By Alaina Leary
A joyfully poetic board book that delivers an ode to African American girls and the beauty of their curls.
This simple, playful, and beautiful board book stars four friends who celebrate the joy of their hairstyles from bouncing curls to swinging braids.
A joyfully poetic board book that delivers an ode to the beautiful light of African American boys.
I shine night too
This simple, playful, and elegant board book stars a young boy who joyfully celebrates his dark skin with a bright moon at the end of a perfect day.
What inspired you to write Curls and Glow? Where did the idea originally come from?
In 2014, I personally witnessed that despite being in the time that we are in, and all of the work that has been done, children of color at a very young age—even three to four—are still often viewing themselves and their hair and skin color as less than. At around three or four, my daughter came home from a less diverse school saying she didn’t like her curly hair and wished she had straight hair. She also expressed that straight hair and light skin was better than curly hair and brown skin. I was shocked. I knew she might have to face these pressures at some point, but I didn’t realize that it could happen so soon. These are critical developmental years.
Other mothers of friends expressed the same thing and we immediately turned to literature to give our daughters something that reflected and celebrated their identity. Though we thankfully found some gems, I painfully witnessed the gaps in early literature. Unfortunately, there was not a lot out there for very young readers at the time. This was a few months after Walter Dean Myers’s March 2014 New York Times article, Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? I already understood that books for young children of color were important in helping to form a sense of positive identity, self-worth, and inspiration. But as a mother, I understood in a new way how very critical they were.
I was already working on children’s literature, so after this firsthand experience, I recommitted to write stories for children of color, and especially girls of color, that would reinforce self-love and identity. I sought to write new children’s books that would encourage and celebrate identity, focused especially on this age group. Thus Curls was born. And then Glow. Curls is intended to be the first in a series for these young readers, celebrating identity and self-love around hair and skin color for children of color and for all children to enjoy.
How does Glow expand on the themes you started exploring in Curls?
Glow stars a young boy who joyfully celebrates his dark skin with a bright moon. Glow continues themes of identity and self-love and understanding that “you are loved and belong in this world.” Geneva Bowers carries these themes through beautifully in her illustrations with both Curls and Glow. Her work is sublime.
How did your background in teaching show up in the writing process for these books? Have you taken away anything from your teaching career that you’ve used while writing books for children?
In terms of teaching and the writing process, as a teacher of poetry, I know how important revision is. I revised these books until they felt just right. I have no problem with drafts, and there were many! Imagery, pacing, sound and rhythm were important players in helping to impart a sense of love and joy. I also went to film school, so often these scenes played in my head like movies and I tried to capture the moments fully. Long shots, close ups and all.
But more important than all of these things, I think it’s my background as a mother that’s shown up in the writing process. I needed to write a book that would fill a number of needs for young children of color, and I didn’t get that information from my background as a teacher, I got it from my first hand needs as a mother and parent.
If you were to write an additional book that serves as a companion to these two, what would it be focused on?
I already have! There will be two more books following Curls and Glow. Curls was the first in an intended series to celebrate identity and self-love around hair and skin color. These are really sensitive areas for our children. The next two continue the celebration.
Imagine you’re invited to be on your dream panel. What’s the topic and who are some of the other authors and illustrators participating?
Ha! Let me start with who I’d love to be on a panel with: Folks like Natasha Tarpley, Vanessa Brantley Newton, Vashti Harrison, Ashley Franklin, and Mechal Renee Roe on the work we are trying to create for African American girls (and all children really!) and why.
And then, maybe a wider panel on the importance on themes of body image and acceptance and celebrating ourselves just as we are. That might include some of the above authors like Vanessa Brantley Newton and also Joanna Ho, Cozbi A. Cabrera, Angela Joy, and Grace Byers among others.
And third, maybe the ways poetry can play with the page in children’s books and board books. The list could get really long here! Matt De La Pena, Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Bao Phi, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Carole Boston Weatherford, Samara Cole Doyan, Nikki Grimes… the list could go on and on.
You’re passionate about several martial arts, including tai chi sword and bo staff. What’s your favorite thing about practicing martial arts?
Much of martial arts is extremely centering and grounding. I’m doing mostly tai chi now which helps keeps me healthy (writing can be very sedentary work). I’ve been doing it for over 20 years, and tai chi has been my companion much of my adult life.
When I am in my practice, I’m able to connect with a serenity and grace that I can then bring to my practice as I’m doing my art. I think I end up with a clearer eye and a clearer intention for the breadth of my work. Tai chi also offers lessons how to move through life, as well as how to keep peace close as one walks, moves and breathes. These lessons are key these days.
What other books do you think Glow and Curls are in conversation with?
In terms of Glow, I don’t think there’s much yet in terms of board books with that same sensitivity for young boys. But when my daughter was very young, there was a book, Angela Johnson’s Rain Feet, that we read over and over. That reminds me a bit of Glow, celebrating a young boy’s joy with the environment that is sensitive and sweet. I do think there is more coming out these days. In terms of picture books with affirmations for boys, I think of I Am Every Good Thing and All Because You Matter. And in terms of skin color, maybe Magnificent Homespun Brown.
For Curls, I think there’s more. Definitely I Like Myself and I Love My Hair. And the recent books: My Hair, Stella’s Stellar Hair, Happy Hair, and Hair Love. When my daughter was younger, none of these were around. Alonda Williams’ Penny and the Magic Puffballs was so helpful, though, in terms of hair and self-esteem! It had a story that offered what we needed and had a beautiful gallery of Black girls and their puffs at the back of the book. My daughter and I would spend a lot of time at the back of that book, again and again pointing out which styles she loved. As I see photos and stories of girls who are doing something silimar with Curls, I’d say Curls is in conversation with that book as well in some way.
Tell us about a few published or forthcoming kidlit books that you’d recommend.
There are so many these days! Probably even more at the moment of this writing! But here are a few, old and new: I Love My Hair; Rain Feet; Magnificent Homespun Brown; Sulwe; All Because You Matter; I Am Every Good Thing; Layla’s Happiness; Eyes That Kiss in the Corners; Don’t Touch My Hair; My Hair is a Garden; Stella’s Stellar Hair; Not Quite Snow White; Black is a Rainbow Color; Full, Full, Full of Love; Hair Love; and I Am Enough.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
What do you hope to offer to children with your work? I hope to help instill in young children a sense of joy, celebration, self-worth, and self-love. And a true appreciation for themselves and for others. I also hope to impart a sense that they belong and are loved in this world in a way that they inherently carry this feeling inside and do not even question. So that they can go on and do the wonderful things they were meant to do. So that knowing their own magnificence feels as regular as breathing or reading a good book.
Ruth Forman is the author of award-winning poetry collections We Are the Young Magicians and Renaissance and children’s books Young Cornrows Callin Out the Moon and Curls. She is the recipient of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, among others. She has presented in forums such as the United Nations, the PBS series The United States of Poetry, and National Public Radio. Ruth is a former teacher of creative writing with the University of Southern California and June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley and is a longtime faculty member with the VONA writing program. You can learn more about her at ruthforman.com.
Geneva Bowers is a self-taught illustrator based in western North Carolina. She’s illustrated children’s books The Dragon Thief, Beyoncé: Shine Your Light, and Curls, among others. Geneva’s work has won the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fan Artist and a 2018 BSFA Award nomination. She loves manipulating color and adding whimsy with a touch of realism and calm. Visit her online at GenevaB.com.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.