As the KidLit space begins to wake up to issues of representation and embrace own-story narratives, hair has steadily become a site for discussions around race, identity, and otherness in children’s picture books.
Now, the connection between hair and identity is no surprise to black and brown communities. It is also well discussed in Black American Studies and Cultural Studies circles in academia, but Bethany Edwards of Biracial Bookworms put is best when she pointed out during Black History Month that, “kinky hair, hairstyles, and care are a crucial piece of anti-racist education that is missing in most [primary and secondary education] classrooms”.
The truth, as Cheryl Thompson wrote in Michigan Feminist Studies, is that, “For young black girls, hair is not just something to play with, it is something that is laden with messages, and it has the power to dictate how others treat you, and in turn, how you feel about yourself.” The welcomed release in the past year of picture books like Don’t Touch My Hair, I Love My Hair, and My Hair is a Garden has not only provided a mirror for black and brown children to recognise their own experiences, but also has opened a window for educators and children, to begin to understand the complex range of emotions hair can provoke for students around them — especially when unwelcome hands try to touch without asking for permission!
So, it is in that context that Maryam Al Serkel’s book, Mira’s Curly Hair, enters the kid’s book arena. Mira’s Curly Hair is about a little girl who lives in Dubai and wishes her curly locks were straight like her mama’s. What Mira doesn’t know is that her mother’s hair is naturally curly, a truth which is revealed when the duo is caught outdoors in a rainstorm. Once Mira’s mother sees her daughter’s delight at her natural hair, mama decides to wear her hair curly from that point forward. There is a lot to unpack from this sweet story and we are lucky enough to have Maryam Al Serkel to help us do just that.
TiaT: Maryam, what led you to write this book?
MAS: I was inspired by my daughter’s obsession with her hair. When she was three years old, she had very curly hair that was rather unruly. I had the habit of always wearing my hair straight and that was how she always saw me. I saw how she would try and try to get her hair to “behave” as she used to say, and I thought it was cute, never realising that she was trying to emulate me. So, I decided to show her how beautiful she is whatever her hair looked like.
TiaT: How do you relate to your own hair?
MAS: I struggled for the longest time. My hair is naturally curly and when I used to wear it like that people would give me looks as if asking “don’t you own a brush?”. I didn’t know who I was or what I was supposed to look like. All the magazines had beautiful, slender women with gorgeous, sleek hair, so I always assumed, that was the standard of beauty. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I realised that I could have a better relationship with my hair, and I started treating it with kindness and love. I still get some “bad hair days”, but that doesn’t bother me now.
TiaT: What messages are you trying to get across to girls about their hair through Mira?
MAS: Take care of your hair, accept it and embrace it whether it’s curly, straight or wavy. Find out what your hair’s personality is and nurture that and let it be the best it can be. Nobody has what you have, Wear it with pride.
TiaT: What message do you hope mothers take from this book?
MAS: We are our children’s biggest influencers. We help shape their self-image way before they go out into the world. I believe that we as mother’s should teach our children to love themselves, quirks, curls and all, to help them be strong and confident in their own skin to be able to be themselves in the world, and not get affected by the unrealistic standards that are being projected on social media.