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Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

Crown, illustrated by Gordon C. James, is a fresh cut, indeed. It finally brings us a new book (and the first picture book) from Derrick Barnes, an author of both young adult books and early readers. The title of the book plays on the old adage that a woman’s hair is her crown. As indicated visually on the cover, this crown belongs to the men.

If you take the time to look through picture books from the United States, you’ll find how rare it is to see an image of a Black man. This was made evident to me several years ago by a white co-worker searching for picture books featuring Black men to read to her young niece, who had expressed a fear of Black men. We searched for books and found very few of them. To see this picture book that celebrates African American men is really quite remarkable.

That guy on the first page of the book takes away any reason for fear. There he is with his sly, side-eye glance, though really he looks directly at us. He’s claiming his story, while inviting us inside to a tale happening in the barbershop, one of the most revered spaces of African American manhood. We have to understand the history here — that this space existed as one of the few public spaces where Black men could freely express their manhood and where they could stand straight, look a man in the eye, speak clearly, laugh, tell inside jokes and, for just a moment, be free of fear.

James’s artwork brings life to Barnes’s words. Our hero, this “lump of clay,” almost fades into the background of the shop’s floor, as he approaches his princely throne. As the narrative voice gives him reason to visit this chair often and to always be his best, we’re provided images of Black men of various hues, some of whom  look directly at us, while others savor a moment of self-satisfaction.

In describing his work in a recent conversation with Mel Schuit, James talks about wanting his oil-based portraits to look like photos. He achieves this effect by using real people as his models. This has resulted in a series of images that, indeed, look like real people, not only because of the finish the oil provides but because James has taken care to create faces that are unique in their own shape, contour, emotions, and skin tone. I think that’s something we don’t often find in picture books. The close-up details provide readers with the feeling of visiting a real barbershop, as if we are getting personal glimpses of men preening as they get their edges tightened up.

While the book is a testament to Black boys and Black men — and to Black boys becoming men— it’s also a testament to their hair, their crown. Each hairstyle is articulated so well through the artist’s brush strokes that readers are able to perceive the actual texture of the hair. James explores a variety of hairstyles, each accompanying a pride-filled face. Whole scenes blend seamlessly with the text, raising the story on an emotional level. When I look at the two cute girls whispering in pink, I think I can hear them whispering, “Girrrrl…” James creates this effect not only in the medium he’s selected, but in the vibrant colors and tones that also work to bring life to the book.

We turn the book vertically on that last image, and that double-page spread felt awkward at first. Shouldn’t it have been placed left to right rather than right to left? I think I’ve been trained, too, to turn the book in a clockwise direction to observe full-page images. Not here! This young man, standing straight and tall while being surrounded by that patriotic red, white, and blue, belongs here — but he’s claiming this space on his own terms and for himself. We’ll need to turn the page in a counter-clockwise direction, because we are in his space. He’s either looking at where he’s been or where he’s going, but he’s not looking at us anymore.

The art in Crown gives our reading a little fresh swagger.

 

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Crown here.

Edith Campbell About Edith Campbell

Edith Campbell is an Education Librarian at Indiana State University in Terre Haute Indiana. She blogs at CrazyQuiltEdi.

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Comments

  1. I’m a big fan of this book for both art and text — in fact, I’ve advocated elsewhere for Newbery consideration.

  2. He’s so fine
    (Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
    Wish he were mine
    (Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
    That handsome boy over there
    (Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
    The one with the wavy hair
    (Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang) -The Chiffons, 1963, in reference to “cute girl spread”

    The last time a crown was part and parcel to a picture book, there was a resulting Caldecott Medal celebration. Javaka Steptoe’s electrifying 2016 biographical “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” won last year’s Caldecott Medal in a glowing acknowledgement for the symbol that represented power, strength and a sign of respect. The meaning of this triumphant representation has hardly changed in “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” in fact the connotation in this work is more intimate and scene-specific. This anti-Kafka tale of a young boy’s cathartic experience after a visit to the barber is a study of building confidence, and a full embrace of the belief that when people believe in themselves they can accomplish just about anything. In a rebuff to those who consider a haircut as annoying as getting their teeth cleaned, Barnes suggests there is so much more than exiting the storefront with the helical striped pole than just the sudden ability to feel a breeze around your ears. Indeed the seemingly innocuous twenty-minute duration under the care of a hair stylist can result in a life-changing experience, one that eradicates low self-esteem, and creates one ready to go out and conquer the world. A fresh cut performed by an expert hair stylist can convert uncertainty to aplomb, timidity to assertiveness, melancholy to unbridled glee. The crown of the title is synonymous with its root connotation. While reading through this celebratory esteem builder one may recall Greer Garson’s advice to her Latin teacher husband Robert Donat, who is up for headmaster at the English Brookfield School: “Never be afraid, Chips, that you can’t do anything you’ve made up your mind to. As long as you believe in yourself, you can go as far as you dream.” Ms. Campbell, who really have captured the spirit and essence of a book that I am personally predicting to win one of the Caldecotts, whether that total is four, five, six or even seven (hello 2015!). A prediction of course is exactly that, and no one has any idea what will happen in those cloistered meetings from February 10th to the 12th.

    Fascinating revelation about James wanting to make his exquisite oils look like photographs, as these tapestries are so life like. And what a marriage of language and illustration. (I do fully agree with Monica Edinger that Barnes should be on the Newbery table as well).

    In a magnificent essay touching all vital components Edith this is my favorite passage:

    “While the book is a testament to Black boys and Black men — and to Black boys becoming men— it’s also a testament to their hair, their crown. Each hairstyle is articulated so well through the artist’s brush strokes that readers are able to perceive the actual texture of the hair. James explores a variety of hairstyles, each accompanying a pride-filled face. Whole scenes blend seamlessly with the text, raising the story on an emotional level.”

    My favorite spreads are the vertical near the end, the “You’re a star” single page canvas and the blowing the trumpet tapestry. But in this book EVERY illustration is wholly sublime. I’ve even alerted my longtime barber of book, and he was mighty thrilled and impressed.

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