Too often, Black and Brown children are made to feel less beautiful, less valuable, and less capable of finding their places in the world. As many families try to foster encouraging narratives in their homes, they often have little power to control mainstream social and beauty expectations.
Fortunately, the picture book The Me I Choose to Be comes out on October 19, 2021, and promises to defy all limitations and transport many into the immersive world in which there is nothing that Black and Brown children can’t do, be, or become. The dream team is back, and they’re not alone — husband and wife Regis and Kahran Bethencourt of CreativeSoul Photography are embarking once again on their ongoing mission to inspire children of color to dream big.
The couple has had their work featured in People, on NPR, and Today, as well as Black Girl Nerds. Last year, BGN learned about their first picture book, Glory: Magical Visions of Black Beauty, and joined in on the celebration of Black beauty.
This year, joining them for a game-changing collaboration is I Love My Hair! bestselling author Natasha Anastasia Tarpley who was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the co-founder of Voonderbar! Media, an independent children’s media company that encourages children to go against the grain when it comes to celebrating what makes them unique. She provided the words for The Me I Choose to Be, which adds a sense of wonder to every page.
Both the Bethencourts and Tarpley continue to overcome boundaries when it comes to promoting the resiliency and magic that lives within the exuberant images of Black children and children of color cherishing their potential in style.
BGN was able to speak with both the Bethencourts and Tarpley about what this picture book means to them and what they hope people, especially Black and Brown children, gain from it. They want children to know that from being a successful student to being an Afro-futuristic hero, anything is possible.
“We often say that we are more than just photographers. Our mission as photographers is to empower kids of color around the world by showcasing their beauty, uniqueness, and creativity. With this book, we were able to continue on the journey of empowering our youth to dream big by creating gorgeous photographs showing kids in a variety of creative and imaginative poses, places, and spaces,” the Bethencourts explained.
Their photography studio is a special place where children express what they’d like to become before photo sessions. The Bethencourts create an environment in which each child is free to envision their theme to be. Having a say in how their pictures look gives them a sense of autonomy and belonging that is often missing compared to that of white children.
Tarpley shared her admiration for Creative Soul, saying, “Those portraits start with asking kids, how do you imagine yourself or how do you want to see yourself in this portrait? To me, that was just really fantastic. It really resonated with what I was trying to do in the book, which is to underscore kids’ ability and the power that they have to really choose who they want to be.”
She goes on to explain for many, her past child-self included, books have the power to be guiding lights for children lighting their own paths.
“Books for me were my portal to discovering my own voice and finding my way in the world. I was a really shy kid, and I also have three siblings. So, there were four kids growing up in my house, and books did double duty for me. They were my time to be by myself and curl up and enter this whole other world, but it was also the way that I started to find my own voice. Reading led to writing my own stories and being able to express myself in a way that I didn’t always feel comfortable doing in everyday life.”
It’s unfortunate, but many Black and Brown children still struggle to be comfortable in their own skin, let alone other stressors. It’s heartbreaking to hear and see a child believing one of the most nefarious of lies: that they aren’t beautiful.
“We feel that it is so important for kids of color to be able to see positive images that look like them in the media. Unfortunately, the lack of diversity often plays into the stereotypes that they are not ‘good enough’ and often forces kids to have low self-esteem. We try to combat this by showing diverse imagery of kids who love the skin they’re in, their own natural curls and their culture. We think that these photos and stories are important to show in order to shatter existing stereotypes and invisible glass ceilings,” the Bethencourts said.
They don’t just want children to embrace their looks, they want them to embrace where they’ve come from and the endless possibilities of where they’ll go next. The Me I Choose to Be handles this goal with care.
Tarpley’s poetry brings the pages to life with a wondrous feeling of hope paired with images of children that embody a reclamation of Black and Brown self-image.
“I think the words for me were more like a prompt to explicitly think about all these different facets of who you are or who you could be as a person as opposed to focusing on ‘how beautiful my skin is,’ ‘my hair is beautiful,’ ‘I’m going to be a doctor. I’m going to be a lawyer,’ that kind of thing. It’s really the emphasis is on who you are inside of yourself and looking at all these different aspects of who you could be and who you might be,” Tarpley explained.
“Sometimes you’re really happy. Sometimes you’re not so happy. Sometimes you don’t feel like you know what to do, or sometimes you feel invisible. So, running the gamut of all of those different experiences and emotions was really an explicit invitation for kids to explore those things and think about who they are inside, in and of themselves.”
For many, such an exploration was never introduced to them as children. From chattel slavery to segregation, colorism and anti-blackness, the odds have been stacked against Black and Brown people for generations, which often means mutli-generational trauma. After years of lynch mobs, closed doors, job rejections, literacy tests, and overall systemic racism, it’s challenging to even picture a future with boundless opportunities. The Me I Choose to Be boldly asks readers to cross that threshold while knowing that it’s not often an easy feat.
The Bethencourts shared, “The book is an uplifting ode to the power of potential. We hope that our imagery will show them the power of resilience and dare them to dream like never before.”
They want to catalyze a shift in the way children look at themselves and believe that there’s power in positive depictions. They want each child to know that they are never alone.
The Me I Choose to Be is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, and other retailers.
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Danielle Broadway is an English Literature MA student at California State University, Long Beach. She has been published in Black Girl Nerds, LA Weekly and Medium, is a writer for CSULB’s the Daily49er, is a managing editor for Watermark, her school’s academic literary journal and is an assistant editor at Angels Flight • literary west. She’s an activist and educator that is inspired by her family to make social change both in the classroom and beyond.