After her first book came out, illustrator and author Vashti Harrison began noticing a disturbing pattern at book signings. She frequently overheard parents express disinterest in certain children’s books because the main characters or central themes did not match their own child’s gender, racial, or ethnic association.
Disappointed, the author of Little Leaders: Bold Women In Black History found herself explaining to parents that “there are concepts in each of these books that any child can find encouraging and exciting.” This is self-evident in sales for the book, which was an instant bestseller and has subsequently been released as a board book, Dream Big, Little One. Inside, Harrison drew 18 historical figures — many of them overlooked — as characters a child might love. “These figures are cartoon characters essentially, so you don’t have to look like the drawings to see a little bit of yourself in them.”
Which is what happens when kids read these books.
When my 4-year-old daughter flipped through the pages of Harrison’s Dream Big, Little One, and saw Black women like mathematician Katharine Johnson and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, her eyes lit up. She might not have understand the full extent of these women’s contributions, but she knew these women are very important. And when we got to the page on Mae Jemison, she proudly stated, “I’d like to be an astronaut too, Mommy!”
As with the best books for any age, the author had created something my daughter could see herself in. That is Harrison’s talent, as a bestselling author, the illustrator of Lupita Nyong’o’s hotly anticipated debut children’s book Sulwe, and perhaps the most in-demand illustrator today.
“Books are sometimes windows,” wrote Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop in a pivotal 1990 essay. “These windows are also sliding doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.”
As mirrors, children’s books have the unique power to show young people how they are valued (or devalued) in our ever-evolving society. So a diverse range of authors, illustrators, and characters matters. But according to the most recent survey by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), an initiative of the University of Wisconsin, there still aren’t enough books for young readers that echo the spectrum of assorted lenses — both in the stories that are being told and in who’s telling them.
Cue Vashti Harrison’s unexpected entrance into the children’s market.
The Little Leaders concept was born at 4 a.m. one night, when Harrison was inspired to illustrate 30 different historical figures for a Black History Month challenge on social media.
In 1926, when Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week, he was adamant about highlighting the stories of Black changemakers who had long been neglected. Harrison realized that she, too, wanted to focus on the stories of Black women: “Stories that have been doubly neglected throughout history.”
There’s nothing that requires more humanity than sacrificing for someone you love.
Harrison’s first illustration was of Sojourner Truth. Initially, she knew that Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist born into slavery in New York. What Harrison further discovered brought her to tears as she scripted the biographical notes on Truth’s backstory.
Sojourner Truth became the first Black woman to win a court case against a white man, after the man illegally sold her 5-year-old son to a plantation owner in Alabama.
“Sojourner Truth’s life is a beautiful example of a mother’s love,” Harrison says. “There’s nothing that requires more humanity than sacrificing for someone you love — especially a parent for their children.”
After compiling a rich list of Black female innovators for Little Leaders and setting to work, Harrison kept thinking about her younger self.
“Nothing’s as special as seeing a kid flip through Little Leaders or Little Dreamers and get excited about it," she says. "What’s even better is seeing a [book being] frayed and the cover is a little bit dirty and that means something special to me knowing that it’s been very well loved."
She loves nothing better than hearing a cry of “I’m just like her!”
That is the moment when a child has made a deeply internal connection with one of her stories.
Before becoming a New York Times bestselling author-illustrator, Harrison never imagined that her own work would be a manifestation of Dr. Bishop’s theory.
In fact, Harrison wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do. A natural-born artist, the then-late 20-something moved back home with her parents after graduating college to figure it all out. After exploring several pathways, Vashti finally set her sights on digital illustration. It turned out she had a very specific vision of what she wanted to do.
“One thing I wanted to do was make sure the depictions of the historical figures were sweet and innocent," says Harrison of her craft. "I could have illustrated these women as themselves, but I choose to illustrate the child dressed up as these famous figures to subconsciously highlight the virtue of Black women.”
Harrison references a recent Georgetown Law study that captured the way young Black girls are viewed as less innocent and more adult-like than girls from other demographic backgrounds. “There’s no reason for any of us to make a kid feel like they should be growing up faster than they need to be," she says with vehemence. "Clearly society is already doing that for us.”
There’s a lot of weight that should be placed on the publishers and the people who get to choose who’s getting published.
Another premature question that parents often ask is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For young children, this question can be quite intimidating. As she saw herself fall victim to an unnecessary pressure to define herself through a career, Harrison suggests parents “allow children the time and freedom to discover who they truly are.”
That’s why when my daughter told me that she wanted to be an astronaut, I grabbed some recyclable boxes and old clothes to make a suit.
Growing up, I rarely caught glimpses of my own reflection in the books we read through the standard school curriculum. However, I loved reading so much that I often made connections to themes and characters even if I could not identify with the demographic.
In fact, these are essential skills that I practice with my young reader daily: try to make a personal connection with the text. You may not see it right away, but it’s there.
Harrison also believes that providing more windows, or filling bookstores with more diverse titles, “there’s a lot of weight that should be placed on the publishers and the people who get to choose who’s getting published.”
I was definitely thinking about the many ways I could show young readers of any background that there are many different opportunities out there for them.
As of 2018, publishing still has a long way to go before adequately “reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture,” as the Cooperative Children’s Book Center survey put it.
In the meantime, the weight of this responsibility lies with parents. Children don’t have to see her books as mirrors, but Harrison hopes that parents can help children to utilize books as windows.
“I was definitely thinking about the many ways I could show young readers of any background that there are many different opportunities out there for them,” Harrison says.
“I wanted to showcase influential doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but there’s also an astronaut, a dancer, and a pilot. There are different types of artists out there, not just painters. I was very careful to include a filmmaker, a photographer and a sculptor, too.”
To appreciate the historical contributions of Black women and men is to appreciate all the ways in which they have added value to our society — even in the face of adversity.
And for now, Harrison continues to open doors. Publishing in November, Little Legends: Exceptional Men In Black History features bold Black men throughout history, including writer James Baldwin, dancer Alvin Ailey, filmmaker Oscar Michaeux, and music icon Prince. Harrison would also like to explore the Caribbean heritage and folklore that her film work is rooted in. “I’d love to bring these two worlds together," she says. "Perhaps an illustrated novel based on one of the folk tales.” And sometime in 2020, Little, Brown Young Readers plans to release a second board book companion to Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World (Dream Big, Little One is the first).
Another undertaking to bring the concepts of Little Dreamers to the tiniest of hands.
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