbies. I actually think my wheelhouse is in younger teens and tweens, and the process of writing for both is the same for me: hard. But I do think about the difference in age for one reading audience over another. For instance, there is a scene in The Jumbies where Severine eats a creature in the forest. My editor and I had some back and forth over making sure this wasn’t too scary, but I thought there were scarier bits, like the centipedes that run all over Severine’s body. Crawly bugs seem much more frightening to me than a wriggly snack. But maybe it’s just me. I’m working on something now that seems like it should be for an older audience because of the themes, but I like the protagonist as a twelve year old. I’ll have to see how this one shakes out and what my editor and agent have to say when it’s in good enough shape to show them.
JA: You’ve written a lot of non-fiction. How does that research process differ from the research process for fiction?
TB: Nonfiction is definitely a different approach. First of all, it’s a relief to have all or most of the facts before I start. With fiction there’s a lot of groping around in the dark trying to figure it out. It’s exciting to get my hands on facts and then turn them into a narrative, and researching can be exhilarating when you find a piece of information that makes the rest of the pieces you found click together. The trick with nonfiction, though, is choosing how to shape the narrative while still presenting a balanced and unbiased viewpoint. When I research for fiction, usually the entire story is written, and there are these holes with weird notes to myself like: find out if tuba players have any slang they use among themselves.
JA: I read another interview in which you said you’d worked on The Jumbies for more than ten years. Can you talk about how you persevered through rewriting (to make it “more epic”), receiving rejections by the first few editors who saw it, and making an agency change? You never gave up, and I know I’m not the only one who is so glad you didn’t!
TB: Well thanks!
I’ve come to realize that part of my process is working on something for a while and then putting it away for a longer while, and then coming back to it. I am not a fast writer and I tend to work on multiple projects at a time. But getting The Jumbies into the hands of the right editor really was a long slog. I wish I could say I handled all the uncertainty with bravery and grace, but alas, I was pretty miserable for long periods and it definitely extended the length of time that I wasn’t writing. I think at one point I quit writing for over a year. But this story kept pulling me back in. I also have to credit my husband and my mom for their unwavering support. After a rejection, I would turn them for encouragement, and then I’d look at the story again and think about what didn’t work, and what could be bigger and better. As far the direction I was given to make it more epic, I just kept thinking about how far I could push things. How hard could I make this on Corinne? How far could she go to save everyone?
When I made the decision to leave my previous agency, it was just about the working relationship. I learned a lot of things about my needs as a writer between my first novel and my second. And what I needed was an agent who was also a writer, and understood what I was dealing with. I found that in Marie Lamba, and it’s a great working relationship with the added bonus that we like each other outside of work as well.
JA: What advice do you have for teachers and librarians who want to tie The Jumbies in to a larger unit on folk tales or Caribbean culture?
TB: It’s important to know more about the culture of jumbies, and for that I’ve made a “field guide” which is available on the Algonquin YR site. Jumbie stories were part of everyday conversations when I was growing up. I still don’t answer when I hear my name called at night. I ask if someone is calling me even though I’m too old now to be snatched up by a jumbie. It’s just habit. The other thing to realize is the Caribbean, and Trinidad in particular, has a very rich literary history. I grew up reading novels written by people in my own culture, so teachers and librarians may also want to offer some titles like Herbert de Lisser’s The White Witch of Rosehall or Jean D’Costa’s Escape to Last Man Peak, or my favorite, V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street. All of these were required reading when I was at school.
JA: Have your children been to Trinidad? Have you shared the stories of your childhood with them and what do they think? Do they like scary stories?
TB: Yes! They go to Trinidad often and they complain when they don’t get a chance to go (like last summer when they complained EVERY SINGLE DAY). Both my husband and I are from Trinidad so there is plenty of family for them to visit over the summer. I am sure the family keeps them well entertained with stories from when their dad and I were kids. I hope they do like scary stories because The Jumbies is now required reading at my house.
JA: What are you working on next?
TB: I’m working on a story about a future society that has too much technology for their own good. I’m also working on two picture books, one about an unlikely superhero and another about a kid visiting with her grandfather.
JA: What other middle-grade books are on your bookshelf at present? Any recent favorites that you can recommend?
I have Kat Yeh’s The Truth About Twinkie Pie, which my daughter read and loved but I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I also have C. Taylor Butler’s The Lost Tribes, which I’m planning to read aloud to both of the kids, and Ramin Ganeshram’s Stir It Up, which was released back in 2011, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. (I’m also a slow reader, it seems!)
Thank you for spending time with From the Mixed-Up Files, Tracey, and best of luck with The Jumbies!
Readers, leave a comment below with your favorite spooky story to win a copy of The Jumbies!