Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit – Esau McCaulley

Josey Johnson's Hair and the Holy Spirit by Esau McCaulley, Latonya Jackson
Also by this author: Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Published by IVP Kids on May 10, 2022
Genres: Children's
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When Josey wonders why people are so different, Dad helps her understand that our differences aren't a mistake. In fact, we have many differences because God is creative! Children and the adults who read with them are invited to join Josey as she learns of God's wonderfully diverse design. Also included is a note from the author to encourage further conversation about the content. Discover IVP Kids and share with children the things that matter to God!

I had been super hyped for Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit ever since IVP Kids first announced it. I was a huge fan of Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black, but had no idea how that non-fiction talent would translate into a children’s book. Maybe it was the expectations I’d set for it, maybe I was led to believe I was getting a different book, but I was ultimately left a bit underwhelmed by the story.

The main problem I saw with the book is that the story’s plot and theme never cohere in a strong enough fashion. There are basically two stories: Josey Johnson’s Hair and The Story of Pentecost. In the first part of the book, we’re introduced to Josey Johnson, who is getting ready to have her hair braided for Pentecost. The book focuses on the beauty of Black hair and how—especially for Black women—hair is a huge part of racial identity and culture. The second half of the book consists of Josey’s dad explaining Pentecost to her, culminating in Josey and her beautifully-braided hair attending a multicultural church service to celebrate Pentecost.

It was as if McCaulley was asked to do a story about Black hair but really wanted to talk about Pentecost, or was asked to do a story about Pentecost but wanted to talk about Black hair. The back cover of the book reads “We’re all different because God is creative. Each one of us is God’s unique work of art.” This leads me to think the cohering element of the book was supposed to be the movement from an expression of cultural identity moving into a multicultural celebration of the Holy Spirit’s presence on anyone regardless of ethnic or cultural background. Unfortunately, that connection is never quite completely made.

My other criticism is that McCaulley does a lot of telling, rather than showing. Most of the book is Josey’s dad giving a long didactic explanation of what Pentecost celebrates. The depth of explanation and the vocabulary used limits engagement with younger readers (or, at least, my younger readers). My daughter was very much interested in Josey getting her hair done just like she does. Not so much interested in the explanation of Pentecost. Josey Johnson’s Hair and the Holy Spirit is too much of a teaching tool and not enough creative expression. It sounds like a lecture rather than art.

Looking at other reviews of this book, it’s clear that most people don’t seem to share my concerns and that the positive message the book sends overshadows any flaws it might have. It’s a decent teaching tool that lacks a strong cohesive narrative. The illustrations are incredibly and eye-catching. The variety of Black hairstyles pictured capture a diversity within hair, symbolizing the diversity within humanity. As art, it is an engaging work. As story, it falls somewhat short.