Black joy, Black love gets a new series by Chicago author Natasha Anastasia Tarpley

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The holidays can bring out the warm and fuzzies as familial traditions and classics are revisited as touch points to legacy. Published in 1998 and written by Chicagoan Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, “I Love My Hair!” can now be considered one such classic.

Back in the day, “I Love My Hair!” was a book that many viewed through a lens of self-esteem; others, a paean to a mother’s love; others, a celebration of Black identity. More than 20 years old, the book showed us Keyana’s world through a story of learning to love yourself as the young girl’s mother brushes her hair every night before bed.

“The inspiration for “I Love My Hair!” really wasn’t to write a book about hair,” Tarpley said. “When I was growing up, I did not like getting my hair combed. So my mom would play this game with me where we would just make up stories about people who lived in my hair — we would pretend there’s a whole neighborhood of people living in my hair. And we would make up stories about these characters as she worked her way through the tangles, which made it a very creative, fun time that really sparked my own creativity and that’s what I was hoping to do with “I Love My Hair!” to really touch and tap into that sense of curiosity and creativity and imagination. Hair becomes a vehicle for that.”

Seeing a need to create more literature that showcased joy for Black kids, Tarpley set forth and hasn’t looked back.

“We need some more opportunities for them to just be kids and explore who they are and love who they are,” Tarpley said. “That was the intention that I tried to embed in “I Love My Hair!”— that idea of you are wonderful, all of the things that make you unique are wonderful. That whole positive, joyful message was very important to me.”

So important, Tarpley is expanding Keyana’s world with a new series centered on imagination and persistence. The first book of four is on sale now, “Keyana Loves Her Family,” illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow. The picture book (for ages 4-8) takes readers on a journey where Keyana is planning a movie night for her family. But while the little girl’s planning is detailed, challenges do arise as movie time approaches. What transpires during the course of the event displays the love of Keyana’s network of support.

“For me, Keyana was always a character that I wanted to have more time with,” Tarpley said. “This was an opportunity to bring this character out in a new way for a new generation of readers and to create a Black girl character who is joyful and fun, who’s got a lot of big ideas. And who is all about trying to bring those ideas to fruition.

Tarpley said another part of that message to kids is if your plans don’t work out, then you keep persevering.

“This book for me also was an opportunity to showcase a Black family network, an extended family network with Keyana’s friends, who all support this little girl and her big ideas and her big visions and help her to manifest that. I definitely wanted to create that circle of support too,” Tarpley said.

Chicago author Natasha Tarpley brought readers "I Love My Hair!" in 1998. Now Tarpley's back with a new children's series centered on that book's main character Keyana. "Keyana Loves Her Family" was released Dec. 13, 2022.

Tarpley has called South Shore, Hyde Park and Chatham home over the years. Now, the Pullman resident said readers can expect to see more of Keyana’s story every year for the next few years. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You said you felt you needed to develop Keyana a bit more. Elaborate.

A: “I Love My Hair!” is definitely going strong and has made its place in the world. What I meant by development is that the impetus for writing “I Love My Hair!” was actually never really about hair in and of itself. It was about how kids could use their imagination and celebrate the qualities that were unique about them. And this little girl in “I Love My Hair!” we see these things about her, her imagination as she talks about the different hairstyles and the images that she associates with those hairstyles, but we don’t get a chance to really know who she is. This was an opportunity to really build out her character and to take some of those qualities that we start to see in “I Love My Hair!” and really create a more fully fleshed out character who is the center of the story and who has her own adventures that are separate from hair. The new series is more in line with the “Fancy Nancy” books or these really strong girl protagonists who are navigating the world with the force of their own personality.

Q: What kind of adventures will Keyana go on?

A: The first four books will feature general topics and she’ll have her specific take on these things. The first one is family and she throws the movie night. The second one is “I Love My Friend” and she’s planning a huge sleepover for her friend. And when her friend comes, she notices that things are a little bit different. Maybe her friend isn’t as interested in some of the same things that they used to do. So it’s about how we grow as people, how we grow in our friendships with each other, how we communicate and collaborate and compromise with each other. So it’s about making friends and things changing a little bit, but how you could find new ways of connecting.

Q: Are the kids of the 1990s similar to those of the 2020s? Do you feel you might have to put a different spin or angle on things because they are somewhat different?

A: Yes today’s kids have grown up with different toys and technology. And I think the way they approach learning and thinking and perspectives on the world are different as a result of having all of those influences but I think fundamentally going into a classroom now, I still find the same types of excitement that kids have around different elements of story — the same questions, the same curiosity. One of the reasons why I started writing books for children that featured African American children was because I felt that when it came to books featuring African American children, we often diminished those aspects of our kids. When we look at the news and the news is all about trauma and we should prepare and educate our children as best we can to deal with that, but they’re also children who deserve to have these immersive and expansive story possibilities and not have to always be confronted with these harsh realities. I think that constricts or can constrict the imaginations of our kids because I don’t think when you look at other cultures, we don’t put those expectations on other children. If you look at books that feature Caucasian characters, there’s so many stories, a huge diversity of stories in which, for them, the books become a means of escape, a means of affirmation, a means of introducing them to the world and I think we should be doing the same for our kids.

Q: Is there anything that you want to tell readers about the new series?

A: We’re in this climate now, where it really feels like people are trying to obliterate Black people — literally erase us from the history books, from representation, and we know that’s not going to happen. But I think that we don’t give enough attention to the impact that these things can have on our children. I really want my books and other books that feature Black kids that are for Black kids … help us center ourselves in who we are. I think we need to create those spaces for our children to create that armor around who they are so that when someone else tells them, this is who you are, they have that knowledge within themselves to say ‘No, I’m this person.’ My book that came out in 2021 is called “The Me I Choose to Be” and it talks about all of these different facets of who we are. Sometimes we’re angry, sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re brave, sometimes we’re scared. And so when you get to know yourself on that level, in that complexity, in that nuance, I think you’re better prepared to go out into the world with a sense of who you are and not allow other people to define that for you. I think that is one of the crucial roles of Black books and definitely my mission as a Black author.

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