Jeneé Osterheldt

Finding his swagger at KC barbershop helped this children’s author win big

“I have been in love with words my whole life,” says author Derrick Barnes. “This is my calling.” His most recent book, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” has won honors from Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King and more.
“I have been in love with words my whole life,” says author Derrick Barnes. “This is my calling.” His most recent book, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” has won honors from Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King and more.

There’s a moment after a haircut when you are spun around and face the mirror.

Hair could spiral down your back. You could have braids, twists or a bald beauty. But when that chair whips around, it is your throne. You sit up a little straighter. You reintroduce yourself to yourself with a remembered confidence.

Author Derrick Barnes, who grew up in Kansas City, says this is doubly true for young black boys at barbershops. His ninth children’s book, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut,” celebrates that barbershop fresh feeling and black boy joy he felt as kid going to a barbershop in southeast KC.

When the American Library Association handed out its highest literary honors earlier this month, “Crown” took home lots of new bling to decorate its cover:

2018 Caldecott Honor Book. 2018 Newbery Honor Book. 2018 Coretta Scott King Honor (author and illustrator). Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor.

The barbershop is one of the few places where a black boy is treated like a king, Derrick says. A Denene Miller Book/Bolden/Agate Derrick Barnes & Gordon C. James

Derrick started writing “Crown” over a year ago after seeing a drawing his friend, Don Tate, made of his smiling son, fresh from the barber. It reminded him of how important it is to see black boys full of swag, happiness and confidence in this era of Black Lives Matter.

“There is a really negative monolith of black boys,” Derrick tells me over the phone from Charlotte, N.C., where he moved four years ago. “They are seen as super athletes, oversexed and violent. It doesn’t matter if you come from 39th Street or Overland Park, when someone doesn’t honor your humanity, you’re all viewed the same.

“I have four sons. I’ve had to come to the schools a few times because black children are seen as older than their white peers. They are viewed as a threat. It is our job to make sure we let the world know our sons and daughters are just as loved and valued. Being a black boy in America is a feat in itself. They love to see us entertain, run fast, sing and tell jokes. But they don’t see us as human. Sometimes I think we are the most loved and hated in America.”

He’s not wrong. Studies by the Department of Education and the American Psychological Association have found that black children are perceived as less innocent than other kids. Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled — even as toddlers. It’s not that they misbehave more often. They are dehumanized at a higher rate.

Derrick says outside of the home and the black church, the barbershop is one of the only community hubs where black boys are nurtured and built up. His book is not a tribute to respectability politics. It’s not about having a certain haircut. On these pages, a brotha with a faux-hawk looks presidential, and a man with a full beard is majestic. This is about the feel-good energy and esteem buzzing around those clippers. It’s about the beauty of blackness.

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation supports arts, literacy and inclusivity in literature. Each year, it chooses one new writer and one new illustrator to recognize for reflecting our community.

“The book itself epitomizes the importance of diversity and inclusion in children’s literature,” says Deborah Pope, executive director of the foundation. “Derrick’s book is about how important it is for a young boy to see himself and see himself as beautiful and to have role models he sees as beautiful. It makes him feel powerful and makes him feel good. The secret ingredient in ‘Crown’ is it’s not just about how you look. It is about how you are feeling. Feeling good about yourself helps you do well.”

The book, released in October, is sold out on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. People are hungry for these kinds of stories. Derrick says more copies are coming.

Though he and his family live in Charlotte now, Derrick is a Kansas Citian, period. He went to Southeast High School and met “Crown” illustrator Gordon C. James back when they both worked at Hallmark (Derrick was the first black male writer on staff). He ends his book with a special shout-out to his childhood barber, Mr. Tony of Jessie’s Beauty Boutique.

“I lived on 54th and College and I walked up 55th, got on the southbound Prospect bus and went to the shop where my mother and grandma used to go and get their hair done — Jessie’s. She is Mr. Tony’s mom. He was my barber since the fourth grade,” says Derrick, now 42. “I look at barbers as artists. After he did his job, he handed me that mirror and I didn’t even recognize myself. I had a high-top fade trying to look like Big Daddy Kane. There’s nothing like your mom telling you, you look cute.”

Barbers are often activists in the community. Some give back-to-school haircuts for free, participate in backpack drives and literacy programs. Mr. Tony says some barbers want to be black male role models.

“The black barber is a bit of a philosopher and a father figure,” says Mr. Tony, aka Tony Davis, who has been cutting hair since 1978. “I’ve taught a lot of boys how to tie a tie, give them tips on grooming, style and respect. It’s important.”

Derrick has been thanking them for their work by sending books to shops all over the country. And “Crown” is just the start for Derrick and Gordon as a team. The two are working on a series of books delivering empowering messages.

Too often, Derrick says, children’s books surrounding diversity focus on civil rights or slaves. There’s just not enough books about kids of color by people of color. In 2015, less than 15 percent of children’s books featured main characters of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. And the publishing industry isn’t any more diverse than that. There’s a hashtag and a nonprofit dedicated to changing it: We Need Diverse Books.

“There aren’t as many opportunities for black writers to be authentic,” Derrick says. “But I have been in love with words my whole life. This is my calling. And I have always felt it was our responsibility as artists, whether you are a painter, dancer, musician or writer, it is in our lineage to put something out there that changes the way people think.

“Look at Nina Simone and James Baldwin. I want to leave behind a body of work my children can be proud of, but I also want to change how children see themselves in this world. I want to thwart those negative images and make sure they know they are loved.”

And that’s what you wear when you rock a crown. It’s not simply the cut of your hair or the tilt of your head. It’s not an actual tiara. It’s love.