To kick off Black History Month, we are sharing a Q&A with Vashti Harrison, author of The New York Times Bestseller, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. The book debuted at number three and was one of the most anticipated books of 2018 with a number of well know celebrities and dignitaries, like Chelsea Clinton, sharing their love for the book and its author on social media. This week, it was announced that Vashti Harrison will be illustrating the book series, Hair Love, written by filmmaker and former NFL player Matthew A. Cherry.
The UK version of Harrison’s Little Leaders will be released next month featuring some new additions, including Claudia Jones, Anna Julia Cooper, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In addition to a wonderful discussion with the author, we also have some selected illustrations from the book provided to us courtesy of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
BookTrib: There are a lot of books for that focus on notable African Americans for children, but these tend to focus mostly on male figures and Black women are often a side note in the larger story of our history. Why was it so important to you to center the story around Black women and feature them in the clothing and context of the times in which they lived?
VH: When Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, he wanted to celebrate the stories that are often neglected throughout history. I was inspired to use my Instagram project, which began in Black History Month 2017, as an opportunity to focus on black women specifically, whose stories have been doubly neglected throughout history.
For me, my book is a celebration of the contributions black women have made to American History and by doing so, paving a way for others. Immediately when doing the research for this book, I felt so connected to their stories of hard work, dedication, courage through adversity, love for craft, and love for family. I wanted to create a way for readers to feel that connection as well.
I always envisioned the Little Leaders as little girls dressing up as famous women. I kept the design of the faces simple but sweet. This allowed me to put a ton of fun details into the hair and costumes to really give them character. In this way, I wanted young readers to feel like they could walk in their shoes, jump back in time to feel their experiences, and be able to see themselves in all of stories.
BookTrib: Readers may be familiar with your artwork for Matthew A. Cherry’s short film, Hair Love’s Kickstarter campaign and across social media where hair is a prominently featured subject. Hair is so political for Black women, how did you go about tackling this in such a way that young girls could walk away with a sense of pride and not feel like their natural hair is a “problem” and also convey a message to others about our individual experiences?
VH: For me, it’s never been something to tackle, rather than something to acknowledge. I personally love rendering hair; I see so much beauty in the subtle differences, so I think people can see that in my work and take pride in seeing something about themselves represented in a beautiful way. In Little Leaders, my goal was to just be truthful to each of the women I was depicting. I created a visual language for the entire book, focusing the rendering to the hair, while keeping the face simple, so hair became an important signifier.
This book is a celebration of these women and their accomplishments, so I think girls can take pride in what these women have done and take joy in each one of their differences. It becomes a very special thing in this book that everyone’s hair is different—it comes in different shapes, textures, and lengths, and when you flip through you can see it change over the years.
BookTrib: Black women still face significant challenges in breaking into the publishing industry and in convincing publishers that there really is a market for books that appeal to us and do well in terms of sales. What was that process like for you? How did you pitch your book?
VH: The original project behind this book started on social media—I created a challenge for myself to draw one woman from Black History every day for the month of February 2017. The reaction I got from people was incredible! It felt like this was something they were all waiting for, something that people were hungry for. I asked my agent if she thought there was potential for a book, and she was already working on a list of publishers. I found the process incredibly supportive and encouraging. My agent kept having to remind me “you have to realize how special this is!” There were several publishers interested, but we eventually went with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
I think a book like this was long overdue, and I think Little, Brown could see the way people were responding to it. The team there was incredibly supportive in the creative process; I came in with a ton of ideas and they helped me make them into realities.
BookTrib: This book comes out at a time when people are talking about the 40th anniversary about the Combahee Collective Statement, which really was the first collective declaration of Black feminism and a political agenda that clearly focused on the issues pertinent to Black women. All the women you chose were among the earliest feminists in America. Why do you think books geared toward children, particularly Black children, steer themselves away from presenting strength in such a bold way, like you have presented here?
VH: I can only speak to my book, but for me it was really important to present this book this way, because I wanted to see all of these women’s stories together. It’s really powerful to see how the stories intertwine and overlap. To me, it helps build this beautiful connection between these important women and to see them as a community instead of just as individuals.
I wanted Little Leaders to be a book that let little black girls and black women know how important they are, that there is a space for them. And I think that’s a lot of what those early feminists were fighting for. I started this project off with Sojourner Truth and used her story as a kind of divining rod for the rest of the stories. I really loved tapping into her strength and boldness, but also her love and passion were so important to her success. I was careful to choose a list of diverse occupations and fields of study so that everyone might be able to find something inside the book. And presented all together, the stories paint a portrait of what a force black women are in this world.
BookTrib: Finally, will this be the first in a series or will you do something different for your next book?
VH: If there’s one thing to know about it me, it’s that I’m constantly interested in and inspired by new things. This book opened up so many new opportunities and new stories that I want to dive into deeper. The Little Leaders series will continue, but the next book is still taking shape. There were so many women from the first book that I couldn’t include, so I’d love to find an opportunity to study some of them as well as more leaders from around the world.
The U.K edition of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History will be released in March 2018, and that features 33 of the women from the U.S. edition and seven new additions. It was so hard to choose only seven for that list as well, so there’s a long list of biographies I want to study—Claudia Jones, Anna Julia Cooper, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to name a few!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vashti Harrison earned her MFA in Film/Video from CalArts and BA from the University of Virginia. Her experimental films and documentaries have shown around the world at film festivals. After a brief stint in television as a production coordinator, she is now a freelance graphic designer and a picture-book illustrator. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. We welcome you to visit Vashti at: www.vashtiharrison.com, Twitter @VashtiHarrison, Instagram @VashtiHarrison.
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