To say that Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James knocked their first picture book out of the ballpark would be an understatement about a book with very little that is understated about it. In the short time it’s been on shelves, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut has garnered a host of starred reviews and much-deserved praise.
This rhythmic tribute to the fresh cut of black boys and the confidence and swagger it can give them, which begs to be read aloud, exudes joy and boundless pride. However, Barnes—writing with his own pleasing swagger (“It’s amazing what a tight fade, high/low/bald does for your confidence: Dark Caesar”)—celebrates more than just the work of a good barber in this book. He celebrates black boys and their very communities, the Kirkus review stating that the book “oozes … timely, much-needed black joy.” As he writes in a closing author’s note, Barnes sets out to focus on the humanity of black boys and men: “Deep down inside, they wish that everyone could see what they see: a real life, breathing, compassionate, thoughtful, brilliant, limitless soul that matters—that desperately matters. We’ve always mattered.”
Illustrator Gordon C. James makes his living in North Carolina as a fine artist. His textured oil paintings in Crown exuberantly capture the beauty of brown people. And that cover? Hands down, it’s my favorite picture book cover of the year.
I talked with both Barnes and James via email to ask them about Crown and what it’s been like to share it with the world.
Jules: Derrick, when did you know you wanted to write this and how you were inspired by your own boyhood visits to the barber?
Derrick Barnes (Photo courtesy of Victoria Blackshear)
Derrick Barnes: I saw a post one day on Facebook by a fellow children's book artist/author, Don Tate. It was of his teen son after returning from the barber. I thought the cut was so fresh! And “fresh” is a term that is generally dated, but as it relates to a nice haircut—in the Black community, in this specific context—fresh is eternal. It's the universal adjective used after coming from “the shop.”
It made me think of the period in my life when I was granted a little more independence, and I either started riding the bus around the city or I rode my bike. I just felt like my whole life and the way I was viewed by my peers changed when I stepped out of that barber's chair. Smarter. More popular. Brilliant. Just the best version of myself.
Jules: What was the biggest challenge for you in writing your first picture book text? And what was the biggest joy?
Barnes: This is my first baby!
I always knew that I wanted to write for different age groups, but I had no idea what the topic for the first book would be. It just kind of happened. Crown is really a poem, which leads to the greatest challenge—the formatting and hoping that the message wouldn't be chopped and become disconnected from page to page. You never know how the book/story is going to be formatted.
But Denene Millner, my editor and the founder/president of Denene Millner Books, was so easy to work with. She really put me at ease and allowed the voice of the protagonist to be completely authentic. That character, that voice was really an amalgamation of Black boys from all over the country, from various generations that have shared the same self-affirming experience.
Jules: Gordon, what was your first response to the text? Did you immediately have a vision for what you wanted this book to look like?
Gordon C. James Gordon C. James: My original response was that the text was special. I wanted to make a splash with the illustrations. When folks open the book, I want them to say, “Wow!”
I am also a fine artist and I always want that level of quality and passion in my illustrations. I could feel that Derek had that same kind of personal connection with his poem.
Jules: Can you talk about creating the cover art? Were there alternate versions, or did you know right away what the cover would be?
James: The cover came right to me. There were some variations, but the basic concept was the same. I knew I wanted us to be looking up at the main character and that I wanted him outside the shop, looking proud, confident, and powerful. He needed to look like he was ready to take on the world. I was actually thinking about the text from the last pages when I did it.
Jules: The Denene Millner imprint (of Bolden Books / Agate Publishing) is relatively new. What does it mean to both of you to have your book taken in under Denene's imprint and to be out in the world with that name on it?
Barnes: Denene is an accomplished writer, journalist, and author in her own right, so it was a privilege to be one of the flagship projects on her imprint. Twenty, thirty years from now, we'll always be remembered as one of the first four original “hit” books that helped to build the foundation of what will be a juggernaut imprint/house by then.
I dream big, baby!
James: It is a good feeling to know that Denene trusted me to bring my skills to this book. I know every title is important to a new imprint.
Jules: Have either or both of you shared this yet in school visits or at book festivals? If so, what has been the reaction from children?
Barnes: The school visits and book festivals are being scheduled right now. But so far, the children, educators, and librarians that have read it seem to love it. The message, the amazing imagery, and the combination of both move me to no end. It feels good when I receive messages from mothers, teachers, librarians, and grandmothers who have said that Crown has moved them and their children. It has filled them with pride and speaks directly to their soul. That's exactly why we do what we do. I want to create a body of work that will stay with readers for a long time. I'm proud of Crown, and it was a privilege to have created it with my brother Gordon.
James: I haven’t done any visits or festivals as of yet, but I’ll be out with the book very soon. I do keep a copy with me, and every child I’ve shared it with has loved it. It’s a universal story. The reaction has been the same, no matter the child’s gender or ethnicity. Everyone loves it.
Jules: What's next on your plates?
Barnes: I recently signed a deal for another picture book with Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, entitled The King of Kindergarten. I just completed a mystery series for an educational publisher. Currently, a super secretive, middle-grade, groundbreaking novel has me working late into the midnight hour. Gordon and I have also tossed around a couple of ideas for subsequent picture books. Lots of good things on the table. I just feel so blessed to be busy.
James: I have a couple of projects in the works. One is actually a historical western. Whatever the project, I just want to keep exposing kids to great art through children’s books. I want to make those books that people take the pages out of and frame. I believe Derrick and I have done just that with Crown.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
All illustrations: CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT. Text copyright © 2017 by Derrick Barnes. Illustrations © 2017 by Gordon C. James. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Denene Millner Books / Bolden, an imprint of Agate Publishing, Chicago.