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Chicagoan’s book celebrating black girls’ hair is a hit — 20 years after it was first published

May 7, 2018

CHICAGO — Natasha Tarpley was inspired by her own Chicago childhood when she wrote her first picture book, a joyful look at the mother-daughter hair-combing sessions that produce black girls’ tight cornrows, swinging braids and exuberant Afros.

Reviews of the 1998 book "I Love My Hair!" were positive, but not ecstatic. Media coverage was moderate. Awards committees looked elsewhere.

But a funny thing happened on the way to publishing oblivion: "I Love My Hair!" just kept selling. It’s currently the No. 1 best-seller in "children’s multiculturalism" on Amazon, and this spring its publisher is releasing an anniversary edition. Citing readers’ embrace of the book’s joyful presentation of characters of color, as well as ongoing sales of more than 1,000 books a month, Victoria Stapleton, executive director of school and library marketing at publisher Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, called the book a modern-day classic.

"It feels really good," said Tarpley, 47, who grew up in the South Shore and Hyde Park neighborhoods, and now lives with her husband in Pullman.

"The thing that I feel so honored by is the fact that it owes its longevity to a really strong and passionate grass-roots following. It’s a book that’s been passed on, hand to hand, shelf to shelf, and has just kind of spread throughout different families and communities in that way. It’s a book that people really connect with on a very personal, intimate level."

During a recent interview at an art-studded Hyde Park restaurant, Tarpley was serious and thoughtful, with a bright smile. She didn’t set out to write a children’s book, she said. At the time, she was already the author of two books for adults: "Testimony," an anthology of short writings by black college students that she began as a student at Harvard, and "Girl in the Mirror: Three Generations of Black Women in Motion," a memoir.

But then she decided she wanted to write about a cherished childhood memory: those long hair-combing sessions when her mother would distract her with stories featuring a cast of characters that lived in Tarpley’s curls.

"There was one lady that we named after one of our neighbors — her name was Mrs. Bryant," Tarpley recalled, laughing. "And she was always cooking something. So whenever we would go to her section (of hair), it would be, what is she cooking today? Maybe she was baking a banana bread, or maybe she was making a Sunday dinner and she had all kinds of things; baked chicken, or sweet potatoes, mac ’n’ cheese, all of these things that I really liked as a kid."

She wanted to capture the spirit of those moments, and a children’s book felt like the right way to do that.

"Over time, the manuscript got whittled down into the very essence of what that experience was: a celebration of creativity, and imagination, and just joy, having fun," Tarpley said.

In the book, a little girl named Keyana, rendered in lively, evocative watercolors by the Caldecott Honor-winning artist E.B. Lewis, cuddles in her mother’s lap, wincing when the comb hits a tangle, crying out when the pain get too great, until her mom strokes her head gently and tells her a secret: "Do you know why you’re so lucky to have this head of hair, Keyana? Because it’s beautiful and you can wear it in any style you choose."

In an increasingly imaginative set of illustrations, Keyana’s cornrows flow into the long furrows of a farm field, her Afro becomes a whole planet, and her ponytails carry her, like wings, across a cottony blue sky.

Today the book remains relevant, and not just because of its timeless theme of mother-daughter love and its celebration of black history, said Edi Campbell, an associate education librarian at Indiana State University.

She also points to elements that seem surprisingly of-the-moment in the age of the "Black Panther" and "A Wrinkle in Time" movies, including Afrofuturism, which combines African mythology with technology and imaginative visions of the future.

"Afrofuturism and the need for speculative fiction and science fiction and comics — we need that right now, and this book touches on that," Campbell said.

The book also is in keeping with current calls for more joyful stories for young readers of color.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled "Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time," author and editor Denene Millner pointed out that books about slavery and discrimination, however important and necessary, don’t make great bedtime reading for young children.

"(Black kids) want to read books that engage with their everyday experiences, featuring characters who look like them. Just like any other child. White children, too, deserve — and need — to see black characters that revel in the same human experiences that they do," Millner wrote.

Nina Christmas, the creative director at Huetiful salon in Bronzeville, said she recently picked the book up at the library for her 3-year-old daughter Nori Christmas-Gray.

The initial attraction was simple: "The illustration on the front looks like my daughter," she said.

Nori enjoyed the book and brought it to school, where a friend’s dad read it to her class. But Christmas said she suspects that she may be a bigger fan than her daughter.

"For myself, as a cosmetologist who birthed a baby who actually knows how to hold a comb — because, I guess, of imprinting — this book gives us a chance to have a connection," she said.

On Amazon, new readers are leaving 5-star reviews such as, "We read it every day." The book is selling 1,000 to 1,500 copies a month according to Little, Brown, where Stapleton said she sees it as a book that parents will remember from childhood and read to their own kids.

"I do think it is a classic," she said. "There are very few books for any age that do (this) well beyond their first month, especially picture books. There are many highly acclaimed, multi-starred review books with many, many awards that don’t sell as well as this book does."

Tarpley went on to write five more children’s books, including "The Harlem Charade," a nominee for a 2018 Agatha Award.

The book’s illustrator, E.B. Lewis, has created the art for more than 75 books. But he said he still shows images of "I Love My Hair!" when he does school visits, and the book still gets a big cheer from the crowd.

 

 





 


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