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Why Do Kids’ Books About Black Hair Draw So Much Attention — and Controversy?

When I was a little girl, I loved the moments I spent with my mom as she did my hair — not so much getting my hair combed, but the ritual around the process, and the magic we created out of it. First, the banishment of annoying siblings to another part of the house. Then, the gathering of materials: a turquoise wide-tooth comb and brush set, an assortment of candy-colored barrettes, and the jar of blue Ultra Sheen hair grease, a small cup of solidified ocean that bore the swirling imprint, like fossilized waves, of dipping fingers. Finally, there were the stories. We pretended there were people who lived in my hair, and as she combed each section, we’d “visit” our regular cast of characters — usually based on real-life friends and relatives — creating elaborate story lines about the goings-on in their lives. Sitting between my mother’s knees I could be and do anything. I felt powerful.

As I got older, I became aware that as an African-American girl, I saw myself very differently from how others saw me. Kids teased me about my weight, my clothes and my hair, which I began to wear straightened in an attempt to fit in, but which never seemed comfortable on top of my head (I was the girl with the lopsided “mushroom,” or the frizzy edges that I sweated out during gym class). Suddenly, the voices of the people in my hair were quiet. My hair had lost its magic, and, I felt, so had I.

Books were my anchors whenever I questioned myself, my attractiveness, my magic. Yet even in the pages that became my solace, I rarely saw images of black kids like me — weird, “quirky” and shy — who just got to be regular kids, grappling with everyday kid stuff. Much later, when I decided to write a children’s book, hair seemed like a natural subject, inspired by the special time I shared with my mom as she combed my hair, which had awakened my love of storytelling. But I also wanted to expand the kinds of stories told about African-American kids. The result was “I Love My Hair!,” a story about an African-American girl who uses vivid imagery to celebrate the ways she wears her hair, published in 1998 and now being reissued on its 20th anniversary.

Back then mainstream publishers were starting to pay attention to what was called “multiculturalism,” the precursor of today’s diverse books movement. Yet I still felt stories about black kids were narrow, either historical or focused on trauma or the ills of urban communities. In “I Love My Hair!” I sought to create a whimsical story that encouraged kids not only to love their hair, but also to explore and find joy in their own imaginations.

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