Books·How I Wrote It

Why Shauntay Grant created a children's book to revisit the legacy of Africville

The poet and author talks about how she wrote Africville, which is nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature — illustration.
Africville is written by Shauntay Grant and illustrated by Eva Campbell. (Shyronn Smardon, House of Anansi Press)

Shauntay Grant is an award-winning Canadian poet and author who collaborated with illustrator Eva Campbell to depict the underreported story of Africville. The vibrant Black community in Halifax thrived for more than 150 years before being demolished by the government in the 1960s. The illustrated story is brought to life through the eyes of a young girl visiting for the annual Africville Reunion/Festival.

Africville is a finalist for the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award shortlist for young people's literature — illustrated books. Below, Grant discusses the process of finishing her latest children's book.

Home again

"When I first wrote Africville, I wasn't thinking about it as a children's book. It started as a poem that I wrote one day when visiting the Africville site for a walk. I like to hear the words out loud before I commit them to the page and I talk when I'm creating my poems. I'm concerned with how language sounds out loud.

"I then decided that I wanted to turn the poem into a book. The poem was about the feeling of being home. I wanted that to be reflected in a children's story."

An interior image from Africville, illustrated by Eva Campbell and written by Shauntay Grant. (Eva Campbell/Groundwood Books)

Bringing history to life

"Knowing that I wanted to work with an illustrator, I was visually imagining witnessing these scenes from the past from a child's perspective and focusing on these visual memories of specific places. Once I had a manuscript that I thought would work for children, my publisher connected me with [illustrator] Eva Campbell. Her work is stunning.

"It was important that the illustrations reflected the words but also stay true to the community. She would send me illustrations which I then brought to former residents of Africville to get their thoughts on the pictures and the text. I wanted to ensure it represented Africville as they remembered it. I wanted to get it right. I wanted readers to know these places of childhood memory, places where the fields where children played, and put those specific locations in the story."

An interior image from Africville, illustrated by Eva Campbell and written by Shauntay Grant. (Eva Campbell/Groundwood Books)

Enduring legacy

"I'm always meeting people who don't know about Africville, so it feels good knowing that the story is going to be reach more people. Often when we hear about Africville in the media, what's talked about is what was done to the community in the 60s. That's part of the community's history, but it's certainly not the whole story. It is a small window by comparison to its history as a Black community that was established in the 1800s by black refugees. Africville is still connected to the community — people are still learning about Africville and its former residents still revisit the site for an annual reunion. I wanted to craft a story for children that would zero in on what Africville means for me."

Shauntay Grant's comments have been edited and condensed.


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