“Did the book make you itchy?” asks David Shannon, author and illustrator of the picture book Bugs in My Hair! His latest happens to be about head lice. The answer is “indubitably,” and in more ways than one: I’ll cop to an exploratory scalp scratch during our interview, and I’m itching to tell anyone who’s ever had a louse in the house about Shannon’s hair-raising book.
That audience may be larger than you’d guess. “Every single person I asked said, ‘Oh God, I remember when my kid had them’ or ‘I remember when I had them.’ I could see them as sort of this dirty little secret that nobody talked about, but everybody has a story,” says Shannon, who’s no exception to the rule. Two years ago, his daughter’s long curly locks were besieged by buggies who migrated to mom’s tresses. “I managed to escape,” says Shannon, “but we had a real problem.”
In Bugs in My Hair!, a boy and his mother have a problem: “One day, my mom made a terrible, awful discovery ... HEaD LiCE!” Shannon writes in fiery letters. From out of the blue, creatures have come to stay in his thick red hair. The boy isn’t based on anyone in particular, says Shannon, who shares a first name with his most famous protagonist, from the Caldecott Honor book No, David! “I just wanted him to have particularly lush red hair. I sort of pictured his hair as being a character in the book,” he says.
In pen and ink—a new technique for Shannon, who traditionally works in oils—he conjures a cadre of anthropomorphic lice partying amid red threads. “LICE-A-PALOOZA!” reads the scene of an all-louse jug band playing washtub bass, banjo and fiddle while a couple in straw hat and hair bow cut a rug. The expressions on their faces are unique and downright likable.
“Expressions are fun to draw, and they’re something I’ve liked drawing ever since I was a kid,” says Shannon. “I look at these books like little movies, and I get to be the director. I’m trying to make every element of each picture go into telling the story as best I can.”
Charming or not, these pests have got to go. “I heard about lots of cures,” says the boy, “shave my head, bomb the bugs with the strongest chemicals known to mankind, mayonnaise—they all sounded awful!” But with a little help from mom and her arsenal of delousing agents, “They go from being the giant monsters to being the little victims,” says Shannon.
The book is dedicated “To moms everywhere and their battle-tested anti-lice weapons.” “My wife became an expert on everything,” says Shannon. From organizing visits to the professional delouser, to spraying the furniture and doing the laundry every day, it took a concerted effort to thwart the little nasties. (The book contains several educational asides, including tips for treatments nits loathe.) But in life as in the book, sometimes when you think you’ve ousted your last louse ... they come back! It’s enough to make you tear your hair—or laugh aloud: “The thing about uncomfortable situations is they’re usually pretty good material for humor. Even when we were in the midst of this, there was some stuff that was pretty funny,” he says.
Shannon hopes the book will point out for parents the universality of the experience. “Parents are guilty of being ashamed more than the kids—that it comes from being unclean, but it doesn’t,” says Shannon. “When nobody talks about it, nobody wants to admit they have them, so no measures are taken to get rid of the problem. Hopefully this will help a little bit.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.