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Nation & World

This Book Teaches Kids The Concept Of 'Boonoonoonous' (It's A Good Thing)

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.

/ Tradewind Books

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."

/ Tradewind Books

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 boonoonoonoushair .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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.