Man up. Boys don’t cry. Tough it out. Boys will be boys. Men will be men. These are phrases that most boys growing up hearing and are a part of our societal conditioning. Author Kate Parker is all set to challenge this mindset and bring about much-needed awareness with her latest book—The Heart Of a Boy.
Parker also authored the 2017 blockbuster bestseller Strong Is The New Pretty. The book is a gorgeous and inspiring photographic celebration of girls being themselves – fearless, silly, wild, stubborn, proud, fierce – it garnered outstanding media attention and support from the likes of the Spice Girls, Drew Barrymore, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Chelsea Clinton, and Emma Watson.
“Silly, serious, nerdy, athletic, creative, bold—the adjectives describing boys could go on for pages. But if boys are to grow up to be admirable men, the one thing they must be is kind. Kate Parker’s book helps clear the way for a time when everyone understands that.”
– R. J. Palacio, author of Wonder
This time around, Parker has turned her focus on boys! Parker was in Seattle earlier this month for an event with University Bookstore followed by school visits. In THE HEART OF A BOY: Celebrating the Strength and Spirit of Boyhood, Parker turns her lens to boys as she seeks to positively redefine masculinity at a moment when the country is grappling with how to raise boys to become good people.
We caught up with Parker for a Q&A about The Heart Of A Boy and why the book is so important right now…
Seattleite: How did the Heart of a Boy photography series start —and how does it relate to Strong Is the New Pretty?
Kate Parker: Strong Is the New Pretty started very small and personally for me. I was photographing my daughters in their daily life and simply wanted to get better as a photographer and capture them as they were. I noticed the strongest images were the ones of my girls truly being themselves. For them, this came through as emotional, messy—their hair was (mostly) unbrushed—loud, muddy, fearless, and not necessarily smiling for the camera. I wanted them to know this was enough—they didn’t need to change who they were, clean up, or smile for me to be worthy or beautiful. This was the start of Strong Is the New Pretty.
I was so thankful to expand the project from my girls and their friends to girls all over North America. Girls whose strength looked different from that of my girls. Girls who inspired, who persevered. And yes, I was shocked by the reception. I really wanted this book to get into the hands of as many girls as it could since I believed in the message so much, but I couldn’t imagine that it would be so well received and loved.
The message of my work, whether with Strong Is the New Pretty or The Heart of a Boy, is, at its core, exactly the same message. That you, just as you are, are worthy. I am imploring children (and parents) to celebrate themselves as they are.
Humans are complicated and multifaceted. Girls and boys. Men and women. We are getting better at it with our girls but we need to recognize and celebrate this in our boys, too. Thoughtfulness, emotion, and empathy should be encouraged as much as possible with our boys. I am trying to make a change with my work—to shift a paradigm, alter our expectations, and change the way we view girls and boys. I want to encourage all children to be fearless, kind, curious, brave, and strong.
And we need to raise boys who are self-confident, both for their well-being and to support strong and empowered women. One of the thoughts I had that helped me realize that I wasn’t abandoning girls was the thought that if we allowed our boys to be who they truly are, they would, in turn, do it for our girls as well. Giving boys permission to be fully themselves gives them the chance to grow up to be men who fully appreciate girls and women for being themselves.
It’s a good start.
Seattleite: Why is this book so important now? Why is it important for a boy to embrace all aspects of himself?
KP: It is time to talk about our boys. We’ve all lived the headlines on a daily basis and have been forced to confront #MeToo, school shootings, bullying, and other toxic behavior. There’s a national conversation going on about what defines masculinity and how to raise sons to become good people. We need to look at what we are saying and showing our boys about who they are allowed to be.
I want to acknowledge with this book that you can have both strength and softness. Boys can be football players and tough as nails on the field, and tenderhearted and emotional off. It’s possible to be both—these qualities don’t cancel each other out. Boys often face a simplistic view of what’s expected and desired from them. That must change.
Seattleite: As someone who has built a career by taking empowering pictures of girls, what struck you as different when photographing boys?
KP: I am lucky in that when I am photographing my subjects for these projects, I get to capture these kids doing the things they love the most, the things they’re best at, the things they are passionate about. I love that I get to shoot each subject where they are most comfortable and in their respective “element.”
I truly did not notice any difference between the boys’ and the girls’ the shoots. Shy kids were shy, outgoing kids were hamming it up, older kids were concerned about looking cool, little kids wanted to see the pictures I shot immediately. It wasn’t gender-specific. However, I did notice a marked difference in trying to get quotes to accompany the shots for the boys. It was so much harder for these boys! I’ve been thinking about the reason for this and wondering if asking boys to talk about their feelings and goals and struggles is something that is out of the ordinary and uncomfortable. It was super easy for the girls. An interesting thing to note, for sure.
Seattleite: What themes emerged as you started taking photos of the boys in the book?
KP: I noticed that just like I did with Strong is the New Pretty, the kids who are succeeding, doing well and achieving their goals aren’t necessarily the ones with the best grades. They have two things: 1) grit, and 2) a support system. The grit allows them to stay strong and have faith in themselves in the face of adversity. And I think the reason many kids have that grit is because of support. They have someone in their life who has their back, who they can count on, who they love and loves them unconditionally.
Just like girls, boys found their self-confidence through action. Boys who were confident and proud of who they are were put themselves out there regardless of what others thought or said. Whether it was creating another world in a comic-book series, teaching karate, learning to do make-up, playing quarterback, or starting a charity, these boys were supported in their passions. That support makes all the difference.
Seattleite: What were the most surprising acts of kindness you saw while documenting the boys in your book?
KP: I was lucky enough to photograph two brothers in Arizona, one of the brothers is severely autistic and nonverbal. Nate, the younger of the two, really amazed me. He said, “My brother didn’t choose to have autism. Autism chose him. . . . It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love him.” And throughout our whole shoot, he’d make sure his older brother was looking towards the camera, making sure he was turned the correct way. Nate was so concerned about his brother. He was filled with so much compassion and empathy. I was really taken by that. You don’t see that side of boys a lot. It was so nice to witness. That’s not what is celebrated for boys.
I also shot another set of brothers here in Atlanta (where I live), Javier and Jerry. When Javy was born he was in the NICU for months. Understandably, Jerry was in and around the hospital a lot. He saw a lot of other parents, just like his mom and dad, suffering and worried. He wanted to relieve some of that stress. So he started saving his allowance and paying for other parents’ food in the hospital cafeteria. He’d wait near the cash register and use his money to pay for their meals. He eventually started a charity to do just that and he goes back on holidays to help in his way.