J.D. and the Great Barber Battle: A J. Dillard Interview
Folks, there’s no two ways about it. It’s time to have a little fun. For the first time, I’m gonna say ever, we’re seeing a publishing uptick in fun middle grade books starring Black boys. And one of those books is J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard, illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts. Funny and fast, I take a deep dive into it with Mr. Dillard himself. But who is he? Here’s his bio in brief:
“J. Dillard (known as the “Barberpreneur”) is a former managing partner for ConAllegiance, a consulting firm based out of Atlanta, Georgia. He is a master barber, a certified consultant, and an industry leader who started cutting his own hair at the age of ten. After many trials and tribulations, he began cutting hair professionally in 1999 and became a shop owner while attending college at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He travels the country with his clients as a personal barber and calls Atlanta home. This is his first book series for children.”
And just to catch you up to speed, here’s the plot of the book:
“J.D. has a big problem–it’s the night before the start of third grade and his mom has just given him his first and worst home haircut. When the steady stream of insults from the entire student body of Douglass Elementary becomes too much for J.D., he takes matters into his own hands and discovers that, unlike his mom, he’s a genius with the clippers. His work makes him the talk of the town and brings him enough hair business to open a barbershop from his bedroom. But when Henry Jr., the owner of the only official local barbershop, realizes he’s losing clients to J.D., he tries to shut him down for good. How do you find out who’s the best barber in all of Meridian, Mississippi? With a GREAT BARBER BATTLE!”
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today! Now this whole book begins with your main character, J.D., receiving the world’s worst home haircut from his mom. And I don’t know about you but with the whole closing of hair salons and barbershops during COVID (and the consequential uptick in home haircutting), this hit really close to home. Have you ever been the victim of a home haircut? Or someone close to you? Did this book’s beginning have any basis in real life?
J. Dillard: Yes! My mother cut our hair when we were kids to save money. She used to give me an even-steven type haircut, or one more rounded at the front, which wasn’t the style at the time. I was sent to school, and it was brutal in Mississippi in the 80s. Kids picked on me, bullied me.
That’s one of the many things that motivated me to take over and learn how to do it myself. But it wasn’t as easy back in the 80s. With the resources and tools kids have now, it’s night and day in comparison. With no YouTube or social media to guide me, I just picked up some clippers and started doing it. I experimented to get a feel of what length and style I wanted.
I practiced on others, too. My little brother let me butcher his hair time and time again, and my best friends—since most people got their hair cut by family anyway—would come over to let me practice. As much as I begged, my grandpa would never let me cut his hair. He was just old school and went to a shop he was comfortable with.
BB: So where did you get the idea for this book in the first place?
JD: Overall, about 90 percent of the book is loosely based off my life growing up in Mississippi and my own journey to cutting hair.
I’ve actually wanted to do something like this for a while as a way to impact and challenge younger generations. At least, that’s initially why I wanted to write it. I wanted children to see what it was like through my eyes; to show them that their hobby can become an actual career and encourage them to pursue a passion. I wanted to make a positive impact on both children’s dreams and visions and also how people view the barbering business. In the black community, barbers are respected; the shop is often seen as a meeting place. Being a barber can really be a lucrative career and you can make six figures. I’m hoping to show kids that they can become an entrepreneur, too—or barberpreneur, as I like to say.
BB: So with that in mind, what kind of personality do you need to be an excellent barber?
JD: Being in the glam industry, patience is vital because you are dealing with all different types of people and personalities daily. Patience is a master barber’s super power. Confidentiality is another one; we know how to keep things close to the vest. It’s one of the things that makes going to a barber shop or salon so fantastic. Most people are tense when in an unfamiliar environment, but once they get used to it, those walls tend to come down a bit more. Barber shops and salons are the original social media outlet—period. You’re gonna get your political folks, your sports folks, your gossip, etc. But it’s Barber 101 that everything is entirely confidential.
Another one of our super powers? Helping a person destress and transform inside and out. When you come into that space, whatever weight is on your shoulders is lifted. For thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, you can drop everything and relax and have your head treated. When your barber is done, you feel like a whole new person. You have a new sort of confidence.
BB: This book falls into the fine and outstanding tradition of kids books where the hero has the wherewithal to make a little money. Kids are constantly trying to think up ways to make some cash, but this is the first time I’ve heard of cutting hair as an option. Any chance you’re going to be getting sent photos of kids with their own pairs of clippers after they read your book?
JD: The idea of kids sending me photos is a gamechanger. It’s extremely impactful and overwhelmingly dope. Having those photos would be proof that kids are actually reading the book/being read the book and have a sense of understanding that they can turn a hobby into financially stability.
I definitely plan on saving the photos and reposting them on my Instagram page, @JDkidbarber, so I can show the buildup of kid readers and positive responses. In fact, I plan on using the hashtag #JDthekidbarber. So keep an eye open for those!
BB: So who cuts the hair in your household?
JD: Originally, my mother started cutting our hair, then my older sister Valerie gave it a try. My sister followed the same routine as my mom, meaning my haircut was not good. And, again, Mississippi my peers were BRUTAL in the 80s. After all, hair is part of your whole outfit. It’s why what we do as barbers is so important—we beautify from the neck up.
It was shortly after Valerie tried to cut my hair that I completely took over and did all the haircuts at home.
BB: Were there any ideas you wanted to include in this book that you had to drop for one reason or another?
JD: This book was originally supposed to be a stand-alone, so I was lucky enough to be able to have all the content I wanted in my first novel. Everything I wanted to be included is there! Now, book two and three, being that this originally wasn’t planned as a series, were definitely more sliced up. I’m happy with all I accomplished in book one and love the series as a whole. I can’t wait until people get a chance to read all three.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
JD: I am currently executive producing my first reality show called Jr. Master Barber. It is similar to Gordon Ramsey’s Master Chef, but with barbers. Kids between the ages of 9 and 15 compete for $10,000. The winner will not only be sponsored by a clipper company for an entire year, they will also win a scholarship to one the top beauty schools: Paul Mitchell Beauty School. It’ll offer kids an amazing opportunity to get their foot in the industry and have some fun while doing it. Overall, the series has twelve episodes and a host, cohost, and new guest judge for each one.
When it comes to the book series, I’ve finished writing all three books and we’re working on edits for book three. Readers who enjoy book one will really be engaged when they see the sibling rivalry and family comradery and that comes out in book two. It takes them to a whole new level. In book three, we take readers to a hair show with J.D.
Great big piles of thanks to Mr. Dillard for responding to my questions and to Vanessa DeJesús and the folks at Kokila (an imprint of Penguin Random House) for setting this up. The book is now available for purchase everywhere. Do be so good as to check it out, won’t you?
Filed under: Interviews
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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