Lola the ladybug is loveable, full of joy, inspiration, imagination, self-expression and creativity.
She is the main character in author Mary Cuffy’s children’s books – Lola and the Dancing Ladybugs, Lola and the Magic Sticks and Bake the Cocoa Cookie with Lola.
Reminiscent of Sesame Street, the books use fun and music to help children learn. The first book helps with learning to count, the second with playing the steelpan and the alphabet, and the third with baking.
“The idea behind Lola is to talk about the local things that are happening and we want the children to learn about. I also want them to develop a love for reading rather than it being a punishment.”
Cuffy told WMN Lola was born out of tragedy. She decided to publish Lola and the Dancing Ladybugs when her contract with the Ministry of Education as an early childhood curriculum programme facilitator was coming to an end in December 2018.
“Coming to the end of my contract, thinking about what to do with myself, you always have that moment of uncertainty of what you should do next. Getting involved in writing is something I always wanted to do so I settled my mind to do some writing, storytelling, and probably maybe turn it into a TV show for children and make some money.
“It worked out better than that because I’m still with the Ministry of Education and I was still able to touch a lot of people with Lola.”
Her idea for Lola, however, came to her in July 2018 through three things that happened around the same – a discussion with friends and two workshops.
“I have a master’s in literacy from the University of the West Indies (UWI) and I remember a lot of conversations with my friends who were frustrated because we need Caribbean literature, but we never really pursued it. It was a case of being frustrated in that moment and you say you will do something.”
She said during teaching practices for her work at the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Division, she often made short stories for children and participants would express their appreciation for them. So, when she heard about a writer’s workshop she decided to attend.
Simultaneously, she was facilitating a teachers’ workshop called Learning in the Outdoors.
“I looked at how the teachers were so happy going outdoors, when we had movement activities, when they were able to find an insect like a ladybug. And all the time, my thoughts were on what I would present on the last day of the writer’s workshop.”
Since Cuffy grew up on a farm in Arima, she was familiar with animals, insects and the outdoors so she thought she would write a book about something outdoors.
“That night I thought, I’m going to formulate something with numbers because I know parents like to teach children their numbers and alphabet, but I want children to learn in a fun and enjoyable way.”
Cuffy also has a love for music so she did some research and found that jazz was soothing to children. So, she knew her story would involve the vocalisation of jazz tunes, for example, la-de-dum, for the parents and children to sing as they wish. She also knew it would involve a ladybug, dancing and numbers.
She took her idea to the facilitator of the writer’s workshop, Shelley-Ann Edwards-Barran, who was impressed by the idea and encouraged her to continue.
Three weeks later, she had some more solid ideas about the story but she did not have a name for the character. She went to breakfast with a friend at Lola’s restaurant in Port of Spain and thought it would be a perfect name for her ladybug.
With that settled, she returned to Edwards-Barran who revealed she was an editor and offered to edit the book for Cuffy.
Now that she had a name and a story, it was time to conceptualise Lola. She started looking at graphics of ladybugs online but they did not suit the character.
Fortunately, a friend met graphic artist, Liselle Benjamin, at an artisan market and showed Cuffy her artwork. Cuffy contacted the artist and she developed Lola, chose the fonts, colours, and illustrated the book.
“When I saw the finished product I was so thankful. It was simple and when other people saw it they were amazed. Liselle was able to understand exactly what I needed. She really brought Lola to life.”
Cuffy recalled that for the Christmas of 2018 she sold many copies of Lola and the Dancing Ladybugs. Lola wanted to go to a jazz forest party but she had to learn how to do the snazzy-jazzy dance which is a combination of different rhythms.
“Surprisingly, about 75 per cent of the sales were from parents of boys who were actually willing to dance and carry on using this book. And after so many people asked me to do readings and those kinds of things, it made me say, ‘I really want to do a second book.’”
Therefore, in July 2019, Lola and the Magic Sticks was published.
She explained that the then minister of education was considering doing a pan in school programme in pre-schools. So, she thought it was a good time to write about Lola learning about the steelpan – its history, how to tune it, and how to play. By the end of the book, a child could play the alphabet song after reading it.
Since then, government early childhood centres have been outfitted with steelpans and, before the pandemic, was getting support from the ministry to teach the classes.
“It can help with children’s fine motor development. They have to learn to hold a stick, they learn the alphabet, they learn about music and they get to try out rhythms on a steelpan or a steelpan app.”
Bake the Cocoa Cookie with Lola was published in December 2019. Cuffy chose the theme because she knew parents like to bake cookies with their children, especially around Christmas, yet, the country does not hear much about local cocoa outside of a chocolate festival.
“Our children know all the sweet stuff like Cadbury and Charles, but you would hardly find a parent going in the supermarket to buy local cocoa for a child. So, in this story the child could actually learn to make cookies with the major ingredient being the cocoa.”
She added that there was a call and response aspect to the story every time Lola adds an ingredient. The reader can visit the Lola and the Dancing Ladybugs Facebook page to hear her singing the notes from all the books or they could make up any tune they want.
During the pandemic, books sales slowed down and she did not want to go through the process of making home deliveries, so she did not want to publish another book. She could not visit schools to do readings but she wanted to do something for the children at home so she turned her newest book into a play – Lola and the Battle of the Bugs.
“Not everyone could get a book or buy a book but they could know Lola’s still out there and thinking about them.”
Cuffy said she has been part of the Bocas Lit Fest children’s programme since publishing her first book and was happy when the organisation supported the idea of the play and produced it.
Directed by Penelope Spencer and acted by children from the Necessary Arts School, of which Spencer is artistic director, the play starts with Lola and her friends playing mas at a Flower Carnival.
Just before crossing the stage, one of her friends, Colly the croton plant, was taken over by a gang of mealybugs. To help her friend and defeat the mealybugs, Lola and the mealybug gang leader, Melvina, had to stickfight.
“I wanted to talk about stickfighting but I wanted to use it in this really child-like manner. What they learn is the movement of the stick fighting, the dance, shadowing and the lavway.”
The play was recorded and premiered at the Bocas Lit Fest in April, and was broadcast on TTT on Saturday. Cuffy intends to post it on her Lola and the Dancing Ladybugs Facebook page soon.
Cuffy stressed that both music and drama have a connection with literacy.
“Literacy is sound. How do we pronounce words? We use sounds. So, they are integrated.”
She added that engaging with a script, literature as text, is an important component of drama learning. In turn, drama aligns with, supports and reinforces students’ development of literacy as they imagine and participate in explorations of their worlds, and helps them build their vocabulary and awareness of language structures.
“Students use movement and voice, language and ideas to explore roles, characters, relationships and situations. The literacy skills that students develop through drama assist them to learn to think, move, speak and act with confidence.”
Cuffy also a twice monthly activity feature – Learning with Lola and Friends – in Sunday Newsday's children's magazine, sharing the lessons the ladybug learns about the country's culture.
The mother of a 23-year-old son has a bachelor’s degree in education with a concentration in early childhood care education, and master's of education in literacy instructions.
She also lectures at the UWI, Open Campus, in the certificate and bachelor's in education in the Early Childhood Development and Family Studies programme.
Cuffy said The Let’s Read Foundation has been very supportive throughout her writing career and, for the past two years, she has been involved in the i AM STEM camps in Atlanta, Georgia where her books are used to talk about science and music.
“I always see children, am always creating for them, and I know they need to be involved in joyful activities to learn. Their pure and innocent spirit of happiness always stays with you.”
Cuffy said her family and close friends have been very supportive of her writing, and believes God has been directing her path. She will continue to depend on them as she writes more stories about Lola the Ladybug.