Vashti Harrison, LITTLE LEGENDS

Vashti Harrison, LITTLE LEGENDS

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Vashti Harrison who’s the children’s book author and illustrator of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World, and most recently Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History, plus board books Dream Big, Little One, and Think Big, Little One. She’s also illustrated many other books including Sulwe by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, which is now a New York Times best seller, Cece Loves Science, Hair Love, and others. Vashti is also a filmmaker. Her films center around her family’s history and culture in the Caribbean. Originally from Virginia, Vashti earned a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA in film and video from CalArts. She currently lives in Brooklyn. I met Vashti at the Brooklyn Book Festival and watched her do this illustrator smackdown which my kids thought was basically the coolest thing ever. I’m super excited to have Vashti come over and talk to her about her work.

Hi, Vashti. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Vashti Harrison: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Of course. Thanks for coming in. My kids and I loved seeing you at the illustrator smackdown at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We’re were trying to grab your pictures of dogs. Do you remember when you were drawing the — do you remember what I’m talking about? Maybe it wasn’t a dog.

Vashti: I remember drawing a monster with eleven eyes, pie-amount of arms. I had to draw myself in thirty seconds and then take another thirty seconds to turn myself into Abraham Lincoln.

Zibby: Yes, that’s right. Oh, my gosh, too funny. We were all very impressed. Tell me about how you got started as a children’s book illustrator and then also author.

Vashti: I’ll try the shortest version of this story. I didn’t study illustration. I don’t have a background in formal painting, training or anything. I did study film. I went to California Institute of the Arts to study experimental cinema. That school’s really famous for being the Disney school of animation. I was paying so much money to be there. Of course I’m going to take classes in every department including this animation department. I was in my final year. I thought this drawing class might be fun while I’m finishing up my thesis film. Turns out it was not as fun as I thought it would be. It was so intimidating but also rekindled this love I had for drawing. I started, and I realized I wasn’t as good as I used to be. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid. I stopped when I started making movies. It was the first time where I thought, oh, my goodness, I’m not good at this.

Zibby: Oh, stop. You couldn’t have been that bad. Really?

Vashti: I was pretty bad. A lot of people don’t want to believe this, but the fact is if you don’t practice something, you’re not going to be good. I always tell kids if you’re a really fast runner and you stop running for five years, what do you think will happen? You’re not going to be as fast as you once were. It’s not exactly like riding a bike. It was so clear to me that if I do practice, I will get better. I kept it a secret. I started drawing every day. I just wanted it to be a part of my own personal practice to feel better about this thing, this form of expression that I used to really love.

Zibby: Did you ever think, “I’m not good at this anymore”? What made you think, “If I practice, I’m going to get better again”?

Vashti: It was knowing that at one point I was proud of the drawings that I could make. I could see that my hand wasn’t doing everything that I thought my brain was sending it. It was so apparent to me that it’s not about talent. It’s just about practice and skill. Some people believe that some people can draw and some people can’t. The fact of the matter is I think most of us, at least in America, stop drawing after the fifth grade or after the sixth grade when you’re not forced into art classes. You can choose your own electives. Most of us never keep practicing. Some people do. Some people keep going. I was noticing in this animation program, these kids, they’re undergraduate students. They’re so talented. They’re so good. Notoriously, they don’t finish their degrees. They get hired by Walt Disney before they’re even twenty years old. If I kept drawing every day at that rate, I might have been as good as them. It didn’t intimidate me. It just challenged me.

Meanwhile, I finished grad school. I finished my films, got a job in the film industry. I was supposed to work my day job and come home and edit my movies and keep submitting to festivals. The only thing I wanted to do was draw. I still didn’t tell anyone. As it goes in television when the end of the season comes, a lot of people get laid off. Hopefully, you get hired again after hiatus for the next season. My show got cancelled. It wasn’t really easy for me to roll over into another show. I thought, this sounds crazy, but do I keep trying to grind in the film industry or do I go after this crazy thing? The illustration thing is the only thing that’s making me happy these days. It seemed a little bit terrifying and a little bit irresponsible. I moved home with my parents to try to figure out how to become an illustrator. I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, to try to learn about the publishing industry as much as I could. Fortunately, it worked out very quickly for me, way faster than I could have anticipated.

Zibby: I read that you entered some sort of #drawthis competition. Then you won. Is that what happened?

Vashti: Yeah. Once I got laid off, I applied for a lot of other jobs. I was looking to get into the publishing industry, but I didn’t believe that I could be an illustrator. I thought I’ll do something illustration adjacent. I really liked books. I really love designing the interiors of books. I taught myself how to do that. I thought, this’ll be good. It’s business-y. It’s creative enough that I can not feel like I’m giving up everything to go off and be an artist forever. I felt intimidated by taking such a deep plunge. After applying for a number of jobs and not getting anywhere, probably around March 2016, so about six months after I got laid off, I officially-officially decided to stop looking for other jobs and move home to my small hometown in Virginia and try to do this illustration thing. If I’m going to do it, I need to figure out this whole kid-lit world. I joined SCBWI. I read all of their literature. I listened to their podcast. Now’s the time. You have to get your work out there. They have these little competitions, one of them called SCBWI Draw This. They give you a prompt. You’re supposed to draw a single drawing and submit it, post it online. The prize is to get your illustration placed in the monthly newsletter. It was only about a month and a half into really feeling like I’m actually trying to be an illustrator.

I submitted at the end of May. On June 1st, I opened up my email. I scrolled down, and my drawing was there. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s so cool. Validation from this organization, it was so encouraging. It felt like, wow, keep going. This is the right choice. I had no idea what was coming around the corner. Literally the next day, June 2nd, I opened up my email. I had an email from an art director at Simon & Schuster asking me if I was interested in illustrating a manuscript. I was like, whoa, slow down. I know I wanted this, but I didn’t know it was going to happen that fast. I was terrified. I was like, I said I’m going to do this. I have to treat this like work, so I’m going to do it. It’s been really intense and go, go, go since then. A few months later, I met my agent. Then a few months after that, I had the idea for Little Leaders. Before that year was over, Little Leaders was out and on the New York Times best sellers list. It’s been go, go, go since then.

Zibby: How long has gone by since that first June 1st? Was that last year or the year before?

Vashti: No, that was 2016.

Zibby: I’m like, how did you get all these books out in that amount of time? There’s no way.

Vashti: June 2016, I got the call. That was for Festival of Colors. That was my first book I illustrated. In October, I met my agent. Then February 2017, I had the idea for Little Leaders.

Zibby: Tell me about that series. What gave you that idea?

Vashti: It was Black History Month. I was looking for another way to challenge myself to do something in terms of my art and keep me going and keep me interested. All through elementary school, middle school, and high school, we would hear the same stories during Black History Month, so much so that it kind of felt like a chore. Here’s the month where we read the same stories over and over again. I thought there’s got to be more of a reason to celebrate this. I was looking at the history. When Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, the sentiment was to celebrate the stories that have been long neglected throughout history. I thought, here’s a great opportunity. Every day for this month I’m going to post a drawing of a black woman in American history because they sit at this crossroads of being doubly neglected throughout history. I started with Sojourner Truth who was someone I had known about as an abolitionist, as a figure, but hadn’t really considered her story as a person. I drew this little drawing. I wanted to create these simple figures that I could draw different outfits and clothes on and turn them into anybody, like an every-girl. I thought, this’ll be fun because I love drawing clothes. I love drawing hair. Also, here’s an opportunity to learn about cool people.

I had no idea how deeply it would affect me. I had never realized that I am a very empathetic person. I was reading her story at four o’clock in the morning. I was going to post this drawing. Usually, I draw late at night and I post something. Then I go to sleep. I was reading about her and hadn’t really thought so deeply about her experience as a person. She was enslaved in Upstate New York. The emancipation rollout was happening across the states. It happened in the north first. She had been promised her freedom by her slave owner. She knew that one day she was going to be free. Obviously, people were still enslaved the south. Her slave owner saw an opportunity to capitalize on what he considered his assets and his capital and sold her five-year-old son to a plantation in Alabama. That’s over a thousand miles away. It shook me. I don’t know how I would get from here, from Manhattan, to Alabama in 2019 with no access to any resources, with no money, with no vehicle, and knowing that the color of my skin would criminalize me once I passed a certain point. I was crying my eyes out to know that she felt that horrible fear.

Amazingly, she got him back. She was one of the first black women in America to successfully file a lawsuit against a white person and win. She got him back. It’s so overwhelming to understand how terrifying that would feel. Could you imagine being that little kid? Could you imagine being that mother? Any part of it seems so overwhelming. I was excited by this feeling of, I’m going to get something out of doing this project. I posted it. The next morning I saw that people were really into it. I thought, cool, they like it too. I felt energized to keep going. It was just about three days into Black History Month. I asked my agent, “Do you think there’s a potential for a book here?” She was like, “Yeah. I was going to ask you.” We took the idea to a couple of different publishers. A couple were interested. Before the month was over, I signed this three-book deal with Little Brown. That was February 2017. The book came out November 2017. The next one came out the next year, November 2018. The third one will be out this November. It’s been wild.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You should pat yourself on the back. It’s a miracle. It’s super impressive.

Vashti: I mostly just took a nap for the last three months because I’ve been so exhausted.

Zibby: I read somewhere that you felt like you might not be the best person to write the third of the books in the series. Why was that? Exceptional Men in Black History, you felt like you didn’t want to put yourself in that — go ahead.

Vashti: The first book was called Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. It came from this personal place of feeling like I wanted to showcase these stories for young girls, for maybe even a young me. It came from such a personal desire to showcase women from many different fields of study. When I was a kid and I said I wanted to be an artist, I thought that only meant one thing. I thought, artists are painters, right? Actually, I don’t like painting that much, so I guess I can’t be an artist. I had no idea that there were all these other fields that existed like film and photography. I always wonder, what would’ve happened if I had entered filmmaking much earlier than I did in college? Obviously, we ask kids all the time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted kids to be empowered and know the knowledge of all these different opportunities. I don’t want them to have to know right now, but I know that they’re going to be asked eventually. When they are ready to make that choice, I wanted to showcase, here are all these wonderful stories about an engineer and an astronaut. We have our doctors and our lawyers too. There’s also a photographer, a filmmaker, a painter, poets and novelists. There are lots of things in between.

That second book, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World, was really — the little black girl in me, if Little Leaders was for that little black girl who wanted to see all these wonderful women who looked just like her do incredible things, the little artist in me wanted to see all of these different types of art, or the little creative in me, really. Visionary Women was about creativity and how it’s exhibited through science and through art and how when those things come together, amazing things can happen. Both of those books were really personal. In my previous work as a filmmaker and as a fine artist, I made work that was for me. It wasn’t necessarily for anyone else. The last thing I would’ve considered in that field as a professional fine artist is a consumer because it was all about expression and meaning-making.

Children’s books are about the reader. It took me writing two books to really get that. When I wrote the first book, I was like, I have no idea if I could write another book. It was just about thinking about those little girls that were basically little me’s. When they said, “When’s the one for boys coming out?” I thought, I don’t know. It’s not coming from me because I don’t know that experience. I don’t feel the drive or the urge to write that story because I didn’t feel it within myself. Over the past couple of years, obviously the experience has totally changed me. I go to schools. I talk to kids. Doing all the research and writing the second book, I had to enter these different experiences and try to put myself in the shoes of these women, someone like Monir Farmanfarmaian, a woman from Iran, and try to imagine her experience. Chien-Shiung Wu who was an experimental physicist, I don’t know anything about physics. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be her.

Zibby: How did you find all the people? How did you pick all of these visionary leaders?

Vashti: A number of the artists, I definitely knew about through having studied art history and watched a lot of films and lived in the art world for a while. It was a mixture of research and just looking through these old books. I tried to find specific ones that were not necessarily women in science, but unsung heroes of people of color. I asked a lot of people. There was an artist that I wanted to write about. I wasn’t sure that their experience really felt like it fit the vibe of Visionary Women. I spoke to an Iranian friend of mine. “What do you think about this person’s story?” She was like, “I feel what you’re saying. You should really check out Monir.” I had no idea who they were at that time. I was really thankful of having friends I could rely on for actual suggestions. It was a mixture of things. My parents are super into it. My dad would always call me up and be like, “You should check out this person. You should check out that person.” He’s always watching the news or watching the History Channel or reading something. I relied heavily on my friends and family for a lot of suggestions and trying to do obscure research. One person I found out about because I’d seen this movie and I thought, wow, the costume design in this in incredible. I did some research, and I found her. I had no idea. I thought, I need to write about her. They came from a more personal experience. I had to put myself in these experiences that I hadn’t understood before.

That was the transition that led me to really getting how I could approach Little Legends. The thing that really sparked it was I was talking to a friend of mine, Kwesi Johnson, who went to grad school with me, is a filmmaker, is a black man, and is a father. He was talking about something his kid went through on the playground. The way he phrased it, he was like, “There are things that you have to consider when you’re trying to raise a black son in America through a feminist perspective.” Wow, I don’t have kids, and I never have to think about that. I was thinking about his little boy. I was thinking about all the little boys who come to my readings. They’re like, “When’s the book for boys coming out?” I’m always like, “I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you.” That was the transition I needed to help really consider how I could tell these stories to learn that it’s not about me. There’s something that I can offer in my translation or my lens, my perspective, and particularly the empathy that I can connect. I wasn’t sure that I could. There are ways I found to connect to the stories. That’s how I got to writing Little Legends.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. In the Little Leaders book, you wrote — I’m going to read this quote. “They saw things that no one else did. They asked questions no one else was asking. And they chose to do something about it.” You repeatedly credit persistence and willingness to make mistakes with their success over time. Do you think that’s what makes a leader? It sounds like some of those characteristics you’ve used yourself, or you possess yourself I should say.

Vashti: Thank you. I’m not sure. I feel like you don’t have to be big or bold to be a leader. I feel like I am constantly trying to impress that idea, especially with the Little Leaders book and especially with the way the little leaders are designers. Those are things that I think are just really special about the visionary women I wrote about. The thing that’s so special is there are these connecting threads. Sometimes you may not be appreciated in your time. You may not be understood. Pushing forward and pushing through that can lead to wonderful and incredible things.

Zibby: You had some people you profiled who are still living and many who were not still living. Did you send this book to the living legends? Have you had a communication, relationships with some of those people?

Vashti: Definitely through the publisher. I personally don’t have a direct line to Oprah. If you do, let me know.

Zibby: I do not, sorry.

Vashti: I know that we tried to send a copy to —

Zibby: — You have Venus or Serena.

Vashti: I don’t know if they got a copy. It’s hard to know. We send them out. We just can pray and hope they got it. I’m pretty certain that Julie Dash, who’s one of the filmmakers I wrote about in Little Leaders, she posted a picture of her copy. That’s really special. She’s a very impressive woman. I met her when I was in grad school. Seeing her films and meeting her really transformed my whole grad school experience. That means a whole lot to me that she got it.

Zibby: That’s awesome. If you were to think about yourself and the rest of your career and your life — this is a bigger question — and you were going to be in one of these books yourself, let’s say a mini-Vashti comes along in sixty years and starts making a Little Leaders or Little Visionaries or whatever, how would you like your bio to read at that point?

Vashti: Wow, I don’t know for sure. Writing bios are really hard. It’s so hard to distill a whole person’s life down into three hundred words. The only thing I would want for any person to know from my story in the future — I feel like our society’s really into Cinderella stories. The story I told you about gaining success and getting into the book world, it feels like a Cinderella story. I don’t want that to diminish the hard work and the struggles because I think that that’s what made it all worth it in the end. I would hope that people know that even without the success, the passion that I have for making the art is really what drives me. You don’t have to have best sellers or awards or whatever to know that that means so much to be able to express yourself and to be able to share that with at least one person who gets it and is transformed or excited by it.

Zibby: Tell me about one of the struggles that you faced or one of the things you went up against on your way to your multiple best-selling books?

Vashti: Like I said, when I first began illustrating, I really didn’t think I could do it. It’s scary to go after a creative career. When I was a little kid, one of my favorite movies was Harriet the Spy. That came out probably — I was under ten years old. I watched it nonstop. It was a Nickelodeon VHS tape. It was bright orange. I learned the word “starving artist” from that movie. That’s not the kind of thing I would hope any ten-year-old has to know, but I was terrified of what it means to try to be a professional artist. There were so many times where I thought, I can’t let anybody know that I’m doing this. I can’t let anybody know that this is what I want to do. It felt like I was running on a treadmill and going nowhere applying for all those other jobs because I wasn’t ready to own up to the fact that I really want to try to become a professional artist. One of the biggest struggles for me was just getting over my own fear.

Zibby: That is a huge hurdle, especially for creative endeavors. I’m glad you did. What other books do you have in mind? What’s coming next for you? What other nonfiction books?

Vashti: I don’t have anything specific that I’m working on. It’s hard to pick one thing, especially because it’s been three and a half intense years of work, work, work. Over the years, I’ve got this growing list of things I could be doing or things I want to work on. Now that I’ve got time, where do I start? In my time in film school, I worked on a number of narrative film ideas that I would really love to translate into some highly illustrated middle-grade. Now that I’m really thinking about my reader for the consumer, I ask questions of myself. Which book does the world need now? Does anybody need this book? Which one should I focus on? Which one will bring me joy right now? I don’t know yet. It’s a weird thing to commodify your artwork. Sometimes I just want to work on drawings and don’t post them and share them with anybody or sell them. I just want to make them for myself. That helps me remember why I do this. It’s a little bit restorative. There’s some things that nobody gets to see that I’m working on. I really would love to work on some fiction. The nonfiction has been really fun. I had no idea. I would never have guessed that I would have three nonfiction books out. I hope to have the time and the space and the right mind-set to work on something longer, fiction.

Zibby: When you’re not working and illustrating, what do you like to do with your time?

Vashti: Wait, what’s that? Free time?

Zibby: Do you have any time that’s not spent working?

Vashti: My sister lives here. We go to the movies. We get dressed up and go to a nice dinner every once in a while. My parents are so supportive. They love it. They’re always ready and willing to come visit. I get inspired by looking at other work. It was just the New York Film Festival. I’m still connected with all of my film friends. I go watch movies and try to remember that there are other ways to express myself. There are ways that you can make art and not have to think about selling it and making it for other people. I like going to festivals. I went to Comic-Con, didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t go with anybody. I just like to go and look at stuff and absorb content. In that way, it is all a little bit like work. Maybe I need to figure out how to not be working.

Zibby: You keep saying that there are things that you didn’t tell anybody, like you secretly like to do this. I feel like that should be your next book, Things I Secretly Do Because I’m Too Afraid to Tell Anybody, and how they end up being the best things ever. Do you have advice for aspiring artists like yourself, or aspiring authors since you’re both author and illustrator?

Vashti: The most important things that I’ve learned over the years — I watched this really great video essay, really early before I ever began pursuing illustration, called The Long Game. The video essay is by this guy Adam Westbrook. He goes through the history of Leonardo DaVinci and some of history’s greatest achievers and breaks it down that many of these people who we believe to be the most successful people in the world all had this period in their life where they had to take a step back and put in the work and put in the time. Marie Curie spent seven years in poverty in Paris studying radioactivity before she ever achieved any acclaim. Leonardo DaVinci spent sixteen years drawing and painting and being considered a washed-up artist before he painted “The Last Supper.” That was his big break when he was forty-six years old, when at a time thirty was considered old age. John Coltrane spent seventeen years playing the saxophone studying before he ever had a commercial hit. For me, I know that doesn’t mesh well with my very Cinderella story. It was really important for me to hear that and know that if you really care about the thing that you’re working on, you should feel comfortable knowing that whatever version of success you’re looking for, it may take time. As long as you are interested in developing your body of work and putting in the time and the practice, it could be worth it. It should be worth it. You should feel fine with letting yourself know that it doesn’t have to happen right away.

The other thing that I always quote is this quote from Walt Stanchfield who was an educator, a sketch artist, and an artist at the Disney Studios. He said that we all have ten thousand bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out, the better. I feel like that applies to writing and drawing and pretty much everything else. I like the way he phrases it. They’re all inside of us, and they just have to get them out. It’s not that you don’t have the capacity to be a better writer or artist. It’s just that you’ve got to get the bad stuff out. That means you have to put in the time and put in the work. Those two things help remind me that anything, whatever version of success happens, it could all change. As long as you are enjoying the process, it may not be perfect at all times, but it’s still going to be worth it because you have put in the time and the effort. I hope that helps other people.

Zibby: I loved that. I loved that visual of the funnel of the bad ideas and the trashcan. That’s awesome. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Vashti: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Vashti Harrison, LITTLE LEGENDS