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Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

CrownCrown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

Written by Derrick D. Barnes and Illustrated by Gordon C. James

Published in 2017 by Bolden, Agate Publishing

ISBN 978-1-57284-224-3

Grades 1 – 6

A 2018 Charlotte Huck Award for Outstanding Fiction Recommended Title

Book Review

“You came in as a lump of clay, a blank, canvas, a slab of marble. But when my man is done with you, they’ll want to post you up in a museum!” What could cause this kind of transformation? Nothing but a “fresh cut.” In a picture book ode that celebrates so much more than hairstyle, Derrick D. Barnes pays tribute to a unique cultural institution – the black barbershop and the role this setting can play in the life of a young black boy. Text and illustration work in perfect concert, exuding swagger and joy as our protagonist describes what it feels like to get that perfect cut: “When you see the cut yourself, in that handheld mirror….. That’s the you that you love the most… that’s the gold medal you.” Gordon C. James’s engrossing oil paintings depict the barbershop, the styles, and the fanciful possibilities engendered by the fresh cut: “Who knows? You might just smash that geography exam tomorrow and rearrange the entire principal’s honor roll.” Broad brush strokes and vivid colors invite long gazes. Sure to be a hit in your classroom, this book just begs to be read aloud!


Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

Grades 1 – 6

Oral Storytelling: Sharing Haircut Experiences. The experience of a haircut is one to which most children in your classroom will readily relate. Invite your students to pair share their haircut stories. This oral exploration can serve as rehearsal for writing and illustrating their story. Share the stories aloud, noting similarities and differences in your students’ experiences. Bind students’ writing and drawing together to create a class book that can be revisited over the course of the school year. Encourage students to add to the book over the course of the year as they get new haircuts and have new experiences to describe.

Barbershops / Hair Salons in Your Community. After reading Crown, ask your students to identify the barbershops and hair salons in their community. If possible, arrange to visit a local shop and to interview the proprietor and/or the barbers or hairsylists who work there. Students should develop a set of interview questions prior to your visit. Make sure to allow for time for students to observe the comings and goings of the shop and to listen to the conversations that occur there. If a visit is not possible, try to arrange a Skype visit instead, students can still get a sense of the occupation and the role of the shop in the community through an interview conducted online. If you have multiple barber shops / hair salons in your community, consider having students compare and contrast the services offered, the clientele, and the prices. As an extension, invite children to interview their family members about their experiences getting haircuts.

Examining Imagery: On his website, illustrator Gordon C. James states:   “When people see my art I want them to say, I know that person, I know that feeling.” Use Visual Thinking Strategies to examine the art in Crown. Ask students to talk about the emotions they infer from the images, encouraging them to make connections to their own lives. Invite student to identify a favorite image from the story and ask them to talk about how the image is meaningful to them.

Hair Styles. In Crown, author Derrick D. Barnes, names hairstyles with which your students may or may not be familiar, for example tight fade, high/low/bald, and faux-hawk. Invite your students to name, describe, and illustrate the hairstyles that they know. Discuss how hair can be an expression of individuality, a statement about oneself that is projected outward. Provide students with art materials and ask them to draw a self portrait including a hairstyle that they feel best represents their personality. Students may enjoy the opportunity to play with an app such as Toca Hair Salon.

Special Places Text Set. Read Crown along with a collection of books that celebrate special locations. Create an anchor chart to record: the location, why it is special to the protagonist, observations about how the location is described through text and image, and the role the location plays in the community. Then ask students to write and illustrate a piece that describes a location that is significant/special in their lives. Some suggested texts for this activity are: A Bus Called Heaven by Bob Graham, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, Our Corner Grocery Store by Joanne Schwartz, Rain School by James Rumford, Pizza at Sally’s by Monica Welllington.

Painting Location.  In a blog interview (Let’s Talk Picture Books), illustrator Gordon C. James describes how he used his local barbershop as a model for the book, noting the importance of “authenticity.” Collaborate with your local art teacher or an artist in your community to offer your students the opportunity to create art that celebrates special locations in your community. Create a museum display and have students write captions for their paintings.

Crown as Mentor Text: An Ode to…. Use Crown as inspiration for students’ own poetry writing. Discuss the concept of an ode – a poem that pays tribute to a treasure object or event. Note the use of language that reflects strong emotion and high praise. Share some other examples of odes such as “Ode to My Shoes” by Francisco X. Alarcon and odes composed by kid writers. Students can prepare to write their odes by brainstorming lists of adjectives and verbs that they associate with their chosen subject. These lists can be expanded to phrases and then into a poem that expresses their relationship with the subject. Be sure to share students’ finished poems with an audience.

Self-Confidence. Revisit the cover image of Crown and invite children to consider the symbolism at work in this image. Reread the first few pages and note the author’s use of the phrase “he’ll drape you like royalty…” Reread the conclusion of the poem, noting how the word “royalty” is recapitulated. Ask your student to close their eyes and remember a time when they felt so good, they felt like royalty. Next, ask them to stand and to demonstrate that feeling with their stance. Connect the feeling with the term ‘self-confidence’ and invite your students to write about a moment in their lives when they felt confident, proud, and ready to take on the world. Extend your exploration by reading additional titles that explore this emotion, such as Dan Santat’s After the Fall, Paige Britt’s Why Am I Me?, Matt de la Pena’s Love, Useni Eugene Perkins’s Hey Black Child, Nikki Giovanni’s I am Loved, Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, and Mark Gonzales’s Yo Soy Muslim

Grades 4 – 6

Critical Literacy

Representations. In his eloquent author’s note, Derrick Barnes states, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut focuses on the humanity, the beautiful, raw, smart, perceptive assured humanity of black boys/sons/brothers/nephews/grandsons, and how they see themselves when they highly approve of their reflections in the mirror.” Read this author’s note with your students and ask them to discuss why the author chose to highlight this aspect of the book. Depending on your students’ experiences, they may raise the issue of perceptions and media representations of black male adolescents and adults in our society, they may discuss racism and police brutality, or they may want to talk about haircuts and cultural expression. Follow your students’ lead in these discussions. Crown is not only an exceptional work of art, but it is also an ode, a prayer, a missing voice… How does this book help to counter dominant media messages? How does it affirm identity and culture? You may choose to share Christopher Myers’s essay “Young Dreamers” with your class or to watch Jason Reynolds’s interview with Trevor Noah. We still have a long way to go to achieve appropriate representation across the body of books written for young children and young adults, but Crown brings us closer.

Note:  Crown: An Ode to a Fresh Cut offers me an intimate glimpse into an important cultural setting that was previously unfamiliar to me. I am grateful for the opportunity. For those of you who, like myself, are not cultural insiders, you may want to learn more about the historical role of the black barber shop (a few links are provided below).


Further Explorations

Online Resources

Derrick Barnes: Author Website

Gordon C. James Illustrator’s Website

The Horn Book: Five Questions for Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James

Kirkus: “Crowning Achievement” Q&A with Barnes and James.

Let’s Talk Picture Books: Gordon C. James

Poetry Foundation: “Ode to My Shoes” by Francisco X. Alarcon

Writers in the Schools: 5 Amazing Odes by Kids

The Fader: Five Black Barbers on Why Barbershops are Sacred Spaces The Black Barber Shop

All Things Considered: Breaking Boundaries at a Harlem Barbershop

Left of Black with Quincy T. Mills (author of Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America)

The Horn Book: Christopher Myers “Young Dreamers”

The Daily Show: Jason Reynolds Interview with Trevor Noah


de la Pena, M. (2018). Love. Ill. by L. Long. New York: G.P. Putnam’s .

de la Pena, M. (2015). Last stop on Market Street. Ill. by C. Robinson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s.

Britt, P. (2017). Why am I me? Ill. by S. Qualls & S. Alko. New York: Scholastic.

Brown, P.  (2013). Mr. Tiger goes wild. New York: Little Brown.

Giovanni, N. (2018). I am loved. Ill. by A. Bryan. New York: Atheneum.

Gonzalez, M. (2017). Yo soy Muslim: A father’s letter to his daughter. Ill. by A. Mehrdokht. New York: Salaam Reads.

Graham, B. (2011). A bus called heaven. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Perkins, U.E. (2017). Hey black child. Ill. by B. Collier. New York: Little Brown.

Rumford, J. (2010). Rain school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Schwartz, J. (2009). Our corner grocery store. Ill. by L. Beingessner. Tundra Books.

Santat, D. (2017). After the fall: How Humpty Dumpty got back up again. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

Wellington, M. (2006). Pizza at Sally’s. New York: Dutton.



Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.