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November 12, 2018 at 04:31 PM EST
Darrell Hanley

Sharee Miller’s new children’s book, Don’t Touch My Hair, follows Aria, a young black girl who goes to extreme lengths, traveling underwater and even into space, to get away from people, aliens, and mermaids, who want to touch her hair without asking. The properly-titled Don’t Touch My Hair is a follow-up to Miller’s 2017 children’s book Princess Hair, which celebrated the beauty of the different types of black hair. Her latest book is sure to specify that Aria still loves her hair and wouldn’t change it, while also addressing an issue that comes up for children with natural hair.

As pop culture begins to explore the nuances of black hair, Miller’s book offers an unique take on people treating natural hair as a foreign curiosity, but, it’s ultimately a book about consent for children. It’s a complicated subject, but the inviting primary color illustrations, also by Miller, make it easy to forget that she’s teaching an important lesson. Though the issue of consent could seem daunting, Don’t Touch My Hair gives Aria the power to tell people not to touch her hair, without an adult needing to swoop in and handle it for her. It’s a universal lesson within the specificity of the black community, and though the book is relevant and educational, it maintains a fun and compassionate lightness.

EW talked to Miller about the book (out now), people touching her hair in the grocery store, and art that shows that black girlhood isn’t a monolith.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With Solange’s song “Don’t Touch My Hair” and Phoebe Robinson’s book You Can’t Touch My Hair, the topic of people touching black women’s hair without asking is being discussed a lot in pop culture lately. Why did you choose to make a children’s book about this topic?
SHAREE MILLER: Well, like you said, the topic is finally actually getting circulation, just like some [other] things that black women have had to deal with for a while. And I really wanted to include children in the conversation so we can start from young, teaching more children about consent. I wanted to do it in a very relatable light-hearted way so it’s not really just hammering them with a message. So I feel like just focusing on one thing, which is hair, and kind of telling a general message about consent that all kids can learn.

Who is the ideal audience you’re trying to reach with the book?
Young children, boys and girls. Black women, because I feel like a lot of women when they find my books they say they wish they had these when they were younger, so I’m writing for my younger self. All women can feel like they’ve had this issue come up, consent in general, and making sure that you know you have that power to say no, for anything you’re uncomfortable with. From someone touching your hand to touching your hair.

I liked how the book’s fantastical element, like when Aria travels to space and aliens are still trying to touch her hair, showed just how bizarre it is that people try to touch black women’s hair without asking. Why did you choose to add the fantastical element to the book?
I really wanted to address the absurdity of how foreign natural hair is to people. To the point where even a dragon or a mermaid would be fascinated by it. These things that we think are fantastical, our hair is even more unimaginable that you feel the need to reach out and touch it while you’re standing in line at the grocery store. I feel like people think of it as complimentary, “I loved it so much, I wanted to touch it.” But even when your intent isn’t negative, it’s still an issue of consent. If you ask to touch something and someone says you can, then we’re both on the same page, we’re both feeling appreciation. But when you violate someone’s personal space it’s not positive anymore.

Because it’s so violating, were you thinking about how a child might not know they have to power to tell off someone older than them?
Yes, because I feel like as women, more and more you start to realize you have that power to say no. But I felt like especially as a female child, you’re encouraged to hug or kiss people on the cheek or hold hands. The lesson of consent kind of comes later on, when you’ve kind of already conditioned yourself to be polite. And I feel like you don’t have to be rude to voice how you want people to interact with you, but you have to learn that it’s okay early on before you get to that point where you’re just like, “I’m just mad because people have been touching my hair for years and I have to yell at them because they’re not gonna learn the lesson.” But if you just tell people from the beginning, “This is how you approach me. And this is how you will get a positive reaction from me,” then we can all improve the world with positive interactions.

It’s about consent and it’s also about boundaries, and learning how to establish them at a young age, which I think a lot of us aren’t taught. When Aria finally tells everyone they can’t touch her hair, I felt like I hadn’t really seen that very often in a children’s book, a young person establishing a firm boundary.
In a lot of books, even if they do maybe have that message, it’s from an adult, and I really wanted to give the power to the child, to say, “You have power over your body and agency to say how you want to be [treated].” The normal child reaction would be to just run away from your issue, like, if I can just get far enough away then I won’t have to deal with this anymore. But then having the growth to know, “No, I have to face my issue head on in order for there to actually be change.”

The book has a universal message. But why do you think it’s important for specifically black kids to learn these boundaries and be thinking about this from an early age?
I feel like growing up you felt that innocence as a black kid, and later on you find out limitations that society tries to put on you. And I feel like if you have a strong foundation growing up, you’re able to address any push back that you might get. Like learning that you love your hair and it’s not a burden, and anyone who would want to make you change it or touch it, you have agency over that. And you have your opinions built from [a young age], so when other people give you their opinions, you’re not as affected by it. Especially with all the stories about little girls going to school with braids of poufs and being sent home, I really wanted to celebrate this hair and show that it’s desirable and that you have power over it.

You wrote the book and did the illustrations. How do you decide on how to fit illustrations into the story?
I usually start with a main character. So I started with Aria. I knew I wanted her to have big unattainable hair. Not unattainable, but like I wanted to it be very like movable, so I used colored pencils to have texture that’s different from everyone else’s hair in the book. I like to use patterns and incorporate fashion in my illustrations as well. I really like to focus on everyone’s outfits and the patterns of the buildings and the design of the dragon. So I really tried to make it a feast for the eyes, that while telling the story, you just want to keep turning the page to see what else is coming.

Part of what works so well about the book is the specificity of the subject. Are there any other specific topics you’d like to explore for a children’s audience?
Right now, I’m working on a graphic novel. I want to show a group of four girls, to show how different they all are, and highlight the differences in being black and being a young girl, and not have everyone be a monolith. That’s another thing I want to address. I feel like Issa Rae does it so well in Insecure, and I just want to do that for a younger audience, showing all the different ways you can be a black girl.

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