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Author-illustrator Vashti Harrison wants her book and the word 'big' to affirm kids

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On the cover of Vashti Harrison's latest book, a young Black girl, her curly hair styled in two puffs, is wearing a beautiful pastel tutu and pink ballet slippers. Her arms are stretched high over her head as she holds up the words that make the title of this book, spelled out in oversized, imposing black letters. The book is "Big," and author-illustrator Vashti Harrison joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

VASHTI HARRISON: Thank you so much for having me.

SUMMERS: Thanks for being here. So your book is about a little girl. And when we first meet her, she's just a baby, and she's wearing this white onesie with the words dream big on it. And can I ask, do you have a copy of your book with you?

HARRISON: I do.

SUMMERS: I'm wondering if you could just read the sentence that opens this book for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAGES TURNING)

HARRISON: So "Big" starts with... (Reading) Once there was a girl with a big laugh and a big heart and very big dreams.

SUMMERS: Vashti, why did you want to begin this book when this little girl was so young, at this earliest stage of childhood?

HARRISON: For me, this story was really about the words we give and share with children, and I wanted to make a story that followed a child on a journey towards self-love. But I wanted to start the story at the very beginning, where all children start, in a place of pure self-love. She has every opportunity ahead of her. And all of the excitement and hope that people have for their kids is placed on this little child. And I wanted to showcase how that story can change over time based on the words that we use to talk to children and sort of examine how that story changes when those words become negative.

SUMMERS: There is this line early in your book that really stuck with me, and it happens when this girl is - she's still really young, even in a high chair. You write, (reading) What a big girl you are, the adults would say. And it was good.

Until you and I know it isn't good - big, especially for young Black girls - it stops being a compliment at a certain point in your life. Can you talk a little bit about that?

HARRISON: Yeah. So "Big" is many things, partially inspired by my childhood. But I wanted to make a story that felt sort of universal and talked about things that many Black girls in our society face, including adultification (ph) bias and anti-fat bias. And weight and body size tend to be a metric of one of those things. And I wanted to really showcase how big can be a word of affirmation when kids are really little, and we celebrate it. And we cheer them on, and we're so excited for them. And when something about their body might shift or change as they grow, our perceptions, our biases that we learned in this world, we place on kids. And I wanted to showcase how, you know, detrimental that can be when we don't take care and offer kindness to young people.

SUMMERS: I think for folks like you and me, you probably remember not just one, but a ton of those moments where you're seen as older than you are. You were - there's that adultification you talk about. You're seen as different because you're a child in a Black body. Are there moments that happened in your life that you feel like really informed the way that you created the world that this little girl lives in, in your book?

HARRISON: I think the thing that resonates most with me and comes specifically from my childhood is what I was described as a kid - as being too sensitive. I was really emotional. And it took me a long time to really find myself, to really feel like I've grown up or come of age. And so I feel so emotionally struck by the idea that a child like me could have been perceived as old enough or more responsible or more knowledgeable or more mature when, absolutely, I was not ready for that. So I think I was trying to pull from that feeling of what it felt like to be really sensitive and shy and quiet kid and to know that no matter what you're going through on the inside, people will still judge you based on the way you look on the outside. And I really wanted to make an appeal for this child's innocence and girlhood.

SUMMERS: I want to talk about the illustrations in your book for a moment. As I look at it, what strikes me is that the colors that you've chosen. They're these soft, really beautiful pastels. And when I was reading it, I felt like there was almost this sense of, I don't know, wonder and innocence surrounding this little girl. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached illustrating this book?

HARRISON: Yeah, I think every book is different. I really try to use tools and materials and media in different ways to help communicate a story. And so for "Big," the story was really internal. We spend a lot of time with this character, and we see the world through her eyes, through her experience. And so I often tend to choose a specific color for a character. So in "Big," I chose this sort of really saturated pink, and I wanted to use it to tell this sort of story of who this child is becoming. She has all of these options at the beginning. And, you know, we see her light get dimmed throughout the book and then it comes back at the end when she sort of reclaims space for herself. She reclaims big, and we see the full realization of this fully saturated color.

SUMMERS: I mean, there's also just the way you use the space on the page. I mean, in some of the later pages of this book, there's this spread where it felt to me like this little girl - she couldn't fit. She couldn't be contained. Her feet are literally pressing up against the end of the page on one side, and on the other end it looks like her little hair puffs, they won't - literally won't even fit on the page. Can you talk a little bit about that?

HARRISON: Yeah. I wanted to create a sort of visual representation of feeling boxed in, of feeling like maybe your story doesn't even belong in a book. I really wanted to use the book in this sort of meta way for multiple reasons - for narrative reasons but also, like, I was thinking a little bit about some of the classics that I had on my bookshelf. And so many of them center on the smallest of the characters, you know? Twelve little girls in two straight lines, the smallest one was Madeline. You can see that often the protagonist of a story is the smallest one. And, you know, I just wanted to make a book that centered on a kid that wasn't the smallest one in the classroom, but show that she's just as worthy of us cheering her on and rooting for her and falling in love with her.

SUMMERS: I know this book is just coming out, but I'm curious if you've had the opportunity to share it with any kids, perhaps kids even in your own life, and what have they told you about it?

HARRISON: You know, I'm very nervous about sharing it with young people. But I think the fear of just making any sort of art is connecting with people. And, you know, honestly, I just hope I got it right. I hope I represented those concepts in the best way possible. But honestly, if it helps one young person, then I will feel grateful that this book exists because I know it would have helped me as a kid.

SUMMERS: Author-illustrator Vashti Harrison's new book is "Big." Thank you so much for talking to us.

HARRISON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF REFUGEE CAMP ALL-STARS SONG, "THE SWEETEST THING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.