As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Angela Dominguez (Stella Díaz Dreams Big), Vashti Harrison (Little Dreamers), and Dub Leffler (Once There Was a Boy) discussed the importance of diversity in children’s literature and how their past and current projects embrace inclusive storytelling, from stories that highlight Mexican-American childhood and include Spanish vocabulary, to books that celebrate Black leaders and engage with Indigenous Australian identity and history. Moderated by Welford “Mack” McLellan Jr.
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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, UVA Bookstore.
“Readers don’t need familiarity with Stella Díaz Has Something To Say to fall in love with [Stella]. The protagonist will endear readers to her.”—Kirkus Reviews
“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
“This is a simply beautiful and beautifully simple book. Leffler, an animator, muralist and art teacher, has created a visually evocative and emotionally-charged book in Once There Was a Boy.“—Kids’ Book Review
Thanks to our partner for this event: Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA, with support from the Australia Council for the Arts, the UVA Mellon Indigenous Arts Initiative, and the UVA Vice Provost for the Arts. Thanks also to James River Writers and Jefferson-Madison Regional Library for sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Hello, welcome to I See Myself: Diversity in Children’s Literature, 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 of program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, please 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 festivals ongoing work at VaBook.org/Give. We appreciate our partner for this event, the Kluge-Ruhe, Aboriginal Art Collection of UVA with support from the Australia Council for the Arts the UVA Mellon Indigenous Arts Initiative and the UVA Vice Provost for the Arts.
Also, we appreciate the help of our community partners in sharing this event with the public. Thank you. Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. Angela Dominguez, author of Stella Diaz Dreams Big was born in Mexico City and grew up in the great state of Texas. She now resides in Virginia. Angela is the author and illustrator of several books for children and a two time recipient of the Pura Belpré Illustration honor. Welcome, Angela. Vashti Harrison is the New York Times bestselling creator of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World, and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History. She is also the illustrator of Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe and Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love among others. She earned her BA in studio art and Media Studies from UVA and her MFA in film and video from Cal Arts. Welcome, Vashti.
Joining us also is Dub Leffler, author of Once There Was a Boy. He is an Australian illustrator, writer, animator and mixed media artist working in books, film, television, muralism and art education. He has taught and workshopped illustration in Australia, Scotland, Indonesia and the United States. He lives with his daughter and family of chickens on the central coast of New South Wales. And our moderator Mack McClellan is a Baltimore native who moved to Charlottesville in 2016. In an effort to decrease the academic achievement gap he created Simunye which is Zulu for “we are one,” a nonprofit organization that facilitates a series of culturally competent programs geared towards academic achievement and success. Welcome, everyone. Thank you for joining us. Mack, take it away.
MACK MCLELLAN: Thank you so much Sarah. First and foremost, I want everybody to know that my heart is pounding because I’m on this call with Angela Dominguez, Vashti Harrison and Dub Leffler. My heart is pounding, please bear with me because I’m in fan mode right now. Thank you all for being here. I’m really excited to speak with you all. Before we get started with any questions, is there anything that you all would like to share about anything upcoming that you’re doing? Anything new, anything that we can see on the horizons? Hint, spoiler alerts?
VASHTI HARRISON: I have one new picture book that’s coming out later this year. We just released the cover of that and it’s Hello, Star written by Stephanie Lucianovic. I’m working on a lot of things that I can’t tell you about yet.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay, that’s fine. Anyone else?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: Well, I’m working on the fourth Stella Diaz book that will be coming out in March of next year and that’s called Stella Diaz to the Rescue. Then I’m working on a couple other picture books as well.
MACK MCLELLAN: Awesome. Dub, anything?
DUB LEFFLER: I’m actually retiring I’m not doing any children’s books.
MACK MCLELLAN: No.
DUB LEFFLER: I’m done with this. I have a few books coming out. Once There Was a Girl, the follow up to Once There Was a Boy and I’m going to add six in the works as well as a few other projects.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay. As a lover of children’s literature, one of the things that I do is I look at diversity in literature. And in 2019, they did a survey of 3,716 books and of those 3,716 books 11% or 11.9, we’ll say 12% had African American or black main characters, 1% had first nation or Native Americans, 8.7% had Asian Americans, 5.3% had Latinos or Latinx, 0.05 percent Pacific Islanders, 41.8% white, 29.2% animal. When you hear those numbers it’s daunting in children’s literature. The biggest numbers are white characters at 41.8% then animals. My first question is, I’m going to start with Angela because I see you on the top, what made you write about a person? Then why did you choose a person of color?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: I think when I went into children’s books I just wanted to draw things that were cute and I love to draw. But as I worked in, started illustrating people’s books and started writing my own, I started going to schools and I started seeing kids that look like me and had my experiences and when I started having characters that were Latino, or their books in Spanish their eyes would light up because they realized that they could connect with me and my work. That’s been a driving force for me for a while now because it’s just the idea that they can see themselves in the book.
Not only that, I think it opens the eyes to other kids, other teachers, parents, of other kids situations as well, because I’m a first generation immigrant to the United States and I didn’t realize how much it impacted me until I got older. To let kids know that it’s okay to be Latinx, to speak another language, to be an immigrant, I think it’s just really an important powerful message. Because I don’t want there to be any shame, or any nervousness or timidness, about having any of those things.
MACK MCLELLAN: Awesome. Vashti, please, same question, what made you write about a person or people, then people of color?
VASHTI HARRISON: Well my intro into making books for kids came through illustration. Drawing was something I did a lot as a kid. I stopped for a while and I picked it up later in life then became a children’s book Illustrator. But returning to it as an adult helped me zero in on some of the major influences throughout my childhood. I used to do a lot of copying, I would sit in front of the TV and copy my favorite characters. I would flip through magazines and draw makeup ads and eyelashes and all that stuff and I would watch movies. I realized that so many of my influences and so many of the artists that I admired were all creating a very homogenous style of artwork, and it had bled into my own artwork and the way that I viewed people. I will say I draw people a lot, I’m not the best at animal so I will always be drawn to people.
But I realized that a lot of the eye shapes and the body shapes and the body colors and this type of hair that I was drawing was all influenced by a very homogenous source of inspiration and that’s white American culture. I don’t blame my childhood self for falling in love with the way that Ariel’s hair flowed around because it was animated beautifully. But as an adult and as someone who was returning to drawing, after having gone through undergrad and gone through grad school, I realized that I wanted to imbue my artwork with a lot of the stuff that I was missing, what I didn’t grow up with. I didn’t see books, I didn’t see any characters in picture books that looked like me. I didn’t have a ton of books at home.
The place I interacted with them the most was school and the library, and the books that my little library had were very, very few. What I knew that I wanted to do when I realized what I was making were children’s illustrations, was create mirrors and reflections of those little Vashti’s who probably could have used some magical black girl characters and learn to love the color of their skin and learn to love the way their hair grew curls and coils. A lot of that influence came from reflecting on what I was missing and what I wanted for other young people growing up in America.
MACK MCLELLAN: I love it. I love it. Dub, you’re a little bit different. You are from Australia originally, and it’s a little bit different there. You’re not white, you are still a person of color, but I don’t know, do you all even say person of color? Or how do you reference that? Then tell us about your experiences and what made you draw people and people of color.
DUB LEFFLER: It is different here. With Aboriginal people, you’re either Aboriginal or you’re not. It’s a cultural thing. You get claimed by, especially me, being quite fair, you get pulled in both directions. Both camps, they’ll say, “No, he’s white, he’s black.” It just depends on which community. But also those differences are highlighted. If I’m with a group of Aboriginal people, then my whiteness is highlighted and vice versa. Now, when we’re talking about books, I just want to say hello to everybody that’s watching. That’s really cool. You would say, like for me when I was growing up, and I was collecting lots of encyclopedias. And often those encyclopedias were American. I still have them. I was always looking for Aboriginal content when I was little, because you want to see yourself reflected in books. I don’t know who said it, you can’t be what you can’t see. Here in Australia, there is a lack of Aboriginal role models.
Outside of sport, I think there is a few of us, which is making headway, but you ultimately want to, it’s not about climbing ladders, it’s about building them for other people. That was part of the impetus of making sure that the characters that are drawn in books, that they’re not white. Because you just want to show Australia is a very mixed multicultural country. It should be, I think the stats are probably really similar between the States and here when it comes to representation. I tend not to make it too specific, I just put someone brown in there and don’t harp on the pictures too much. Ultimately, you want a bigger crowd to relate, so I just create these characters that are a middle ground, a lot of people from different places hopefully they can connect. That way just makes it a universal thing.
MACK MCLELLAN: I love that. I think that is important because, okay, I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve read Once There Was a Boy, and I’m one, I think all three of you are so talented in the fact that we say children’s books but when I read your books I’m captivated as an adult. I’m really into the books. I found myself reading all of your books at different times and I’m sitting there and I’m just reading, I’m reading something happens and I look up and I’m like, all right, do I address this person who’s talking to me, or do I go back to the book? Because I’m really enjoying what I’m doing, I do hear this person talking. You all are just like pulling people in with your books and There Once Was a Boy hit me real hard in the heart. You all are so talented, where do you find your inspiration to write There Once Was a Boy?
DUB LEFFLER: It took me five years from concept to cover. But the main inspiration is kids. You’re teaching kids and I would do market research. I was writing a story at the time and when there was free time at the end of the lesson I would say, you want to hear a story that has never been told? Their ears would prick up and I would leave because it was incomplete so I would ask the kids, what do you think happens next? Because you want to see where their mind is going and what opportunities that they want to create. I owe them some royalties because a lot of kids would say, let’s do that. Why don’t you put this in the book? This would be so cool! I would tell friends and family that story long before it was published. I was just illustrating; I’d illustrated a few books at that point, but I had never written.
Then that book actually, that changed my life. That got me over to the States and it allowed me to travel. I think that goes from that, it’s like a relatable story that everybody can just, it’s not just about one group. I’m glad that it’s hit you, that it’s affected you, Mack, because as men we often don’t talk about our feelings. Especially with boys. We just run along or bump into things and we bottle up stuff. That was one of the main reasons behind the book was that I want kids, I want boys to be able to communicate better, in a sense be more like women. There would be less problems I think in the world.
MACK MCLELLAN: Well said because let me tell you, I was blessed with amazing women in my life, so I was allowed to cry and it made life a lot easier and it made life a lot easier being to express my feelings. Vashti, you are the children book historian. I read your books because I want to know about some of these people. I’m like, I never knew this. How did that come about? What drew you to that?
VASHTI HARRISON: That is very generous of you to say. I by no means consider myself a historian or a biographer. I just really like telling stories. I was inspired to tell the stories with my first book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History because I was teaching my own self about Black History Month, it was this month four years ago. I just started a challenge for myself to do something different for Black History Month. I looked into the history and I was reading about how Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History week in 1926 and how he wanted to celebrate the stories that have been long neglected throughout history.
I thought, okay, that’s great. I’m going to do that. I would like to celebrate the stories of black women whose stories have been doubly neglected throughout history. I was really just challenging myself to learn about folks that I didn’t know so much about. I was thinking about how during my childhood I heard the same stories repeated over and over again. I wanted to investigate and teach myself something new and fortunately had the chance to turn it into a book and it became a book series. I really tried to take that sentiment throughout all of the books and focus on some names that maybe new or unfamiliar or some hidden figures to sparked some creativity or interest in a kid’s mind.
I feel like what I’m interested in is telling interesting stories and sharing them with young people in engaging ways. As a kid, I did not enjoy history. I did like stories and I liked beautiful pictures. I thought when I had the opportunity to make something for kids, they don’t lie, they tell you when they don’t like something. That’s why I think kids books are so engaging to read Mack, I agree with you, I get really hooked into kids books because you have to put in as much as you can to make sure that kid wants to turn the page and it’s engaged and interested in these characters. You can’t do it halfway because they will tell you if they don’t like something. That’s what I was really focused on was making sure that I was making something that they would be interested in that they could flip through any one of these pages and think that character is so cute, these colors are so pretty, I want to read about that person and very important for me because I had this happen in my childhood a lot.
Me and my cousin would watch TV and she would always say, that one’s me. There would always be a lame character, she would choose the cool character and I would always have to be the lame character. I said, if I ever make a book, I’m going to make sure everyone’s cool, and I’m going to make sure they all look the same so that you can always be the cool, exciting character. There’s no reason to feel this one’s not as interesting as that one, this one doesn’t have a cool outfit, this one’s not as pretty. What I really want is to be able to share these wonderful stories with kids because who knows what’s going to spark inside of them? The most important part in turning these collections of biographies into books for me was making sure that I had this very diverse list of names in regards to what they did and where they came from, specifically in the second book.
But in the first book, what I thought was, what if this is someone’s first introduction to black history? I want to make sure there are some really big names, some of those hidden figures. But I also want to make sure it’s not just filled with the stories of doctors and lawyers but we also have astronauts, and poets, and sculptors, and people who do all types of things because I think that I would want to make sure there was something for everyone because there’s that intense question that so many adults ask kids all the time and I didn’t love this question. It’s what do you want to be when you grow up? Now, I don’t feel like anyone needs to know that too soon but I want to arm kids with the knowledge of all these different possibilities that exist for them.
That’s why I think I got really interested in telling these histories. Because I felt like, if I had known about all these people when I was in college and high school, let alone middle school or elementary school, maybe I would have spent a little less time questioning myself, maybe I would have felt more confident in following art. Or maybe I would have picked up the camera sooner and gotten excited about photography when I was really little. That’s why I think these histories are so exciting and wonderful is because they’re literally just the stories of people and that’s what we tell every single day.
MACK MCLELLAN: Man, you would have thought I gave you the whole thing beforehand to read. So well said, I love it. Angela, please tell me about Stella. Who is Stella? Because I feel like Stella is somebody that we know.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: That’s accurate. Stella started as a design, a character design I did of a curly haired girl who wore polka dots. I just had an idea of wouldn’t it be fun to do a story at an aquarium? I wrote it as a picture book, worked on it for a year and then it just didn’t work because it wasn’t really clear why she was so shy and she’s having problems talking to a boy at school and that’s not clear in the picture book either. I started thinking okay, what if I start writing this book as a longer story like Ramona, like Beverly Cleary, like Alvin Ho, these books that I really adore. I started realizing the reason I was shy growing up was language because I had to take speech classes until third grade and I struggled with switching my English and Spanish a little bit.
I started just writing the story and it kept growing and growing and it took me three years to do. I found an editor that was really motivated and really excited by the story and we made it happen and it had such a positive response that I was able to do more Stellas and I’ve absolutely loved writing them. I feel like I actually know what I’m doing now by the third book, writing them are so much longer than writing picture books. As I’ve written these stories, things that interests me now and that I think are also important to kids has influenced the writing. Taking care of the oceans and being advocates for the environment.
Then with the third book she’s being overscheduled which is something that I think we all can relate to but especially kids too who feel like sometimes they’re afraid to even speak up that they like something because then their parents sign them up for a class or an activity. Letting kids know that it’s okay to feel like that and how to handle it. It definitely started with me but it’s become her own little character with a lot of me still in there.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay. Are you big into the ocean because Stella got a thing with the ocean? Is that you.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: That is me as an adult, not as a kid. I liked it as a child but I think I was so obsessed with drawing and movies that I didn’t even pay attention to that stuff. But now I just love the environment, it’s somewhere that I go to get inspiration and ideas and just watching documentaries you realize what problems they’re facing. Also you see amazing kids like Greta Thunberg and you see how important it is to them and I also want kids to feel like they can speak up about things that they’re really important to them and feel inspired to do the same.
MACK MCLELLAN: Nice. One thing that I’ve realized with all of your writings is that you all make it multicultural. There’s no just one race. Stella has a Vietnamese friend and you talk about the type of Vietnamese pancakes that her family makes. I learned a lot about Chinese polish, French, black African women in Think Big Little One. I’m trying to tell you Vashti, you’re a historian. I know you don’t say it but I’m sitting there, you have dates and everything when they are alive, all those things. Then I read Dub, you have different characters.
You talk about the ancient tree but the little boy on that island, when that girl comes, she’s got blonde hair. She’s different. It might not be a huge difference, it’s not that she doesn’t necessarily come from there but there is a difference. Vashti I’ll start with you, what drew you to not just telling because it’s easy to say, “Well, I’m black, I’m going to just tell black stories.” Or “I am Aboriginal, I’m just going to tell Aboriginal stories. I am Latinx, I’m only going to tell Latinx stories.” You all don’t do that, Vashti, why?
VASHTI HARRISON: Well, the inspiration I had for all of these books was creating that reflection, how Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop talks about how children’s books act as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. Sure, my first book was very much a mirror in reflecting the types of stories that would have been really helpful for me as a young black girl. But the other mirror that I also really needed as a kid was other creative stories. As an artist, I’m sure, Angela and Dub can talk to this as well, inspiration literally comes from anywhere and the fact that we can all create will connect us. The second book that I wrote, Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World is about women, artists and scientists and as much as I don’t look like some of the women in this book I see that reflection of myself.
I see that curious little kid. I see that person who’s asking the questions and maybe folks aren’t exactly listening or thinking you’re a little too crazy, got wild ideas. But do you know how many kids are like that? They need those reflections, they need to know exactly. I wanted to make sure that I could collect all these stories in a way that made sure we could see how all of these different stories can come together to create this interesting tapestry of the world of creative thinkers, people who push themselves to ask the questions no one else is asking. I think that sentiment could be true for any book but what I wanted to make sure was that I showed someone even if it’s a little Vashti, that she could see folks from all over the world who are feeling very similar to the way that she was feeling.
Maybe a little bit alone, maybe a little bit shy, but curious about the world. When you can find that reflection of yourself in stories of folks from all around the world and people who don’t necessarily look like you, you can find that connection and a lot of the book was inspired by Ada Lovelace who thought she really wanted to bring together art and science and she really thought, if you can consider a question, consider an idea from those two perspectives, you can really fully understand an idea. When you have those multiple and diverse perspectives in your own mind you can approach things in a more creative and interesting way. That’s what I want for young readers. That’s what I want for people growing up in America to know that these opinions and these ideas from all around the world are going to be helpful in creating and finding these incredible discoveries.
MACK MCLELLAN: Angela, the diversity in your books, talk to us about that.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: Well, partially, it was inspired by my upbringing because my best friend growing up was Vietnamese. I wanted to reflect my own experience but part of the reason that we were so close is that we were both used to, going at home was completely different from school and we could switch back and forth between different languages. We just really bonded in that way of how similar yet we’re completely different cultures. Then also just the idea of, again, reflecting reality, many of our schools are diverse and trying to convey that just makes it a little bit more realistic. I also want to show diversity though within the Latinx culture in general, because I think there’s that terminology that it’s not a monolith. There are so many different Latinx countries and so many little differences that matter. For instance, in the first Stella, I mentioned Quesadilla which in Mexico is wonderful, cheesy-
MACK MCLELLAN: Then you have the Salvadorian Quesadilla.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: Yes, which is a sweet pastry. I remember when I was little, when I heard about that, it blew my mind because I was just like, how can this be one thing but then another thing. The more that you study Spanish you just learn how many different words there are in different countries and I just think all of us so beautiful and I want people to realize these differences and see how interesting it is and how diverse it is too.
MACK MCLELLAN: Do you have a Salvadorian and Mexican grandparents?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: I do.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay. Because Stella is you.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: It’s still a lot? There’s differences.
MACK MCLELLAN: It’s okay. As I’m reading the book and I’m sitting there, I’m like, I wonder if this is Angela who calls herself Stella which is fine, but I love it. Dub, There Once Was a Boy. Tell us about the diversity that you put in there because you have two characters and you still made it diverse.
DUB LEFFLER: It was written on two levels. You’ve got the adult in mind and you’ve also kids. You are not born racist, you learn those behaviors. Kids when they talk about other kids from other backgrounds, they may tell you the facts. She’s got black skin dad, she’s got this and that and that it stops there. It doesn’t inform their decisions. They just describe people whereas adults we’ve got all this other baggage, all this other stuff. Even when you’re reading a book you end up bringing that there in. I think it’s summing up colonization, the invasion of Australia but just in a subtle way. I’m not bashing anyone over the head saying, everybody, I’m giving the reader, what’s the word? I’m giving them respect because they have those answers there and they will also get stuff out of the book. I’m not saying well, this is what’s happened because everybody knows what’s happened.
It’s just what happens after. Just having those two characters there. I’m not saying where they from. He’s on an island, it could be Australia, it could be in the Maldives, or it could be anywhere. The same with her, she just appears she’s just there. It’s more to do with their actions not what they look like or where they from. There’s a little hidden message there. I ran into a lady who was at my daughter’s playgroup few years ago. She said she was working on Manus Island, you might have heard of Manus Island, the coast of Australia where they’re dumping all these people, refugees. She was telling me, she said, I was teaching on that island and I was teaching them your book. They could see, because there’s a boat in the book, they could say a part of themselves so the book took another life.
There is a refugee aspect, as well. It’s not written about in the book, it’s just something there. It’s good because it hits, more groups respond to the book which is ultimately what you want. You want your story to spread. I was just thinking when you were talking before, Vashti, there’s a bit of a responsibility. Do you guys see that there’s doing just kids books in general but there’s also when we do books about history, we are almost literary politicians in a way because we were handling some subjects that have actually happened. It’s the same thing that what politicians do and they also they lay out a path for the future and that’s what we do. You kids can aspire to this, you can aspire to that, we give everybody options. Where do you go?
VASHTI HARRISON: For sure. I agree. I think it’s inherently political to choose certain stories to tell. A lot of what’s been big in the news and in, I don’t know, probably in the past 10-15 years or so is really investigating who gets to tell which stories, who gets to choose what’s in our history books. Inherently embedded in the choice of making a book about women in history is inherently political as to suggest that the story hasn’t been told. It’s a response to the way that we tell people or tell children what is important so it has to be included, it’s part of it. But I think at the end of the day what I’m hoping to create is not a textbook, it’s a book that any kid will look at and think, I want to take a look at that, I want to look at these pictures. It’s there to supplement their education or to just be something for them to have fun and engage with. What I hope is that it does function on all of those levels that I mentioned before.
Sure. It’s a mirror for the people who need it but it’s also a window for other people to look into a world that is not their own and learn about it then hopefully it functions like a sliding glass door and I’ll step into someone else’s experience and understand it. Some folks will write to me and say, I know that you come from this political background because I can tell by the way you chose the people that went into your book. It’s like, I’m a human. It’s not exactly a science I’m trying to create a book that reflects these different perspectives and aspects of the world and ensure I have things that I value and things that I hope that kids will enjoy. But I’m not trying to indoctrinate anyone but it’s impossible to take that out of it. It’s part of what we do as creators.
MACK MCLELLAN: What’s still interesting to me is that I don’t even see it as political. You all have done this so seamlessly by writing these stories where you just make everybody human. You talk about the differences in our humanities but it doesn’t feel political to me. Vashti your work it feels like you’re just addressing so many people that we don’t know and you’re just like, “Hey, here are people that you don’t know in history.” If you wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and you stop there it’d be like, this is another same old book but you expand and you go so far. Again, like you said, you have created a sliding glass door, you’re creating different perspectives. It just doesn’t feel political.
Angela, I love how you just talk about these different people. I love how you throw some Spanish in there. When Stella’s nervous, [foreign language 00:41:58]. I like how her mother speaks in Spanish to her but you also follow up with basically the English translation without it being the English translation. I think that you do that so well. It doesn’t make me feel, and maybe it’s just me, I just feel like I’m reading these books and I’m getting to know these characters and I’m getting to know these people as people and seeing some of the things that they do.
The little boy and Dub that picture of that boat was, matter of fact, let’s switch gears because a picture of that boat was amazing. You all seamlessly write about people. You all do such a great job telling stories. But the one thing that you will do that I really want to touch on is the art. You all are amazing artists and it makes the story come to life in a different way. Talk to me, Dub, I’m going to start with you this time, what prompted you to do art? What started first? You all can think about this. Angela and Vashti, was it the art or the stories first?
DUB LEFFLER: Well, you’re following a really odd tradition. When we were carving in Stein and painting on cave walls we’re still telling stories, we’re using pictures to tell story. Every written language has its roots in illustration. People often talk about what you guys know about the letter A, about the history of the letter A, do you know that?
MACK MCLELLAN: No.
DUB LEFFLER: I’ve got a book here, I’ll just show you. The letter A, English letter A, the capital is like this. But it didn’t always look like that. This is what I teach kids. It looked like this originally. It was the Phoenicians that invented it but they didn’t call it A, they called it aleph. If you listen to the word alphabet, it’s an alphabet. Te second letter was beth. Aleph beth became alphabet. Aleph means ox. If you look carefully you can see that’s the head of the ox and there’s the two horns. I’m always conscious of that, that we’ve always been telling stories with pictures. People just think that words and illustration are from two different places but they come from the same point. Especially with kids that their literacy levels are quite low, especially here in Aboriginal communities but everyone understands pictures.
It’s true that saying a picture’s worth 1000 words. I’ve always been drawing ever since I was in infant school, we call it or preschool and primary school then every now and then I would describe a picture or I would write something about something. Once There Was a Boy for instance it was just started with a charcoal sketch of this tiny little heart on a beach. It was really messy, that drawing, I’ve still got it somewhere. I started wondering who lives in that hut on the beach? You start writing that stuff but I’ve been doing. I think like everyone naturally we can do that.
We do draw when we’re kids. It’s not like riding a bike. We do forget and we have to keep drawing. That’s why they call it art practice. I tell kids, that’s not talent, it’s practice. We have to practice to become proficient in anything. Every illustration is practice for the next one. I think it’s just something that’s always been in us. I’m interested to hear from Angela and Vashti about you guys.
MACK MCLELLAN: Angela, please jump in. Because yours is a little bit different. Stella Diaz is not full-on pictures but then you have other art as well.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: Yes. I started with illustration, I’ve always loved to draw. It was a way that I expressed myself, I took every single art class I could in high school and went to art college to study illustration. I started illustrating other people’s stories and I got this craving to start telling my own stories. I just wanted to do the whole thing not just the pictures, the words, too. My agent really encouraged me to try writing. It took me a little bit because I did well in school but just the fact that I have mild dyslexia and just the language thing a little bit I was a little intimidated with the idea of writing. But as I’ve written more, I just absolutely love it and I just feel like I almost love it as much as the illustration. It’s hard to say because when I’m writing a lot I can’t imagine doing anything else. But as soon as I start working on a picture book it’s like this is my favorite thing entire world. They’re really two of my biggest loves that I get to do often which is great.
MACK MCLELLAN: Nice. Vashti.
VASHTI HARRISON: I talked a little bit before, I always drew as a kid but I stopped for a long time. Dub was actually exactly right. When I picked up drawing again I was not as good as I used to be. It was so clear to me, “Okay, if you don’t practice at something, you’re not going to be very good at it.” I always tell kids, if you’re a really fast runner and you stop running for five, six, seven years, are you going to be as fast as you once were? He used the comparison of riding a bike, exactly. It’s not like you could just pick right back up where you were before. It takes real work and practice and that’s what I did. I just forced myself to draw every day pretty much since then. Since about six, seven years ago I’ve just been drawing every single day. I tried to teach myself new things and force myself to do the things I dislike or really like.
When it came to illustrating these books, the Little Leaders, Little Dreamers, Little Legends, obviously, I could have illustrated these famous people to look like themselves but I chose to create a little kid character. For me, these are little kids dressing up as these famous people. I imagine that they’re putting on this costume and they’re closing their eyes and they’re imagining themselves in the worlds of these famous people. I hope that’s what young readers can do when they look at these pages imagining themselves in the shoes of these wonderful people. But to go back to the political aspect, one of the other things that I wanted to create with these books was to make them feel really sweet, really wonderful and innocent.
I wanted it to fit on a shelf right next to those classics next to Winnie the Pooh, and Madeleine and Eloise because I never saw black girls in those books, or girls of color in those books. But I also was really thinking about this study that I had read that came out of the Georgetown Law Center on poverty and inequality that said that young black girls are viewed as less innocent and more adult than their white counterparts starting as young as age four. It’s called adultification bias. I thought, I don’t have a huge platform, I don’t have all of these tools. But I can do something about that with my art. I can make really cute characters and make people say, “Oh.” When people look at Winnie the Pooh they say, “My God, he’s so cute.” How can I do that with little kids of color? Can I make people have that same reaction?
As much as I’m thinking about those things when it goes into the work there’s a reason it functions that way. But for the kid viewer, I just want it to be something that they enjoy, something that they can follow along with me and draw and something that they can see a reflection of themselves in. As much as I hope that my work doesn’t come off as entirely political because I don’t want to be didactic with it but I think that everything has to have intention. Otherwise, why would I be doing it? I think hopefully it’s operating on all of this different levels.
MACK MCLELLAN: Well, the kid reader in me sees it and sees how impactful it is to see somebody that looks like them, see somebody who might look like someone else but not feel as though you’re trying to push a narrative. You’re giving this information, you’re giving information that I wouldn’t receive otherwise. You all do such a great job of that. I got a quick lightning round that I would love to ask you all these questions. First thing that comes to mind. All right, you all ready? Vashti, favorite children’s book that’s not your own?
VASHTI HARRISON: Anything by Gyo Fujikawa.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay, Angela, favorite author other than yourself?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: That’s hard. Lane Smith and probably Erin Entrada Kelly.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay. Dub, if you could collaborate with anyone in history, who would it be and why?
DUB LEFFLER: You gave me the easy one. There’s an illustrator here called Robin Ethan. He is amazing. He’s probably one of the best in the world. He would be the best in Australia. For sure.
MACK MCLELLAN: All right. That was easy enough. Vashti, who would you collaborate with ever in history and why?
VASHTI HARRISON: I would love to talk to you and collaborate with Augustus Savage who was a sculptor from the Harlem Renaissance.
MACK MCLELLAN: Yes. Angela.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: It’s always hard for me to choose one. I would say EB White because he’s one of my favorite authors as well. Then Frida Kahlo is one of those huge inspirations as a kid. I think we’d make some really fun weird books together.
MACK MCLELLAN: Dub. Favorite children’s book not your own?
DUB LEFFLER: This one called Stone Boy which is amazing.
MACK MCLELLAN: Vashti, favorite author not you?
VASHTI HARRISON: Man. Favorite author not me, I’m blank, I’m looking at my bookshelf. I’m really into Toby Olson right now. Wrote the Nomen books.
MACK MCLELLAN: Angela, favorite children’s book not your own?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: That’s tricky.
VASHTI HARRISON: Single favorite, that’s the true question.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: Well, I would say Ramona Quimby is probably really up there. That was a big impact on me.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay. Dub, which one did I not, favorite author is that the one I haven’t asked you Dub?
DUB LEFFLER: I like Junko Morimoto. I think they’re epic stories. I just love the epicness that Junko has got in the books.
MACK MCLELLAN: Angela, I asked you favorite book and favorite author?
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: Yes.
MACK MCLELLAN: Vashti, I asked you both, okay. Everybody got a chance to answer those things. Last question for everybody. We’re just going to popcorn it whoever answers first we’ll just pass it on. What’s on your current reading list or what are you currently reading? You might have a list that you haven’t started yet or you might be currently reading something.
VASHTI HARRISON: King of the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender. I’ve had it for so long and I need to sit down and read it.
ANGELA DOMINGUEZ: I’m reading a collection of short stories by EB White. It’s one that I go back to reread a few times.
MACK MCLELLAN: Okay.
DUB LEFFLER: I’m reading this book called Paramedic Code by a friend of mine, a band that I just met on Tour. He’s a paramedic that works around the world. It’s a collection of his stories. Really cool.
MACK MCLELLAN: Awesome. Well, unfortunately, it is time to wrap things up. I have thoroughly enjoyed speaking with the three of you amazing authors and artists. Thank you, Angela, Vashti and Dub. Thank you to every one who is watching. Please consider buying their books. They’re featured from your local independent bookseller. You can also use the link provided at VaBook.org. You can also check out other events in all-virtual 2021 Virginia festival of the book at VaBook.org. Ladies and gentlemen, it has truly been a pleasure. I hope to see you all again soon.
DUB LEFFLER: Thanks Mack, thanks for having us.
VASHTI HARRISON: Thanks so much.
DUB LEFFLER: Nice to meet you Vashti and Angela.
VASHTI HARRISON: It was nice chatting. Thanks, everyone for watching.
MACK MCLELLAN: All right. Thank you all.
DUB LEFFLER: Bye guys.