Always Be Yourself

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“Always be yourself,” is the message that appears on the opening page of “My Big Curly Fro,” a children’s book written by six-year-old author and Houma resident Alyssa McClelland.

For Alyssa, that message holds a significant personal meaning.

When Alyssa felt unconfident with her beautiful hair, her parents found a way to offer her a creative outlet for expressing her emotions: one that has now reached and inspired children all over the country.

“I had to go to school, but I didn’t want to go to school with my fro because I didn’t want kids at my school to make fun of me. I wasn’t confident,” Alyssa says.

Alyssa’s story began when her mother, Tamara McClelland, was fixing her hair one day before school last fall. Tamara says that her daughter confided in her that she didn’t want to wear her hair the way it was styled, fearing that students at school would make fun of her.

“I was like, ‘You know you don’t have to worry about people teasing you. You can wear your hair however you want to wear your hair, and you’re beautiful regardless. You have to be comfortable with yourself,’” Tamara says. “So that’s when we said, you know what, maybe everybody needs to hear about this.”

Months after the bathroom incident, Alyssa’s experience is making its way into the homes and hearts of people everywhere.

“I’m going to everywhere. I’m in Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target [and] Walmart,” Alyssa says.

“My Big Curly Fro” takes place on picture day at Alyssa’s school, where readers see Alyssa’s character wishing that her hair was like that of her classmates.

“Alyssa, your hair is your own way of expressing yourself. It’s what makes us different but most importantly in a good way,” Tamara’s character tells Alyssa’s as she leaves for school.

When Alyssa’s character meets new student Amyah, who has hair just like hers, she learns to love her curls.

Alyssa says her favorite part of “My Big Curly Fro” is when her character and Amyah, who is named after Alyssa’s cousin, share a sweet moment together in the second half of the story.

“When the new classmate had helped me…and when we took pictures,” Alyssa says. “That’s mostly my favorite part. I like taking pictures.”

After coming up with the concept for “My Big Curly Fro,” Alyssa and her mother worked together to brainstorm elements of the story. To develop interactions between characters, Alyssa would give her mother ideas of what was taking place at school, and Tamara would in turn offer her response to those situations from a mother’s standpoint.

Alyssa says she would mainly work on the book in the morning and at night, saving the middle of the day for playtime.

Self-publishing a book undoubtedly had its challenges.

“It took some long nights. It took some early mornings sometimes,” Tamara says. “The process of self-publishing, you’re doing everything on your own. You’re finding your own illustrator, and it was a lot, but I think she was really patient…I couldn’t have asked for her participation more than what she did with her book.”

The day the first published copies of “My Big Curly Fro” arrived at the McClelland household ahead of its June 19 release date was a feeling unlike any other for its young author and her parents.

“I was so excited. I kept on jumping and running around,” Alyssa says.

“We were literally waiting for UPS,” Tamara laughs. “The blinds were open, and [my husband] was like, ‘It’s here. The book is here. It’s the book.’”

The weeks that have followed since its release have been “overwhelming,” Tamara says, with over 300 copies of “My Big Curly Fro” sold already.

“We just wanted to get a cute little book out to our family and friends, and now it’s just like taken off,” Tamara says.

Meanwhile, Alyssa is enjoying the spotlight that’s come along with it, participating in countless interviews and photoshoots on what seems like a weekly basis.

“My Big Curly Fro” even reached the attention of Director Matthew Cherry, whose animated short film “Hair Love” about a father styling his daughter’s curly hair for the first time won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film earlier this year. Cherry requested a virtual meeting with Alyssa after seeing her story on Twitter.

“[He said] he would love to speak with Alyssa and give her some words of encouragement,” Tamara says.

As her book continues to make its way around the country and demand for it increases, Alyssa has been learning how to take care of inventory, invoices and shipments of orders. Tamara says she wrote down the steps for processing orders in a notebook for Alyssa to follow.

“It’s so much fun. There’s like no hard part. Like it’s easy for me because my mom taught me how,” Alyssa says.

Alyssa says it makes her feel “really great” to see children all over the country reading her book and being inspired by its message. Tamara takes pride in the fact that “My Big Curly Fro” was able to serve as a piece of valuable representation.

“We don’t have a lot of African-American cartoon characters and representation in the media in a more positive way,” Tamara says. “We want everybody to feel confident. That’s the purpose of the book – to let everyone know that they’re special in their own way, and they’re confident.”

Alyssa has another book in the works, but for now she’s keeping its details a secret.

“The title is a surprise,” Alyssa says.

However, Tamara says the next project is one that is closest to her heart personally, and they are hoping to release it in December around Christmastime.

In the meantime, Alyssa says she wants people that read her book to find confidence from its message.

“I want them to love themself,” Alyssa says.

For anyone wanting to follow in Alyssa’s footsteps and write their own book or share their experiences, Tamara encourages them to keep going no matter how challenging it gets.

Alyssa has some words of advice, too.

“I would say, ‘Of course you can!’” Alyssa says. POV

Photos by Channing Candies