US born Frané Lessac who currently resides in Australia launched her career as a children’s book author and illustrator with the publication of My Little Island 30 years ago. Inspired by the magnificent landscape, colorful architecture and friendly people of Montserrat – the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean – the book is a literary and commercial success and has provided her with the opportunity to create an additional 40 books with 9 set in the Caribbean. It tells the story of a young boy who while visiting with his best friend rediscovers the delight of his homeland, Montserrat. Below we present a Q&A interview with Frané Lessac where she talks about her journey before and after publishing My Little Island, a book that now provides historical insight on what Montserrat once was, in that many of the placed depicted are completely buried due to the volcanic eruption that happened 20 years ago.
1. Being from the United States, when did you first learn about the Caribbean island of Montserrat?
I had travelled to many of the islands in the Caribbean, but never heard of Montserrat. When I learnt about the island in 1977 and that it was off the beaten tourist track because the airport runway wasn’t long enough for large jets and the harbor wasn’t deep enough for cruise ships, the little Emerald Isle was instantly appealing!
2. How soon after learning about Montserrat did you visit?
I will never forget landing on Montserrat for the very first time in 1978. As my feet hit the tarmac, I instantly felt a deep connection to the island. Immigration warmly welcomed me to the Caribbean and stamped the iconic green shamrock into my passport. Mango, my taxi driver, drove me over through the Centre Mountains, past the then dormant Soufrière Hills Volcano and fertile farmlands, sharing the winding roads that lead down to the capital Plymouth with donkeys laden with goods. I immediately fell in love with: the people, beautiful scenery, flora and fauna and architecture. I sensed I was ‘home’.
Montserrat’s former capital Plymouth as illustrated by Frané Lessac in My Little Island. Photo credit: ©Frané Lessac.
3. What made you decide to move to Montserrat?
I spotted a house on the sea perched above Woodlands Beach and told the real estate agent if that place ever came up for sale, I’d be interested in buying it. A couple of months after I returned to California a letter arrived saying that the house on the sea was indeed for sale. I hadn’t even seen the inside of the house, but I immediately said we’ll buy it! What an amazing surprise to find that the house came with a Steinway grand piano and a collection of antique musical instruments from around the world.
4. How long did you live in Montserrat — what was it like and what did you do professionally while there?
I lived on the island for 5 years and it was during this period that I began my career as a painter. Once I settled into the house, I set up an art table overlooking Lawyers Ghaut with its waterfalls flowing into the sea and started painting the brightly painted houses, the old colonial architecture, the people and the lush landscape. One day, someone asked if they could buy a painting. I sold one and then another. I was encouraged to pursue my love of painting Montserrat and island life when my very first exhibition sold out.
Plymouth Public Market in Montserrat as illustrated by Frané Lessac in My Little Island. Photo credit: ©Frané Lessac.
5. How did the idea for My Little Island come about — and why a children’s book rather than say a regular travel book on the island?
Becoming a children’s book illustrator was a fortuitous accident. Living on Montserrat, I was saddened that the library was poorly stocked. Children had little in the way of picture books, particularly books where they could identify with. I knew I could share stories with words and paint so I set out to create a book that would make a connection with the children and to their rich culture. I wanted them to be proud of their special place in the world. That became the inspiration for creating My Little Island – a tribute for all Montserratians.
6. Was it difficult to get My Little Island published?
When I first approached publishers all I had was an idea and a series of paintings – a hard sell when you’ve never been published before. I went to London and was rejected by nearly thirty publishers. At Macmillan they hummed and hawed over whether to publish a children’s picture book set on a small Caribbean island. I promised if they went ahead, my mother would buy every single copy. Thirty years on, My Little Island is still in print and has sold nearly 400,000 copies and my mother only had to buy a dozen copies. It should be noted that the book was initially released as The Little Island in 1984 in the Caribbean and United Kingdom. Six months later, it was also published in the United States as My Little Island. This is the title that most people are familiar with. In fact, Macmillan’s version The Little Island has just recently gone out of print after 30 years. It’s only now available as My Little Island.
Vue Pointe Hotel and nearby beach in Montserrat as illustrated by Frané Lessac in My Little Island. Photo credit: ©Frané Lessac.
7. What awards did My Little Island win?
My Little Island was St. Maarten’s Children’s Book of the Year 1985. It was also a Library of Congress Children’s Book Committee Book of the Year List 1986 and a Reading Rainbow Feature Book. This meant that millions of children could learn all about Montserrat on TV. Kellogg’s cornflakes even made a My Little Island bookmark on the side of their cereal boxes. Thanks to that book, I’ve gone on to create over forty children’s books, including nine more set in the Caribbean. A few are directly inspired by Montserrat, including O Christmas Tree and Island Counting 1 2 3. The Dragon of Redonda was inspired by the rock that you can see from Montserrat. Other Caribbean books include: Caribbean Alphabet, Caribbean Canvas, Not a Copper Penny, The Chalk Doll, Caribbean Carnival. My most recent Caribbean book is Drummer Boy of John John, written by my husband, author Mark Greenwood.
8. How did publishing My Little Island change your life?
Being an established children’s book author and illustrator, I now have the opportunity to interact with thousands of children from around the world. Recently, I have travelled to schools and literature festivals in London, Scotland, Bali, Singapore, China, India, Japan, Korea, the USA and more. Sharing a love of books is one of the best gifts anyone can give – an opportunity to read, think and dream. Books can help children go to places they never imagined and show them things that inspire their minds. To this day, children around the world especially love hearing about the mountain chicken frogs and yellow poui tree on the little island! One of the more inspiring moments was on my last visit to Montserrat. I was hiking up a mountain trail and ran into a couple with their young son hiking down. We struck up a conversation and they shared the story of why they were on island all the way from New York. It turned out that the son was a reluctant reader until he read My Little Island. Since it was such a milestone in his learning to read, the family flew him all the way to the island for a special celebration.
Montserrat Carnival as illustrated by Frané Lessac in My Little Island. Photo credit: ©Frané Lessac.
9. What do you think is the legacy of My Little Island?
With a text full of sounds and tastes you can be transported there at once and feel the warmth of the people and the joy of color that embraces you on the island. I hope my book is an everlasting gift for visitors and the people of Montserrat.
10. Have you been back to Montserrat since publication and really after the volcano?
There was a period where I returned to the island every two years with my family. Since the volcano, we’ve been back three to four times. This is probably due to drinking water at Runaway Ghaut. Legend has it that anyone drinking from this magical freshwater spring will return to Montserrat again and again. The devastation by the hurricanes and the volcano causes a great sadness in my heart. I spent many weekends hiking into the previously dormant volcano. Almost all of the places I’ve painted of Montserrat no longer exist. They are buried under tons of ash and rocks. Not a single day goes by when I don’t think about the island. Wherever I go, I continuously talk about Montserrat, showing photos of the volcano before and after, and the devastation it’s caused. It’s always in the forefront of my mind and heart because I speak about the island in school, library and festival visits.
Children’s book author and illustrator Frané Lessac surrounded by students at the Brades Primary School in Montserrat. Photo credit: ©Frané Lessac.
11. Any additional insight you want to provide about My Little Island?
I was so honored to have one of the paintings from the book selected as the cover for After The Hurricane – Songs For Montserrat. This fundraiser compilation album, conceived by Beatles producer George Martin, raised funds to benefit Montserrat hurricane victims. It featured Paul McCartney, The Police, the Rolling Stones, Simply Red and many world-renowned artists that recorded at the legendary Air Studios, which was sadly closed after the hurricane. During my time on Montserrat I met many wonderful people. While they are now scattered throughout the world, they remain my most loyal friends, to this day.