Bold women inspire black history book by Eastern Shore writer

ACCOMACK Co. ,Va. (Delmarva Now) -- A new children's book by an Accomack County author is already a bestseller — and it won't even be released until next month.

The author and illustrator, Vashti Harrison, 29, grew up in Onley and is a 2006 graduate of Nandua High School.

"Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History" is her first book. This week it was listed on Amazon.com as the No. 1 best seller in children's multicultural biographies.

The book, published by LittleBrown Books for Young Readers, will be released on Dec. 5 and is available to preorder now.

The Book Bin in Onley will carry the book.

It introduces young readers to 40 black women who impacted American history in fields ranging from science to politics, the arts and more.

The book officially is geared to readers age 8 and up, but the message it delivers is for all ages — that we should celebrate and honor these black women who helped change the world.

It features both well-known icons of black history, such as author Maya Angelou and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, and lesser-known figures including pilot Bessie Coleman and filmmaker Julie Dash.

Harrison, who lives in Brooklyn now but visits the Eastern Shore frequently, is a filmmaker by training — she earned an MFA in film from CalArts and her experimental films and documentaries have been shown around the world at film festivals.

More recently — after a brief stint in television production — she found employment, and fulfillment, as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator.

In 2015, Harrison had moved back home to the Eastern Shore of Virginia after the animated television show she was working on in Atlanta was canceled.

It was not an easy time.

"I was applying to a lot of different jobs, really trying to get a creative job," she said. Finally, in April 2016, she decided to try to make a go of a career in illustration — something she has loved to do as far back as she can remember.

"Drawing was my go-to, but by the time I was in high school and thinking about college, I didn't consider art to be a career. I really didn't know where I had a place for it in my life," Harrison said.

Sill, even as she pursued education and then employment in other fields, she always returned to drawing.

"It was this thing that I was doing in my spare time. Even when I was working on that TV show, I was drawing after work," she said.

Still, it took courage to make the leap to pursuing her passion as a career.

"I was really nervous about it. My degree is in film ... Drawing was not something I was super confident in, but I decided in April 2016 I was just going to try to make it work — and we would see what would happen," she said.

She was getting enough commissions as an illustrator by that point that she thought the career move could possibly work out.

Joining the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in May 2016 was a turning point for Harrison.

"They are the reason I know anything about this whole world," Harrison said.

The society sponsored a competition, based on a drawing prompt, in which the winning illustration would be sent via email to everyone in the organization, including editors and art directors.

The prompt was the word "borrow" — Harrison drew a girl carrying a stack of library books.

Less than a month after she joined the society, she won the competition, and her illustration was sent out to society members in an email on June 1.

"On June 2, I got an email from an art director for my first book offer," she said.

The book she ended up illustrating was "Festival of Colors," which Simon and Schuster will release Jan. 30. It is one of several illustration projects she has done since then.

In October 2016, she met her agent at a SCBWI conference, which was another turning point.

The "Little Leaders" book got its start in February, when Harrison began posting her distinctive, childlike illustrations on Instagram as a Black History Month project.

Like most of her work, Harrison created the Little Leaders digitally, using PhotoShop and digital "brushes" that mimic painting in gouache or watercolor.

She decided from the beginning to focus on black women for the project.

"I think that, at least for myself in the past, there are some key players that we focus on during Black History Month. I really wanted to just focus on some of the women. I really like drawing girls," she said.

She was only one or two days into the project when it became clear "people were really into it," Harrison said.

The first illustration she posted was Sojourner Truth.

"I was just overwhelmed with her story ... I had heard about the 'big moments' — the 'Ain't I a Woman' moment — but there were other things, like the story of her and her children, that I wasn't aware of, and they just affected me so much," Harrison said.

After getting a positive reaction from people seeing her illustrations on Instagram, Harrison asked her agent whether she thought they had potential as a book.

"She was already writing an email to me, asking if I thought there was a book in the works," Harrison said.

Plans came together quickly after that, and Harrison signed with Little, Brown for a three-book deal that same month.

"Typically, books take a lot longer than this," she said, noting she worked all summer on the book, finishing in August.

Harrison's hand is apparent in even the book's smallest details, including the end papers, which she designed, and the tiny background drawings on each page.

For example, the page about Marcelite Harris, one of the most highly decorated generals in the U.S. Air Force, includes tiny illustrations of passport stamps of the different places around the world to which her assignments took her.

One of the things that most excites Harrison about the "Little Leaders" book is the thought that children — like the girl she was herself just a few years ago — may be inspired to understand how many different career options are out there for them.

"I hope that this book can make young people aware of the many, many opportunities that are out there," Harrison said, adding, "That's one of the main reasons that all of the characters have the same face — because I want them to be kind of interchangeable. You can see yourself in any one of these."

People often ask Harrison why she draws her Little Leaders with downcast eyes.

"It's definitely a reference — it's a shout out to these classic mid-century, modern illustrations done by Mary Blair and Richard Hargraves, that create this really sweet, lovely image," Harrison said, adding, "For me it's like a pose of serenity."

It was a conscious choice on Harrison's part to depict all 40 women as the Little Leader character.

"I could have painted Sojourner Truth to look like Sojourner Truth ... But I wanted them to be children dressing up like these characters, like these famous people — so they can see a little bit of themselves in their stories," she said.

It is important for young black girls in particular to see images that look like them in the books they read.

"To see your image is really, really empowering," Harrison said.

She noted a recent study found black girls are viewed as more adult and less innocent than other girls the same age.

"It's the kind of thing that breaks my heart," said Harrison, adding, "If I can do my part and create artwork that reminds people that kids are kids, and they're all innocent, I'll do it."

Delmarva Now


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