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[Saturday Reads] Dark Skinned Girls in Picturebooks

"Twenty Yawns" by Jane Smiley and Lauren Castillo | "My Hair Is A Garden" by Cozbi A. Cabrera.

SaturdayReads

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.


It has been 54 years since Nancy Larrick published her landmark “The All White World Of Children’s Books” in 1965 (download the full article here). While there is still a long way to go in terms of publishing reading materials written by and about people of colour, the picturebook genre has clearly evolved over the years. And this is apparent in the increasing number of books that show a greater representation of a multitude of identities with their #ownvoices, resounding and strong.

While there are many titles that are out there featuring dark-skinned girls, here are just two titles that caught my eye recently, showing how the portrayal of young girls in children’s literature has been reinvented / redefined – or maybe, just more accurately portrayed in an authentic fashion.


Twenty Yawns

Written by Jane Smiley Original Title: Lauren Castillo
Published by Two Lions (2016)
ISBN: 1477826351 (ISBN13: 9781477826355). Literary Award: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Picture Books (2016). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Buy Twenty Yawns on Amazon | Book Depository

The premise of the book is simple – a family goes to the beach, spends a wonderful day there, and goes home with the Mother announcing: “Early bedtime!”

If the reader looks closely, one can see that the young girl named Lucy is a biracial child. Yet, this was neither articulated nor the focus of the narrative. It simply is. Yet, there is power in this quiet voice that does not need to scream its representation or place in the children’s literature canon; at least, not any longer.

It is evident that while the adults are knocked out, little Lucy is still wide awake, especially with that beam of moonlight slicing through her bed. How she eventually yawned her last, at least for the night, I shall leave for you to discover. This is bound to be a favourite among young readers, with its simplicity, quiet rhythm, and comforting tone.


My Hair Is A Garden

Written and Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera
Published by Albert Whitman Company (2018)
ISBN: 080750923X (ISBN13: 9780807509234). Borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.

I first learned about the difficulty of caring for black hair when I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (see my review here). I did not realize how complicated it could be until I read an entire section in the book devoted to hair. This increasing focus on hair and all it signifies is also further proof how much children’s literature has evolved through the years.

In this story, it is shown how Mack has always been teased because of her unruly hair. Frustrated and hurt, she sought comfort and advice from Miss Tillie who has long and shiny hair:

“Folks have been poking fun of my hair since I was little,” I told Miss Tillie. “Mama’s tried to fix it, but the truth is, she doesn’t know what to do with it.”

What follows next is something that I have not read at all, ever, in a picturebook – it’s a primer on how to care for one’s hair – but done in so sensitive and so thoughtful a fashion that one wonders why this has not been done before.

I also appreciated how the metaphor remained cohesive throughout the narrative, and how the book is filled with helpful tips that young people can easily follow. There is also an extensive backmatter that deals with “Caring For Black Hair” from detangling to sealing in moisture to protective styling, as well as recipes for moisturizing one’s hair.

This is a book that effectively highlights very clear issues that young people like Mack clearly encounters and very specific ways of dealing with it, in a clear-sighted, no-nonsense fashion. A definite must-read.


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