“A Warm Hug for Black Kids”: Celebrating Self-Love Through Reading

Author Natasha Tarpley on representing kids of color and navigating the book-banning landscape.
Article In The Thread
Cover illustration of I Love My Hair! featuring a smiling Black girl with braids
Illustration by E.B. Lewis from Natasha Tarpley, I Love My Hair! (New York: Little, Brown, 1998).
Sept. 5, 2023

Attempts to ban books are accelerating at a growing rate in the United States — drawing increased attention in particular on children’s books and media. Book banning in the U.S. has a long history. However, states like Texas, Florida, and Tennessee have led new efforts to control what content students have access to, sparking concerns from teachers, practitioners, and parents. Authors and content creators of children’s learning materials are also deeply impacted by both state and local bans.

In this Q&A, Natasha Tarpley, Learning Sciences Exchange fellow and bestselling author of I Love My Hair!, sheds light on how authors of children’s books, especially authors of color, navigate the political and social climates created by book bans.

Tarpley, a Chicago native and co-founder of Voonderbar! Media with her mother, Marlene Tarpley, a former state government administrator, aims to increase and diversify mainstream representation of kids of color through storytelling.

You wrote I Love My Hair! in 1998. How was the book received and did it surprise you?

I Love My Hair! was inspired by my own childhood memories of my mother combing my hair. When I wrote the book nearly 25 years ago, I did not specifically set out to write a “hair” story. Full disclosure: I am not a “hair person.” My ideal hairstyle is one that requires little to no involvement on my part. That said, my original intention with I Love My Hair! — my first book for children — was to write a story infused with love, whimsy, creativity, and a sense of the deep connection that I shared with my mother during that special time.

I was also discouraged by the limited narratives and images of Blackness in books targeted towards Black children in the 1990s and decades prior. Many of the stories were historical in nature (set against the backdrop of slavery or the civil rights movement), focused on overcoming obstacles or tragedy, or laced with messages about discrimination, racism, and deprivation. Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair, another children’s book about hair, published shortly before mine and generated a lot of controversy and discussion around the use of the word “nappy.” After a white teacher used the word with her Black students, it brought into question whether “nappy” should be considered a pejorative term. With all this as a backdrop, my hope for I Love My Hair! was to inject a new, more affirming, and celebratory energy into the genre. I wanted the book to feel like a warm hug for Black kids — one that would encourage them to connect with their inner beauty and inspire a more holistic love of self.

“I wanted the book to feel like a warm hug for Black kids.”

The book quickly found a passionate grassroots audience, particularly among Black families and educators, who have continued to read and pass this book on to generations of children. I attribute the success and longevity of I Love My Hair! to the energy of love, respect, and celebration of Black children that the book exudes, which goes beyond hair. I am not surprised that so many readers are attracted to this book, because even today, when there are many more books by Black authors, the fundamental love and respect of Black children is, in my opinion, still lacking.

What does surprise and dismay me to some extent, is the fact that a book like I Love My Hair! and others on the same subject are still needed, because we as Black people are still grappling with issues of self-love and acceptance, which often manifest in our relationship to our hair, not to mention confronting pervasive anti-Black sentiment, policy, and action in our society. As much as I appreciate the success of the book, I am hopeful for a time when this type of book will not be needed: when Black people loving their hair and every part of themselves will not be a question, or an issue to be resolved — it will just be a fundamental part of who we are.

If you wrote I Love My Hair! today, do you think it would be received in the same way?

It’s hard to know how to answer that. On the one hand, there is still a vibrant market for kid’s books about Black hair, as evidenced by the many books on the topic that are released each year. There is a nostalgic quality to I Love My Hair! that might make it a harder sell in today’s children’s book market, which favors more brightly colored, less-realistic illustration styles, and more humorous texts — although the book as it is continues to garner strong sales. It is interesting to note that with my new Keyana Loves… picture book series, which was inspired by the protagonist from I Love My Hair!, the publisher chose to completely change the illustration style, and give the character an entirely new look, as a way to attract a new generation of readers.

Since then, has your approach to writing children's books changed in any way? How? What about your goals as an author?

My fundamental approach when it comes to my writing has not changed. I still see my work as a vehicle to prioritize and celebrate Black children, to expand narratives around Blackness and Black people, and to inspire children (and adults) of all backgrounds to discover and actualize the power that they possess within to envision and shape their own futures. However, as an author, I am much less interested in writing books that center around specific issues, such as hair or skin color. I want my books to honor the rich inner lives, hopes, and dreams of all children, especially Black children.

My goal is to create entertaining books and other media that feature Black children in a broad array of story possibilities, genres, and settings. However, it has sometimes been a challenge for me to receive acknowledgement for my other books and media projects, perhaps because of the success and cultural significance of I Love My Hair!. One goal that I have as an author is to carve out a broader space for my work.

On a creative level, I am also very excited about exploring other media formats in my work. In 2021, I co-created and wrote a children’s mystery podcast, Opal Watson: Private Eye, which featured an 11-year-old African American girl detective and aired for two seasons on the children’s audio streaming platform, Pinna.fm. I am currently developing a new children’s podcast series based on my novel, The Harlem Charade, as well as an animated preschool television series.

I am also very interested in establishing global connections among BIPOC writers and media creators, as well as raising awareness of and increasing opportunities for these artists.

How would you compare the climate back in 1998 to the supercharged atmosphere today around bringing more representation of Black children and other children of color into children’s books?

In the late 1990s, I feel like people were starting to activate around discussions of diversity and representation in children’s books, focusing especially on the dearth of books by Black authors. This conversation eventually expanded to include the need for more diversity in the publishing industry, specifically in hiring more professionals of color in decision-making and acquisition roles. In its current iteration, I am encouraged that the conversation around diversity and representation is becoming even more nuanced, incorporating an exploration of what representation actually looks like on a content level as well — for example, calling for more stories that prioritize Black joy, or feature characters with underrepresented experiences or identities. That said, I feel that there is still a long way to go in terms of increasing diversity in the range of voices and types of stories that are elevated, especially when it comes to authors of color.

Have any of your books been banned or restricted? Have you had to navigate any politics around book bans? Have any teachers or librarians come to you with concerns?

I have heard from a couple of sources that I Love My Hair! was banned, but I don’t have the specifics regarding where or by whom. Though I have not had to directly navigate politics around book bans, I am terrified by what is occurring in our country. What I find especially frightening and insidious about the recent wave of book-banning initiatives is the way that they are rooted in white supremacy and seem to focus around a fundamental goal: the elimination and erasure of Black, LGBTQ+, Native, and other populations that exist outside this agenda. This may sound extreme or over the top, but if you really look at the history of this country, we have done this before. We have created laws that turned human beings into property, that stripped them of the right to read, to be educated, to vote (as is also happening now), to control their own bodies (also happening currently), to practice their religion, and to exist on land where generations of family and community members had lived before them. We have done this before.

“As an author, I feel that my greatest contribution lies in the creation of spaces that invite others to tap into their own power and potential as a source of resistance.”

That said, I don't want to negotiate with those who would seek to destroy people who look like me or navigate the politics around book bans. I want to tap into that thing in us (as marginalized peoples) that has always refused categorization, that has affirmed our own humanity and that of others, that has known and believed in our worth and in the promise of our children. I am in awe and so appreciative of the important work that is being done by so many to combat book banning, including organizing and teaching, bringing legal challenges forward, and raising awareness of and making available banned titles. I also feel that this challenge provides us with an opportunity to view this challenge through a broader historical lens, and to hopefully change the paradigm — to recognize and use our power in new ways. As an author, I feel that my greatest contribution lies in the creation of spaces that invite others to tap into their own power and potential as a source of resistance and ingenuity; to talk with young people about history; and to engage with them in an active process of world-building, of envisioning new possibilities for the future.

What keeps you going and motivates you to write the books you do?

By far, seeing the impact my work has had on the lives of children has been my greatest motivation to continue writing. Growing up as a shy but adventurous and imaginative kid, I always had the sense that life was full of possibilities, and that I wanted to discover and experience as many of these possibilities as I could. Books became portals that allowed me to learn about and explore people, places, and realms beyond my immediate reality. Because books were so important to me as a young person, it brings me immeasurable joy to see a child’s eyes light up when they read one of my books, or when one of my titles is used in a lesson plan or project that is designed to spark a child’s creativity. It is also a tremendous honor when parents, caregivers, and teachers send me letters or approach me at a book event (sometimes in tears!) just to give me a hug and tell me how my work has moved them or helped them to connect with their own children or students.

The books that I read as a child also inspired me to write my own stories. I started writing seriously when I was seven years old. Ever since then, writing has become the way I navigate and make sense of the world, connect with others, and hopefully help spark change within individuals and communities. It is an essential part of who I am, so even if I wanted to, I don’t think that I could ever stop writing or telling stories in some way, shape, or form.

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