Perhaps best known in the children’s literature world for her pioneering picture book, Cornrows (illustrated by Carole Byard), Nana Camille Yarbrough is an acclaimed singer, actress (co-starred in Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black), dancer (toured with Katherine Dunham), activist, educator and middle-grade novelist. Her books, The Shimmershine Queens, The Little Tree Growing in the Shade and Tamika and the Wisdom Rings (Just Us Books) tackle tough issues including colorism and violence while reinforcing cultural pride and celebrating friendship, family and intergenerational relationships.
On her website, she says: “The freedom of the African mind depends on us being re-educated about our history and our culture. As a griot, I am charged to do more than share stories but I must preserve the meaning and beauty of our culture. That work, with me as a keeper of our culture, transcends time and space. That’s why the themes of my books and my music are not bound to my generation. The ancestors ensure that my work has meaning for all age groups.”
Cornrows, a 1980 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner, debuted more than three decades ago, and remains in print. Recently, Yarbrough launched an indiegogo campaign to fund the production of a Cornrows docudrama. You can learn more here where it reads in part: “Today it is just as necessary and important now as it was then. Cornrows is a story about our people, our culture, our family, and our heritage. Now, Nana Camille Yarbrough is taking Cornrows to the big screen with the production of a one hour docudrama that takes the viewers on a journey from America to Africa, the Motherland and back again.”
Her books are timeless, as relevant now as they were then. We are honored to celebrate Nana Camille Yarbrough as a vanguard author. Here, she talks about her journey:
I have written four books for children. It was not something I had planned to do, I had written songs, poetry, monologues, a play, a half page article, “Today I Feel Like I Am Somebody,” that was published in the New York Times Drama Section, all adult subject matter.
The books for children became part of my life’s work because of a poem and a friend. The poem Cornrows was actually a lyric to a song. The friend, who later became my best friend, was playwright, author Alice Childress.
Mrs. Childress and I met as guests on the television show Soul. It was a popular show on channel 13 in New York. I admired her work and told her I had acted in her play “Wine In The Wilderness.” After the show she told me my poetry was powerful and important and that she was pleased to be on the show with me. I felt it was really an honor to be on the show with her.
After that meeting I continued to do my other work as a performance artist, lecturer and community activist.
Several years later I received a letter from an editor at Putnam Publishing Group. The editor informed me that Mrs. Childress, at his request, had given him a list of names of young poets whose work she thought was good. She gave him a list. My name was on that list. He and I met in his office and he read the poetry I had brought to show him. The poem Cornrows was one of the poems he read. He asked me if I could write the poem as a book from the point of view of an eight year old girl. I had never written a book before but, I knew I could. That is how the book Cornrows came to be.
Cornrows is not a story only about hair. It is about the beauty and the skill of the art form. It is the classic style for the coiled hair of people of African ancestry. The various designs traditionally symbolized honor, respect, courage, dignity and love. Symbols which for centuries had been taken from the lives of enslaved Africans until the designs were kept but, the meanings were lost. The book Cornrows was my effort to return the value system to the braids.
My other books for children: The Shimmershine Queens, The Little Tree Growing in The Shade, Tamika And The Wisdom Rings and all that I write are value driven to help restore respect, love, courage, wisdom, honor and dignity to people of African heritage and to all people who are in need of their restoration.
When I write I begin with the question, “How will this be helpful? What is needed? How can I entertain and inspire?
Then, I let it flow. I am first inspired myself by the subject and then by the development of the characters, the time, place and the destination. I know how I want to end it. I am inspired by just about everything and everybody.
Winner of 1980 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award
“This book is a Gem! Camille Yarbrough captures the warmth of family affection and the pride of our rich heritage in a story that’s superbly illustrated by Carole Byard.”
The Shimmershine Queens
Parents Choice Award winner
“A remarkable story about self-esteem and achievement”
– Publishers Weekly
Tamika and the Wisdom Rings
“Eight-year-old Tamika, her older sister, and their parents live in an inner-city apartment building where her father is the super. Although gangs and drugs are constant threats, Tamika works hard to keep her mind and body safe and strong. After Daddy is murdered by drug dealers (who threaten the rest of the family), the three are forced to move to another, much smaller apartment. That Tamika and her family are able to survive these terrible changes and move forward in their lives is a tribute to their inner strength . . . ”
Find out more about Nana Camille Yarbrough at http://camilleyarbrough.com/.