Fats here.

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,
Rosa Parks,
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,
Katherine Dunham,
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)

The radiant Camille Yarbrough. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

This is the only picture of Carole Byard that I could find! What a stroke of luck. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

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.

1980 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 15 of 35

Picture Book Challenge Update: 26 of 120

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 4 of 25

Fats is the Assistant Manager for Circulation Services at the Wayne County Public Library in Wooster, Ohio. She considers herself a reader of all sorts, although she needs to work on her non-fiction reading. Fats likes a good mystery but is not too fond of thrillers. She takes book hoarding seriously and enjoys collecting bookmarks and tote bags. When she is not reading, Fats likes to shop pet apparel for her cat Penny (who absolutely loathes it).

8 comments on “Taking It to the Roots: Cornrows by Camille Yarbrough and Carole Byard

  1. This looks like such a lovely lovely book – I know what you mean about wanting to draw again. My Wacom tablet has been lying untouched for years now. 😦 But yeah, we need to be realistic about the things we can manage to do in a day’s time.

    I also feel that this book is a wonderful prequel to our Poetry Friday post for tomorrow. We seem to be in the same wavelength (as always), baby girl. 🙂


    • What’s a Wacom tablet? We should take art classes together!! (Oh wait… You just said be realistic… Haha.) We sure are! And I loved your Poetry Friday post. 🙂


  2. It is a beautiful book, and story, another one to look for in my wanderings. I hope I can find it in the library. I am glad you shared it, Fats, especially interested in the ‘why’ and history of cornrows, along with the Grammaw stories and beautiful language. These two women are so talented.


    • Hi Linda! Indeed, they are! I initially thought it would be a straightforward narration on the history of cornrows. But the story was wonderful, fiction though it may be. It’s a beautiful picture book to add to your collection, and to share with students. 🙂


  3. I have never heard of this beautiful book. It is quite unique. I loved reading your review. I was never aware of the centuries of history behind cornrows. I was fascinated by how African communities have their own distinct hairstyle. I have a friend from Zimbabwe and I love how Tatenda styles her hair, and the large beautiful wraps she wears. Her daughter wears the same style, even Americanized. It is quite distinctive. Thank you for sharing such a lovely book.


    • I’m glad you were able to discover this picture book through our website, Patricia. I would never have thought that a hairstyle would have such meaning and significance in one’s culture. Now I’m interested in finding out the stories behind different hairstyles and how they affect culture and society. 🙂


  4. Pingback: Carnival of Children’s Literature: A February Round-Up and More «

  5. Pingback: Loss and Grief in Poetry for Young Readers: Lucille Clifton’s Everett Anderson’s Goodbye and Jane Yolen’s Grandad Bill’s Song |

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