When Nancy Redd's daughter was three years old, she started wearing a bonnet to bed. It's a "ubiquitous black experience that I grew up with, my mom grew up with, all my friends grew up with," Redd says — and yet it's one that she felt ashamed of as a kid.
"If the doorbell rang, I would immediately take it off — I didn't want anybody to know it existed," she recalls. "I didn't want my daughter growing up with that same shame."
But Redd couldn't find a book that celebrated black nighttime hair routines, so she wrote it herself.
In Bedtime Bonnet, a little girl enlists her whole family to help her find her lost bonnet before she goes to sleep. As the girl explains: "In my family, when the sun goes down, our hair goes up!"
Nneka Myers illustrated the story — and remembers that she didn't love her bonnet much either, when she was little. "I had a hard time really accepting I had to wear a bonnet compared to all my friends," she says.
Myers paid extra attention to the texture of her paintings — she had to illustrate the little girl's tight curls, the dad's waves, the brother's twists.
"One of the problems I have seen in children's books that express diversity in the past is how everyone looks the same ..." Redd says. "If you look at families, we're not all the same color. ... Families don't all match."
Myers used a wide range of colors and brushstrokes — she says it helped that she had a reference point "right in my living room."
The little girl in the story isn't named because Redd wanted her experience to feel universal. She says, "looking at these pictures feels like I'm looking at a photo album."
The routines and traditions of black culture get hidden, Myers says, so she was glad to help celebrate them in print.
"For the longest time we were expected to fit in: To not express our blackness ..." Redd says. "No matter how much joy we get from it in our private lives, our public life is entirely separate."
She hopes her daughter's generation will be able to be their true selves, in public and in private.
"Blackness is a 360-degree experience," says Redd. "And for my daughter, I wanted her to be able to enjoy and celebrate it and not feel any shame about any part."
Redd's daughter used to say "only old people wear bonnets," but she's now embraced the nighttime ritual as her own. And if that's all that comes of the publication of Bedtime Bonnet, Redd says she will consider that a success.
"My initial goal, which is to make my daughter comfortable with her black heritage and her need to wear a bedtime bonnet has been accomplished," she says.
Evie Stone edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
"Bedtime Bonnet" is a story about a little girl, her family and their nighttime hair rituals. The brother twists and tightens his locks. The sister combs her hair into a swirl. The mom gathers her corkscrew curls in a scarf. Grandpa does nothing because he's bald. And the little girl searches high and low for her missing bedtime bonnet.
NANCY REDD: Nneka, have you ever lost your bedtime bonnet?
NNEKA MYERS: Oh, many times.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Bedtime Bonnet" was illustrated by Nneka Myers and written by Nancy Redd.
REDD: All the time. I lose my bonnet. I - actually at this point, I probably have, like, 20 or 30 around the house because I'm constantly losing it (laughter).
MYERS: Constantly losing it. And then I rebuy, like, another one. And I realized I already had it because this was hidden somewhere between the crevice of my bed. But I do like having variety and not feeling lost without it. So I can't help it (laughter).
REDD: It's very fun. The little girl loses her bonnet in the story, and the whole family helps her find it. And that's something that actually happens. That's an experience that many of us can relate to.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For those who don't wear a bonnet at bedtime, Nancy Redd explains.
REDD: My hair, as well as the hair of a lot of curly- or kinky-haired women tends to break off if it experiences friction. So to protect that, often, we sleep in protective styles, like a bonnet or a durag or a wave cap or kerchief or a scarf. And for my family, wearing a bonnet is, like, brushing my teeth. There's not a night that's complete without it.
MYERS: Well, if the night is incomplete without it, you'll regret it in the morning, essentially.
REDD: I know. I...
REDD: I have a fan who saw the cover. And she said, my daughter who's 12 loves her bonnet. It was crazy hair week at school, and she said, not a problem, Mom. I'll just go to bed without my bonnet. And I'll be ready for crazy hair day.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been asking authors and illustrators how they work together or apart to perfectly combine words and pictures. Nancy Redd wrote "Bedtime Bonnet" for her daughter.
REDD: When I would bring up the bonnet, she would bulk. And she would say, I don't want to wear bonnet. Only old people wear bonnets - because the only people she saw wearing a bonnet were me and her grandma, my mommy. Yes, we are old people. And I realize she has no context. She has no cultural context for this ubiquitous black nighttime hair ritual. So I went in search of a resource and didn't find one. I wanted to change that. And I wanted little girls to not grow up being ashamed because when I was growing up, I was very ashamed of my bonnet. If the doorbell rang, I would immediately take it off. I didn't want anybody to know it existed. And I didn't want my daughter growing up with that same shame.
MYERS: Yeah, I can personally say the same thing, too. Like, bonnets - like, growing up, I had a hard time really accepting that I had to wear a bonnet compared to all my friends. Like, I was like, why doesn't she have to wear it going to sleep? How come I have to? I guess, like, it's just something I had to learn on my own and appreciate that, you know, bonnets aren't, like, a jailhouse for your hair. Like, it's meant to, like, make your hair feel loved and retain its natural beauty. And I shouldn't be ashamed of it if someone sees it. It's like - it's a part of me. Like, that's my culture. That's who I am as a person.
REDD: These are elements of our life that are enjoyable and inspiring. And Nneka's illustrations did a phenomenal job of bringing my dream to life.
MYERS: One of the things that I try to push in my own art style is texture, like, with my brush strokes. So it was really fun to, like, play up how much texture and how little that each hair type would need. So, like, for the mom, she had, like, a massive fro. And I was like OK, I got to pineapple this but it still needs to look like it will be, like, a really massive luscious, like, 3C, 4A type hair. So I had to really play with the spirals that they're loose enough that, you know, they could just float in the air if you wanted, like, still be tight enough if she really gelled it down. The sister had more of, like, relaxed hair. It was more straightens. It's just a lot of playing with the brush strokes and textures so that they still felt like natural black hair and not just, like, a wig (laughter).
REDD: And the texture is so important. In this, Nneka, you did an amazing job because one of the problems I have seen in children's books that express diversity in the past is how everyone looks the same. Everyone has the same type of hair. Often, it's whitewashed, and it looks straight in the illustration. I sent the notes in advance of the illustrations being begun. I said, I want some 4C hair. I want people in different - different shades of black people because if you look at families, we're not all the same color.
MYERS: Definitely there's a lot of, like, differences in my own family. I typically have more like 4C, like, more kinkier hair compared to my mom, where her hair is a bit more finer. And she's, like, lighter. Or I'm a little more darker. So definitely, like, just doing the story alone and being able to pick the colors - I was able to relate to that especially because I have my reference point. It's right in my living room.
REDD: And the family in "Bedtime Bonnet" looks like my family. My daughter is such a fan. She wants to be like Nneka. She wants to be an an artist. And she has this whole series of women in bonnets that she's drawn. She's 5 at this point, by the way. And she's so in love with her bonnet. And I feel the goal of this book - if nothing else happens with the publication of "Bedtime Bonnet," my initial goal, which is to make my daughter comfortable with her black heritage and her need to wear a bedtime bonnet, has been accomplished.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Nancy Redd and Nneka Myers talking about their book "Bedtime Bonnet." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.