A self-challenge posed in a tiny, sublet room last January in Brooklyn has taken a University of Virginia alumna to a place she never expected: the New York Times best-seller list.
Vashti Harrison, who graduated in 2010 with a double major in media studies and studio art, moved to New York City in December 2016 to see if she could make it in the big city. Soon she was working full-time as a free-lance illustrator and finishing up drawings for a children’s book called “Festival of Colors.”
In the late hours of Jan. 31, 2017, in that small room, a thought came to her: Why not draw one African-American woman every day for the month of February in honor of Black History Month? She would post her art on her Instagram account as a way to challenge herself.
“Work can get a little bit monotonous,” she said. “It can be hard to remember that I like to draw.”
A few days into the project, Harrison reached out to her agent to ask if she thought there was potential for a book. As it turned out, the agent was about to ask her the same thing.
The pair pitched the book idea to a couple of publishers, and Harrison recalls that Little, Brown and Company just ‘got’ the idea.
“I had known about Little, Brown since I was a little kid,” Harrison recalled. “I remember reading the publisher name on the side of one of my books.”
It also didn’t hurt that the name of her book – “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History,” bore a certain resemblance to the name of the publishing company.
“It felt like a really nice resolution – like ‘Little Leaders; Little, Brown.’”
The New York Times Best-Seller List
“Little Leaders” was an instant New York Times best-seller, rising to the No. 3 spot on the Children’s Middle-Grade Hardcover list on Dec. 24, where it remains today.
The book features 40 black women from American history. There are civil rights activists, artists, musicians and astronauts. Each illustrated entry includes a brief biography Harrison wrote for readers aged 8 to 12.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to share the stories that are doubly neglected through history – that is, women and people of color,” Harrison said.
“Little Leaders” has drawn major media interest, including from New York Magazine, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. On Monday, Harrison appeared on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah.
Harrison spent months working on her book in her Brooklyn sublet room, often listening to books on tape as inspiration. She listened to “Hidden Figures,” about NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, as she drew Johnson’s picture. (Harrison later learned that the book, which was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, was written by UVA alum Margot Lee Shetterly.)
Harrison got inspiration for her drawings from characters in children’s classics, like Eloise, Madeline and Winnie the Pooh. “I really wanted to create this character that felt timeless and really sweet,” she said.
The drawings look like paper dolls. “I wanted them all to have the same face and similar poses,” Harrison said. “I wanted them to feel interchangeable. Even before it was a book, when they were just these little illustrations, I kind of knew I wanted them to be positioned in the same place so that I could flip through all of them and create this kind of flip-book animation.”
Nearly all of the illustrations portray the subjects facing the reader. One exception is the spread for Nina Simone, a famous pianist.
“I created a visual language for the book and chose to break those rules when, conceptually, it made sense,” she said. “So, for her, the piano was her life. It meant so much more to move her from the regular poses” to face the piano.
One other thing readers may notice is that in all the illustrations, the subject’s eyes are closed.
“It goes back to that vibe I was looking for – that very vintage, classic illustration,” Harrison said. “That pose, with the eyes down, and a kind of a sweet, subtle smile, is really just a position of sweetness and serenity and innocence.”
One reviewer characterized the closed eyes as meaning that each of the girls was looking within themselves to embody the story. “I love that,” Harrison said.
The newly minted author is moving ahead with another installment of “Little Leaders.” While the details are still being worked out, Little, Brown and Company is aiming to publish the second book in December.
Advice for UVA Students
Harrison said she has very fond memories of UVA. “I dream about UVA a lot. All the time, actually,” she said.
“The classes where I really found myself as an artist were the cinema photography classes in the art department taught by Kevin Everson. I still keep in touch with Kevin; I’m still making films and I show them at film festivals pretty often. He was my mentor at UVA and he still kind of continues to be my mentor in everything.”
Harrison knows there is a perception that certain majors don’t offer good job prospects.
“If I could tell any of those students who are like, ‘I don’t know if I can study art. I don’t know what kind of career will be out there’ – there are lots of opportunities and that’s a lot of what I was trying to share in ‘Little Leaders,’ especially to younger readers. You don’t have to do one thing.”