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James Berry was born and brought up in a tiny seaside village in Jamaica. He learnt to read before he was four years old, mostly from the Bible, which he often read aloud to his mother's friends. As a child he loved the stories of Anancy Spiderman, and he began writing his own stories and poems while he was still at school.

When he was 17, James went to work in America, but he hated the way that black people were treated there, and returned to Jamaica after four years. In 1948, he made his way to Britain, and took a job working for British Telecom. He took up writing seriously two years later, but it was some time before he started writing poetry.

In his poems, he uses a mixture of standard English and Creole, the language of Jamaica. He is active both as a writer and in promoting black writing, especially black poetry.

James has won many awards for his poems and stories, and was the Grand Prix Winner of the Smarties Prize in 1987 for A Thief in the Village. In 1990 he was awarded an OBE for services to Poetry.