Photography Informs Black Pride: Natasha Tarpley Discusses The Me I Choose to Be
Look at this cover:
Now, I ask of you, is not that gorgeous? THAT is how you sell a book, people. From the moment I saw it I was enthralled. And then, a bit curious. It looked familiar. A bit like this book I’d recently purchased for my library’s adult collection:
Yep. Sure as shooting. That’s the photography of Kahran and Regis Bethencourt at work! No one creates work that looks quite like it. And inside THE ME I CHOOSE TO BE I saw a vast array of amazing, interesting, and downright cool images (my son was particularly taken with a boy who appears to be on fire). To my infinite delight, I also noticed that THE ME I CHOOSE TO BE is written by none other than Natasha Tarpley. You may know her best for the original Black hair pride picture book I LOVE MY HAIR (circa 2001). For me, Natasha is a Chicago resident, and has spoken at my library before. That makes her a local hero. One I wanted to talk to.
I took some time to ask Natasha about her latest book, out in October:
Betsy Bird: Tell me a little bit about the origins of The Me I Choose to Be. What’s its origin story? And how does it fit in with the pantheon of your other picture books?
Natasha Tarpley: My editor, Megan Tingley, who acquired and edited my first and best known picture book, I Love My Hair! reached out to me with an idea for a possible collaboration with Creative Soul Photography. We had been wanting to do another project together for a while, so this seemed like an excellent opportunity.
Megan and I agreed that we wanted to do something that affirmed Black kids. But it was also very important to me to write a book that didn’t just affirm specific qualities—like skin color or hair, but that really celebrated kid’s inner-selves, the multifaceted qualities and layers that make each of us unique, complex human beings. We are bombarded with so many messages about and images of Black life, especially now. I think a lot about how Black kids may be relating to these images, and how what’s occurring in our society impacts their sense of self. While they may not be able to control the events of the world around them, I hope that The Me I Choose To Be will inspire kids to recognize and actualize the power that they possess within to choose “the me” they want to be. This is very much in line with the theme of empowerment and claiming the power to tell your own story that runs throughout all of my other books.
BB: The first thing a person notices about your book is the stunning photography. I had the pleasure of purchasing Regis and Kahran Bethencourt’s title Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty for my library (and I thoroughly believe it belongs in EVERY library in this great, grand country). Were you aware of their work prior to making this book? How did you first come to learn about them?
NT: I was definitely aware of Rehis and Kahran Bethencourt’s work. I had seen several of their portraits of Black kids over the years, and was blown away by their imaginative, almost futuristic style, that is also strongly steeped in the history (ies) and culture (s) of the Black Diaspora. I was very excited to work with them as illustrators on this project, because, in addition to enjoying their work, Creative Soul Photography and I are also aligned in our mission to celebrate and uplift Black children.
BB: Previously your picture books have been illustrated with watercolors and cut paper (Destiny’s Gift). This one contains lush, gorgeous works of photography. What does photography bring to a project above and beyond traditional illustration? What do you, personally as the author, feel about the combination?
NT: I thought a lot about how to best write the text in The Me I Choose To Be, because, in some ways, the nature of still photography presents certain narrative challenges. For example, it’s harder to depict nuanced movement, flow, or action in a photograph. I decided to write the manuscript in descriptive but sparse verse, which enabled the photographers to create images that paired pretty directly with the text. As a result, the words and pictures really work well together, but also shine in and of themselves. I also love the realism of the photographs. Readers have the opportunity to see and relate to actual kids (who may look like them). The photographs also showcase the diversity of Black kids’ features, highlighting a range of skin tones, hair textures, etc.
BB: When you write, do you envision the kind of art that will accompany your text, or do you not even think about it?
NT: I rarely envision the artwork for my books. However, one of things I love about writing picture books is the opportunity to work with different types of illustrators. It’s always super fun to see how an artist will interpret and bring my words to life.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
NT: I am currently working on a character-driven, four-book picture book series, which brings Keyana McGee, the protagonist of my bestselling picture book, I Love My Hair! front and center. Keyana is a spunky, creative girl who is full of big ideas to improve her life and community. These books are all about Keyana’s attempts to bring her big ideas to fruition, and the family and friends who are there to support and encourage her to keep dreaming big, even when things don’t go exactly as planned.
I am also writing the second season of, “Opal Watson: Private Eye”, the podcast I co-ceated, and which airs on Pinna.fm (https://pinna.fm/library/kids-shows/pinna-podcasts/opal-watson-private-eye).
In addition, I am pitching a couple of concepts for kids’ television shows, and always working on new book ideas.
A big bucketful of thanks to Natasha for taking the time to answer my questions. Thanks too to Victoria Stapleton and the folks at Little, Brown for helping us out. THE ME I CHOOSE TO BE is out everywhere October 12th.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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