In three short years, newcomer Vashti Harrison has swiftly published multiple solo and joint projects, including prominent collaborations with Academy Award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o and retired NFL player Matthew Cherry. Her new book for young readers, Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History, is the third volume in her illustrated nonfiction series about notable, often little-known figures in black history. Harrison spoke with PW about her indirect path to publishing, growing as an author and artist, and her need to make an impact with her work.
How did your career in children’s publishing begin?
I entered publishing in an odd way. I have a background in filmmaking; I went to a great school to study experimental cinema, called California Institute of the Arts. It was really famous not for its film program, but for its animation program. While I was there, I took some drawing classes just for fun. I had drawn a lot when I was a kid, but I had stopped for a long time, distracted as I focused on film. I was excited to pick it up again, but I was not very good. It was super clear to me that, if I didn’t practice, I was never going to be very good. So, around 2013, I secretly started drawing again.
Meanwhile, I finished school and got a job in the film industry, but every evening I was going home and drawing. In TV and film, at the end of a project, people get laid off. So, I was laid off and I had to figure out what I was going to do next: grind it out in the film industry or maybe go after this illustration thing. I decided to move home with my parents and pursue illustration. It sounds crazy, but I also had the driving factor of “I can’t stay with my parents forever so I’m going to be very business-like and very pragmatic and teach myself as much as I can about the industry as quickly as I can.” I joined SCBWI [the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators] and read all their literature, listened to a bunch of podcasts, and tried to get my work out there and actually put my name on it.
In May 2016, I submitted a drawing to the SCBWI Draw This! competition. The prize was to have your drawing placed in the monthly newsletter. On June 1, 2016, I opened my email and scrolled down—and my drawing was there. I was like, “Oh my god! Validation from this organization! That means so much!” The next day, I had an email from an art director at Simon & Schuster asking if I wanted to illustrate a manuscript. I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down! I know I wanted this, but I didn’t know it was going to happen that fast!” I was terrified, but it’s been go, go, go ever since.
I got my agent [Carrie Hannigan at HSG Agency] the same year, in October 2016. And then, just a few months after that, in February 2017, I had the idea for my first book, Little Leaders. I had decided to post a drawing every day for Black History Month. I wanted to do a drawing of an unsung hero in black history and write a little bio. My agent and I both thought there was an idea for a book there and, fortunately, other people did, too. Before February was over, I signed a deal with Little, Brown for three books. And now the third one is out! It’s been intense.
When you’re approached about a collaboration, what makes you say yes to a project?
I feel lucky that the first book I was offered was something that I really felt I could bring something to, even though, that early in my career, I don’t know that I could’ve said no to anything. I’m so happy with [my first book] Festival of Colors, a collaboration written by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal. That story had a lot of fun elements, like throwing holi powder around and all the flowers.
I’ve come to realize that I’m not really the best with funny scenarios, and I don’t draw a lot of animals. I like books that are heartfelt and warm and maybe even a little bit heavy. If it has that weightiness, that hope and wonder, and an infusion of magic, I’m intrigued. That’s why Sulwe was such a good fit. But, maybe one day I’ll challenge myself to do a funny book with animals.
This newest solo project, Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History, is a break from your usual stories about powerful women and girls. Why did you decide to chronicle the stories of men? How did you choose who to feature?
To be 100% transparent, from the very first day that I announced Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, people have been asking me, “When is the book about men coming?” And I’d never have an answer. Little Leaders came from a very personal place and my thinking about myself and the stories that would have helped me when I was a kid. And the second book, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World, also came from a personal place; it shares the stories of creators. In the process of writing that second book, I had to put myself in the shoes of people who have backgrounds that are nothing like mine. I think it took the past couple of years of trying to empathize with and understand the stories of people that are so different than me that I realized that I had stopped writing for myself and really started thinking about the kid reader and what that reader needs.
I tried to find a diverse list of people from around the world and highlight stories of kindness, friendship, and the people who aim to be good, not just great. Since the first book, I’ve also tried to cover as many areas of study as possible, too, because kids are always being asked what they want to be when then grow up. When I was a kid, I thought that being an artist meant being a painter. I had no idea that there were filmmakers and photographers and sculptors and all kinds of things.
What’s next on your to-do list?
Because my background was originally in film, I do have a lot of stories that I want to tell. It’s wild that I have three nonfiction books that I’ve written and illustrated. A part of me feels like I want to try working on some fiction, maybe reassessing some stories I wrote as short films in the past. I would love to play around with that.
I also feel very passionately about making content about environmentalism. I’m curious to see how I can approach that through publishing, given the nature of publishing. I’m very interested in how I can make creative content that encourages people to be environmentally conscious. Or just through my art, or social media. I feel the urge to make art about it.
Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History by Vashti Harrison. Little, Brown, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-31647-514-3