Natasha Anastasia Tarpley - KEYANA LOVES HER FAMILY!
Interview by: Gabriele Davis
Hi, Natasha! Welcome to the KidLit in Color blog and congratulations on your newest picture book, KEYANA LOVES HER FAMILY!, the first in a new series about Keyana. Reading it evoked fond memories of my own childhood movie nights—though they were never as extravagant as Keyana’s! Can you share your inspiration for this story?
As a kid I was, and still am, a big dreamer. I wanted to create a series that features a little Black girl who not only dreams big, but who also makes big plans to bring her ideas to fruition. However, sometimes Keyana’s plans don’t go exactly as she hoped–which also happens in our real lives. But Keyana doesn’t give up. Instead she comes up with new, and sometimes better ways to manifest her vision.
I also wanted Keyana to be surrounded by a loving group of family and friends, complete with its own cast of quirky and fun characters. These are the folks who believe in Keyana and her dreams, and are there to support and help her to make them reality.
Lastly, like you, I was also inspired by my family movie nights. Ours weren’t as elaborate as Keyana’s either, but we did have certain rituals–like going to the video store (when there was such a thing) to pick out movies, setting up our snacks, and jockeying for the best spot on the couch.
Yes, loving support and family rituals are everything! What overall message do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Encouraging young people to cultivate a sense of resiliency, of openness to trying again, or exploring new approaches when something doesn’t work out the way you planned, is a fundamental theme/message of the book. There are so many discouraging forces in the world that can thwart plans or stunt our ideas. I want kids to believe in their ideas and dreams, but also to become comfortable with the experience of failure–not to expect failure, but to have the fortitude, inner-strength, and confidence to keep going, even when the world tells you no, or that you can’t do the thing you set out to do. There are multiple paths to success.
Related to this, I wanted to inspire kids to dream big, even when they have no idea how they will bring those dreams to fruition. I always credit my mother, but she taught us from an early age to “go to the top,” to go after what we want and not short-change ourselves by thinking small. This is not always easy, because the world often only shows us a narrow slice of what’s possible, especially when it comes to images of Black folks and our accomplishments and experiences.
I love Keyana’s confident voice. Was it a natural choice for you to use a first person point of view? Or did you experiment with different perspectives? What else can you share about your writing process for this new series?
Keyana’s character is inspired by the protagonist of my classic picture book, I Love My Hair! In fact, the series was initially envisioned as a continuation or spin-off from that book. So, in this new iteration of Keyana, I really wanted to bring her whimsical and creative personality, which we get glimpses of in I Love My Hair, front and center. First person point of view was a natural choice to achieve this. And just like Keyana uses fantastical imagery to describe her hair, I wanted to showcase the ways that Keyana finds and creates magic in the things that she does in her everyday life.
When I started the series, I looked at series characters like, “Fancy Nancy”, to get a sense of how other authors developed their characters and stories over time. Then, I came up with a whole list of ideas for adventures that Keyana could have. I also thought about some of the underlying themes that I wanted to embed in the stories, with the evolution and growth of the character in mind. This kind of gave me a roadmap for the series.
When it comes to writing, I am a dedicated outliner. I use outlines as a way to develop the story. This takes a good amount of time, but by the time I’ve finished my outline, I know the story so well, I am able to write it very quickly. It’s worth investing that brainstorming and development time up front.
The illustrations by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow are vibrant and expressive. How did you feel when you saw the final layout? Do you have a favorite spread?
I loved Charnelle’s fun and whimsical illustrations. I felt that they really captured Keyana’s personality, as well as the warmth of her family members. I also appreciated the level of detail that Charnelle included that showcased Keyana’s home life and cultural elements, e.g Keyana’s bedtime bonnet. I think my favorite spread was the movie spread where all of the family members are shown together.
Your publishing credits include other acclaimed picture books. Can you talk a bit about your journey as an author?
I started writing when I was seven years old, and started publishing (poetry) when I was a freshman in high school. Although I knew I would always write, I didn’t have a sense of how to actually build a career as a writer. Therefore, the winding path of my career has enabled me to have diverse professional experiences: attending law school (finished but never practiced), becoming a reporter at Fortune magazine, working at a nonprofit mentoring youth in journalism and the publishing process.
I finally figured out that what I really wanted to do was to write books. After writing two books for adult readers, an anthology called, Testimony: Young African Americans on Self-Discovery and Black Identity, and a family memoir, Girl in the Mirror: Three Generations of Black Women in Motion, I decided to narrow my focus to children’s literature.
I have written several picture books. I have also published an acclaimed middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade (Scholastic), and am currently working on a new middle grade series with a supernatural theme, which will come out in 2024. I have also branched out into writing for children in other mediums. I am the writer and co-creator of a children’s mystery podcast, “Opal Watson: Private Eye” (Pinna). I am also working on a new podcast adaptation of my novel, The Harlem Charade, as well as developing a new animated television show for preschool-aged kids. I am passionate about telling great stories that inspire children, and I enjoy exploring multiple media platforms to do so.
What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors?
I always suggest that aspiring writers read as many books as they can in the genre that they want to write. This is especially true of picture books. I find picture books to be very challenging to write sometimes, because you’re packing a lot of story into such a compact format. I always get a lot of ideas from reading other picture books, because the writing can be so unique and creative–seeing how other authors make the most of these small spaces.
I would also advise others to get comfortable with the revision process. I always write out all of my ideas in early drafts, and then pare the manuscript down as I go along.
I love the name of your new media company, Voonderbar! Can you tell us about its origin and mission?
I studied the German language from second grade up through college. Voonderbar is a play on the German word, wunderbar, which means wonderful. My mom and I started this company together. The mission of Voonderbar is to create exciting, inspirational, and educational stories that help kids to discover, celebrate and actualize the many facets of who they are. We wanted the name of the company to literally embody that sense of joy and wonder. We took a long hiatus, but are now starting up again, developing projects that incorporate new technologies and tell stories across multiple media platforms.
As an acclaimed and bestselling children's book author, who has been writing for over 20 years, Natasha Tarpley is passionate about telling engaging stories that both entertain and educate audiences across multiple media platforms. She uses her writing as a tool to change and expand narratives around Blackness and Black people, to create spaces where kids of color can relish in their reflections on the page/screen/airwaves, and to inspire children of all backgrounds to envision themselves in new ways and to tell new stories.
Natasha is the author of the classic picture book, I Love My Hair!, an ode to Black childhood and natural beauty, which is a favorite among readers and educators around the world. Natasha is also the author of Keyana Loves Her Family, which is book one of a new picture book series. Her other titles include the award-winning picture book, The Me I Choose To Be, and the social justice-themed middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade. Natasha is also the Writer and Co-Creator of the award-winning children’s narrative podcast, Opal Watson: Private Eye (Pinna.fm), and is currently developing new children’s podcast and television projects with major media outlets. Natasha is also the founder of Voonderbar! Media, an independent children’s media company.
Learn more about Natasha at:
Facebook: Natasha Tarpley