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Five Questions for Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James

by Martha V. Parravano and Dr. Kim Parker

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Millner/Bolden Books/Agate, 4–8 years) was a 2018 ALA Youth Media Awards darling, recipient of four Honor awards: Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King Author, and Coretta Scott King Illustrator. The Crown team — author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James — answer Five Questions from The Horn Book’s Martha V. Parravano (a member of the 2016–2018 Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury)  and Dr. Kim Parker (assistant director of teacher training at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, MA, and co-chair for the Books for Black Children and Youth initiative of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement) about their collaboration, their book’s great success, and being follically challenged.

1. Crown seems like a closer collaboration than usual — between publisher, author, artist, families, and more. How did it come about?

DB: I believe in timing wholeheartedly. You have to be led by the universe and what it has in store for you. I wrote a poem after being inspired by a friend’s sketch of his teenage son. He had just been blessed with the all-important “Fresh Cut.” Denene Millner Books came to me and asked if I had anything that featured Black children just being…children. No civil rights, no slavery, and no downtrodden urban tales. Just joy, and life, and an empowering message. I gave them what came to be Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. At least three or four illustrators passed on it before we (well, I) begged Gordon to take it on. There are no mistakes in life. This would be a totally different book if someone else had illustrated it. Our connection was meant to be.

GCJ: It was. Derrick reached out to me about the Crown project. Normally I’d hear about a project from my agent and I’d never meet the author. Derrick and I have known each other for quite a while. Finally, the timing was right for us to do project together. It also was cool because I was able to use Derrick’s son Silas as the main character in the book. That being said, I think the key is that our artistic styles really complement each other.

2. How is Silas dealing with his newfound fame? 😉

DB: To be honest, Silas is probably more excited and happy for me with the success of the book. He’s in middle school, still trying to develop his “cool.” He’s as cocky and self-assured as that pose on the cover, but the happiness he’s experiencing over the book is aimed at his old man, and I’ll take it. He knows how long of a road this has been for me.

GCJ: I enjoy working with models I have a connection to. It’s an added benefit for me when I can make a child, or a particular family, feel special through my work.

3. There’s a woman getting her hair cut in the barber shop. Why was it important to include this detail?

DB: Traditionally, “the shop” has always been a safe haven for the men in the Black community. But what would the community be without Black women? Shout-out to all of the amazing, talented women barbers, the mothers, and grandmothers who bring their sons in on Saturday afternoons, and the sisters that come in and want their fade as tight and magnificent as any other patron. I salute you, Queens.

GCJ: It was important because barber shops aren’t the “male-only” spaces they used to be.  Also, women are wearing a variety of styles.

4. Do you have a relationship with your own barber?

DB: I’m bald. I’m my own barber. He’s a great guy, my barber. I use a depilatory designed for bald guys called Magic Shave Razorless Cream. It smells awful but it works miracles. Leaves me with a shiny, chocolate jelly-bean head.

GCJ: I cut my own hair. At forty-four it’s not a job that requires a professional any longer. I do have a great relationship with my son’s barber, Mr. Reggie — who became the barber in Crown. Heads Up Barber Shop on 36th Street in Charlotte, North Carolina, is pictured on the book’s cover. It is a meeting place, a conversation hub, and it is our neighborhood barber shop.

5. What’s next for the Crown team?

DB: We are working on a signature series of picture books that will have a similar look, feel, theme, and voice to Crown. Obviously, we’ll both go on to work with other illustrators and authors, but when you see a Barnes-James collabo, you’ll know it. That’s my brother.

GCJ: I’m looking forward to working with Derrick again. Our agent Regina Brooks at Serendipity Literary Agency is working on our schedules so we can make it happen.

From the February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Herald: ALA Youth Media Awards Edition.

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