Author Natasha Tarpley stresses importance of writing Black joy for young readers

click to enlarge A Black woman in glasses and a white top smiles for the camera next to an insert of a children's book titled Keyana Loves Her Family
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Natasha Tarpley
Growing up in Chicago, children’s writer Natasha Tarpley was an avid reader. But there were very few characters who looked like her in the books she read. And when the protagonists were Black, they weren’t “riding their bikes around the neighborhood, or having spats with siblings, things that every kid can relate to or experience,” Tarpley says.

“I was not seeing that in the books that featured African American children,” she tells Pittsburgh City Paper.

This was until Tarpley’s mother decided to rectify that situation. Using “a big clunky electric typewriter,” Marlene Tarpley wrote stories for her four children reflecting their reality.

"Her stories created a space where we were centered,” says Tarpley, who will appear on Thu., Feb. 2 as a guest of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Words & Pictures series. “We were able to see ourselves right on the pages of those stories.”

Tarpley wrote two books for the adult market before turning to children’s literature. Her first effort, I Love My Hair, published in 1998, was a reaction to books she felt were geared toward Black children that had “Black subject matter that felt very heavy and very blatant with messages.”

“I wanted to insert a different energy,” Tarpley says, “and create something that was joyful, that was whimsical, and that still featured a Black child with a subject matter that was, unfortunately, something that Black children grapple with and continue to grapple with."

She describes the overall mission of her work as creating "spaces where kids, especially kids of color, African American kids, can locate themselves in a world that kind-of tells them who they are and gives them all of these messages about what Blackness is.”

Tarpley’s latest book, Keyana Loves Her Family, illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow, features the same young main character from I Love My Hair. According to a synopsis from the publisher of the book, Little, Brown and Company, Keyana tries to host a "perfect family movie night" that includes her aunts, uncles, and "five favorite cousins."

Tarpley wanted to re-visit the themes of the I Love My Hair – Keyana’s imagination, creativity, and her relationship to herself and her mother.

“Those were the things I wanted to focus on in this new version of Keyana,” Tarpley says. “Just the fullness of her ideas and creativity in a way that we got glimpses of in the original book.”

Tarpley believes literature for Black children has advanced and improved since she was a young reader in the late 1970s and 1980s. But she is concerned that certain narratives about Black experiences and Black lives are static.

“I think we often have good intentions when we want to talk about issues such as race or discrimination and things like that,” she says. “And not to downplay that at all because that's very right very much a part of our lives and our culture right now, maybe even more than before."

However, she also feels like "everyday narratives" are also important in communicating the Black experience.

"I think we can kind of see that bubbling up in the calls for Black joy and the embracing of stories that are about Black joy," she says. "And I think in the context of Black joy, what we're really talking about is Black humanity and the desire to see ourselves reflected in the full range of who we are and not just in the context of talking about race or struggle or trauma."

She adds, “I think if we provide those kinds of stories to our children, if they can develop a different kind of perception of themselves, they bring that out into the world so that the paradigm shifts. And, most importantly, the paradigm shifts in how they think about themselves and not limit their ideas about who they are or the culture that they come from based on the messages that they get from the external world.”

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures presents Natasha Tarpley. 6 p.m. Thu., Feb. 2. Carnegie Library Lecture Hall. 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. Free. Registration required.