In a recent opinion piece at Blavity, [currently inaccessible online], guest author and children’s book reviewer “kirkwood1692” weighs in on what she describes as a surge (for various reasons she notes in her piece) in the scholarly interest of the representation of black girls in children’s literature. Of course, the author writes, “just because a book has a cute picture of a black girl on the front of it” doesn’t mean readers are getting a high-quality book. She goes on to note the “outrageous and culturally inaccurate [and] insensitive books” she sees on a regular basis, including books about black girls’ hair.
Enter Sharee Miller’s newest — and debut — picture book, Princess Hair, which is about that very thing. It’s a book that celebrates the diversity of black girls’ hair, the various textures, styles, and shapes. The book is an ode to puffs, twist outs, dreadlocks, kinks, braids, frohawks, and much more, every note of it jubilant and never for a moment shaming. It is what the starred Kirkus review calls a “sweet and joyful affirmation.”
“This story,” Sharee tells me via email, “came from my own experiences. When I was younger, I made the decision to chemically straighten my natural hair; I felt it was not good the way it was, and the only way my hair would be acceptable or beautiful was for me to change it. This process was not good for my hair, but I continued to damage it, because wearing my hair the way it grew from my head never seemed like an option.”
At the same time, the natural hair movement began, which encouraged women to embrace their curls, knots, and Afros. “I was flooded by images of women with their beautiful and diverse hair. I felt inspired and empowered to return to my natural hair and use my art to promote this movement. I wished these images were around when I was younger, and I wanted to take this celebration of natural hair and put it into a story for little girls out there that were struggling with loving their hair, like I had as a child.”
In the book, whose blithe illustrations are rendered via watercolors and ink, a group of girls gather for a day of play. Sharee refers to them as “princesses.” This word choice is connected to Sharee’s own memory of childhood, her desire to instill confidence in young black girls, and the lack of non-white princesses in classic children’s tales. “The first thing I wanted to be when I was younger was a beautiful princess,” she says. “The first representations of beauty we see are often princesses. They usually have long straight hair and Eurocentric features. I think this is the point when most girls start to think about their physical appearance, and I wanted little girls with natural hair to see themselves as beautiful princesses. I was highly influenced by images I was seeing of women with fun, beautiful styles that I was not familiar with until I began my natural hair journey. I especially wanted to highlight styles like twist-outs, Bantu knots, and teeny-weeny Afros that were made popular by the natural hair movement.”
If you look closely at the small print on the copyright page in Sharee’s book, you’ll see 2014 as the date. That’s because Sharee initially self-published the story. “I had recently published a book called Nighttime Routine via Amazon,” she explains, “and it had been well-received, so I went the same route for Princess Hair. This process was quick and easy, and I wanted to get my book in the hands of little girls struggling to love their hair as soon as possible. I was overjoyed when the book received so much support.”
Later, when connecting with Monica Odom, who is now her agent, the two decided to submit the book to various publishers. Fortunately, it landed on the desk of Kheryn Callender, who had just begun acquiring books as an associate editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Little, Brown fell for the book; Sharee updated some of the illustrations; and the book designers got to work, doing what Sharee describes as an amazing job of laying out additional text and a book jacket she loves. “The process was so fast,” she tells me. “I handed over the final art in March, and the final book came out in October.”
Sharee, whose next book will be titled Don’t Touch My Hair, looks forward to sharing the book directly with children at school visits and festivals. For now, she’s thrilled to hear from social media users, who have shared with her how much they appreciate the book. “I love seeing photos of little girls with their hair in their favorite style, holding up my book, and hearing how excited they are when they see themselves represented. Many parents have told me how Princess Hair helped their child embrace their hair and how they wished they had books like this when they were growing up. It is very validating when people echo the thoughts I had while creating the book.”
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.
PRINCESS HAIR. Copyright © 2014 by Sharee Miller. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company, New York.