Hair Story: An Interview with NoNieqa Ramos

The new celebratory picture book, Hair Story, follows Preciosa and Rudine as they play hair salon and take inspiration from their moms, their neighbors, their ancestors, and cultural icons. They soon discover that their hair holds roots of the past and threads of the future. With rhythmic, rhyming verse and vibrant collage art, author NoNieqa Ramos and illustrator Keisha Morris taken an intersectional look at natural hair.

Read on to hear author NoNieqa Ramos describe her inspiration for the story, the significance of the characters’ names, and more. Download a free teaching guide for Hair Story at the end!

Can you describe the process of writing Hair Story?

I had the distinct honor of pitching Carol Hinz the story idea and working with her very closely to write it. I initially drafted it as a wordless picture book envisioning the captions and accompanying illustrations as the story telling vehicle, but writing poetry-in-verse is my destiny. Developing the verse with Carol brought forth the narrative of friendship and love between the girls and between the moms.

What was your inspiration for the story?

There are several strands to my inspiration to write HAIR STORY. Before my father insisted on military haircuts, he wore his hair lush and kinky and some of my favorite pics of him are from the seventies when he proudly posed in a camel-colored leather jacket in full afro glory.  My hair is naturally bushy and wild. Though most media images of beauty in my childhood amplified the message that my hair was unattractive, my immediate family always told me my hair was beautiful. Thankfully, because of my father’s love of Motown, I was also surrounded by images of beautiful artists and musicians like Diana Ross on his vinyl records. But I resent the military haircuts and whatever convinced my father that his gorgeous hair was unkempt and unprofessional.  Assimilation robs so many people of color the experience of looking in the mirror and smiling at our image, our lineage, our ethnic heritage, and the ancestors who manifest in our physical features. I wanted to write this story in celebration of the poetry in motion present in every young child of color.

The second strand that inspired this story is friendship. Back in the day, all of us girls loved having our babysitter Zia Cecilia style our hair with ribboned barrettes or elastic hair bands with balls at the end we called bolitas. Occasionally, Zia would braid my hair so tight I couldn’t close my eyelids, but when she was done, I felt fresh and lovely. Many of us wore uniforms to the local Catholic school, so our hair was the only way to express ourselves. Waiting for our turn, we talked Cabbage Patch kids, Thunder Cats, and the latest scandal on All My Children, our favorite telenovela. It was like we had our own mini Bronx beauty salon.

The third strand was pure joy. I wanted to participate in the canon of hair books like CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT by Derrick Barnes and HAIR LOVE by Matthew A. Cherry that are rooted in hair but extend so far beyond it. I wanted brown and Black children to revel in the beauty of their bodies and souls. I wanted them to feel proud of the beauty in the faces of their family and communities and beam at the historical and cultural icons who look like them.

Woven together, I wanted to celebrate individuality, friendship, community, and ancestry.

The mothers and daughters seem to have parallel story lines. Can you talk about their importance in HAIR STORY?

The Boricua and Black mothers in the story have a deep friendship.  They are best friends. The girls will learn how to be good persons by seeing how these women care for each other.  These mothers represent the many supportive and nurturing relationships between brown and Black women that are not depicted enough in literature and the media.

 The mothers are also romantically involved. It is so vital that happy LGBTQIA+ relationships are shown regularly in picture books and middle grade books where no struggle is involved and the purpose of the book is not to educate cishetero persons on gay issues. All children benefit from seeing tender relationships between gay people who love each other.

What is the significance of the girls’ names?

Preciosa’s name is based on the song “Preciosa” composed by Rafael Hernandez, born in the town of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Singer Marc Antony’s rendition of “Preciosa” is often blasted in our house. Rudine’s name is based on Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who said, “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” I hope I honored Rudine’s transformative vision when I created Preciosa and Rudine.

Spread from Hair Story in which the girls imagine different hair styles in the mirror.

Can you talk about the back matter?

The first portion of the back matter is a timeline of hair glory that represents just a few of the fierce brown and Black trail blazers, activists, artists, and cultural and historical icons our children should be learning about and aspiring to be.

Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, also known as Little Miss Flint, is a youth activist from Flint, Michigan. Marley Dias is an American activist and writer. She launched a campaign called #1000BlackGirlBooks in November 2015, when she was in elementary school.

Tracee Joy Silberstein (born October 29, 1972), known professionally as Tracee Ellis Ross, is an American actress, singer, television host and producer. Ross owns Pattern Beauty, a hair-care line for curly hair. Ross is the daughter of actress and Motown recording artist Diana Ross.

Elizabeth Acevedo is a Dominican-American poet and author. She is the author of THE POET X, WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH AND CLAP WHEN YOU LAND. THE POET X is a New York Times Bestseller, National Book Award Winner, and Carnegie Medal winner.

The beauty of it all is that kids don’t need to wait until they are grownups to start following in the footsteps of greats that came before them. By seeing who they can be, they can start their journeys today.

Why include AAVE, slang, Spanglish in your books–especially in picture books?

In addition to diverse representation, we must also open our minds to the different structures and ways marginalized people can tell a story or write a poem. As educators, librarians, writers, and readers, we cannot say we are being equitable and inclusive if we say we uplift the voices of the marginalized–ONLY if they speak “grammatical English.” Yes, there is a place for grammatical English. Ask ANY of my students about our deep dives into sentence diagramming lol.

I get it.

BUT-if we truly want to uplift marginalized voices we cannot say grammatical English is the gold standard in the classroom and in the library and AAVE, Spanglish, and “slang” is only acceptable in the streets or only palatable in narratives of trauma.

Because truly, among many, many other things AAVE, Spanglish, and “slang” is the people’s poetry. Free verse, what I write, is what I consider the jazz of poetry. It’s sometimes unpredictable. There might be a little chaos. It sometimes takes a minute to understand. But that’s O.K. We certainly have spent centuries trying to understand the canon of white men. Men in general, really. Sometimes, we have to learn to tune our ears-and tune out our biases–to hear the music.

For whom do you write picture books?

I write picture books for Littles AND their adults. For the BIPOC parents who grew up without ever seeing themselves. I hoped my PB HAIR STORY is an anthem for the Littles and recovery for the Bigs. I grew up seeing so much competition between women (depicted by men) on the screen. What a blessing it has been for Keisha and me to create a book of friendship for little girls and their mamas celebrating joy in our beauty–inside and out–our friendship, our community, and our ancestral and indigenous roots.

Free Teaching Resource

The free teaching guide for Hair Story was developed by the author and Lorena Germán, a Dominican American anti-bias and anti-racist educator. A two-time nationally awarded teacher, Lorena is Co-Founder of the Multicultural Classroom, as well as Co-Founder of #DisruptTexts, and also Chair of NCTE’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

Download now to find classroom activities, discussion questions, and paired readings!

Listen to NoNieqa Ramos introduce Hair Story!

And don’t forget to watch the Hair Story episode of “This One’s Dedicated To…” on author Chris Barton’s website!

Connect with the author!

Can’t get enough of these authors and illustrators? Click here to find more interviews on the Lerner Blog!

Leave a Reply