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Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

A review of our January read:

It’s amazing what a tight fade, high/low/bald

does for your confidence:

Dark Caesar

Our 2019 Newbery adventure began with a bang, a joyful explosion of colour and lyrics. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James, and is one of the disproportionately few picture books to have made it to the Newbery Honor roll.

In a voice that conjures up images of a large-hearted dad talking to his son, the narrator speaks to a young black boy — to all African-American boys — on the power of a great haircut. The lyrical style is reminiscent of spoken-word poetry as the text rejoices in the rite-of-passage that is a trip to the barber. It explores the rich sense of community that comes from frequenting the local barber shop, building a picture of the boy as one not alone against the world but part of a world peopled by good men, and it imbues him with the courage to be a good man himself — to hold his head high.

Crown takes a fierce delight in words. The sting of witch hazel becomes “an electric stamp of approval”; a man with his own fresh cut “looks like he owns a few acres of land on Saturn”. This vibrancy is matched by James’s exquisite illustrations, which are a riot of life and movement. Ultimately, Crown celebrates identity, confidence, healthy masculinity, and the precious cultural value of tradition. And it left me with a grin that reached up into my own hairline.

PS. Be sure to read the author’s note at the end. It is as beautiful and important as the rest of the book itself.

Discussion questions:

Respond to these questions here, use them in a discussion with your favourite young readers, or take them as jumping-off points for written responses in your homeschool or classroom.

  1. What did you enjoy about Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut?

  2. Which is more important to you in a book like this: the text or the pictures? Why? How do you think one enhances the other?

  3. Some reviews have complained that the message of Crown appears to be that you are only as good as your last haircut. Do you think this is true? What do you think is the real message of this book?

  4. Do you love your hair? Why or why not? Does your hair remind you of your heritage and your family of origin? In what ways?

Extension activities:

Creative writing: Tell the story of the earliest haircut you can remember. Use vivid language to describe the experience, the setting, the people you were with, and how it made you feel. Consider the way author Derrick Barnes uses metaphor to build a picture that is alive. He describes the boy before his haircut as “a lump of clay, / a blank canvas, a slab of marble.” Can you incorporate similar imagery into your own writing to bring it to life?

Fine arts: Create a portrait of yourself, imitating the bold illustration style of Gordon C. James. You may wish to use oil pastels to help create the layers and vibrant lines that characterise James’s illustrations. Be sure you capture your own smile that sparkles with confidence!

Freewriting: Write a journal entry telling about a time when you felt “like a million dollars — and some change!” What made you feel this way? How could you replicate that feeling? Does our confidence come from the outside or inside, or can one help the other?

Design: Create a marketing poster which could be used to launch Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. Remember that a poster must include all the important information, and it must provide a visual or textual hook to get people’s attention. Maybe you could incorporate the colour scheme of the book into your design?

What next?

Order Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut online. (Your purchase through this affiliate link helps support this website, but does not cost you more).

Visit author Derrick Barnes’ website and check out his instagram feed.

Visit illustrator Gordon C. James’s website and check out his instagram feed

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Welcome to The Newbery Project