I’m having a hard time explaining just how much I loved this book, but I’m going to do my best.
First off, Hair Story is own voices written & illustrated, and both the author, NoNieqa Ramos, and the illustrator, Keisha Morris, include their own hair stories at the back of the book, which was a lovely surprise.
Second, do you see these illustrations?
The texture and colors and patterns and perfection of them? You can see the love in that grandmother’s face, the joy in these girl’s eyes, and I basically wanted to just post the whole book because I loved so many of the pictures. Even the sun is smiling in this drawing. 🙂 I just immediately added all of Morris’ other work to my TBR mountain.
Then there’s the text, and it’s strikingly amazing. Ramos pulls off all sorts of rhyming wizardry – y’all know how particular I am about rhyme schemes, and this one hit every mark it went for, and more. The more? Adding text in slang, textspeak, AAVE, Spanish, and (according the author’s Goodreads comment I just saw when I went to post this review) “Spanglish”, in an amalgam of different accents & languages that just blend into a really accurate portrayal of the kind of language all the multilingual kids I know actually speak. And yes, we count AAVE and slang as languages, and I wrote about why, but I’m going to just quote even more directly from the author, because she says it much better than I did.
“Diversity means including authentic voices; it means writing one’s own voice; it means putting these books on shelves and into the hands of children….if we truly want to uplift marginalized voices we cannot say grammatical English is the gold standard in the classroom and in the library and AAVE, Spanglish, and “slang” is only acceptable in the streets or only palatable in narratives of trauma.
Because truly, among many many other things AAVE, Spanglish, and “slang” is the people’s poetry. Free verse, what I write, is what I consider the jazz of poetry. It’s sometimes unpredictable. There might be a little chaos. It sometimes takes a minute to understand. But that’s O.K. We certainly have spent centuries trying to understand the canon of white men. Men in general, really. Sometimes, we have to learn to tune our ears-and tune out our biases–to hear the music.
In fact, including “big words” like “resilience” and “slang” in my book was quite intentional.”
And she’s 100% right.
I used to teach reading to littles, and I lived & taught in a pretty diverse city. In fact, I once had a kid tell me that I was “ghost white,” which is not wrong. In that kind of environment, I learned very quickly that the kids in my class needed to see themselves in the books we were reading, but 20 years ago, that wasn’t as easy as it is today. We managed to find quite a few books with kids of all different cultures and colors, and I’m still proud of the library we managed to put together. But something that I realize now I mostly overlooked was how the kids in those books spoke. They didn’t speak like the kids in my classroom, and that was a failure on my part. Kids need to hear their own languages in books, just as much as they need to see their own faces and read about their own experiences. Representation matters, and it matters in ways you/I may not have considered previously. I’m glad that there are books out there now, like Hair Story, that flow this seamlessly between dialects and descriptions of experiences that kids of often underrepresented cultures and colors will get to experience.
And the way the words are crafted in this book – it’s breathtaking, honestly. From multiple metaphors – I particularly enjoyed “Fingers and rubber bands choreograph. Hairs dance. Jete’. Chasse’. Hooray for braid ballet.” – to moving from conversations to thoughts and back again without faltering, this text is definitely poetry. (And, if you don’t happen to speak any of the extra languages included, there’s also a handy glossary at the back, including a pronunciation guide.)
But if I’ve learned anything from all the incredible Black activists and advocates that I follow on social media, it’s that hair, and Black hair in particular, is never “just hair.” Now, this is usually in response to some utter nonsense like cultural appropriation of dreads or a child being unable to wear their natural hair to school, but it’s also about the central role hair plays in so many cultures, and the positive/negative cultural touchstones that belong to certain communities that include hair. And Hair Story embodies these over and over again.
From the first words of the book, which say “Baby’s crown,” to the last, “woven glory,” each word, sentence, picture and prose of Hair Story means & shows more than what we can see on the page. “strands of strength and loss. Resilience & pride intertwined”, Ramos writes, and that double-sided element is evident on every page of the book. The author celebrates everything here, both ups and downs – the having to sit still forevers, but also the freedom of letting it flow in the wind. And then she gives us a mural full of “Fro-ments in time:” A mural full of famous Black, Afro-Lantix & non-Black Latinx people and their incredible hair too, and later on, little bios and bits and pieces about the people included in the mural, so you can read & learn more about them too.
Because hair is about more than hair, for so many people. And I’m glad to have found this book that illustrates that so beautifully and clearly.
I got my copy through NetGalley, and they tell me #Hair Story by NoNieqa Ramos & Keisha Morris will be available September 7, 2021.