Yesterday, I introduced Faith Ringgold and her story quilt in her award-winning picture book, Tar Beach. Today, as we continue to celebrate the rich African-American culture for Black History Month, I thought of sharing with you another beautiful picture book discovery: Cornrows by Camille Yarbrough and Carole Byard.
When I picked up Cornrows from the library shelf, I understood why it won the 1980 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. Carole Byard’s charcoal paintings reflect raw talent, and her illustrations make me want to draw again. (Alas, we can only do so much given our time and workload.)
Celebrating African-American Heritage. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, I became aware of the role of quilt making in African-American culture. Camille Yarbrough’s Cornrows, on the other hand, allowed me to see a popular hairstyle in a different light. Through the book, cornrows became more than just a hairstyle. It is an embodiment of culture, a reflection of African-American identity, and a tradition that spans hundreds of years.
Cornrows is told in the point of view of little Shirley Ann, known to everyone else as Sister. I enjoy reading picture books told in a child’s perspective because the narrative is twice as enjoyable as an adult’s. In this particular picture book, the point of view shifts from Sister’s to Great-Grammaw’s (gotta love the wordplay!).
When Sister and her younger sibling called Brother came home from school one day, she saw Great-Grammaw fixing their Mama’s hair in cornrows. The braids fascinated the children so much that they wanted to have their hair fixed as well, and asked if Great-Grammaw could tell them the story of cornrowed hair.
A Symbol of Love and Courage, Among Other Things. Byard’s superb artwork goes hand-in-hand with Yarbrough’s lyrical storytelling, through the persona of Great-Grammaw. Reading Cornrows reminded me of Lola Basyang, pen name of (and fictional character created by) acclaimed Filipino writer Severino Reyes. ‘Lola’ is Tagalog for grandmother. Like Great-Grammaw, Lola Basyang loves to tell stories to her grandchildren. Truly, grandmothers are queens of storytelling.
There is a spirit that lives inside of you. It keeps on growin. It never dies. Sometimes, when you’re afraid, it trembles. An sometimes, when you’re hurt an ready too give up, it barely flickers. But it keeps growin. It never dies. Now a long, long time ago, in a land called Africa, our ancient people worked through that spirit. To give life meanin. An to give praise. An through their spirit gave form to symbols… Symbols which live forever.
Great-Grammaw continued with the following lines:
You could tell the clan, the village,
by the style of hair they wore…
Then the Yoruba people
were wearin thirty braids and more…
You would know the princess, queen, and bride
by number of the braid…
You would know the gods they worshipped
by the pattern that they made.
Taking Pride in Your Roots. Aside from the award-winning illustrations and beautiful narrative, I liked Cornrows because it ignites a fire in my heart. Coming from a different cultural background, that’s saying a lot. Only halfway through the book, I was already overwhelmed. Cornrows is simply brimming with love, hope, and courage.
The following lines are my favorite in the book. This was Sister’s Mama’s response when asked what they would name their braids. Yes, I had to create a separate ‘theme’ for it. The words roll in my tongue effortlessly, and I love listening to the rhythmic pattern it creates even when read in silence. This is African-American heritage rolled into one.
Name it Robeson,
name it Malcolm,
you can name it Dr. King.
Name it DuBois,
name it Garvey,
name it something you can sing.
Name it Tubman,
name it Hamer,
oh, you can style a Fannie Lou.
Name it Nzinga,
and please name it Hatshepsut, too…
Name it Powell,
name it Carver,
Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.
Name it Baldwin,
name it glory,
name it blues…
Name it Miriam,
Mary Bethune and Josephine.
Name it Aretha,
name it Nina,
name it priestess,
name it queen…
A Video Tribute to Camille Yarbrough’s Music.
Here is Camille Yarbrough’s Take Yo’ Praise (1975).
About the Author and Illustrator
(found in the back cover)
In addition to writing, Camille Yarbrough has had a distinguished career as an actress, composer, and singer. She has made a recording of her songs and dialogues, The Iron Pot Cooker, which has received excellent reviews, and she was awarded a Jazz/Folk/Ethnic Performance Fellowship Grant by the National Endowment for the Arts. If you wish to know more about her, you may visit her website.
Carole Byard studied at the Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia and at the New York Phoenix School of Design. She is well known for her paintings, and she has illustrated many books for children including Africa Dream by Eloise Greenfield and Three African Tales by Adjai Robinson. Her paintings have appeared in many exhibitions, both solo and group, and she is active in art education programs in the New York area.
Written by Camille Yarbrough, Illustrated by Carole Byard
Reading Level: Ages 4 and up
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Coward-McCann, Inc. (1979)
Book borrowed from the Chula Vista Public Library.
Book photos taken by me.