A review of Cloth Crown by Deanna Singh
In 2018, while attending a showing of “Rag Head” in Los Angeles, I randomly met Deanna Singh. Singh (of no relation) flew in from Wisconsin to watch one of the performances, and after the show, we chatted about her background and work, including as an author of children’s books, and a daughter of a Sikh father and African American mother, and mother herself of two young enterprising children.
Then, earlier this year, I was happy to receive a copy of her children’s book Cloth Crown in the mail. Singh’s website provides a summary:
The Cloth Crown is about a child who is teased so much about wearing a patka (a head covering mostly worn by Sikh boys) that he wants to cut his hair. Faced with this reality, his father shares his own story of dealing with bullies and explains to his son why he decided not to cut his hair as a child. Cloth Crown is an endearing and educational story about turbans, culture, and identity.
Published in 2019 by Flying Elephant, LLC. (Singh’s own company), Cloth Crown is a hardcover book of 62 pages, aimed for readers aged five to 11 years (per information provided on Amazon). This is Singh’s third children’s book.
Singh’s storytelling in Cloth Crown is a first person portrayal of a young boy starting second grade. He comes home from his first day of school saddened and hurt by the reaction of his classmates to his patka. Living in what appears to be an extended family (with his parents and grandfather, not abnormal for Sikh families), he talks about his experience with his mother and grandfather. His internal turmoil and his candidness around wanting to cut his hair provided a realism and honesty that is very uncomfortable but realistic, and therefore relatable. Later, his father shares his own experience growing up with long hair and a turban and coming to America as a child — this story within the story forms much of the book — and this makes an impression on the boy.
Cloth Crown delves into its conflict quite early in the book, which sets the tone without a lot of context. That is to say, prepare for the heavy stuff right from the get-go. Fortunately, the resolving process does come soon with the boy’s mother (in a scene reminiscent of an actual experience that another Sikh storybook author shared), and the fact that both grandfather and father are turban-wearing men gives the reader a sense of a hopeful outcome.
I was particularly struck by one page in the book that could have been taken directly from one of my own earliest memories of a first day of school. The image of a Sikh boy on the ground, surrounded while being teased, could have been that of my first day of kindergarten. That scene in the book connected me to these characters, and its depicting of such reality demonstrates the book’s honesty. Still, such scenes are appropriately handled in the book for its intended audience, and this authenticity makes the story engaging to the reader.
I also appreciated the modeling of communication between characters. The boy’s communication with his mother, grandfather and father was open, and we see him being heard by his parents without judgment. Later, the book also modeled how such a child can communicate with her/his teacher and classmates and what could realistically be expected from that interaction.
The book’s artwork is credited to Pijush and Mary K. Biswas. Their illustrations are vivid and fill the pages of the book. The cover — a picture of the cheerful second grader wearing a turban — gives a positive feeling as the reader opens the cover. There is a sense that this is going to be a happy story.
In the book, the text finds itself embedded within the artwork which keeps the eyes immersed in each scene (though some text on dark backgrounds are a little hard to read in low light). There was a noticeable intention to include practices and imagery common to Sikh homes that, while not all explicitly addressed in the text, helped to indirectly expose the reader to Sikh religion and culture. The artwork offers more to discover, enriching the text of the story.
Functionally, for Sikh families, the book presents having conversations around uncut hair and the turban. It allows young Sikhs to see that they aren’t alone in their doubts, nor should parents or children fear these doubts. For non-Sikh parents and children, it offers a view into the value and sanctity of the turban in a positive light. For both audiences, the book is not overly preachy nor caught up in too many details. The meaning of the turban is communicated in a way that is accessible to its target audience.
Because of its focus on the struggles of the boy, I would suggest that this book serves well as an intervention to address issues in the reader’s real life to help navigate their experience. How does a Sikh child deal with being targeted? How does a non-Sikh child relate to the value of the Sikh turban and hair? How do parents hear their children in nonjudgmental ways and have (what can be difficult) conversations? Cloth Crown can act as a great discussion guide between parents or teachers and their children around the turban and its cultural/religious significance.
Not out of place among its peers on a bookshelf of children’s literature, Cloth Crown is recommended as an asset to any library of children’s books related to Sikh identity or diversity. The book is available on the Flying Elephant website or on Amazon.