British-Nigerian Author Writes About Daddies Doing Hair While Tacking Self-Love And Bullying In Book Series
Whose hearts don’t warm when seeing videos of daddies doing–or trying to do–their daughters’ hair? British-Nigerian author Tola Okogwu has taken that experience a step further and created a series of children’s books around that idea titled, Daddy Do My Hair?
The popular blogger behind My Long Hair Journey has attracted the attention celebrities like Thandie Newton with her series as well as book lovers and kids alike. Daddy Do My Hair? was inspired by the relationship between Okogwu’s husband and their daughter. And while the book is for young ones, the series challenges perceptions and preconceptions around race, gender roles within parenting, bullying, friendships, and relationships in a lighthearted way.
The first book in the children’s picture book series was Daddy Do My Hair? Beth’s Twists. The second book was Daddy Do My Hair? Hope’s Braids. And now Okogwu is preparing for her third book in the series, Kechi’s Hair Goes Every Which Way, which tackles the relationship between young Black girls and their natural Afro hair. In anticipation of her third book which will debut this May, we chatted with Okogwu about the series and her journey as a writer.
MadameNoire (MN): Why did you decide to write The Daddy Do My Hair? series
Tola Okogwu (TO): I saw an illustration online of a Black father doing his daughter’s hair and it just struck me as a very powerful image. Its impact was heightened because it reminded me of the relationship between my husband and daughter and how passionate he is about playing an active role in her life. Because of my working hours, he takes her to nursery three days a week and so has had to learn to do her hair as part of getting her ready. My daughter’s hair is quite delicate and I didn’t want to have to put her hair into damaging long-term styles and my husband was happy to step up and learn. The moment I saw that illustration, the title “Daddy Do My Hair” popped into my brain. I just loved the idea of a book that celebrates a father taking an active part in making his daughter feel loved and beautiful.
MN: How did you publish?
TO: I decided to self-publish my books when I couldn’t find a publisher willing to do so. I did try the traditional route first but I always knew when writing the books that I might have to self-publish them. I know that there is this belief that people who self-publish are just sore losers who can’t accept that their work is not good enough so I had to objectively step back and assess if the reason I wasn’t getting any interest from agents was because my work was bad. Once I felt confident that my work was up to scratch, I had to decide if I believed in it enough to essentially put my money where my mouth is. Luckily for me, I have the most supportive parents in the world. My mum, who has also gone through the self-publishing route in the past, encouraged me to pursue that path and together we decided to form a publishing company.
MN: Children’s books have a huge impact on kids. Most adults still remember their favorite childhood reads, which seems like a great responsibility for children’s authors. Thoughts?
TO: This is so true as I still remember all my childhood favorites and they in part shaped the way I view the world. Books taught me to dream beyond what seems possible and to use my imagination. But they also taught me the very narrow view of what the western world considers normal and acceptable and it never ever looked like me. If a child grows up reading books, which not only reflect but also celebrate difference, then that becomes the norm for that child. Malorie Blackman said, “Diversity in literature fosters knowledge and understanding of others outside your own sphere of experience.” And that it is, “only through knowledge and empathy of how others live that we can attempt to communicate and connect with each other.” I think this is very true, and as authors we are stewards and have an immense responsibility and opportunity to shape the way children view the world.
MN: What was your favorite childhood book?
TO: The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I was first introduced to it at age nine during story time at school and I instantly fell in love. The idea of a secret and fantastical land where children could be kings and queens and effectively change a world for the better totally blew my mind. I spent weeks looking through various cupboards trying to find Narnia.
MN: What do you want adults to come away with from your books?
TO: At their heart, my books are about celebrating fatherhood, Black identity, and Afro hair. There are lots of children’s books about fatherhood, several which feature Black characters and even a few on hair, but there aren’t many that cover all three at once, never mind celebrate them. I wanted to show a different view, one that better represents the diverse and culturally rich world we live in.
MN: What do you want children to come away with?
TO: The feeling of being seen and represented. Growing up I never had that opportunity in the books I read. I want my books to act as a mirror for children of color and a window into another culture for others. The book really is for everyone. Yes, I did want to tackle the issue of the lack of diversity in children’s literature and it was important to me to feature characters that aren’t often depicted. I think it’s important that all children be able to see themselves in the books they read but I also think it’s equally important that children be exposed to different cultures.
MN: A career as a writer can be difficult, what challenges did you face?
TO: Children’s publishing is special in that my gender is not an issue but race is still problematic. Black people represent only 10% of the population in the UK and becoming a published author is a notoriously difficult thing to do. However, the traditional method of publishing makes it extra difficult to get published as a Black author or write books featuring Black characters. There are many barriers to entry and gatekeepers to get through. In most cases, you need to be accepted by an agent first before you ever even see a publishing deal and each one of these gatekeepers has their own idea of what the reading public likes and wants and what makes for a good book. Unfortunately, there is this very myopic and stereotypical view of Black authors and their work. There is this expectation that as a Black author you can only write about Black issues e.g. racism, colonialism, etc. and if you try to step outside of that box, people don’t know what to do with you.
Whilst I’d like the book to be read and enjoyed by a diverse range of people, I’m mindful that some people will look at the front cover of my books, see the Black characters and immediately decide that it’s not for them. This stereotyping makes me incredibly sad as I believe that it’s important that all children be able to see themselves in the books they read but I also think it’s equally important that children be exposed to different cultures.
Marketing is another big issue, for me, writing the book was relatively easy. Getting the word out however, and generating publicity is extremely difficult especially as a self or independently published author. It’s hard to get attention for your books and to get them stocked by booksellers. If people don’t know your books exist or can’t easily find them, how can they buy them?
MN: You have had some celebs like Thandie Newton praise your work. Does this help spread the word about your work?
TO: Yes, it really does and it’s also incredibly gratifying to have someone with such a high profile enjoy your work. With marketing and promotion being one of the hardest aspects of being a self-publisher, endorsements like hers really go a long way. I have a little list of celebs I’d love to have read the books and I won’t lie, Beyoncé is right up there!
MN: How did you first get into writing?
TO: As a mother, it is of the utmost importance to me that my daughter is able to see herself represented in the toys she plays with, shows she watches and most importantly, the books she reads. It wasn’t until I started looking for these toys and books that I realized how scarce they are. The lack of diversity and inclusion in children’s literature is an ongoing issue and one that is only beginning to gain attention. After exhausting the few diverse books I was able to find online, I realized that I was going to have to be the solution to my problem. I’ve been blogging for almost 10 years and I studied journalism at University. I always wanted to write a book, I just never imagined it would be a children’s picture book.
MN: What advice would you give to other Black women looking to start a career as an author?
TO: Be ready for rejection, I know it sounds harsh but that is the most basic truth for every author and even more so for women of color. The next thing is to believe in yourself, your truth and your work because if you don’t, no one else will. Lastly, persevere; don’t let one or even a dozen closed doors stop you. There are so many new and exciting options available now to get a book published and they make it possible for us to finally break through the elitist and racist patriarchy that dominates the publishing world. Our stories are important and they need to be heard.
MN: Publishers often say it is harder to sell books by Black authors and books targeted at an audience of color. Do you feel this is true or and excuse?
TO: There is a belief within the publishing world that people not of color are unable to relate to Black characters and so books featuring Black characters will not sell. At the end of the day, the publishing industry is a business and it wants to make money.
It really is just an excuse however, and I believe that the phenomenal success of the Black Panther movie has finally shattered this myth once and for all. There is a huge audience literally starving for diverse content and willing to spend money but they can’t find any. Yet publishers claim they aren’t producing any because there’s no audience, so it’s an awful Catch 22. It’s why I decided to self-publish, I was fed up of waiting for the publishing industry to enter the 21st century. If we as people of color want to see more diversity in the books we read, toys we play with and movies/TV shows we watch then we are going to have to get up and create them ourselves. The time of waiting for others to do it for us is over. If you can’t get an invite to the table, build a new one!
MN: What’s next for you?
TO: I’m in the middle of writing a Young Adult book and also have another idea for a chapter book so I’d really like to get those finished. As a self-publisher, the work doesn’t stop when I finish writing the book, I’m constantly working to market and promote the books and get them to as wide an audience as possible.