Author–illustrator Vashti Harrison happened to be in Miami to celebrate her father’s 89th birthday when—at 9:30 p.m., while sorting laundry—she received the news of her Caldecott win. “It’s a little bit of a jump scare when you realize there’s a whole room full of people calling to say congratulations to you,” Harrison said.
The Caldecott news wasn’t her first artistically affirming call of the day: “I had received a call from the Coretta Scott King award committee around 1 in the afternoon,” with the happy information that Big had received both the King Author Honor and the King Illustrator Honor, Harrison said. “I was driving one of my aunts to the airport when I got that call, so my dad, my aunt, and her best friend all got to listen to it on speakerphone.”
Harrison dared hope that lightning might strike again, but “between 1 and 9 p.m. is a long time to wait, so I was trying to do things to keep myself busy,” she said. “I offered to pick up another aunt from another airport, and then I went to the wrong airport because I was so stressed.” Around 8 p.m., she texted her editor, Farrin Jacobs, who reassured her, “The night’s not over,” Harrison recalled. After getting that Caldecott call, she called Jacobs back, so elated, “I barely had any words.” She also phoned her agent, Carrie Hannigan of HG Literary, to rejoice.
With Big’s success, Harrison becomes the first Black woman to win the Caldecott Medal. “I was completely shocked when I heard that, because this is an award that’s been handed out for more than 80 years,” Harrison said. She expressed admiration for the four Black women who became Caldecott Honorees before her—Faith Ringgold (1992, for Tar Beach), Ekua Holmes (2016, for Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford), Oge Mora (2019, for Thank You, Omu), and Cozbi A. Cabrera (2021, for Me & Mama)—while acknowledging creators who have been overlooked. “I am truly humbled to be credited as the first [medalist], but there are so many unsung heroes,” she said. “I’m grateful I get to be part of the story.”
Big introduces a Black child in a pink leotard and lilac tutu who goes from hearing grown-ups’ approval—“What a big girl you are!”—to feeling ashamed of her body due to unsolicited remarks; an insensitive teacher casts the girl as a cloudy mountain in a school play and turns the girl’s ballerina dress a drab charcoal hue. Linear text guides the story, but readers also notice voice-bubble asides, hand-lettered pink compliments, and overheard, gray, negative words as the story addresses body acceptance. “I knew pretty early on that I wanted this book to be spare, to not have a lot of words,” Harrison said. “The emotions feel too big to even describe [in writing], and readers feel her emotions through the illustrations.”
In Harrison’s imagery, the gauzy pastels of the girl’s outfits, her brown skin, and her fluffy dark hair look soft. Her physical presence is bright compared to the beige, half-silhouetted characters who judge her. In a wordless sequence, the growing girl gets trapped within tight page margins (not unlike John Tenniel’s Alice in the Rabbit’s house). “When there are no words, we can use composition, lighting, and shadows,” Harrison said. “The girl feels fully boxed in, her pink color has gone away, her light has entirely dimmed. What if she can’t even fit in this space of this book? How does she break free?” Harrison’s surprising gatefold shows the girl finding a way out.
“Once I realized I could play with the meta qualities of the book,” Harrison said, the story blossomed. “I could have her move the words around and hand them back to people; I could use all the visual elements on the page to communicate her internal experience.” During read-alouds, the visuals allow for tangents: “When I read it with young people, I tend to do a little back and forth, like ‘what do you think she’s feeling here?’ and ‘what are these words in the background?’ ” Harrison added.
Adults respond to the character’s journey, too. “So many people identify with the experience of the child” in Big, Harrison said. She often hears from teachers, librarians, and reviewers who say the book represents “what it feels like to grow up in a diet culture. Anti-fat bias is the way many of us were raised.”
Harrison is currently working on illustrations for an as-yet-undisclosed new picture book written by Traci Todd, to be published by Viking Children's Books in fall 2025. Meanwhile, the Caldecott Medal ensures that readers of all ages will have time to sit with Big. Harrison is letting the award news sink in, and she is pleased to have been among loved ones for the occasion. On the morning of the ALA Youth Media Awards, Harrison “made coffee and watched the livestream” with her father and others. “I’m very glad to be here with my family for it,” she said of her groundbreaking accomplishment.