Thursday, December 26, 2002

Author turns to kids' books

By Shauna Scott Rhone
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sometimes, mothers know best. Activist and author bell hooks (she uses no capital letters in her name) became inspired by a fan's remark made during a bookstore appearance several years ago.

"I was at a book signing and a black mother came up to me and said 'You should write a children's book,' " says Ms. hooks.

Her long literary journey through social criticism and the dissection of human emotions now leads her down a new path: children's books. The mother's suggestion and Ms. hooks' own inability to find good juvenile literature for family members caused her to accept the challenge to create instead of complain.

"When I looked for books for my nieces and nephews," she said, "I was always disappointed by the selection."

Happy to be Nappy (Hyperion; $19.95), a tribute to girls' hairstyles, was her first children's book, released in 1999. Be Boy Buzz (Hyperion; $16.99), published earlier this year, celebrates the bouncy boisterousness of being a boy. Her next, Homemade Love (Hyperion; $16.99), comes out in January.

Born Gloria Watkins in Hopkinsville, Ky., the 50-year-old author has written more than 20 politically themed books. Ms. hooks' first book in 1981, Ain't I A Woman: black women and feminism (South End Press; $15), launched her career as a member of the African-American intellectual set, and she still lectures on the subjects of feminism and humanism.

We talked to Ms. hooks' about the change in genre and whether she plans to write more books for children.

Question: How did you come to write your first children's book, Happy to be Nappy?

Answer: I wanted kids to have books that shaped their hearts and minds. When I've done readings of Be Boy Buzz, I was amazed at a 7-month-old who sat in front of me engrossed in the story. I think it's amazing the variety of kids that come. At a reading of Happy To Be Nappy, there was one child in the audience with cancer, so I pointed to the child in the book who had a little tuft of hair on her head so the child could relate. I get adult readers who come to me and say they loved the book.

Q: What was the genesis of Be Boy Buzz?

A: I was concerned that illiteracy rates among black boys are high. There are no boys reading. We need to show black boys reading. So much is written of the emotional life of boys, but nobody writes about the emotional life of black boys. The boy in my book cries, laughs, jumps and is quiet, but he still wants to be hugged.

Q: As it says in Be Boy Buzz, are we "letting our boys down?"

A: I want this book to be revolutionary. It is the right of boys to be whole and not have their spirit broken because they behave like boys. The book is dedicated to my brother, who was whole as a child, but was broken by life. This book is an homage to the wonderfulness of black boys ... . It's a hard book in that it's hard to embrace that boys want to be tough and tender, to be able to drop the fa┴ade. The book is about reclaiming the magic of wholeness. Boys are frequently seen as not being worthy of that magic.

Q: What is the message in Homemade Love?

A: My concern for black children is to imagine our children living in peace and love. We always feel like we have to teach them the tough stuff to get along in life. There are so many of us that don't know children need softness. If you give them love, they'll be able to handle the hard stuff. As a child, if their spirit's already broken, those hurtful words hurt when they're 30.

Homemade Love is about families. Part of the problem in literature is we don't have images of black partnership. I made sure there was a dog in the story because I want black kids to not be afraid of dogs. Some kids are too poor to have a pet so they're afraid of dogs. I wanted to show them it's OK to like dogs.

For the parent who reads the book, it's about what it's like to be loved as a child. You can do something wrong and the family can come together again. There's a big comfort in knowing you can always come home, that sense that you have a home to come to and be secure.

This book has black kids in it but it's not just for black kids. All kids have that sense of the fear of the dark. It's universal. The images in the book are black, but the issues are universal. It's important for children to see themselves delightfully, playfully living in our society.

Q: What do you want readers to get from your books?

A: The No. 1 thing I want them to experience is delight. My books give you both a feeling of fun, but (they also) share something with you. Little black girls read my descriptions of hair in the book (Happy...). They say "no one's even said anything like that about our hair before." It worked on their hearts, opened avenues to their self-esteem. Some parents feel that we have to prepare them for the harshness of life. I want to show (children) an open space to be playful.

Q: Are these three books a trilogy or are there more in the works?

A: Yes. I enjoy teaching kids more about love. There will be more. I have another book coming out for adults, too. Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem (Atria Books; $23) is coming out in February.


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