Cheryl Canada

Haitian History and Culture in U.S. Children’s Literature about Haiti

Cheryl L. Canada (
The Ohio State University, Mansfield Campus, Ohio, USA

Much of Haiti’s rich culture and history is embedded in many works for children.  In this paper, I wish to highlight a few pieces of children’s literature about Haiti published in the U.S. that offer children insight into the Haitian culture. Through these books, children can learn much about Haitian history, culture, and values and rich artistic heritage. Themes like education, art, violence, homelessness and poverty are embedded within Haitian children’s literature that has been published in the United States.

I became interested in Haitian children’s literature after my first visit to Haiti in May 2006. I went to Haiti to observe teachers and students in the classroom and assess the needs at two rural schools outside of Port-au-Prince.  By the end of my visit, I had identified a need for children’s books and authentic writing opportunities in connection with children’s literature. In order to address their needs, I had to find quality pieces of children’s literature that I could use with teachers to facilitate the kind of teaching and learning that I wanted them to engage in with their students. I also wanted books that reflected the people and culture of Haiti. I would like to highlight a few texts that I have used with Haitian teachers and children over the past two years.   These books offer children an authentic perspective of the life and culture of children in Haiti.

Selavi, by Youme Landowne (2004) is based on a true story about a real orphanage in Port-Au-Prince called Lafanmi Selavi.  The orphanage was opened in 1986 by a priest, Jean–Bertand Aristide, who later became president of Haiti. This beautifully illustrated picture book opens with a glimpse of the political violence that left one Haitian child homeless, “Not so long ago and not so far away, people with guns could take a family, burn a house and disappear, leaving a small child alone in the world”(p.1,). Se’lavi, whose name means, “that is life”, roams the streets of Port-au-Prince looking for food, shelter and a family. Se'lavi “finds refuge near a local marketplace and among other children whose lives have also been affected by poverty, loss and violence. Although these small children become victims of the big issues of homelessness and poverty, together they help each other survive.

Landowne’s (2004) work shows that children can be heroes and are able to solve their own problems. Landowne also effectively conveys the idea of collective heroes as the six homeless children form an allegiance and become a family committed to one another’s welfare. They rise “early to look for work washing cars, carrying water, cleaning clothes, asking people for money or food”, and at the end of every day, they each come “home with something to share” (p.8) so that there is food for everyone. In addition to the themes of unity and child heroes, the other ideas embedded in this work are the ideas of survival, hard work and ingenuity.  This effectively portrays the daily life of street children or orphans in Haiti, as their primary goal is survival. It is very common for children in Haiti to have the kinds of daily chores mentioned in the passage above even if they are not homeless.  The average Haitian (including children) has to work very hard in order to survive day-to-day.   Haitians are also very resourceful people and seem to find a use for almost everything.  Landowne conveyed this by including the banyan tree that the children used as their home.

In addition to the message of unity and strength among children, Landowne's (2004) work also speaks to the benefits that can be gained when adults support the efforts of children. After Se'lavi and his friends are banned from their tree house by mean officials, Se'lavi seeks help from a church.  Se'lavi doesn't just want help for himself, but seeks a place of refuge for himself and other homeless children. The people decide to be a, “mighty river” and “build a house where street children who looked out for one another could live” (p.16,).

This book is truly a culturally authentic piece of literature as it is filled with moral concepts and messages for readers, which is another aspect of the Haitian culture.  Most of the stories shared in Haiti contain strong morals or life lessons.  

In Painted Dreams by Karen L. Williams (1998), Ti Marie dreams of becoming an artist.  “In the early-morning shade behind her cement house” (p.1) she can be found drawing pictures on the rough wall.  Ti Marie wants Mama to buy paints, brushes and paper so she can pursue her dream of becoming an artist, but Mama says there is no money for those things.  Ti Marie doesn’t let this keep her from drawing.  Instead, she uses whatever resources she can find (i.e. charcoal, green leaves, brick, a wall) to satisfy her urge to draw and paint and make beautiful pictures.

The characters in Williams’ work are believable for the most part. Mama’s tone with Ti Marie and her intolerance for Ti Marie’s “foolishness” (her preoccupation with painting and drawing) is an accurate portrayal of a Haitian mother in the countryside.   The family is poor and Mama needs eight-year-old Ti Marie to help with the younger children and the daily chores while she sells vegetables in the village marketplace to help offset the family income.  Ti Marie’s daily chores of taking the younger children to the river to be bathed and walking to the mountain to collect firewood provide an excellent glimpse of what life is like for the children in Haiti. At the same time, Ti Marie’s love for drawing and painting show the universality of a young child’s creativity.

After one of the workshops with teachers in Haiti, I asked for oral responses to the book. These were some of the responses:

This was a very good story. Ti Marie’s character was believable because she performed typical chores of Haitian children. Mama was believable too because in rural Haiti, life is hard and there isn’t money for things like paint supplies. The story contained the message that you should never give up on your dream.  You should believe in yourself and always persevere.

I found the last part of the response to be quite interesting. According to the teachers, stories in Haiti always contain a moral lesson. They are told for the purpose of teaching a valuable lesson.

The teacher’s responses also lend credibility to the authenticity of this book written by an author who lived in Haiti for a period of time.  Williams (1998) wrote this book to expose children in the U.S. and other countries to the Haitian culture.

Another piece of Williams’ work that authentically portrays life in Haiti is Tap-Tap (1994). In this culturally authentic picture book, children learn about the mode of public transportation in Haiti, the taptap, and experience the excitement and hard work of market day, which takes place in Haiti every Friday.  The text opens with Sasifi and Mama leaving their home “early on market day” (p.1) headed down the path to the main road to the market carrying baskets of oranges on their heads so Mama can sell her oranges.  Sasifi has never had the privilege of riding a tap tap and asks Mama, “Will we ride in the tap-tap today?”  “No,” said Mama. “We will walk to market, the same as always” (p.1) because Mama doesn’t have money to pay for the ride.   While Mama is doing her own marketing, Sasifi uses her charm and wit to attract customers to Mama’s stand and earns enough money so that she and Mama can ride the tap-tap home.. The smoothly written text is enhanced by beautiful watercolor paintings done in tranquil and shimmering hues of the Caribbean that capture the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures of the vibrant Haitian countryside.

In the picture book Running the Road to ABC, poet Denize  Laurture, (1994) uses lyrical prose to depict the daily journey of  six Haitian children as they travel through the countryside of Haiti on their way to school each morning.   This book communicates the deep desire and strong appreciation that Haitian children have for education.  The children rise early, “When beautiful hens still dream about handsome rooster, when handsome roosters still dream about beautiful hens, their moms wake up the boys and girls…The children eat their breakfast and leave for school at dawn” ( p.1).  The lush, green country and sense of hope are reflected and enhanced by stylized, warmly detailed gouache paintings.  The illustrations offer a hopeful tone of Haitian children running, rushing, working for a brighter future.

While education is highly valued in Haiti, it is not a viable option for all Haitian children.  The economic conditions of families in the countryside prevent many children from attending school.  Often parents aren’t able to afford the costs of tuition and uniforms. In addition, some children don’t attend school because they are needed at home to help with daily chores.  In Jennifer Elvgren’s (2006) Josias Hold the Book, Josias is responsible for taking care of the garden so his family will have food.  Each day Josias’s friend, Chrislove, passes by and asks, “When will you join us and hold the book?” Josias responds that he has “no use for reading and writing when there is a garden to weed” (p.2). After several failed attempts at trying to grow beans, Josias turns to Chrislove to help him solve his problem. “Can books tell me why my beans won’t grow” (p.16)? After Chrislove brings Josias a book that contains information that helps him make the beans grow, Josias recognizes that books contain knowledge that will help him improve the quality of his family’s life.  

Just as Josias discovered the power of books to transform the quality of a life, I propose these  children’s books that have been published in the U.S. to help children in the United States and other countries recognize the similarities they share with the children of  Haiti.  As children read about boys and girls in Haiti, they can develop an appreciation and understanding for the cultural and individual differences that make Haitians unique (Freeman & Lehman, 2001).


Works Cited

Elvgren, J. R. (2006). Josias, hold the book. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, Inc.

Landowne, Y. (2004). Se'lavi that is life: A Haitian story of hope. El Paso, TX:
    Cinco Puntos Press.

Lauture, D. (1996). Running the road to abc. Illus. R. Ruffins. New York: Simon &

Williams, K.L. (1998). Painted dreams. Ill. C. Stock, New York: Lothrop, Lee &
    Shepard Books.

Williams, K. L. (1994). Tap-tap. Ill. C. Stock. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard

Freeman, E. B. & Lehman. B. (2001). Global perspectives in children’s literature.
Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Beacon