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When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

An adorably illustrated new children’s book means well but fumbles the details

Marjorie Ingall
August 24, 2018
Illustration by Sarah Walsh, provided by Chronicle Books.
An image from the new book 'Hats of Faith'Illustration by Sarah Walsh, provided by Chronicle Books.
Illustration by Sarah Walsh, provided by Chronicle Books.
An image from the new book 'Hats of Faith'Illustration by Sarah Walsh, provided by Chronicle Books.

I wanted to love Hats of Faith. It’s a charmingly illustrated little board book about people of different religions and the different head coverings they wear. The art, by Sarah Walsh, is adorable; imagine the painterly-yet-cute, hipster-naïve, color-saturated look of Maira Kalman’s children’s books, except that on every page, on a bright brushstroke-y background, is a softly smiling person, shown from the shoulders up, wearing a hat or other head covering. There are different skin tones, different facial hair, different jewelry–but everybody’s got a hat. The text on each page tells the reader the name of the item on the person’s head and what kind of person wears it.

Cuteness itself.

Here’s the problem. The descriptions aren’t always right.

Examples! There’s a picture of a little boy in a black skullcap. The text says, “This is a Kippah (Ki’pa), which many Jewish boys and men wear.” First off, in modern Hebrew, the word is pronounced ki’PAH, not Ki’pa. More importantly, it’s not just males who choose to wear a kippah nowadays (plural: kippot). Take a gander around any Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist congregation and you’ll see plenty of women in (sparkly, beaded, crocheted, lace, silk, painted …) kippot. Finally, the boy in the picture has super-short bangs and pe’ot (aka payos, sidelocks, side curls, simanim–gosh, naming things is complicated and nuanced!), meaning he looks ultra-Orthodox (or haredi, or perhaps Hasidic, and oy, again with the complexities of language and identity), which means it’s entirely likely that the boy himself wouldn’t call what’s on his head a kippah. If he speaks Yiddish at home, as many ultra-Orthodox do, he’d call it a yarmulke.

Another page says, “And this is a Tichel (Teak-el), which many married Orthodox Jewish women wear.” A long-lashed, blue-eyed woman, her blond hair peeking out of a cute aqua cap covered in mustard flowers, peers at us in three-quarter view. But the word tichel, which is Yiddish, is pronounced “TIKH’l.” The author of the book, Medeia Cohan, is British, but not even in the U.K. is it pronounced Teak-el. (Side note: And if “Ki’pa” gets a diacritical mark, why the heck doesn’t “Teak-el”?) Furthermore, a tichel is a scarf. The woman in the picture is wearing a cap. And her hair is showing, which is a big no-no among some tichel wearers.

On another page: “And this is a Rasta Hat, which many Rastafarian men wear.” Again, adorable picture! Bright and happy! But a Rasta Hat is also known as a rastacap, a tam, a rastafar, or a toppa, depending on who’s wearing it and where they live. “And this is a Head Wrap, which many African Christian and Muslim women wear”—and here is a beautiful dark-skinned woman with big green hoop earrings, bright red lipstick, and a vividly patterned swath of fabric around her head. But “Head Wrap” is unspecific. A tichel is a head wrap. Olsen twins wear head wraps. Capital letters alone do not confer precision or distinction. In Zimbabwe a woman would call what she’s wearing a dhuku; in Nigeria a gele; in Botswana a tukwi; in South Africa a doek. We should use the terms people prefer for their own local practices. And no, this isn’t pedantry; it’s respect. If a board book can’t model it properly, maybe the board book isn’t the right teaching tool.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.