2022 has seen a number of books for young readers affirming the beauty of natural hair and highlighting the difficulties children wearing their natural hair can face. The natural hair canon is not new, spanning decades with classics such as Margaree Mitchell’s 1998 picture book Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, and Natasha Tarpley’s 2001 picture book I Love My Hair, and other books which focus on navigating self-esteem, culture, and identity specific to having natural hair.

“Since working in the publishing industry, I’ve marveled at the range of stories that are now available,” said Alexandra Hightower, Tarpley’s current editor. “In addition to books like I Love My Hair that emphasize limitless potential, I’ve seen other books that tap into familial bonds and explore how taking care of ourselves brings us closer to the ones we love.”

Traditional publishing has recently embraced books centering natural hair, but for Black and multicultural publishers, such as Just Us Books, Soaring Kite, and Sunday Dinner Publishing, affirming the experiences of Black and BIPOC readers has always been a priority.

“For some, Black stories and characters with natural hair were considered niche or created for limited audiences,” said Cheryl Willis Hudson, co-founder of Just Us Books. “There is power in self-affirmation and it’s a beautiful thing that Black children are recognized in their fullness and authenticity.”

Ceece Kelley, founder of Soaring Kite Books, finds the current expansion of natural hair titles “exciting” but also notes the importance of acknowledging the publishers who have always prioritized these stories, and where these stories are coming from today. “It also needs to be intentional. There have been Black publishers that have been doing this for a long time. It's really easy to jump on trends and for publishers to make those switches, but make sure it’s coming from Own Voices, and that the message is a good message.”

This shift Kelley describes reflects the growth in access to books about natural hair that has developed over time, and the expansion of their subject matter. As many of these books continue the tradition of celebrating natural hair, there’s also been more culturally specific and inclusive stories such as Afro-Latinx representation, and books confronting the discomfort children might face due to discriminatory practices and hurtful comments in various settings such as at school and at home.

Titles such as the picture book My Fade Is Fresh by Shauntay Grant and Kitt Thomas (Penguin Workshop) and Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith’s graphic novel Wash Day Diaries (Chronicle) extend the depictions of community built around natural hair and related practices. Spotlighting the spaces where natural hair is not only expected but celebrated, and showing the communal aspect these spaces provide, is an exciting moment of representation for young readers, according to the authors and editors who spoke with us.

“A lot of the time in a barber shop or beauty salon, it’s a safe space,” Anu Ohioma, editor of My Fade Is Fresh, said. “The love that you get from the community and somebody just trying to hype you up—having that as a child, it’s another layer of armor for you. So when you get out into the world, it’s like, you can’t tell me nothing. I got the praise that I need from everybody in the barbershop, they all love my hair.”

Centering spaces like barber shops and salons shows readers both a pivotal moment of physical change and a safe space and support system to face that change. Denene Millner, founder of her eponymous imprint at Simon & Schuster and editor of Derrick Barnes’s and Gordon C. James’s 2017 picture book Crown, saw the barbershop setting as “an understanding of where a Black boy can go to be loved and feel held, nurtured, and like he’s in a community. And that community actually cares about him, loves him, and wants the very best for him.”

With students being forced to cut their hair off to compete in sports competitions and discriminatory dress codes that ban braids, schools and workplaces can be harmful spaces, where having natural hair becomes a social and legal issue. The CROWN act, which prohibits discrimination against hair texture and styles, is still only law in 18 states. The safety of children with natural hair is still up for debate in titles such as Lydia Bowers’s We Can Say No and Sherri Winston’s Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution, reflecting the hurtful experiences brought on by peers and teachers alike.

After discovering a news story of a girl threatened with suspension for notifying school administrators about being bullied for her natural hair, Winston threaded the real-life consequences of having natural hair into Lotus Bloom and the Afro Revolution, showcasing students advocating for themselves. “As a Black mother and woman, it was appalling to think of a child being intimidated by school policy based on hair,” Winston said. “Lotus’s situation came from a singular real-life experience. I tried to use the threat of one girl’s suspension as a call to arms for a culture at a crossroads.”

Confronting difficult experiences also can stem from inside the home and community, addressing a complex dynamic between generations. Tamika Burgess, author of the middle grade book Sincerely Sicily, said she considers teaching children to address hurtful stereotypes about her hair as an “element of expressing yourself rather than holding it in and just staying with it.”

When Sicily’s grandmother makes disparaging comments about Sicily’s braids, Burgess noted that navigating self-advocacy and maintaining respectful relationships with loved adults becomes more difficult. “Since it is Sicily’s abuela who makes the hurtful comment, it makes everything much more painful and difficult,” Burgess explains. “I don’t see anything wrong with kids expressing how they feel to adults, if it's done with respect.”

Stories with Cultural Specificity

Readers can also find more books highlighting the Afro-Latinx experience with natural hair, depicting the complex history different communities have when it comes to perceptions of natural hair.

“If you would have told me four or so years ago that two graphic novels [Frizzy and Wash Day Diaries] focusing on hair written by Dominican people like me would be published in 2022, I would have told you to get real,” said Kiara Valdez, editor of Claribel A. Ortega’s graphic novel Frizzy, illustrated by Rose Bousamra (First Second). “I like that we’ve come to a point in the industry where we can get specific and dive into how the Afro-Latinx experience of natural hair is similar and different to that of other ethnicities.”

Books such as Frizzy, starring a Dominican middle schooler opting to no longer straighten her natural hair to appease family members; Elizabeth Acevedo’s Inheritance: A Visual Poem, on embracing natural hair as a gift from Dominican ancestry; and Tamika Burgess’s Sincerely Sicily, centering a Black Panamanian middle schooler struggling with her grandmother’s opinions about her braids, are bringing to the forefront the cultural specificities of having natural hair, and portray that not all journeys are exactly the same. Across cultures and homes, feelings about natural hair differ drastically and young readers deserve access to books with variations within these conversations.

With an ever-growing variety of books surrounding natural hair to select from, the hope of raising a new generation that will continue to embrace their hair with pride is as strong as ever. But there’s still more to be seen in this space. “Things are changing but not without a nudge in the right direction,” said Mechal Renee Roe, author of the Happy Hair series for Doubleday. “If I normalize natural hair in children's media, children won’t have to waste precious time validating the existence of their natural curls and Black and brown skin. One less burden.”

As more books about natural hair continue to emerge, the core tenets remain: affirmations and positive representation. Tọlá Okogwu, author of Oneyka and the Academy of the Sun (Simon & Schuster), in which her protagonist learns to love her hair and discovers it’s a superpower, believes children can cherish who they see in the mirror and that these books can offer children comfort when the world may not.

“I hope they feel that they are enough,” Okogwu said. “I hope they feel empowered and seen—that they know they are not alone in their doubts and fears, but equally that they can overcome them.”

To see our list of 2022 books highlighting natural hair, click here.