The first book to emerge from We Need Diverse Books’ initiatives to facilitate diverse books through the publishing pipeline will be released in March, when NorthSouth Books publishes The Field by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara. The picture book’s backstory to publication is one of serendipitous personal connections, demonstrating what most of those in the publishing industry have long known and what WNDB is successfully tapping into: this is an industry built upon relationships just as much as love for the written word.
The Field tells the story of a girl and her younger brother, who rouse their Caribbean community—family, friends, even the local fruit vendor—to play a friendly game of soccer after clearing a field of the cows grazing there. While the book is primarily written in English, Creole words and phrases are sprinkled throughout the text, giving it an international flavor. Besides the English/Creole and German/Creole editions, a Spanish/Creole edition will be published this spring.
The picture book marks a publishing debut for both Paul and Alcántara. Alcántara, an illustrator and educator from Chicago, was a 2016 recipient of WNDB’s inaugural mentorship grant, which pairs new writers and illustrators from diverse backgrounds with established industry professionals to guide them for one year. Author-illustrator Carolyn Dees Flores mentored Alcántara.
The collaboration between Paul and Alcántara, which was arranged by NorthSouth, is made even more “amazing,” in Paul’s words, because his wife, children’s book author Miranda Paul, is not only a WNDB team member: she is the co-chair of its mentorship program (she is a program administrator, not a judge or mentor selector). Recalling the day that her husband told her that NorthSouth had contracted with Alcántara to illustrate The Field, Miranda told PW that she recognized the name as one of the five people who’d recently received a WNDB mentorship. “I kept shaking my head, saying, small world, and that nobody would ever believe it—although those who have worked in this industry for a while might, because they have a sense of how interwoven our community can be.”
While the pairing by NorthSouth may have been coincidental, in hindsight, it was also perhaps inevitable. Editor Beth Terrill related that, after meeting Miranda at the SCBWI annual conference in Los Angeles several years ago, she expressed an interest in working with her on a project. “She was busy at the moment,” Terrill recalled, “but put me in touch with Baptiste.” Terrill subsequently discovered Alcántara while perusing Full Circle Literary agency’s website, searching for an illustrator to work on The Field. Terrill was later informed by Alcántara’s agent, Adriana Dominguez, that WNDB had initiated an introduction between the agent and the illustrator.
“So, because WNDB connected [Alcántara] to Full Circle, I was lucky enough to find her portfolio,” Terrill said. “As [Dominguez] has said, and I agree, I hope this story encourages other writers of color to join the WNDB program.”
The Stories Behind the Story
The Field was, Terrill said, one of the publisher’s “easiest acquisitions ever.” Noting that the company has two offices, one in New York City, and the other, its head office, in Zurich (where it is known as Nord-Sud Verlag), Terrill explained that when acquiring manuscripts, she has to consider its appeal to her Swiss colleagues and the German book market, as well as to the English-language market.
Terrill recalled feeling certain that The Field would appeal to her colleagues on both sides of the ocean. “Soccer is one of those things that brings people together around the world,” she said, remembering that, not so long ago, during a game in which she was playing, when the soccer ball went over a fence and into the street, a cab driver immediately stopped his vehicle, retrieved the ball, and threw it back to the players.
The Field, she added, “fits this picture in my heart of the game” as, just like soccer itself, Paul’s tale highlights themes of teamwork, diversity, leadership, and acceptance.
The inspiration for The Field, Paul said, comes from his experiences as a child growing up in the island nation of Saint Lucia in the West Indies, but the spark to write it as a children’s book occurred during a pick-up soccer game with his children on a rainy afternoon at his current home in Wisconsin, far from his homeland.
“Playing in the rain and mud brought back happy memories,” Paul told PW. “Imaginative play and sports were my escape from reality, the poverty and hardships I endured every day [as a child].”
Asked why he framed the tale as a soccer game, Paul responded, “Soccer is universal: it’s being played by children everywhere. All of life’s lessons can be taught in a 90-minute [game]. Soccer was where my friends and I learned to navigate and solve problems that we would undoubtedly face off the field, like how to rebound from a bad situation or walk away from a fight.”
Alcántara disclosed that it wasn’t “totally intentional” that the main character would be female when she started sketching characters following her initial telephone conversation with Paul. Her illustrations were inspired, she explained, by photos of children around the world playing soccer, especially that of a Jamaican boy. “As I kept drawing and defining how the characters look,” she noted, “it seemed like she really wanted to become a girl. So I let her.”
Paul added that he approved wholeheartedly with her decision, noting that it makes the point that “girls play outside in the rain and mud just like boys. By making the main character a girl it sets the tone that we are all equal and that girls can do anything. Boys need to know and respect that just as much as girls.”
As for mixing the text up by inserting Creole patois amidst the English words, Paul said that he did so to make the story an authentic experience for readers. “When we played, we yelled out in Creole, or a mix of both,” he explained. “Being authentic to the story meant I had to use Creole words. I want readers to hear my world through language yet at the same time experience it through their own; that’s why the English and Creole words are paired together. In this way, they realize that there’s more sameness than difference, really. Language is powerful.”
Alcántara is a Chicago native, but her father hails from Honduras, and she has visited South America many times. She also has traveled to the Caribbean a few times. She said that the first time she read the manuscript, she fell in love with its use of language, “which is a story in itself.”
She had from the beginning, she said, “a very strong vision” of the characters and the action, “pulling from my memories and from lots of stories of my dad’s childhood.” She could, she noted, imagine clearly the field in which the soccer players congregate for a game, and followed Flores’ suggestion, that she treat the field as a character just as much as she does the humans in the story.
Regarding the colors Alcántara used to illustrate The Field, they were inspired both by her own memories and family photos. “My favorite is the sea-foam green color in the bathroom [where the girl and her brother bathe after the game], which is used all over the Caribbean and is the color I most closely associate with my grandmother’s house in Honduras. It’s my favorite color,” Alcantara said.
“The way she captured everything in my head about my childhood and my world after one conversation on the phone was mind blowing,” Paul said, while Alcántara called Paul “an illustrator’s dream come true,” with “his powerful choice of words but minimal text.”