Being raised in a home where reading was fundamental fuelled Mrs Florenz Webbe Maxwell’s passion for literature.
The published author and former librarian first realised she wanted to write while attending the Central School, now known as Victor Scott, after reading the popular children’s novels The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope.
But what bothered her about the adventure series the most was that the cook and the butler, both black, were depicted as being “more stupid than the twins”.
“I couldn’t understand this because the adults that I knew were not stupid,” she said.
After complaining to her mother about the books’ derogatory manner, she suggested that Mrs Webbe Maxwell write her own books and create her own characters — so she did.
She began writing short stories in exercise books, fascinating her classmates who would encourage her by lining up to read them.
“I knew nothing about plotting, setting and all the fundamental aspects of writing, but it taught me discipline and it taught me how to be creative,” she said.
With dreams of living abroad and working at a publishing house, Mrs Webbe Maxwell accidentally fell into librarianship while on a study trip to England with her late husband, Dr Clifford Maxwell.
“I had the opportunity to go to the children’s library with my two sons, and the librarian there was fascinated with the fact that I enjoyed books so much,” Mrs Webbe Maxwell said. “She said to me one day, ‘you should become a children’s librarian’.”
What the librarian didn’t know was that the library in Bermuda was segregated at the time, and it would have made little sense to train as a librarian to then return home without a job.
Determined to still become a children’s librarian Mrs Webbe Maxwell took a job in Bermuda as the library’s messenger — it was the only position available.
“I began pasting pockets in the back of books, the pay was so embarrassing that I couldn’t take the cheque to the bank one at a time, so I would let them pile up,” she said.
This allowed her to be exposed to the library and when an opening came as a library assistant, she was able to get the job without yet receiving qualifications. Later-on she attended Atlanta University and acquired her degree in librarianship before spending almost 28 years at the Bermuda Youth Library.
In 1972 Mrs Webbe Maxwell won an award from the Council on Interracial Books for Children for a manuscript that was never published in Bermuda because of what she termed “racial issues”. From there she became interested in Bermuda folktales and wrote Spirit Baby, published in 2008 by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs.
Her recently published book, Girlcott, was the 2016 second place winner of the Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. It tells the story of 16-year-old Desma Johnson and her experience during the 1959 theatre boycott — a pivotal time in Bermudian History.
Although Girlcott has been flying off the shelves, Mrs Webbe Maxwell had a hard time getting it published as she found that young adult books were “in another dimension”.
She said: “I wanted my teenager, Desma, to be a credit to young people; I didn’t want her to be dysfunctional. There are too many young adult books like that. There is also another side to young people and I wanted to portray that.”
Presently writing an article for a Caribbean magazine Mrs Webbe Maxwell has been constantly asking herself why the news of Bermuda desegregating in two weeks, without any violence never made news outside of the island — realising that this story is one that must be told.
“We just carried on with our lives without recognising that this [moment] was a significant part of history,” she said.
To her surprise Girlcott has been read by as many adults as young people, with many telling her that they can reminisce about the largely overlooked events.
“I just feel blessed that something that I wanted to do all of my life has reached fruition at this age,” Mrs Webbe Maxwell said.
“This is a very crucial age where many people become bored and they feel like they’ve done it, and don’t need to do any more and they sit back and wait for the Grim Reaper. But I feel as though I still have every day to look forward to.
Mrs Webbe Maxwell believes her story can encourage those of all ages to chase their dreams and fulfill them no matter how old you are.
“Find out your gift, concentrate on it, pursue it and one day you’ll be able to look back and say ‘I’m glad I did it’,” she said. “That’s where I am in my life.”
Girlcott, published by Blouse and Skirt Books, is available at Brown & Co.