Kereen Getten caught readers’ attention with her debut, When Life Gives You Mangoes, which was shortlisted for both the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and the Branford Boase Award. This was followed by the equally well received and reviewed If You Read This. Both are family-centred stories, set in a brilliantly described Caribbean with distinctive and courageous girls as central characters. In both stories the young women have mysteries to unravel, uncovering truths about themselves and their families in the process. Mysteries play a large part in Kereen’s latest book too. The Case of the Lighthouse Intruder is the first in a new junior detective series, which stars Fayson, a future FBI agent if ever there was one, and her new friends, ‘the Greatest Gang of All Time’, kids who, in the classic tradition of the Secret Seven or Nancy Drew, like nothing better than a good puzzle to solve. Andrea Reece interviewed Kereen about the book for Books for Keeps.
There are two people to thank for Kereen Getten’s writing: first, her grandmother. Newly arrived in Somerset from the Caribbean, 7-year-old Kereen spent lots of time in her grandmother’s flat. ‘It was filled with books, floor to ceiling,’ she tells me ‘She had all the Secret Seven, Famous Five, Nancy Drew stories, they completely captured my interest and that’s where my love of reading began.’ She remembers in particular reading The Magic Faraway Tree and ‘just being amazed’ that someone could create a world like that and take readers to it, ‘I remember putting the book down and thinking, “I want to do this”.’ She started writing short stories, reading them to her family each evening.
Even so, as other Black authors have commented in interviews for Books for Keeps, she never imagined she would have a career in writing. ‘Writing seemed such a faraway world, that only special people had the luxury of doing. I never saw anyone who looked like me doing it, so just concluded it wasn’t something that I’d ever be able to do.’ She continued writing short stories though well into senior school and it was then that the second person to steer her into her career appears. ‘I wrote a story in my English class and after my English teacher read it she called me to the front and said, “Kereen, if you do anything with your life do something with your writing”.’
She still remembers that teacher to this day, ‘What she said stayed with me such a long time. I don’t think we give teachers and librarians enough credit for the impact they have on children. It was because of her that I began to think perhaps I can make a living from this’.
It took another ten years or so until she decided to properly give writing a go and started entering writing competitions. At that point, she was writing for adults but put the first chapter of what became When Life Gives You Mangoes into a competition. It was highly commended, caught the eye of her now agent, and she hasn’t looked back since, though she’d still like to write for adults one day.
When Life Gives You Mangoes was inspired by her childhood in Jamaica and the freedom she had there, ‘just going to the forest, making up games’; it’s an intoxicating idea for young readers. ‘Things have changed now and kids are less likely to be running around as I was, but I loved the freedom I had. I didn’t appreciate until years later just how wonderful it was.’ Fayson and her new friends have that same freedom, and the series is more light-hearted than Kereen’s previous books, without their background of loss. She’s relished having a group of six children to write about, and especially the ups and downs of their friendships, the jostling for power within the group.
‘I love writing about friendships’, she says, ‘That’s a common thread in all my books. I find them fascinating. I love the dynamics when different characters come together and how they try to get along. Tia and Fayson for example, with Tia adamant, “I’m the boss and you’re not going to take over” but somehow Fayson comes in and takes over anyway!’ The setting for the books is a small island full of holiday homes of wealthy families, Tia’s family are the wealthiest. Fayson is there as a guest of her uncle and aunt and for her and her mother, money is very tight. She’s conscious of the difference between herself and her cousins, and her uncle is constantly correcting her for speaking in Jamaican patois, insisting instead she speak standard English. ‘In Jamaica there is this real divide between working class and upper class’ says Kereen, ‘and I really wanted to address that; even though my books are fiction I feel it’s important to address real life topics, but without preaching to people.’
Has she felt any kind of responsibility to increase representation of children like Fayson in her writing? ‘Early on, I really started to feel that and it put a lot of pressure on me’ she says. To escape she stepped back from involvement in discussions around diversity and representation. ‘I came to the conclusion that if I just write what I love, hopefully that will be enough by itself. I’ve had a few messages from authors who have been inspired by my journey and I love that.’
There’s been debate recently about the lack of ongoing support given to Black authors and that is something she’s noticed, though not from her own publisher. ‘The biggest problem is publishing not seeing these stories as sellable stories, that everyone will read. Our stories are no different to anyone else’s stories, just the face of the person telling the story and I don’t understand why that’s a problem.’
There are another two books to come in the Di Island Crew Investigates series, book two is scheduled for September, and then hopefully more after that too. ‘I love writing them’ says Kereen. ‘I find so much joy in this group of children. I love exploring each character and their personalities and this wonderful little island that they’re on, where they have complete free rein without any of the rules they would have on the mainland.’
She’s having so much fun writing mystery stories too. ‘I really enjoy the problem solving, that here are normal people going about their everyday lives and something happens that turns everything upside down so they have to go on a journey. We don’t know where this journey is taking them, there are clues they have to solve, and in the end they do – but through that they become someone different. What’s happening, where are they going, how are they going to solve this? I love answering those questions.’
‘I had so much fun writing these books’ she concludes, ‘I hope that readers feel that, and that they’re transported into this world of adventure.’ The Di Island Crew Investigates are exactly the kind of books that do that.
Andrea Reece is managing editor of Books for Keeps.
The Case of the Lighthouse Intruder is published by Pushkin Children’s Books, 978-1782693901, £7.99pbk.