Continuing our look at award winning-books, this week Mary Fahrenbruck and Tracy Smiles share their take on Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, awarded a John Newbery Honor, a Caldecott honor and Corretta Scott-King Honor in 2018. The story by Derrick Barnes and illustrations by Gordon C. James presents readers with, as the Huffington Post said when naming it among 2017’s best picturebooks, “a celebration of self-esteem and a thoughtful nod to the importance of stepping into the world with a touch of swagger.”
TRACY: Of all the books we read together this month, this one is perhaps the most decorated and celebrated, and, I would argue, for good reason. The premise is simple–an “ode” is a celebration of something, initially of gods and royalty. But then Pablo Neruda recreated the ode to celebrate ordinary everyday people and their experiences, composing odes to things like socks, onions and tomatoes. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut follows this Neruda tradition by elevating the glorious feeling that comes from a new haircut.
I can relate to celebrating a haircut. I feel renewed after I indulge in personal care, like getting my hair done, a pedicure, polishing a favorite pair of shoes… But, like Neruda’s odes, this ode is about more. It is about the value of people, in particular the value of a young Black male, offering a counter narrative to the often-maligned images of Black men in the U.S. This boy is elevated to royalty and grandeur because he is…. Sadly, I write this during the aftermath of yet another senseless shooting of a Black man who police mistakenly thought had a gun….
“When it’s your turn in you stand at attention and forget about who you were when you walked through the door.” While here the “door” and “chair” reference the barber shop, I’ve been thinking about what makes me forget about who I was before–such as who I was before I read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, before I watched the movie Amadeus, before I first heard a recording of Martin Luther King give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
MARY: The upturned nose, the downward gaze, hand placed on the side of his head; the boy on the cover displays signs of confidence and swagger that come after a haircut. Although I wouldn’t say I have swagger after I get my hair cut, I definitely feel more confident!
TRACY: I enjoyed reading this story from beginning to end. I learned a few things about hair styles from Barnes–tight fade, skin fade, high/low/bald, faux-hawk. James’ oil-on-board illustrations draw me in emotionally. The thick paint and bold brush strokes covertly communicate to me that this is more than a story about feeling good after a haircut. But I couldn’t uncover the hidden message. It wasn’t until I read Barnes’ A Note from the Author that I understood the human dimension tucked into the story. Barnes notes that “other than the church, getting a haircut is pretty much the only place in the black community where a black boy is ‘tended to’–treated like royalty” (Barnes, 2017, n.p.). Barnes’ words expose the harsh reality of black/brown boys across our nation.
MARY: I can see your work analyzing images in picturebooks is paying off! Yes, the images in this book are gorgeous! When I first read this book, I thought of other books about hair–like Nappy Hair (Herron, illus. by Cepeda, 1998), Happy to be Nappy (hooks, illus. by Raschaka, 1999) and Erandi’s Braids (Madrigal, illus. by dePaola, 1999). In fact, Katie Van Sluys (2005) has a critical literacy engagement around hair in her book What If and Why: Literacy Invitations Multilingual Classrooms. Crown: Ode to the Fresh Cut would make an excellent addition to the text set Sluys includes in her book. And, as you point out–it is the critical aspect of the book that really offers potential for inquiry into some difficult issues like what you mentioned in relation to the historical context of the Barber Shop for African American boys. The end pages by Barnes hit home the oppressive inequality African Americans in this country still encounter today….
Title: Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut
Author: Derrick Barnes
Illustrator: Gordon C. James
Publisher: Agate Publishing
Publish Date: October 10, 2017
This is the second installment of April 2018’s My Take/Your Take. The first week Mary and Tracy discuss All Around Us. To follow the whole conversation, check back each Wednesday.