— 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.
of the 1998 book "I Love My Hair!" were
positive, but not ecstatic. Media coverage was moderate.
Awards committees looked elsewhere.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
wanted to capture the spirit of those moments, and a
children’s book felt like the right way to do that.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
and the need for speculative fiction and science fiction
and comics — we need that right now, and this book
touches on that," Campbell said.
book also is in keeping with current calls for more
joyful stories for young readers of color.
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.
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
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.
initial attraction was simple: "The illustration on
the front looks like my daughter," she said.
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
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.
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
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."
went on to write five more children’s books, including
"The Harlem Charade," a nominee for a 2018
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