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Natasha Tarpley revisits her classic I Love My Hair!

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness. . .”

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

 

Natasha Tarpley photoThis year marks the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my first picture book, I Love My Hair! As I celebrate this significant milestone, the quote above becomes even more poignant in my reflections on my career thus far, and where I go from here.

 

Long before I had ever heard of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, I knew what it was like to feel myself split into two. I was born and raised in a quiet neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where traces of the South, reflecting a history of African American migration from the South to Northern cities like Chicago, still flowed through everything from the cooking smells wafting through open windows, to the lilt in the voices of family and neighbors greeting one another from across the street or driveway, calling after children in the purple-indigo dusk, or trash-talkin’ around a table deep into the night. It was here that I discovered that, even within a two-block radius—from the mailbox on one corner to Scott-the-cute-boy’s house on the other, like two covers of a book, there were countless adventures to be had and discoveries to be made. And there were characters galore.

 

It was in my neighborhood, and within the walls of my family’s home, that I also discovered a portal to my own imagination. The books that filled our house, and which my parents read to us at bedtime, the stories that I watched my mother craft on her magical black electric typewriter about me and my three siblings, helped me, a shy, bookish kid, and later a rebellious tween and teenager, stomping around in combat boots and ripped clothing, to find and express my own voice and creativity as a budding writer. In the worlds that I created for myself on the page, I could be anything—from the popular girl at school, to the lead singer of a famous punk band, who also happened to be British. I could invent fantastic characters. My favorites were an egg, who was a private detective and solved crimes in a town located inside a refrigerator, and a kid genie who lived in a Coke can.

 

I Love My HairBut as I ventured beyond the boundaries of my neighborhood and home, beyond the pages of my notebook, I realized that the world saw me, as an African American girl, very differently from how I saw myself. The world said, “You’re not black enough”, but then also said, “because you’re black, you don’t belong”. Even in my beloved books, or in the movies and television shows that I watched, I rarely saw myself reflected. I began to feel that sense of “two-ness” that DuBois wrote about, a gap between the way others saw me, and the complex, multi-layered vision and understanding of who I knew myself to be. When I started writing for children professionally, my mission was to tell stories for those kids, especially African American kids, who might have also felt that their voices and experiences were overlooked.

 

When I wrote I Love My Hair!  back in the late ‘90s, I wanted to create a whimsical, joyful story to contrast with the often serious, message-laden books that featured black children. I believed then, as I do now, that we are facing a similar publishing landscape that skews towards serious issue stories for black kids. In the spectrum of children’s literature, for example, Caucasian protagonists generally get to experience endless story possibilities. African Americans kids deserve this same opportunity. We are not monolithic. We have diverse life experiences, and feel the full range of human emotions and desire. By focusing on narrow facets of African American life (in literature, in music, movies, and the news), we unjustly constrict the imaginations of African American children, and run the risk of creating a codified and false narrative of the black experience, which our children are forced to consume and encouraged to adopt as their own. For those young people who reject this narrative, it can feel as if they are rejecting blackness itself.

 

Though there is still work to do, I am very encouraged and hopeful that the ever-broadening and deepening discussions and strategies around diversity, will lead to the production and introduction of new and exciting books, stories, and voices.

 

They say that from the pages of a book, many stories blossom. Now, I actually don’t know if the mystical they really do say or have said this at all—I kinda just made it up  (I’m a writer, it’s what we do!). Still, I know it to be true just the same. As I mark this 20th Anniversary of I Love My Hair!, I feel so fortunate and a tremendous sense of honor to have been a part of the family stories, personal journeys, and hair styling nightmares and successes that readers have shared with me over the past two decades. It is to them, the countless children, parents, teachers, librarians, and so many others who love and care for our children, who have passed this book from child to child, hand to hand, classroom to classroom, shelf to shelf, that I Love My Hair! owes its long and happy life. I remain forever indebted to you, dear readers, for supporting me as an author, and for giving my work wings. I hope that many more stories will blossom from the pages of I Love My Hair! for many more years to come.

Brandy Colbert on Writing Little & Lion

Little & Lion cover

I was having dinner with my cousin last year when she asked what my book Little & Lion is about. I gave a disjointed pitch, but she said it sounded interesting and circled back to my description of the main character, Suzette.

“Black, bisexual, and Jewish?” she asked.

I waited for her to question my choice to write about a character that represented several marginalizations. She never did.

“Cool,” she said. “My cousin on the other side of my family is black, lesbian, and Jewish. I’ll tell her to check it out.”

My eyes widened immediately. I knew that although my Suzette was fictional, more than a few people had to share her specific collection of identities in the real world. But I never expected to be so closely connected to someone who could “validate” the inclusiveness of my book.
I didn’t set out to write a highly diverse novel, which is how Little & Lion is often described. My only goal was to depict the Los Angeles that I live in and that very much exists.

I’ve talked a lot about how I grew up in a Midwestern town with a very small black population; there weren’t many people who looked like me, and especially not at the schools I attended. But I also craved meeting people from different cultures and ethnicities. I wanted to learn what it meant to have brown skin but not be black. I wanted to meet people who were part of the LGBTQ community, because by the time I was in high school, I’d met only one gay person—an adult man—who was out in my hometown, and I knew that number, even in a city as small as ours, was abysmal.

I grew up in a Baptist church, and I can’t remember when I first realized there were other religions, but I was instantly fascinated. Almost everyone I’d ever known had been Christian. My hometown has an overwhelming number of churches; on a recent visit, I counted about four within a two-block radius, and that’s not uncommon. I wanted to know about other religions and what millions of people around the world believed, even if it wasn’t reflected where I grew up. I finally took a Judaism class after high school, which was one of the most interesting courses in my college career, by far. It was taught by a woman, the rabbi at the only synagogue in town.

Moving to Los Angeles after college, I was astounded by how different it was from my hometown. People wore what they wanted and their outfits didn’t all look the same. They had varying shades of brown skin and diverse backgrounds to go with them. They spoke multiple languages and observed various religions—or, sometimes, they practiced nothing at all. They were gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer. They talked openly about their physical disabilities and mental illness. Sometimes one person claimed several of these identities at once.
I was surprised, and tremendously pleased. I’d lived for twenty-two years in a place where I was often ridiculed and judged for the color of my skin, and now there were so many people with identities that weren’t white and Christian and straight and able-bodied living and working among me. Los Angeles is the sort of city that celebrates the diversity of its inhabitants with neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Ethiopia and West Hollywood and Boyle Heights, and I finally felt like I was home.

Sometimes people seem taken aback by a character that is Jewish, black, and bisexual, or a black and Korean-American boy who wears hearing aids, or a pansexual Latina. And some people are especially troubled by the fact that these identities can all exist in one novel. They believe that exploring these intersections is trying too hard to be politically correct, or that it’s just a tad too much diversity for one story. And I believe that to be insulting to people who are actually living these lives.

In Little & Lion, Suzette is made to feel ashamed about parts of her life and thus feels compelled to hide them. I grew up with people who believed they needed to hide their sexual identities because it made them too different in our small, homogenous town. And I’m certain there are people in several generations of my black Southern family who have felt the same, either keeping their romantic lives private or disengaging completely from the family to avoid potential judgment. I also know people whose bilingual parents didn’t teach them Spanish because they feared it would make them too different to be accepted.

Telling others that their identities are too diverse to be believable is erasure. It perpetuates the idea that we should all think and look and act the same, and that people can and should only concentrate on one aspect of their identity. Identity is at once private and also quite public in some instances.

Novels are fiction, but we know they can act as windows—a glimpse into the lives of people who look or act or believe differently than us. Too many children and teens don’t have the good fortune of growing up in diverse or inclusive neighborhoods and towns, and a book might be the closest they can get to learning about unfamiliar cultures and communities. Which is only a good thing, because books that serve as windows foster empathy.

I’m hopeful for the future of children’s literature and grateful that kids and teens have the chance to read a much more diverse array of books than I had when I was young.

And I hope there will be a day in the near future when people don’t find it unusual or unrealistic to read about a girl who just happens to be black, bisexual, and Jewish

 

Brandy Colbert photoABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brandy Colbert was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri. Her debut novel, Pointe, won the 2014 Cyblis Award for young adult fiction and was named a best book of 2014 by Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, and more. She was chosen as a Publishers Weekly Flying Start for spring 2014. Brandy works as a copyeditor and lives in Los Angeles, California.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

★ “Subtle, neatly interwoven exploration of intersectionality.” –Booklist

★ “Colbert sensitively confronts misconceptions about mental illness, bisexuality, and intersectional identity.” –Kirkus

★ “Moving.” –School Library Journal

 

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn’t sure if she’ll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new…the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel’s disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself–or worse.

 

Want to know even more about Little & Lion? Listen to our LB School Podcast interview with Brandy Colbert here.

Little & Lion

Little & Lion cover

Little & Lion

By Brandy Colbert

Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Mental Illness; LGBT; Alternative Family; Siblings; Girls & Women; Prejudice & Racism

Grades: 10 & up

 

When Suzette returns to Los Angeles from the boarding school where she was forced to spend the past semester, she’s uncertain of whether she wants to return to Massachusetts or stay in California. CA is where her friends and family are (as well as her crush, Emil); and her step-brother Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support. When Suzette and Lionel begin to fall in love with the same girl, however, Lionel’s disorder takes a turn for the worse and spirals out of control, forcing Suzette to confront her own demons. Having betrayed a secret girlfriend in her boarding school, allowing her to take the brunt of homophobic bullying, Suzette must face her own past mistakes, come to terms with her bisexuality, and find a way to help her brother, before he hurts himself–or worse.

When The Sea Turned to Silver

When the Sea Turned to Silver coverWhen the Sea Turned to Silver

By Grace Lin

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subject: Adventure: Magic/Fantasy, Folk Tales/Fairy Tales/Classics: Heroes/Heroines, Family Life: Grandparents and Extended Family

Grades: 3-7

 

Listen to Author Interview Activities Readers Theatre Educator Guide

Pinmei’s gentle, loving grandmother always has the most exciting tales for her granddaughter and the other villagers. However, the peace is shattered one night when soldiers of the Emperor arrive and kidnap the storyteller.

 

Everyone knows that the Emperor wants something called the Luminous Stone That Lights the Night. Determined to have her grandmother returned, Pinmei embarks on a journey to find the Luminous Stone alongside her friend Yishan, a mysterious boy who seems to have his own secrets to hide. Together, the two must face obstacles usually found only in legends to find the Luminous Stone and save Pinmei’s grandmother–before it’s too late.

 

A fast-paced adventure that is extraordinarily written and beautifully illustrated, When the Sea Turned to Silver is a masterpiece companion novel to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky.

 

PRAISE

A 2016 National Book Award Finalist

 

★ “Lin’s evocative language sweeps readers away, and the stories within the story are juicy and delicious.” —Booklist

 

★ “Lin’s stonecutter claims that storytellers ‘can make time disappear… bring us to places we have never dreamed of…feel sorrow and joy and peace’; the description is a fitting one for author-illustrator Lin herself, who has proven herself a master.” —The Horn Book

 

★ “The meticulous craft delivers what Lin’s fans have come to expect… This beautifully told companion to Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky offers lyrical storytelling, bringing ‘us to places we have never dreamed of.'” —Kirkus

 

★ “Lin’s fans will not be disappointed: she again delivers a rich interweaving of ancient tales with fast-paced adventure, fantasy, and slowly unfolding mysteries told through captivating language with beguiling similes.” —Publishers Weekly

 

★ “A stunning addition to a deservedly beloved set of novels; recommended for all middle grade collections.” —School Library Journal

 

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