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Review of the Day: J.D. and the Great Barber Battle by J. Dillard, ill. Akeem S. Roberts

J.D. and the Great Barber Battle
By J. Dillard
Illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts
Kokila (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$15.99
ISBN: 978-0-593-11152-9
Ages 5 to 9
On shelves now

A lot of us were quickly disabused of our fantasies that we might be harboring secret haircutting skills, once the pandemic hit and home haircuts rose to an all-time high. My own husband accidentally ended up with two buzzed lines on the side of his head ala every single sitcom you’ve ever seen, thanks to my own “skills”. Still, the true victims in all of this have to have been the kids. They didn’t ask for their moms and dads to pick up scissors and clippers and go to town on their skulls. I’m no statistician, but I suspect that if you were to pull up some magical graph of nationwide Bad Haircuts, you’d see a sharp increase starting at the beginning of 2020. This is just a long, roundabout way of saying that J. Dillard’s early chapter book J.D. and the Great Barber Battle probably couldn’t be any better timed than it is right now. The story of a boy subjected to an egregious home haircut and who takes that problem as an opportunity to not only learn new skills but also grow his own business . . . well, now that’s the kind of story I think we all need more of right now.

Imagine your mom cuts your hair for the first time. Right before you start the third grade. Right before the first day of school. To say that J.D.’s haircut is bad would be an understatement. And his attempts to fix it himself with his mom’s relaxer? You can imagine how well that goes. In desperation, J.D. takes the clippers to his own head and lo and behold he taps into a hidden talent. Turns out he’s a barbering natural! Now every boy in school wants him to do their hair too. Charging less than the local barbers, he’s rich! But Henry Jr., a barber that’s enjoyed a monopoly on the kid haircuts in town, isn’t going down without a fight. It’s up to J.D. to show that sometimes the best barber in Meridian, Mississippi isn’t the tried and true, but the young and hungry.

Now if you’re going to try to get a kid to read an early chapter book, that’s a challenge. Particularly if the book isn’t a comic or graphic novel. This is the age when kids are choosing their own books and trying like mad to avoid the dull, boring, meaningful texts that are out there. They want fun! They want humor! They want what J. Dillard is providing. We always say that “funny is hard” and I suppose that statement both is and isn’t true. It’s hard for some people. But for others, like Mr. Dillard, it seems like second nature. For example, Dillard is a fount of endless bad haircut similes and he puts that talent to good use. “His hair was a jagged pile of mess.” “He looked like someone had put a bowl on his head before doing a lineup, and then a tiger came along and smacked the bowl off with its claws.” And if I’m going to be honest, it’s not like there are a ton of funny early chapter books starring Black boys out there. Sure there are the Julian books by Ann Cameron but those aren’t exactly #ownvoices (or even of this century). There are the Carver Chronicles by Karen English, but those aren’t trying to be funny. Nope. This book holds its own in a rare field, should you be lucky enough to run across it.

The comparison that this book is going to receive the most, I can already sense it, is to The Toothpaste Millionaire by Jean Merrill. In both cases you have a Black kid who confronts a problem by starting his own business. In both cases the books are for emerging chapter book readers. But that’s also where the comparisons stop. The Toothpaste Millionaire, for all its charms, wasn’t an #ownvoices title either. It had its day (coming out in 1972 and all) but I think it’s time to pass the mic to a newer book. And J.D. has a LOT going on. There’s math in there and wish fulfillment (because this book seems to exist in a world where child labor laws are near non-existent, so you may as well roll with it). There’s contemporary dialogue, contemporary references to sports teams and comics and movies, and a contemporary look. Essentially, it’s a book I’ve been waiting for for a very long time.

Oh hey, fair play to artist Akeem Roberts who had to illustrate a whole swath of those haircuts Dillard mentions in the book. From hi-top fades to pompadours, he has to bring those cuts to life. I got really attached to his style in the book too. Mr. Roberts has an animation background, and you can tell. Animators, after all, have a tendency to distinguish themselves when they illustrate books. Something to do with the amount of emotion they’re able to pour into their characters’ faces. If I’m going to be completely honest with you, I listened to this book on audio book first, so coming back to the art by Mr. Roberts afterwards was fascinating. The antagonist, Henry Jr., actually looked like a much cooler dude than the one I’d put into my head. All the other details checked out, though, and I found myself rereading the book just so that I could see how the picture fit into the whole. Not sure if I’d recommend this technique to every reader out there, but it certainly gave me a more rounded sense of how the art and text work together.

Look, the long and the short of it is that I’m a white woman from the Midwest who doesn’t know boo about Black haircuts. J. Dillard, on the other hand, literally starting cutting his own hair at ten. To be honest, I’m not going to know what in this book rings as inauthentic. Ditto Mississippi. I don’t know what it’s like to live there. So for his first book, J. Dillard based a lot of it off of his own life growing up in Mississippi and that kind of realism comes through. You can feel this town. You can feel the setting, the characters, and the situations. Sure, there are things that don’t make sense to me even know. For example, I’m still not sure how colored pencils are any use with hair (Dillard sort of skims over the details with that one). And I’m also not sure how small Meridian, Mississippi is since it’s, like, the seventh largest city in the state with a population of 41,148. Still and all, this book is rare. It’s honestly fun, funny, and it comes up with some original storytelling that’s just a delight. Not sure how many kids will be inspired to pick up a set of clippers after reading this book, but even if it’s just one, this is a book worth putting in every library and school. Cause if even one kid figures out that sometimes you can turn your hobby into your job, that realization will be worth it.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy from publisher sent for review.

Interviews: You can check out my interview with Mr. Dillard about this book from earlier in the year here.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.