Review of the Day: Crown by Derrick Barnes, ill. Gordon C. James
Do you ever find yourself wondering if a book is too good to be true? Publishers are sneaky little devils. They know just how to lure in an unsuspecting reader. Here’s an example: Let’s say you have a picture book on your hands that’s mediocre in some way. At the same time, you know how many people purchase books based on book covers alone. So really, all you have to do is to take the most interesting image in your book and put it on the cover. Problem solved! In fact, so many publishers do this (or turn the image into a poster/bookmark/tote bag) that the people that work regularly in the field of children’s literature get a little jaded. Now sure, the cover of Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut looked awesome, but this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo. I was trepidatious. I knew that there was a good chance that I’d open the book and find so-so art, good intentions, and underwhelming writing. So I opened that darn book and instead what I got was this electric jolt of vitality, pride, strut, and joie de vivre. This isn’t just a book for kids. This is a friggin’ pamphlet on how to seize onto what makes you feel good about yourself and use it to guide your life. I didn’t initially know who author Derrick Barnes or illustrator Gordon C. James were, but if this is the kind of firepower they’re capable of then they better have a lot more ammo in their arsenal. This is a book that desperately needs to be on every library and bookstore shelf in the country.
“You come in as a lump of clay, a blank canvas, a slab of marble. But when my man is done with you, they’ll want to post you up in a museum! That my word.” But not the only word on the matter. From the minute a young black kid enters the barbershop by himself he finds himself given the full treatment. The cape, the cool shaving cream on the forehead, and the flawless line that “frames your swagger.” The kid imagines everything that’ll happen to him with this haircut. Tests aced. Girls noticing him. All the people in the shop applauding him when it’s done. Sitting next to men getting their own hair done, he imagines who they are in their own lives. He imagines who he’ll be in his own life. And when all is said and done and the barber has been tipped, he steps outside feeling “Magnificent. Flawless. Like royalty. Hello, world . . .”
Imagine if Muhammad Ali were to write a picture book but instead of using his verbal linguistics on his own magnificence he turned those words towards the child reader. I mean, I don’t even know who to really compare author Derrick Barnes to with this book. Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t do it better. Barnes isn’t new to this game. You might be familiar with his Ruby and the Booker Boys series or his middle school book We Could Be Brothers. I’m a little ashamed to admit that the man’s work is entirely new to me. I know this because no human being could read the words on this pages and not feel how they pop off the page like little spitting fireworks. This guy is memorable. Listen to the care and attention he pours into describing the other fellows at the barbershop getting their hair done. “There’s a dude to the left of you with a faux-hawk, deep part, skin fade. He looks presidential. Maybe he’s the CEO of a tech company that manufactures cool. He’s a boss. That’s how important he looks. Dude to the right of you looks majestic. There are thousands of black angels waiting to guide and protect him as soon as he steps a foot out that door. That’s how important he looks.” I have rarely had the experience of feeling like I wasn’t cool enough to read a picture book aloud, but this book gets me close, man. It gets me close.
But it’s not just how it says what it says but what it says. In his highly necessary Author’s Note in the back (seriously, if you read this book and skip the “Note From the Author” then you’ve just done yourself a terrible disservice) Mr. Barnes gives a little credit to his own childhood barber, working in a reference to Big Daddy Kane while he’s there. But the meat of the matter comes when he talks about what he hopes to do with this book. As he says of getting your hair cut, “It’s how we develop swagger, and when we begin to care about how we present ourselves to the world It’s also the time when most of us become privy to the conversations and company of hardworking black men from all walks of life.” Then, later, key, he writes, “And really, other than the church, the experience of getting a haircut is pretty much the only place in the black community where a black boy is ‘tended to’ – treated like royalty.” The hammer hits the nail hard with that line. I’ve written a bit about how, for all that we demand more diverse books for kids, middle grade novels starring black boys are still shockingly low (in 2017 we’re up to twelve, a number that lingers somewhere between sad and shameful). Picture books do slightly better but if you’re looking for something to bump up a boy’s self-esteem, good luck with all that. They’re out there, but they’re usually along the lines of The Adventures of Sparrowboy or something equally fantastical. The difference here is that Mr. Barnes is not afraid to plant himself in front of you and give you the 411 on exactly how awesome a boy feels after a fresh cut. This book is bold as brass and makes no bones about its intent. There’s something incredibly alluring about that. I mean, look at that kid on the cover. Have you ever seen a boy like him feeling that good about himself on a picture book cover before? You. Have. Not.
Of course we wouldn’t even have that cover without Gordon C. James. A fine artist by trade, it looks as if he might have illustrated one or two of Patricia McKissack’s Scraps of Time books about a decade ago. Now a picture book artist can illustrate a book so well that it renders mediocre text invisible, but such books tend to fade from memories quickly. In Crown Mr. James has words worthy of pairing with his skill. Thick paints adorn each page. You see those little crowns on the cover? Raise your hands if you thought of Basquiat when you saw those. Not that Mr. James is emulating Basquiat’s style or anything. Instead, he’s doing about thirty things all at once. His hero, the boy getting the haircut, needs to show his strutting self in a variety of different ways. James can’t just have him replicate the same cool-eyed look, and that’s a tricky challenge for any illustrator. Due to his style, he works with reality. There’s nothing cartoonish about what he’s doing here, but because the words demand a kind of ultra-excellence he also can’t make his art static and staid. So you’ll get a floating head in the cosmos or a starburst behind two award ribbons, even as the book makes it incredibly clear that you seeing all this through the filter of the boy’s imagination. You aren’t just getting his pride from the words but from how he sees himself and others. Be sure you notice that last two-page spread where you have to tip the book horizontally. The artist has made it clear that the last picture in this book shouldn’t merely be an illustration, but a portrait. A very fitting choice. A good picture book is like a conversation between the author and the artist. This book isn’t just a mere conversation though. It’s more like jazz. What Barnes drops, James picks up, and the interchange between the art and the words lights the very pages on fire.
Now I’m a white, female, 39-year-old librarian living in the Midwest. I have never been in a barbershop of any kind, so I’m taking a lot of stuff on faith here. These guys know what they’re talking about and I’m just following behind watching how they tell it. Some professional reviews have said that this is a great book for black boys to read and that’s dead right, but let’s not go thinking that kids of every stripe wouldn’t also find it amazing. They may not get all the references or understand everything that’s going on but when you read something this lyrical and visually splendid, the art trumps personal experience.
So. Here’s the plan. First off, we’re going to make everyone with eyeballs or ears read or hear this book. Next, we bring back in print (possibly with new art) Mr. Barnes’ other books for kids. I’m talking about books with titles like Stop, Drop and Chill and Low-Down Bad-Day Blues. Next, we hire Mr. James to illustrate everything. Nursery rhymes, nonfiction picture book biographies, graphic novels, easy books, you name it. The more work we give him, the better. Then we beg both of them to make a couple more books. You think you can get away with doing one book about a kid getting a haircut and leave it at that? There is a LOT more work out there to be done, and I’m pretty sure we just located the two guys that can do it. No pressure, fellas, but to be honest you kind of brought it on yourselves when you made this magnificent book. Best of all, it gets better every time you read it. A long overdue title we couldn’t have waited another minute for.
On shelves October 10th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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