March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Vashti Harrison, From Internet Sensation to Biographer Extraordinaire

Photo by Vashti Harrison

Last year the Internet was abuzz with love for Vashti Harrison’s Instagram account, where she had been posting illustrated portraits of black women from history in honor of Black History Month. Harrison’s tender, cherubic figures rightfully captured the attention of thousands, including publisher Little, Brown. SLJ recently caught up with Harrison to discuss Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (Little, Brown, Dec. 2017) and what’s in store for the future.

Congrats on your well-deserved nomination for an NAACP Image award! How did you take the news?

It’s incredible! I was completely surprised but very excited. My first thought was that some of the women who are in the book might be there!

In your introduction, you discuss how the book grew from a personal challenge.

I didn’t go to school for illustration; I picked it up while I was getting my MFA in filmmaking. I felt very insecure in my ability and talent, but I was determined to get better. After I finished graduate school, I made it my goal to draw every day. I created a social media account to have a platform to post my work and keep myself motivated. The people who followed me and supported my work didn’t know I was insecure; they didn’t care that I was nitpicking my ability. They treated me like a professional. When I was laid off, I got my first commissions from social media.

Over the last couple of years, I have built up a community of people who like and support what I do, and that inspires me to keep going. They are mostly women and mostly around my age. I have a good sense of what they like and knew that this project would be something they would enjoy as much as I did.

Your artwork is incredible, especially all the background details, such as Audre Lorde’s bookshelf. Can you talk about your illustration process?

The Little Leaders are quite simple figures; only a few lines make up their faces. I knew early on they would all have the same face. I wanted them to be interchangeable enough that readers would be able to see a bit of themselves in any one of them. I also wanted to create this kind of flip-book effect when you flip through the pages—the faces stay in the same, but the world around them changes—and in this way we can travel through time with them.

I tried to create a set of visual rules for myself to stick with. I worked digitally and used brushes meant to replicate wet and dry media: mainly gouache brushes on the clothing and hair and watercolor and chalky pencil for the background. The star of the page was the figure, so I focused all of the rendering there. I wanted the backgrounds to be more subtle—nothing to overpower the figure, kind of like doodles. In this way they become more of an idea or dream, rather than the thing itself. But conceptually they needed to fit the story—in Audre’s case, she was a librarian, and she published so much, it made sense to surround her with the things she loved. I wanted to populate the book with little Easter eggs so that there would always be something that new readers could discover.

I tried to be thoughtful about the color choices as well; they needed to fit each woman’s story but also fit within the whole of the book. I was looking for a sweet rainbow of colors as you flip through. And in the times where I break the rules, it’s for a conceptual reason—to stand out.

What was the most surprising fact you learned during your research?

There was not a single part of this process where I was not surprised to learn something new, but one of my favorite connections to make in the book was between Nichelle Nichols and Dr. Mae Jemison. Mae was the first African American woman in space. She wasn’t sure NASA would be open to considering a black woman for the astronaut program, but she was inspired to apply because of seeing Nichelle Nichols play Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series. When Nichelle was cast on that show, it was groundbreaking, as she was one of the first black women to be cast in main role on prime-time television. As it aired in the 1960’s, many people were not happy with the mixed-race cast and wrote in to complain to the producers. They responded by cutting Nichelle’s lines and pushing her to the background. She considered leaving the show, to return to the stage, but it was a chance meeting at an NAACP event that changed her mind. There she ran into Martin Luther King Jr., who told her he was a fan and that what she was doing was so important, that her role on TV meant so much to people.

It’s a really beautiful testament to how much representation matters, but also how being reminded that you’re doing the right thing can inspire you to keep going.

Amazingly, Mae went on to guest star in a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Nichelle went on to recruit for NASA!

Can readers expect more Little Leaders soon?

Yes! I’m working on book two right now, I’m still tossing around ideas, but I’m very excited to expand the world of Little Leaders and keep learning about incredible people. I’m particularly looking forward to adding something new to the illustration style!

This article was published in School Library Journal's January 2018 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind