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Arts and Entertainment

Charlotte author and illustrator take the ‘Crown’ with book honors
Derrick Barnes, Gordon James earn Keats Awards
Published Wednesday, February 21, 2018 1:39 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

“Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” is more than a picture book.

An illustration by Charlotte artist Gordon James in the children’s book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.” The book earned James and author Derrick Barnes Ezra Jack Keats Book Awards – Barnes for best new writer and James as best new illustrator.

Charlotte author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James tackled image issues often faced by young black boys with a message of positivity. Their work earned 2018 Ezra Jack Keats Book Awards—Barnes as best new writer and James the new illustrator honor. Recipients of the 32nd annual award will be honored on April 12 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at the University of Southern Mississippi. The new writer and new illustrator win $3,000.  

“We’re focusing on African American boys,” Barnes said. “Research has been done that says that society sees them as being much older than they actually are. Boys who are 11-12 are almost seen as being 15-16 sometimes.”

Said James: “The message of the book is so positive and so affirming. How could you not want to put a lot of effort into a project like that.”

Said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation: “This book represents so much of what we’re trying to do in the field of children’s literature. The reason that we need diversity in children’s literature is because we need children to see themselves in the books that they read. They need to see what they can be. They need to see that they are admired, that they are beautiful and that they are powerful.”

Barnes’ poem personifies what it actually means to be a black boy in America.

“Say you’re from the Midwest, you’re white and you’re from a rural environment, and you don’t even come across African American boys on a regular basis,” Barnes said. “The only thing you have to pull from is pop culture, which is almost always negative. You think they love basketball. They’re oversexed, violent. You see them in hip hop videos, or you see them on the evening news, but there is so much more to being a black boy in America.”

Said James: “This book, I hope when people read it, they will see a character who is intelligent and has pride and is self-aware, who loves his parents, and just all those things that children do, and that we are no different.”

James’ illustrations illuminate a message of love.

“Gordon has a son,” Barnes said. “I have four sons. They all are great students, great young men.”

Said James: “It’s very timely. I’m going to steal a quote from Derrick, when he says he wants the story to kind of ‘humanize our boys.’ I feel like in the media, there is a way that our young men are looked at. You look at Trayvon Martin or Mike Brown, you hear about them having ‘superhuman strength and being evil,’ and all of these ridiculous statements. It’s almost like our boys aren’t allowed to be children.”

For fathers like Barnes and James, it’s about using their gifts to highlight the way they see not just their sons, but the sons of others.

“If you are a father of an African American boy, obviously you are conscious of these things,” Barnes said. “You’re conscious of them going out into a world that may not see them as beautiful human beings, the way we see them. It’s my obligation as an artist to paint a picture of black children, and in the case of ‘Crown,’ African American boys, as being human. Being smart, and wanting the same things out of life that everybody else does. They have a community that cares for them.”

Heads up Barber Shop (1218 E 36th St. A) in NoDa offered the backdrop for James’ inspiration through the exchange between his son Gabriel and shop owner Kennedy Reggie. Like Barnes’ opening lines read: “When it’s your turn in the chair, you stand at attention and forget about who you were when you walked through that door.”

“He let us into his shop to take photos and get all the references for the book,” James said. “It’s a real deal barbershop in NoDa.”

Said Barnes: “I’ve been receiving similar messages from parents and teachers. Most of them are just happy that there is a book that seems to be authentic in its representation of their sons and their grandsons of the children that they are. They’re just happy that we were able to voice that and capture that in this book.”


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