Imagine that you're going about your day, minding your own business, when a stranger or acquaintance comes up to you and runs their hands through your hair.
For author/illustrator Sharee Miller, it's something that she saw — and experienced — frequently. Every day, black girls with curly hair were receiving unwanted attention and often unwanted physical contact from people who were fascinated by their hair.
The girls’ parents knew it was a problem, but they didn’t know the best way to empower their daughters to stand up to people who were touching their hair without permission. So, Miller penned the children’s book “Don’t Touch My Hair!” in which readers follow a little girl, Aria, as she “attempts to escape the curious hands that want to touch her hair.”
We recently chatted with Miller, who also wrote the children’s book “Princess Hair” (which celebrates different shapes, styles and textures), about hair, consent and embracing who you are. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
American-Statesman: Where did the idea for your books come from?
Sharee Miller: Both “Princess Hair” and “Don’t Touch My Hair!” came out of me rediscovering my natural hair. From sixth grade to college, I chemically straightened my hair. Like most black girls, growing up we all thought we had to change our hair to be beautiful or acceptable.
Why do kids need books like these today?
There were old books about loving your hair, but I wanted to make it fun. Having natural hair now, it’s so much more fun, there’s so much more hairstyles you can do. There aren’t people immediately telling you to change it. When I wrote “Princess Hair,” I was like, there’s so many ways you can wear your hair. You can have braids and locs and all these things. You can go to school and have other people love your hair, and along with that comes people being interested in your hair and wanting to touch your hair.
“Don’t Touch My Hair!” centers on the idea that you should never touch someone else’s hair without their consent. Why is this so important for kids to hear?
With more people wearing their hair natural, I started to see so many articles and stories of people really having their space invaded by people wanting to touch their hair or actually touching their hair, messing up their hair. If it makes you uncomfortable, you should feel empowered from when you’re young to say, “I don’t like that.” It’s fighting against what you’re raised to think. You’re raised to think your hair is not beautiful and you should change it. You’re raised to think attention you get (is OK), even if you don’t want it.
Why do you think some people decide it's OK to touch a child's hair?
I feel like it’s like the newness of something. If you go to a store and you touch something like, “Oh, that’s cute,” you don’t really need to touch it. It’s having that same reaction with people. And it’s not just hair. Like if you’re a pregnant woman and people try to touch your belly.
What is the mission of your books?
I think just raising a more conscious generation, to show kids from the beginning: Why would you do that? You wouldn’t have to unlearn invading people’s personal space. Being able to talk about something before it happens is so much easier for people to digest. If you’re doing something and someone tells you not to do it, there’s kind of an urge to rebel against it.
» RELATED: At this East Austin barbershop, customers get more than just a cut or style
Why is consent such a big piece of your message?
I think it’s important when you’re learning about people and their different levels of comfort being able to accept when people don’t want something. But also, you don’t have to approach a situation like, “They’re never, ever allowed." You can let your mother touch your hair to style your hair, but just letting (kids) know they can tell people what their comfort level is and that it’s very important to find that out beforehand. I also wanted to teach empathy — what are things that you don’t like that you wouldn’t want somebody to do without your permission? Using hair as a way to approach that subject and being aware of how your actions affect other people.
What kind of response has "Don't Touch My Hair!" received?
I feel like a lot of people my age who are also parents are like, “I wish I had this book as a child. I’m so glad my child has this book to grow up with." “Don’t Touch My Hair!” also starts a conversation for some kids or parents who say, “I didn’t realize my kid was having problems with people touching their hair at school.” As kids, we don’t know to speak up about something. (It allows) a teacher to be able to read it in class and also have that conversation in a way that’s not punitive, not addressing a problem when it happens but before it happens.
Is there any feedback that really stands out?
One woman, she was overseas in Denmark, and her daughter was constantly having people try to touch her hair. After they read the book, she specifically quoted it: “That’s it, that’s enough, don’t touch my hair.” I was able to give her the actual words. I get emails every day (from parents) saying how their daughters loved my book. It’s really great to know that my stories are able to reach so many children. Ever since I was young, I wanted to make picture books.
What else do you want girls to know?
Their hair is beautiful, just the way it grows from their heads.
“Princess Hair” will be released as a board book this fall. Miller's new book, “Michelle’s Garden,” which tells the story of Michelle Obama and the White House garden, will be released in fall 2020. You can buy her books at major retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble and at shareemiller.com.