'This is someone I don’t know whose life I’m now a part of because they’ve read my book.'
Published on: 05 September 2019 Author: Olivia Danso & Robbie Hunt
Booktrust Represnts author Hannah Lee's debut book My Hair comes out today. Here Hannah talks to us about the beauty of hair, the joys of writing for children, and how important it is that all children can see themselves in the books they read.
You’ve mentioned in the past that your debut book My Hair was originally inspired by your own hair loss as a teenager. What is it about hair in particular that feels so important to you?
I feel like hair is your identity. We show a lot of our identity through our hair, so the different choices you make with your hair says a lot about who you are. You dye your hair, you might choose to have it out, you might straighten it, you might choose to put braids in, whatever you choose to do.
I just feel that hair is such a personal thing. It’s an extension of your identity, a way to show who you are and express yourself.
This is a really random thing, but just at the beginning of it [Hannah’s hair loss] I was like to my sister can you plat my hair, because she’s the one who knows how to cane row best in the family. As she was platting she said I just can’t, it’s literally coming away in my fingers. It was a weird thing as we had to figure out our relationship, we’d always had a good relationship, away from her doing my hair.
There’s a closeness when you do someone’s hair, you’re literally putting someone between your legs and doing this [gestures as if braiding hair] and you’re bonding.
When my hair was gone we had to figure out how to do other things to bond because that part of our relationship was gone. Thankfully we do like each other away from just doing each other’s hair.
My Hair features a variety of vibrant hairstyles and characters, and you feel very drawn into the world being created. What was it like, seeing your poetry come to life with Allen’s illustrations? What kind of discussions did you have around it?
It was actually wild! It’s a collaboration of course so as much as I’ve written it he’s illustrated it, we have to coexist with each other. When I saw the amount of thought he’d put in to it, he literally went away and did character studies of people in the street, who does that!? He’s just amazing.
Even holding it in my hands for the first time I was genuinely blown away.
You’ve said in the past that you noticed early on that there weren’t many books featuring characters that looked like you when you were growing up, and subsequently as you’ve watched your nephew grow. Why do you think it’s important for books like My Hair to exist?
People need to see themselves quite frankly. Even people who don’t look like the characters in the book need to see other people to. You need to understand that that there is such a myriad of different people in the world and why should they not be reflected in a book?
In terms of representation, I just know that whenever I see someone that looks like me in media, in books, in whatever it is I get that feeling of being really proud to see myself represented. I feel like that was robbed from me and a lot of other young black girls and boys growing up. I didn’t want that to continue to be the case. I also just love reading about different experiences and different people so if feel that [writing] it just made sense.
You were part of the first cohort of Highly Commended for the inaugural FAB Prize – How did you hear about the prize and what motivated you to enter it?
I think someone must have tweeted something and it got retweeted on to my timeline by chance, but how I got the guts to enter it was my sister Natalie. I was talking to her and said oh there’s this thing called the FAB prize do you think I should enter? She said I don’t know let me read your material first. She read it and said yeah enter, this is a good idea.
I entered and actually forgot about it and got this email months later saying you are highly commended, and I thought ooh that’s a bit of me!
By this point I’d got a new job and doing all this different stuff and thought let me just go to the day, it was literally just round the corner from my new office. I went in and everyone was amazing, being surrounded by all of these authors and illustrators and everyone at Faber & Faber, and it was like… I’m home.
How has your life changed since you entered the prize?
Well I’ve always been surrounded by kids because I’m the youngest of three, this explains a lot of my personality, and I’ve always been relegated to the kids’ table at functions to look after them. So I’ve always had a connection with kids anyways but I feel like now that I have a book out its connecting with children in a wide spread way, bringing someone else joy that I don’t even know.
This is someone I don’t know whose life I’m now a part of because they’ve read my book.
I now get to be a part of someone’s growing up story, just like how a lot of my favourite authors were when I was growing up, which is a bit mad now that I’m actually saying it.
Who were your favourite authors growing up?
When I was at school we went to this writers thing, John and Grace Agard were there and they were amazing. They bought performance, and the material would have been enough as it was but they went the extra mile. Every teenager in there, this was a room of fourteen and fifteen years olds, was like picking their nails but when they came on they sat up. That to me is why they as a duo are amazing. They inspire me to bring my own type of energy.
In secondary school I really like Carol Anne Duffy and I did some stuff based off her poetry. I liked Kevin Brooks growing up he was really cool. There was this lady Janet McDonald who wrote a book about a teenage girl in a spelling bee and she was pregnant that was really good. I was in to a lot of African American authors as well.
But we never had any author come in to our school, that was not a thing, I didn’t even know people did that.
We never had an author or illustrator come in to school, not in primary school, not in secondary school, not even in summer school, but my library, Stoke Newington library, did author visits. Michael Rosen would pop in to the library now and again, but that was the closest we got to meeting any authors.
Did you always want to write for very young children? Would you write for other ages?
I think it was just the first book I wrote was for young children. I think a little bit like a child as well, so it was quite easy to tap in to that mindset. I really like writing for children, its such an honour. Someone so young is putting there trust in you to entertain them. I want to write more children’s books, however I’m not restricted to just writing children’s books.
The dreaded question: Now that you’ve written My Hair, can we expect more picture books from you in the future?
I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants so I don’t plot I just write. The idea come and it tells me what to do and I just do it. Then I’ll send it off to an editor or my mum or my sister, and they’ll say this needs to be changed or this needs to be changed and then I figure out how I can slot different things in to places.
In terms of what comes next… It’s already written baby!
What’s been the best reaction to My Hair from children so far, especially from children of colour, or even their parents/ guardians?
Her name is Dania! So we sent a copy of the book to this school in Liverpool and she found it by chance during reading time, and was like this is MY book. Which I can totally relate to. She also had the same hairstyle as my little girl [in the book]. Her reaction was just so genuine, so genuinely like oh it’s me.
I really liked Talia’s reaction, she literally just gave the book a massive hug.
Also when we were outside Waterstones on my book tour, I was posing with my book and a guy walked past and said I need that book for my niece. He was like I’m going to buy it off you right now and I said you can’t it’s out in September. So I just said you know what? Here’s a copy. I got you mate. Now his niece has a copy of the book!
What advice do you have for children’s writers and illustrators of colour who want to be published but don’t know where to start?
I would say people need your stories so keep writing. Think about your plot, think about your character, think about something that’s going to stimulate everything else in your book. For picture book writers I would say don’t get too bogged down with the visuals if you haven’t got them yet. In the words of Toni Morrison, who sadly died yesterday, if there’s a book you want to write and it hasn’t been written yet then you have to write it.
I think for a lot of Black authors there are a lot of books we want to see that haven’t been written.
There are books that have been written that may have been lost to time or lack of marketing, for whatever reason they’ve been lost. So don’t stop writing, don’t stop pushing your ideas. I know a lot of the time the onus is on us to get ourselves out there because people don’t naturally just approach us, but anywhere there’s stuff like the FAB prize or competitions enter yourself!
Don’t be afraid to enter yourself because imposter syndrome is real, everyone has it, it’s just a case of pushing past that to know that someone needs your story. A Dania needs your story, a Talia needs your story, someone needs your story.
There are loads of exciting initiatives like BookTrust represents so apply for those, just research, there are so many resources available for people now. Don’t be afraid to build your author network as well and just talk to people. Be open and approachable because you don’t know whose listening, whose reading, whose watching. Put yourself out there and be open to receive great things coming your way.
My Hair is out now from Faber & Faber.