As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Vashti Harrison (Little Dreamers, Little Leaders, and Little Legends) read from and discussed her work as well as how she became an author-illustrator. A Q&A featuring students’ pre-submitted questions was also included. In conversation with Jocelyn Nicole Johnson.
We invite your feedback on events you’ve viewed, using this brief survey.
Watch the recording from this event and read the full transcript below:
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.
“Harrison’s book focuses on great black women, and it’s lovely to see Lorna Simpson and Gwen Ifill ascend to the ranks of Marian Anderson and Bessie Coleman. Harrison wants readers to imagine themselves in such august company; her adorable illustrations depict all of these figures as a little black girl, an everygirl, in a variety of costumes and backdrops.”—New York Times Book Review
“Another volume to enrich every household, school, and library and inspire another generation of dreamers.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A book to put into primary classrooms, secondary school libraries, to buy for families, and to share and discuss wherever and whenever you can—I certainly intend to.”—Red Reading Hub
“[Little Leaders] will resonate with readers in search of biographies of pioneering black men in history.”—School Library Journal, starred review
Thanks to Jefferson-Madison Regional Library for sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Welcome to “Little Dreamers with Vashti Harrison,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, associate director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple notes before I hand the program over to our speakers. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy it from our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give.
Thanks to our community partner for this event: Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. We also greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. Now, I’m pleased to introduce our speakers:
Vashti Harrison, author-illustrator of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World—and other books—is an artist and filmmaker with a passion for storytelling. She earned her BA in studio art and media studies from UVA.
And our moderator, Jocelyn Johnson. Jocelyn’s stories or essays have appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Guardian, Guernica, and elsewhere. Her fiction debut, My Monticello—five stories and a novella all set in Virginia—is forthcoming. A veteran public school art teacher, she lives and writes in Charlottesville.
Thank you both for joining us today. Jocelyn, take it away.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: Hi, everybody. I am so excited to be here and to see you today. As a longtime art teacher especially and as a writer, I’m so excited to meet you, Vashti. It’s nice to see you there and to get to chat with you a little bit about these absolutely gorgeous books. I had seen them before and to be able to really spend time with them has been a real pleasure. So if you haven’t seen this book—I know a lot of you are fans out there—but we’ve got Little Dreamers: Visionary Women in World History and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History and Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. All gorgeous books.
If you’re not familiar with the books, they have a really beautiful drawing of each person selected. They’re really thoughtfully curated of who to include. And we’ve got artists, scientists, performers, activists, and athletes, and more. And then there’s a brief one-page biography that tells something about each person and the world they live in. And I have to say these are for all ages. My husband and I had them on our nightstand, and we would go back and forth with our Kindles and our novels and our short story collections kind of talking and noting things that we noticed. And then the next day, I would find myself at my computer, looking up these people. And I know I’m not alone. I had some kid friend readers who said—Ellie and Lily, who are sisters, who are eight and six—who said they would Google each person after they read about them.
VASHTI HARRISON: That’s amazing. Well thank you so much. I’m really happy to be able to be here and to talk about these books, especially to share them with folks from the Virginia Festival of the Book. If anyone doesn’t know, I’m from Virginia. I went to the University of Virginia, and I was really looking forward to being able to come back and visit in person, but I’m still very happy to be able to attend virtually. So I’m excited. And I have a couple of my books here with me.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: I thought it’d be nice, Vashti, if you wanted to share—maybe read a bio that you like and maybe share a little bit about the artwork.
VASHTI HARRISON: Sure. I’m going to share a little bit about Little Dreamers, and I’m going to read a little bit from the intro of that book to kind of give you guys a sense of where I was coming from when I went into making this book.
The first one that I wrote was Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. And it was very much inspired by Black History Month and really feeling like I wanted to focus on the stories of black women who I didn’t necessarily hear a lot about when I was growing up. And I really wanted to put all the stories together because I was thinking a lot about the young version of me, who would’ve really benefited from seeing all these different contributions that black women have made to American history.
But in going into the second book, I was really thinking about the other way I tend to define myself is as a creative. So I wanted to make a book about creative people. Again, I wanted to focus on the stories of women—a lot of these hidden figures who may not necessarily have their stories told and definitely not all in the same place. They came from such diverse backgrounds. And I wanted to put the stories of women artists and scientists together because people often think that art and science are so separate. But I think it was really exciting for me when I started working on it to be able to put them together. So I’m just going to read a little bit from the intro.
The women in this book looked at things differently. They saw things that no one else did. They asked questions no one else was asking, and they chose to do something about it. Often, it took a long time for others to understand them or value their efforts. Many were simply ahead of their time, laying the groundwork for others. Some of them are still ahead of their time but hopefully will one day be recognized for their vision.
Through their curiosity and creative thinking, these ordinary women accomplished extraordinary things. Thanks to their persistence and willingness to make mistakes, they had a lasting impact on their fields of study, and some of them even changed the world.
I knew I wanted to fill this book with the stories of creative people, but I also wanted to challenge the idea of what creativity can be. It’s a term commonly associated with artists rather than scientists, but both fields require critical thinking and inventiveness. I wanted to see all of the stories of these people in the same place because when their efforts cross over, amazing things can happen. Sometimes art can be incredibly technical, as in the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. And sometimes science can require a lot of imagination, as with Bessie Blount Griffin, a nurse turned inventor.
And so I keep going on and on, but that’s really the heart of why I wanted to share all the stories together. Because I think it’s really just such a beautiful way to think about what you can do with your ideas. So I was thinking a lot about those little kids that say, “I want to be an inventor when I grow up. I like to make things.” Because I was that kid—always trying to write a story or invent a new toy or game or whatever. So that was a really exciting part of working on this book for me.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: That makes a lot of sense. I love the artwork in this book, in particular as an art teacher and a visual person. And I love how each person that you draw has a similarity, but they’re so unique too, and you add these gorgeous little details in the background and in the person. Can you say anything about the artwork or share anything?
VASHTI HARRISON: Yeah, for sure. I knew that I wanted to make an illustrated book. I wasn’t the kid who really like loved history growing up, so I knew that I wanted to kind of share all of these really fascinating and interesting stories of people in a way that might engage someone who is like me and a little bit kind of turned off from history. So I thought definitely this book is going to be really pretty. I want to make sure that, when kids flip through those pages, there’s really interesting colors and interesting designs.
I could have drawn each of these people to look like themselves, but instead I created what I call a little-kid character. And I think of it as a little kid dressing up as these famous people. I kind of imagine that they’re putting this costume on and kind of closing their eyes and imagining themselves in the worlds of these wonderful people. And I think that totally works.
But another thing that I had going into creating these books was this feeling of like when I was a kid, I would watch cartoons with my cousin, and my cousin would always choose a character and say, “Oh, that one’s me. I get to be that character.” And I would always be left with like the lame character. I wouldn’t get to be the cool one. So I was like, if I’m ever going to make a book, I’m going to make sure that they all kind of look the same, in a way that you would want to be any one of them. And because these are the stories of real, amazing people, I would want anyone to be able to flip through the book and land on a page and see a little bit of themselves and be interested in learning about what this person did.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: I love that idea of why they’re similar but also totally unique. Is there anything else you want to share before I jump into some of the kid questions that we have?
VASHTI HARRISON: If I think of it, I’ll just throw it in there later.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: All right, that sounds great. I have a collection of questions from kids in our area. I’m going to start with a question from Abigail, who is eight years old. What inspired you to draw and write, and what is your favorite thing to draw?
VASHTI HARRISON: What inspired me to draw and write? Well, the secret is I was very much an insecure writer for a long time. When I was really, really little, I used to just make up all kinds of stories. Before I knew how to write, I would fill up pages with just like loops—like the letter e over and over and over again. And I would take it to my parents, and I would just read them a story. I would just make it up. So I was really creative when I was very little. But as I got older, I was a pretty shy kid, and I got insecure about my writing all the way up through high school and college.
It wasn’t until I started taking a filmmaking class, where I was writing about movies, when I kind of discovered, oh, when I have something to say or when I’m really interested about a subject, that fear—that insecurity—kind of went away. And that’s what helped me get over my main fear of writing.
Now I’m still like very much insecure about my writing all the time. When people started calling me an author, I was like, “Uh, I’m an artist. I don’t know if I’m an author, you guys.” But what I know I really love is being able to tell a story. I like coming up with ideas for stories and maybe it will sometimes take the shape in a book. Sometimes it will be shaped into a movie for me, or sometimes it’ll be a single painting. So I like storytelling. So when I want to be able to tell that story, I want to have access to all kinds of tools that can help me share that story with other people.
So that’s kind of how I got into writing, is really learning that I wanted to share stories. And obviously I’m really invested and excited about the real-life people in these books, and that’s what gives me the confidence to be able to share them. Because I wonder what would’ve happened if I had learned these stories when I was a little kid. What would have happened if I had learned about Julie Dash, the filmmaker, when I was maybe like—you know, these books are written for eight- to twelve-year-olds. If I was eight, ten years old when I learned about filmmaking, I might’ve picked up a camera a lot sooner. It wasn’t until college that I started making movies. So it’s really about that kind of passion and that joy.
As far as drawing, though, I was always that kid who had a sketch book, and I would just sit in front of the TV. I would copy my favorite characters. When I got older, I would copy faces from magazines. And even when I got older, I would go to like life drawing classes and copy models and sculptures. And it was kind of through learning to make movies that I realized a lot of what I was doing through my drawing and painting was copying, copying, copying. I wasn’t saying a lot with my artwork, and I wasn’t making meaning with my artwork. And so it was through that process that I started learning how to use the medium—use the tool that I’m using, whether it be a pencil or a paintbrush or a camera, to make meaning or to shape a story with the things that I’m putting together.
I’ve always loved drawing people, but after having gone through undergrad at UVA and then I went to film school to study moviemaking, I returned back to drawing after having done all that experience of learning how to tell stories. And so that’s how I got really interested in making books for children. Because I realized I can bring together the way I like to draw with the stories that I like to tell.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: That totally makes sense, and you actually kind of answered the next question from Elliot, who’s ten, which was when did you start to illustrate books. But I’m just going to add like you kind of talked about going to film school and how you pursued it. But I know so many young people and older people are like how do you actually make art and writing and these creative works?
VASHTI HARRISON: Long before it was my job to do this, I was just drawing and practicing. One thing that I kind of skipped over in that story was that I kind of stopped drawing for a long time. Once I realized I was really excited about making movies, I stopped drawing from probably around the age of twenty until twenty-six. So six years. It doesn’t feel like that long, but I always compare it to running. If you’ve practiced running—you’re a really fast runner all the way up through your youth—and then you stop running for six years, if you picked it up again, are you going to be as fast as you were six years ago? And all the kids are always going, “Noooo.”
And it’s true. That is how drawing kind of works. It’s not exactly like riding a bicycle. A lot of people think art and drawing and painting is some gift that some people have and some people don’t. But I promise you, it is so impressive that like if you literally just put in the work, you will get better at drawing. It’s one of those things that literally everyone can do. But not everyone is willing to put in that time and work.
So when I picked up drawing again, after having done all this writing in classes and filmmaking classes, I tried to draw, and I wasn’t that good. I was like, wait a second, I used to be the best at this. But it was just so clear to me, if you don’t practice, you’re not going to be good. So I made it a goal of mine to start drawing every day. That was my last year of film school, so I was just taking—I took a class in the animation department just for fun. And I was like I’m not good anymore, but I’m going to practice every single day until I get better.
And it was just a thing that I did on my own. I finished film school. I was showing my films at film festivals, and I got a job in the film industry. And every night, I would come home and practice my drawing.
So I made a choice a few years later that I wanted to try to turn illustration into my job, and I started learning about the book publishing industry. But before any of that, it was really just the practice in terms of the artwork. I was reading a lot of children’s books to just kind of see how those stories are laid out, how the art is different from this type of book to that type of book, what kind of techniques are the artists using. So I was just investigating on my own. I like doing that kind of research, and I know that a lot of people don’t like doing a lot of research. But I find that the people who are really dedicated about something are willing to just take that time and absorb the information. So I think it starts with that.
But in terms of getting really, really into the industry, I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. I kept doing my research, and I put my artwork out there on social media, and I met my agent. Actually, before I met my agent, I got offered an opportunity to illustrate a book. That was my first book, Festival of Colors, that I illustrated. And really it was just kind of like a snowball that’s been going since then.
So I tried to start focusing on illustration about five years ago this month, spring of 2016. And I took a trip to Charlottesville, and I went into a used bookstore on the corner, and I bought this book. I had never heard of this artist, but I was like really kind of struck by the illustrations. And they are just so lovely and so wonderful. This is written and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa, who is—
JOCELYN JOHNSON: Is in your book, right?
VASHTI HARRISON: Yes, who is in Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World.And I didn’t really realize—I didn’t put this together. But I am so happy that it happened this way. That when I decided I wanted to focus on illustrating for children and writing for children, that the person who gave me so much inspiration was this woman. This Asian-American artist, Gyo Fujikawa, who I wrote about in Little Dreamers.
And what’s so impressive about her is she was really one of the first to make very diverse books. She put children of as many races and colors in her books in a way that no one was doing before her, and she was very much a pioneer of making sure that there were books for every child out there. And I feel so grateful that she was the person who really introduced me into this kind of pedagogy or paradigm for making children’s books. So she’s a very big inspiration for me, and I really loved writing about her.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: Okay, so this is a great lead-in to another question we have from a ten-year-old, Mariah. How did you find out the information to put into these books? Did you do research? Did you—
VASHTI HARRISON: That’s a good question. So I always start with the names. This is a good example. I didn’t grow up knowing Gyo Fujikawa’s name. But it was through kind of research and going through bookstores and finding the artists that are really inspiring. So some of them came from my personal encounters, and others came from reading about these interesting people.
One of my favorite examples is I wrote about a filmmaker I learned about in film school. So some of these names come from my art practice of having gone to school and learned about film. So Maya Deren is one of the first people you might learn about when you’re learning about experimental film, but I didn’t realize that she was a personal assistant to the dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. And I didn’t even know who Katherine Dunham was. So it was through the process of doing the research on this person that I learned about someone really, really amazing and impressive.
So that’s one of my favorite things about these books, is finding the connections. But a few of them were brand new to me, and it was through reaching out to friends sometimes from art school, sometimes through the art world, to find out about really special names that maybe are not so famous here in America. So it was a mixture of really relying on some help from my community and really digging into history.
Another of my favorite examples is Eiko Ishioka, who is a production designer for films. I watched a movie and I thought, “Wow, the costumes in this movie are so beautiful.” So I started doing research on who designed the costumes. And it’s like there are these really famous men who get credit for making these beautiful movies, but a lot of the things that people are hooking onto are the costumes and the production design and the set design. And so I realized the Eiko Ishioka designed some of the most famous movies that people kind of categorize as the most inventive and creative. And it’s like this woman is behind all of these impressive movies. So it’s a little bit of digging into the things that you’re interested in and reaching out to very smart people for help sometimes.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: I love how there’s a little bit of luck and serendipity.
VASHTI HARRISON: For sure. In terms of the research I do want to say—I like to get as much information from that person’s own experience as possible, so I like to read autobiographies. I like to see interviews with these people, if possible, to hear from their own perspective, how these big things in their lives felt for them. Because I think that’s what makes me connect to their stories, is knowing they were real people. They weren’t just like headline. They were just a hashtag. They were real people that were just going through these things and experiencing challenges and sometimes really difficult things. So it’s a mixture of watching as many kind of documentaries or interviews or reading autobiographies as possible, and then a mixture of research. And I put in, in the back of the book, a lot of sources for where you can continue your research. There are really great websites. I think I spent a lot of time on Guggenheim.org. Art21 is really helpful. I remember watching a lot of Art21 documentaries in graduate school. And then a lot of my sources are back here as well.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: Oh my gosh, our time is going so quick.
VASHTI HARRISON: Oh no, I’m sorry. I have long answers.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: No, no. I love it. So I’m going to ask a question from Ameya, who’s eleven. And I know that he read—I happen to know that he read Exceptional Men in Black History. And his question was how did you decide to write a book about African-American men and their achievements, and do you plan to write about people of other ethnicities and their achievements? Which he didn’t have Visionary Women Around the World in front of him. But I would just go on to say I know you talked a little bit about it in your intros because I read all your intros. But just what was important to you—you said a little bit about this—about collecting and sharing these particular stories? Or why did you choose to do that?
VASHTI HARRISON: At this point, after having all of the books out, I really love seeing them all together and knowing that you can really do a deep dive into this specific category of black women and black men. But it started with writing just one book—the first book—which was inspired by Black History Month. It wasn’t even a book when I started doing it. It was just a challenge for myself to draw a woman every day. I wanted to do it for Black History Month of 2017, so four years ago. And I was reading about Carter G. Woodson, who founded it. He founded Negro History Week in 1926, and he said that he wanted to celebrate the stories that had been long neglected throughout history. And I thought that’s really great. And maybe this is a great opportunity to celebrate the stories of black women, in particular, whose stories have been doubly neglected throughout history because they are both black and women. So it was really about shining a light on these people whose stories hadn’t been told.
But as soon as I had the opportunity to turn it into a book, one of the first questions that people were asking me is, “When are you going to do a book for boys?” And my answer was, “This is a book for boys. There are stories in here that are for everyone.” But I knew what they were asking. I knew that so many people were seeing this book as a mirror, as a reflection of themselves, and they really wanted their young people in their lives—their sons or anyone—to be able to have that same mirror as well. And I understood what they were asking for, and part of me was like maybe I won’t be the right person to write this book. Little Leaders was so personal of an experience. But it was through the process of writing the second book that I really had to step out of myself and learn how to tell stories to people who don’t come from my same background that I learned that I was growing as an author.
So I really was thinking a lot about the folks out there who wanted that book. That’s why I definitely worked on Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History. I asked a friend from art school to help me write it, though, because he was talking about his experience of raising his own son. And I was like I don’t have that experience. I really want that, and I want this to feel as honest and special as Little Leaders was for so many people.
So for the kids who are asking, I wanted to write that book for you to hopefully see a reflection of yourself or use it as a window to learn about someone else’s experience. But what I’m hoping for next is to be able to make books that are inclusive of everyone. I really love that special mirror, but I think it’s really important to be able to hold up these books next to each other and see the similarities and the differences and to see all these contributions that really special people have made to make this world an interesting place.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: These are so gorgeous. Thank you. I love hearing that. I’m going to sneak in one last question from Anon, who’s eight. And this is so specific and small. He said, “My favorite character was Langston Hughes.” And this is kind of a compliment to your writing. “You said that his poetry was influenced by music and that it flowed and had rhythm. Why did you choose that metaphor?”
VASHTI HARRISON: Thank you for the craft question. I really tried to put myself—as a person who writes for kids and makes artwork for kids, I try to really hold on to who I was when I was their age. So I was thinking about how I didn’t really like poetry when I was young. I was kind of scared of it. I didn’t think I understood it. But what I love about Langston Hughes poems now is knowing that he was so largely influenced by jazz. And I think if I had known that—that it was musical and that was different and that was exciting and it was an interesting new way to approach language, I think I might’ve been a little bit more intrigued to learn more as a young person. So I was thinking about how can I make my description of this work feel interesting for a young person while also hopefully representing him in the best way possible.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: I love that. Okay, so we just have a moment left. Is there anything else you want to share?
VASHTI HARRISON: No. I’m happy to answer any more questions. If people have extra, they can just send to me to my website or to my Twitter or something like that.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: All right. Well thank you so much for sharing. These books are gorgeous. I know people who have prints in their homes, and so you’re very beloved in your work. So it’s time for us to wrap things up. Thank you to Vashti and thank you to everyone who was watching. Please consider buying Little Dreamers or any of the other books at your local independent bookseller. Or you can use—there are several links in the chat that you can go to. And we hope you enjoy other events at the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Book Fest. And you can go to VaBook.org. I hope everyone enjoys the rest of your day. Thank you again, Vashti.
VASHTI HARRISON: Thank you so much. I do want to say that I’m on one more panel for the Virginia Festival of the Book. It’s called “I See Myself: Diversity in Children’s Literature.” It’s on Thursday, March 25th, from 4 to 5 p.m. with Angela Dominguez and Dub Leffler. That one should be really fun as well.
JOCELYN JOHNSON: All right. I’m going to have to check that out. All right. You all have a great day. Thank you very much.
VASHTI HARRISON: Thank you.