Starting as a Kickstarter back in 2017, the recent Oscar-winning short film Hair Love raised over $200,000 from an idea that snowballed in the mind of writer and co-director Matthew A. Cherry for years.
The premise of the short film is based on the relationship of an African American father and his daughter, who both struggle (but eventually succeed) to style the young girl’s hair in preparation for a big day. According to Cherry, the story was born out of a lack of representation of similar stories, and his hope was to show a positive image of African American fathers and their daughters, as well as the beauty of natural hair and self-love.
For Gainesville-based author Carylee Carrington, the same inspiration that created the short film also inspired her to write her newly released children’s book, Pretty Hair. After watching two of her family members grow up with hair that differed from their peers, she wanted to ensure they knew just how special they were, and how important it is for them to love the hair they were born with.
We caught up with Carrington about the book, why she thinks this topic continues to be an important one to discuss and how her impact on the NoVA community is expanding. Highlights from our conversation below.
What inspired you to write Pretty Hair?
My main inspiration was really my two nieces that have amazingly gorgeous hair. They have really curly hair, and they are mixed. My brother-in-law (their dad) is Indian, African American and Chinese, and my family is a bit mixed as well with black and white, so they got really, really curly, long hair. When they were in elementary school, they did not like their hair at all. I knew that I have gone through my own different transitions with my hair. I’ve gone back and forth with the natural to permanent straight movement a couple times now, and it’s been about maybe five or six years since I’ve chemically straightened my hair. I really started out wanting to actually speak to African American girls and trying to get them to love their hair and embrace their natural hair.
From inspiration to creation, how did the idea turn into a published book?
After finishing my first book, which was more about trying to bridge the divide between cultures and races, I saw the opportunity to turn that book into a book of unity. After talking to some friends about it, I realized that the hair journey is not just mainly with the African American community, it’s with every race, so that really resonated with me. I started writing, and the book starts out with an African American girl. She goes to school and she has different hair, and she’s seeing everyone else with different hair and no one like her. But she befriends a little blond girl who has straight hair, and it turns out in the end that they both want to have each others hair. It became a story that is trying to get girls to embrace their hair, whether it be straight, whether it be curly, you know, whatever it is.
You mentioned your first book, Everyone, Just Like Me, was also about bridging racial differences. Was that one also inspired by a real experience of yours?
My first book was inspired by my son. He was in kindergarten and he came home one day and he was like, “You know, why can’t everyone just be the same? Why can’t I be like my friends?” And it sparked a bigger conversation because he was told by one of his friends in kindergarten that he should really only play with people of his skin color. His father and I had not touched on this topic yet, and my family is mixed, but we didn’t want to delve into the topic of race with a 5-year-old. I sought to find some way to write a book that would explain embracing differences. I actually woke up in the middle of the night and that story came into my head and I just had to write it down. I actually wrote it on my cell phone. Now I have taken up this platform of embracing differences to teach our youth and young children starting in elementary school that we are different and that’s what makes us special.
What’s the best part about having your book out there for kids, families and classrooms across the country?
It definitely makes me excited because my mom was a teacher. She retired about three years ago now, but she didn’t want me to go into teaching because she always told me it could be a little bit stressful. I’ve come full circle and I’m writing children’s books and it gives me a greater connection with my mom. She was a literacy coach as well, so it’s great to be an example to my children but also an example for her, because with her being retired, now she is looking into becoming a children’s author too. I’m glad to be that inspiration and example for others that would never have really thought that they can do that as well.
You also recently started the podcast The Read with Carylee Show. Tell us about that.
After writing these two books, I was talking to my friends and they were telling me that there were so many other authors around. And I thought, “Where?” because there’s so many self-published authors now. I did a search on Amazon and it turned out that there was something around 80 million children’s books out there, and I didn’t know that there were so many children’s books authors around me. I couldn’t help but think about how I grew up on Reading Rainbow and loved it, and I wanted to find something for my children to instill their love of reading. I knew I wanted to expose the lesser-known authors in the self-publishing industry since there are some really great stories out there, and celebrity authors already have a platform. I started the podcast at Jirani Coffeehouse (I’m friends with the owner), and it became a reality in about two months. Now I am interviewing authors who I’ve gotten in contact with in the area and I would love to expand it so it can get out to the masses.
Lastly, what should readers know about your books and why they should read them to their children?
This kind of brings me back to why I wrote my first book. I published it in a political climate of divisiveness, with all of that being on the news and being cognizant of that around my children. It just hurts my heart to know that on top of all of that, there are reports of mental illness, suicide is higher in children and more. If children are not raised to know who they are and love themselves, it creates so much turmoil. When I was growing up, which was that far ago, it wasn’t the same with the panic and anxiety that we have now, so I think with these books and lessons, with children being able to see themselves represented and able to embrace their differences and themselves, it could possibly quell that anxiety, and tomorrow could be brighter than it is now.
The next recording of The Read with Carylee Show will be on Saturday, April 4 at Jirani Coffeehouse, and more information on Carrington can be found on her website. Purchase Pretty Hair on Amazon for $22.95.
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