Five questions for Vashti Harrison

In the picture book Big (Little, Brown, 5–8 years), a young Black girl feels comfortable in her own skin — until classmates’ taunts and two adults’ admonishments make her question her size. Author/illustrator Vashti Harrison’s sensitive, compassionate story ends on an empowering note, with the girl finally able to hand their hateful words back (“These are yours”) and to embrace all of who she is.

1. What was your thought process behind the use of space in the book?

Vashti Harrison: Big was always a very internal story. We stay inside of the main character’s perspective for nearly the whole book. I wanted to focus solely on her feelings and emotional journey. With that in mind I knew the compositions needed to be spare, to let the quiet moments breathe. I tried to use layout and color and lighting to help communicate tone and story. And eventually the frame/trim size of the book becomes a story element. I knew I wanted to capture the emotion of the child being trapped, or being boxed in.

2. Where did the idea for that perfectly placed gatefold come from?

VH: Some of the first sketches I made were some of the darkest moments in the book: the girl struggling, feeling stuck, and turning her back to the viewer. I realized it could be super-powerful to show how she got there, and how she might break free and make more space for herself. That led to more experimenting, playing with the gutter of the book, the trim size, and the meta use of the book and text as story elements.

3. How is it different when you’re illustrating your own words rather than someone else’s?

VH: I think the separation of the creative process of writing and illustrating allows me to experiment and have more fun than when I’m illustrating other people's stories. Even with the Little Leaders series, the art I’m doing is in service of the story of the person on the page. But with Big, I found there was no separation. I was thinking about both the words and the art at the same time, which can help create pictures and story that are fully married, but it can also complicate the creative process. It kept me from moving forward at a fast pace, as I questioned and rewrote and sketched over and over again. At a certain point it felt like I was baking a cake and decorating it at the same time!

4. You mention in your author’s note that you experienced anti-fat bias growing up — did that firsthand perspective make it easier and/or harder to write this book?

VH: I definitely feel, like the girl in this book, that I’m still on a journey toward self-love. I think expressing some of the emotions we see her go through, feeling judged and invisible, were so easy and immediate to communicate. But other things made it so difficult. There were many times when I thought this story wasn’t right for a children’s book. I’m an adult still processing so many of these feelings about my body. Can sharing it from my adult perspective hurt or help young readers? I get nervous reading the mean words aloud every time, because I don’t want to introduce language that wasn’t part of a kid’s vocabulary, and I don’t want to incite an insecurity that wasn’t there for a young reader. But the thing about anti-fat bias is that it’s not just about individual mindsets or perspectives, it refers to systemic and pervasive mistreatment and discrimination on groups of people simply because of their size or body weight or shape. I want to acknowledge with this book that those things exist and are real in our society. If I can create empathy for the character, that will only help dismantle harmful prejudices in the future.

5. What would you say to the kids who are struggling “to make more space” for themselves?

VH: I’m not a parent or an educator so I can’t presume to know what it’s like to be a part of a young person’s development, but there are a few powerful moments in the story that I know I would have needed to see as a young person. The first is seeing the power in letting everything out. Crying out everything, for this girl, is an act of resistance. “Big girls don’t cry” was something I grew up hearing. I want to validate those emotions for kids and let them know that sometimes making space for yourself might mean letting yourself feel and process your feelings. The second important moment was handing back the unkind words. I know not everyone has the ability to confront the people in their lives in such a literal way, but the act of separating out what helps you and what hurts you can be so cathartic.

From the May 2023 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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