What’s Already Been Told
By Tonya Abari
The market is becoming oversaturated with diverse children’s books about hair.
In 2019, when I began querying Locs, Not Dreads for the second time since I first wrote the manuscript in 2013, much of the feedback that I received was that the market was becoming oversaturated with books about Black hair. With the success of Matthew A. Cherry’s Hair Love, Derrick Barnes’ Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, Natasha Tarpley’s I Love My Hair, author/illustrator Sharee Miller and independently published natural hair series by Crystal Swain Bates – and with growing national support for The Crown Act – traditional book publishing and mainstream media further showcased the special relationship that Black folks have with hair. I didn’t have one picture book about Black hair as a child, so I’m ecstatic to fill my daughters’ bookshelves with mirrors. In this house, there is no such thing as too many! We buy them all.
Growing up in salon culture (my mom was a career cosmetologist), I’ve been around hair all my life. At one point, after returning my hair from its relaxed state to its natural state, I even thought I wanted to open up a natural hair salon. Although I never took that route, I knew as a children’s author that hair would be one of the many topics I wanted to explore. I queried many agents, cold pitched editors, and participated in Twitter pitch events. I did receive some initial interest, but I also was told that in the coming years there would be way too many books about Black hair.
Was I too late?
At first, I took this advice with a grain of salt because how many anthropomorphic books are out there? How many books with unicorns and princesses and ladybugs? Yes, there are now more books than what I had growing up about Black hair – but I haven’t seen my book yet. I had to keep this energy alive in my soul. But as rejections rolled in one by one, I wondered if there was enough room for my story. I finally found a great home for the book – with an indie editor/publisher who understood its significance from the jump. And I now realize that if I would have taken those words “it’s already been told” to heart, there might not be a Locs, Not Dreads publishing on September 5, 2023.
While Locs, Not Dreads is based loosely on my niece and her mom, who loc’d their hair well over a decade ago, the manuscript is littered with familiarities that I’ve experienced as a girl, woman, mother, student, and educator who is unapologetic about rocking natural and/or loc’d hair. In fact, as a teacher, I taught many lessons on denotation and connotation relating to Black hair terminology – and those lessons are ones that I’ll never forget (they are now memorialized in the pages of my debut picture book). I knew that fact alone separated Locs, Not Dreads from the other picture books that were on the market even if no one else had picked up on these nuances.
This brings me back to my original point. There can never be too many stories that exist, especially for groups that have historically been marginalized in traditional publishing. My advice to new writers who have stories that have seemingly already been told: tell your story anyway. The spectrum of our experiences run so deep. Perhaps the topic has been written about before – but it definitely hasn’t been written by you.