At close to the 11th hour, Little, Brown has announced the January 19 publication of Ambitious Girl, a picture book by Meena Harris, niece of U.S. Senator and vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. As the book opens, a girl passing by a storefront television views a strong woman speaking from a podium, against a backdrop featuring such pejorative labels as “too assertive” and “too ambitious.” Galvanized by the speaker’s directive (“Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are”), the child embarks on an exploration of challenges faced by women and girls and ways in which they can reframe, redefine, and reclaim words meant to knock them down. Illustrated by Marissa Valdez, Ambitious Girl has a 100,000-copy announced first printing.
Harris, a lawyer and activist, is founder of Phenomenal, a female-powered organization that brings awareness to social causes. She is also the author of Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea (Balzer + Bray, June), a picture book inspired by the childhood of Kamala Harris and her sister (and Meena’s mother) Maya Harris, a lawyer and policy expert.
Like that book, Ambitious Girl was inspired by the author’s own life. “I’ve always identified as an ‘ambitious girl’—it’s the model that was set for me by my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother,” she explained. “They taught me from a young age that ambition—particularly in women and women of color—was a good thing, and something to be celebrated. I was encouraged to pursue my ambitions with passion and vigor, because ambition meant purpose and the drive to get things done. As I got older, however, of course that was not the message that society was sending me. Instead, we teach women that ambition is almost a dirty word, something to hide or downplay. We can add it to the long list of other words so often used to critique women, but not men: too ambitious, too aggressive, too competitive, too loud.”
Though this double standard has always bothered Harris, it became more irksome in recent years, after her two daughters were born. “I began thinking more critically about the world in which my kids would grow up, and the messages they would receive outside of our home,” she said. “With Ambitious Girl, I am hoping to change the narrative, literally. Unlike my first book, which tells a story, this one is more lyrical. It’s a womanifesto of sorts for girls with ambition, and really, for all kids—we also need to teach our boys that ambitious girls and women are leaders deserving of respect and admiration.”
Harris’s message and delivery deeply impressed Farrin Jacobs, v-p and editorial director of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, when she received the book proposal from Harris’s agent, Cait Hoyt of Creative Artists Agency. “I felt that luck and fate sent this book my way,” Jacobs said. “Cait knows that I love to publish books by strong, smart women who are invested in telling stories to inspire a generation of strong, smart girls. It was immediately evident to me that Meena had poured her heart into this book. The protagonist has an inner glow and joy and overcomes obstacles she encounters with the help of her family lifting her up.”
Pulling Off an Ambitious Plan
Jacobs discovered the work of Marissa Valdez while perusing the Summer Spectacular Portfolio Showcase on SCBWI’s website. “I knew that we wanted a woman to illustrate this book, so that helped me focus my search,” she said. “There was an energy in her work that I loved—and Meena did, too. Marissa has brought so much to the project. It was a true joy for her pieces to come in and to be totally blown away by what she created.”
Though the time span is short between Jacobs’s acquisition this past summer of Ambitious Girl and the book’s pub date, the editor is wary of saying that Little, Brown “crashed” the book into its winter publishing schedule. “I do a lot of fast books for some reason, but it’s important to me and everyone involved in a book that we don’t sacrifice quality in any aspect of the book,” she said. “This is certainly the case with Ambitious Girl. Meena is exacting, I am exacting, and everyone involved in this picture book brought their A games to the project.”
Discussing the timing of the book’s release, on the day before Inauguration Day, the editor was quick to point out that Ambitious Girl has no political agenda. “The book is nonpartisan, and though the election matters to me, and obviously to Meena, personally, its outcome doesn’t affect the book. We feel confident that it stands on its own and will appeal to parents and educators as an inspiring book for both girls and boys. Meena did not write a book about Kamala Harris. She wrote a book about empowerment and the importance of discovering and embracing one’s unique purpose in the world.”
In fact, a passage from Harris’s author’s note in Ambitious Girl underscores the editor’s observation: “Ambition means owning and living your purpose; it means self-determination. It never occurred to me until I was much older that this could be anything but positive, something to be celebrated.”
Ambitious Girl by Meena Harris, illus. by Marissa Valdez. Little, Brown, $18.99 Jan. 19 ISBN 978-0-316-22969-2