Little, Brown Books recently published CalArts alum Vashti Harrison's (Film/Video MFA 14) debut illustrated book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. Created for children ages 8 to 12, the book features the life stories of 40 inspirational African American women. In addition to including well-known figures such as Harriet Tubman, Ella Fitzgerald, Octavia E. Butler and Oprah Winfrey, Harrison highlights lesser-known names such as pilot Bessie Coleman, chemist Alice Ball, politician Shirley Chisholm and others.
The book has struck a chord with readers. Since it was published in December, the book has spent eight weeks on The New York Times' Best Sellers List (Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover). In January, Harrison received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Children.
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History has its origins in Harrison's popular Instagram account, where she's posted various illustrations over the past few years.
"I went to CalArts to get my MFA in film. I was making experimental films there," Harrison said during a recent phone interview. "It was during my last year that I took some classes in the [Character] Animation Department just for fun. I drew a lot as a kid, before I started making films, but once I got into the film world, I stopped altogether. So that final year at CalArts, it kind of rekindled this love of drawing that I had." (She recalls taking Life Drawing: Illustration as well as storyboarding and visual development classes during her last year.)
After graduation, Harrison was determined to work in the film and TV industry and even moved to Atlanta to work on production for the animated show The Awesomes. "[Meanwhile] I started this Instagram account that became this outlet for my newfound love for drawing. So I post pretty regularly, and I try and treat it like a daily practice," she said.
After The Awesomes was cancelled, Harrison moved back home to Virginia to mull her options and apply for other production positions.
All the while, she kept illustrating. Harrison looked at what other artists were doing on social media and wanted to do something all for herself. "Black History Month was coming up, and I thought, 'This would be, one, a great opportunity to learn about interesting people; and two, create a challenge to do something interesting and thought-provoking every single day for the month of February." She posted about abolitionist Sojourner Truth on Feb. 1, 2017, to her Instagram—and the response was immediate.
"I'm pretty good about judging the analytics of my social media, and I could see that people were really excited about this. I was really excited about this."
After the fourth or fifth illustration hit her Instagram account, Harrison contacted her agent to see if there were potential for a book. Her agent was thinking the exact same thing. They pitched and met with a few publishers, and Harrison found the right home for her first book in a short amount of time. "It was before February (2017) was over that I had a three-book deal for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
"It's was kind of a Cinderella story. I'm totally aware that it doesn't work out like that all the time."
Harrison said that her illustration style for the women in black history—eyes closed with a subtle smile—was "shorthand" for serenity, innocence and happiness. "It was a throwback, or kind of a shout out to these classic mid-century artists that I really love. If you look at the cover of the Little Golden Book, I Can Fly, illustrated by Mary Blair, the character has that same pose: eyes closed with a slight smile. The same with Roger Hargreaves' Mr. Happy. I wanted to make the illustrations vintage, almost timeless.
"As an illustrator, as a person who loves children's books, I love the classic books, but I don't see representation of myself in that."
Harrison said that the first two books will be Little Leaders books, and if they are received well, then the third one may also be part of the series. "The second book is still taking shape, but it is going to be more women, not specifically black women, but women from around the world.
"It all happened very quickly. No one believes me, but I was very ready to be a filmmaker and have a day job working in TV and still continue to make my experimental art films—and then suddenly I'm working on children's books."
While Harrison's illustration career is taking off, she hasn't had a lot of time to work on her experimental film practice. However, her thesis film, Field Notes, has already screened at nearly two dozen festivals and film programs, so with Harrison's track record, it's a safe bet she'll do fine in whichever medium she chooses.