Author-illustrator Vashti Harrison’s picture book Big centers on a young Black girl who dances ballet. Born with a big laugh and a big heart/and very big dreams,” she soon discovers, from those around her, that being “big” might not be a good thing, until she pushes out their disapproval to make room for self-love. Harrison spoke with PW about ballet as a shorthand for innocence, how adultification specifically impacts Black girls, and the vital importance of children feeling safe taking up space.

Big challenges certain ideas regarding how Black children are judged based on their physical size and appearance. How does the main character’s characterization interact with the anti-fat bias and adultification she experiences from those around her?

These issues were at the forefront of my mind when I started working on Big. When I first started working in children’s books, maybe right before I had the idea for Little Leaders, I had found out about this study that came out of the Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Inequality called “Girlhood Interrupted,” literally about the adultification of Black girls. The specific highlights of that study are heartbreaking: Black girls as young as the age of five are viewed as less innocent or more adult than their white counterparts. That contributes to so many factors of life, including them facing harsher judgment and treatment. My heart breaks for those little kids because all kids deserve to be treated with nurturing and care. No matter what body they’re in, no matter what it looks like, no matter what it can do. I have been thinking about that a lot in my work. I wanted to make this book that was an appeal for this girl’s innocence. As a child, I definitely experienced some insecurities and frustrations with my body. I always knew I wanted to touch on that.

One of the things I think about while working in children’s books is that I want to make something that feels like a classic. I look at all these classics, the ones that I grew up reading and so many books have a protagonist that is like the “littlest kid.” “Twelve little girls in two straight lines, and the smallest one is Madeline.” I wanted to make a story that focused on someone who isn’t the smallest in the classroom but is still deserving of us cheering for her and rooting for her.

All kids deserve to be treated with nurturing and care. No matter what body they're in, no matter what it looks like, no matter what it can do.

How did you approach illustrating Big? What motivated the use of soft pastel hues, negative space, and differing character size?

The question of how I would illustrate it is always a fun thing to think about after all the other stuff is figured out. I really wanted to tell a story that felt like it was speaking to a child’s internal experience while still being a story that spoke to bigger societal issues. I knew that I wanted the story to always be from her perspective. The image of her towering over her peers or being boxed in by the pages of the spread, I knew I was going to incorporate something like that from the earliest of stages. It was sort of an “aha!” moment when I realized I could use the spread of the book, the gutter, and the trim size of the book to further emphasize the feeling of her being oppressed.

I wanted to make something that felt really soft and lovely in a way that evokes references to the ballet—not necessarily the ballet specifically, but the feeling that ballet gives when we think about it, especially when we think about little kids that take ballet. There’s often these sweet and innocent colors, recitals, and flowers. I’m not a dancer, but I always loved the costumes and the tutus and these things that we often associate with innocence and beauty. So I wanted those to be clear symbols within the story.

I initially did my test images and sketches on light pink paper and I think I knew pretty early on that I wanted this light, childlike, innocent pink color to be the background. I spent a lot of time drawing the main character on this background and when it came to realizing I needed to incorporate other people to tell the story, I chose to do them in these tonal hues that for me suggest that we’re viewing this whole story from her perspective, fully within her mindset. These aren’t necessarily specific people, but they’re the ideas of other people. I wanted Big to be fully about her and how she’s viewing the world. I wanted the other people to kind of meld into that background so that the eye could be drawn towards her.

Big’s focal character makes space for herself in the story by returning other’s unkind words to their speakers. How important is it for people, specifically young people, to be able to confront who or what hurts them?

That’s a tough question because there are people I know who I can’t confront in that way. In the next page after that, as the story goes, some people didn’t understand it, some asked why she took it so seriously. It’s not necessarily about confronting them and having some sort of result. I really wanted to show this character feeling emotions because that’s something Black girls aren’t allowed to do either. When they’re crying, they’re either told they’re too big to be crying or they should be able to handle their emotions because of that adultification bias. I wanted to show her in this dark, sad moment where she lets out all those words. For her, it is an act of resistance. When she lets everything out, she’s able to see these are the things she doesn’t want to hold onto and she gives them back to the people. For me, it’s the power of getting rid of them. You can’t guarantee that people are going to be receptive to getting back those words. I thought that would be a really powerful visual thing to have her say, “These are yours, and they hurt me.” Even if it’s not speaking to someone who won’t be receptive to that, but writing down something that really hurts, folding it up and getting rid of it. I think all of it is about being able to showcase how she can identify what she wants to hold onto and what she doesn’t want to hold onto.

Based on your experience writing the Little Leaders books, as well as Big, how important do you think it is for young people to take up space, physically or otherwise?

When I started writing the book, I think I always knew I was going to start the story with her being a baby. I didn’t really see how powerful that could be until a little bit later. There is something really powerful in the fact that we as a society often say things like, “Oh, you’re such a big girl. You’re a big girl now.” That is a very good and positive thing. It’s so sad and heartbreaking to know that ‘big’ often loses that joyous, celebratory meaning after a certain age, particularly for girls. Big is something you don’t want to be any more, you wouldn’t want someone to call you. I wanted to reclaim that word for her.

I think it’s the most important thing for children to feel that they can learn, change, grow, experiment, and be whoever they are. It shouldn’t be dependent on what they look like, what their body looks like—the size, the shape, the color of it, what it can or can’t do. When I think of where I was as a child, taking up space in some cases meant speaking up, other times it meant being honest and real about feeling like an outsider or feeling weird. All of those things feed into the desire I have for children to just have the freedom to be kids—Experiment, play, cry, laugh; try anything. They’re figuring out who they are and what they love. The character in this book is on that path and her light gets dimmed. I don’t want that for anybody.

Big by Vashti Harrison. Little, Brown, $19.99 May 2 ISBN 978-0-316-35322-9