Children love to pronounce the name of Olive Senior's new book: Boonoonoonous Hair. ("You break it down into boo noo noo nous, and then you say it fast," she advises.)
It's a word that comes from Jamaica where Senior was born. She says this evocative term has fallen out of fashion, but she's working to bring it back.
"It's just a word that suggests something lovely, something beautiful, something warm, something wonderful," she says. "So if you're told you're boonoonoonous that's a great compliment."
Senior's book tells the story of Jamilla, a young girl learning to love her hair — and Senior says that's something everyone can relate to. "I think everyone is discontented with hair at some stage in our lives," she says.
Jamilla is black and she wishes she had straight hair. "Her mother convinces her that she has the greatest hair in the world," Senior says. "It's boonoonoonous because you can do anything you want with it."
Illustrator Laura James wasn't immediately sold on the idea. "When I got the story I was like: Oh, a hair story, you know, like, do we need a hair story?" James recalls.
But the same day she saw a news story about a teacher in Florida, cutting a child's hair. "The child had dreadlocks," James recalls. And it made her stop and think: "Oh, my goodness, this is still a thing."
James says she's worn her own hair in dreadlocks for more than 30 years.
Senior remembers getting her hair straightened when she was younger. "It always struck me as such a terrible thing — and it is a political issue ..." she says. "I wanted to address it for children in a fun kind of way."
So she wrote a book full of rhythm and rhymes and James brought it to life with bright, vibrant illustrations.
"My people are from Antigua, so we like color down there," she says. "I like to have very saturated blues, and reds, and oranges, and yellows."
Authors don't always get to collaborate directly with their illustrator. "I've been so absolutely delighted to be able to work with Laura," Senior says. "The illustrations are part of why children love these books so much: I'm giving them the words and Laura is giving them these really beautiful, colorful images."
One of James' favorite pages of the book comes at the end when Jamilla asks her big sister about all different kinds of hair: "Twirly, whirly, curly, fuzzy, snappy, nappy, wavy, crazy ..."
"We did a presentation with children at schools, and the children really love to say all the words and the rhyming words," James says. "And, of course, you know, the boonoonoonous hair. It took us about 10 minutes to get that down."
The kids are always fascinated by the concept of boonoonoonous and Senior feels good about that.
"I want them to walk away feeling positive about themselves," Senior says. "You know, having good body image, feeling, hey, my hair — regardless of what kind of hair you have — is boonoonoonous."
Barrie Hardymon edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
"Boonoonoonous Hair" is a children's book by poet and author Olive Senior...
OLIVE SENIOR: Boonoonoonous (laughter).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Who very patiently explained how to pronounce.
SENIOR: Boonoonoonous (laughter) - you break it down into boonoonoonous. And then you say it fast.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a word that comes from Jamaica, where Olive Senior was born.
SENIOR: It's sort of gone out of fashion. But I'm trying to bring it back because it is so evocative and so lovely. And I find children love to learn to pronounce it. It's just a word that suggests something lovely, something beautiful, something warm, something wonderful. So if you are told you're boonoonoonous, that's a great compliment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Olive Senior says "Boonoonoonous Hair" is a story about something that nearly everyone can relate to.
SENIOR: It's really a book that is teaching a young girl to love her hair. All of us - I think everyone is discontented with hair at some stage in our lives. So this is really to teach her really to love herself, to love her hair. Of course, she wants straight hair. This is a black girl. And her mother convinces her that she has the greatest hair in the world. It's boonoonoonous because you can do anything you want with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been asking authors and illustrators how they work together or separately to bring stories to life. This was Senior's second children's book after "Anna Carries Water" with illustrator Laura James.
LAURA JAMES: I've had dreadlocks now for over - I don't know - a long, long time, over 30 years. So, you know, actually, when I got the story, I was like, oh, a hair story. You know, like, oh, do we need a hair story? I don't know. But that very day I saw on the news there was some controversy about a teacher in Florida, you know, cutting some child's hair. You know, I think the child had dreadlocks. You know, I was like, oh, my goodness. This is still a thing, you know?
SENIOR: In my days, you'd have to get your hair straightened, which always struck me as such a terrible thing. And it is a political issue, you know? I don't know why people seem to take objection to a lot of other people's hair and hairstyles, which is quite ridiculous. So I just thought I wanted to address it for children in a fun kind of way. There are lots of lovely words and rhymes and rhythms. And, of course, there are Laura's absolutely stunning illustrations for this book.
JAMES: My people are from Antigua. So we like color down there. So I like to have, you know, very saturated blues and reds and oranges and yellows. So the book is very colorful. So, basically, I got the poem from the publisher. There really weren't that many words (laughter). And I was like, OK. So it's about hair. But, you know, where is this girl? So I had to sort of put her in different situations. So she's in the museum. She's at the library. She's at the farmer's market. You know, she's basically going around the city with different hairdos.
SENIOR: Normally, the author of a children's story book has nothing to do with the illustrator. You know, the illustrator is chosen by the publisher. My publisher has been good about letting me see the illustrations after they're done because it's important culturally that the visual images are all so satisfactory. But I've been so absolutely delighted to be able to work with Laura. The illustrations are part of why children love these books so much. It's - I'm giving them the words. And Laura's giving them these really beautiful, colorful images.
JAMES: I like the last - the second to last page of "Boonoonoonous Hair" when she's giving a list of all different kinds of hair. We did a presentation with children at schools. And the children really love to, you know, say all the words and the rhyming words and, of course, you know, the boonoonoonous hair was (laughter) - you know, it took us about 10 minutes to get that down. But, you know, it was - they were fascinated by this boonoonoonous hair.
SENIOR: I want them to walk away with some - with feeling positive about themselves, you know, having good body image, feeling - hey, my hair, regardless of what kind of hair you have, is boonoonoonous. It's fantastic. It's wonderful - and also, I think find themselves in the pictures, you know?
JAMES: Mmm hmm. They are in the pictures. They are there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was illustrator Laura James and author Olive Senior talking about their latest children's book, "Boonoonoonous Hair."
SENIOR: Yeah. Yeah.
JAMES: Yes. There you go. Just like a Jamaican. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.