2024 Caldecott Medal Acceptance by Vashti Harrison

“Did you know you’re the first Black woman to win the Caldecott Medal?”

The morning of the American Library Association Youth Media Awards, my agent, Carrie Hannigan, called to ask me this. We had spoken the night before to celebrate, so this call felt more like a briefing. She was telling me that my life was about to change, so get ready.

I was not ready. I am not ready to carry this title. How could I possibly represent “Black Woman Illustrator” when there are so many visionaries who came before me, have come after me, who may have been overlooked or forgotten?

I began my career in children’s publishing with a book called Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, which highlights forty Black women whose stories have been overlooked, ­forgotten, or oversimplified. Their boldness, determination, and creativity allowed every Black girl who came after them to have more opportunities. I’d like to share seven more with you now.

* * *

Faith Ringgold was a multimedia artist, painter, and intersectional activist who used her thoughtfully crafted sculptures, quilts, large-scale paintings, and children’s books to advocate for Black female liberation. In 1992 she became the first Black woman to receive a Caldecott Honor, for Tar Beach, her first picture book, which was adapted from a quilted artwork by the same name.

Carole Byard was a visual artist, photographer, and children’s book illustrator. She was part of the Black Arts ­Movement committed to the advancement of Black pride and liberation. In 1993 she was awarded a Caldecott Honor for the picture book Working Cotton, written by Sherley Anne Williams.

After a gap of twenty-three years, Ekua Holmes became the third Black woman to receive a Caldecott Honor, in 2016, for her richly layered mixed-media collages in Voice of Freedom: ­Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, written by Carole Boston Weatherford.

Oge Mora is an author-illustrator known for her whimsical collages and thoughtful stories about family and community. In 2019, fresh out of ­college, she received a Caldecott Honor for her debut picture book, Thank You, Omu!

Cozbi A. Cabrera makes handmade goodness, whether it’s through her books, paintings, or sewn dolls and dresses. In 2021 she was awarded a Caldecott Honor for her book Me & Mama.

Noa Denmon highlights positivity and joy in community, with limited palettes and sharp, dynamic characters. In 2021 she won a Caldecott Honor for A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart, written by Zetta Elliott.

Janelle Washington explores Black culture and identity through her delicate paper-cut art and silhouettes. She was awarded a Caldecott Honor in 2023 for Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, written by Angela Joy.

* * *

I want to thank all these women for the determination and creativity that paved a way for me. Thank you to the Caldecott committees over the years that have celebrated them and their beautiful works. There are so many others deserving of this award, artists I admire and aspire to be like who could and should be on this stage. I hope my journey here, to this moment, opens up a pathway for more of us to come.

I’ve written enough short biographies to know that so much about a person’s life often gets left out. I want to share my story with you, in its messiest form, with all the parts I usually leave out.

* * *

I began the illustration stage of my life as an outsider. I was a film student at California Institute of the Arts, working down the hall from the famous animation program where the students were so gifted they regularly got hired at big studios before they’d graduated. Here I was, older than they were and nowhere near as practiced, but I wanted what they had. To be good, to be going places.

I rekindled an old love for drawing, but I wasn’t very good. The skill I’d once had was gone, bringing me equal amounts of shame and determination. I studied “Art of” books and concept art and tried to draw like an animator in the hopes of proving to myself that I belonged. I copied Disney-style eyes and heads and proportions. I drew bodies with extremely thin waists and flat tummies. Bodies that looked nothing like mine, bodies that perpetuated an insecurity I harbored inside.

This was not new for me. As a young person, I had loved drawing. I’d copied characters from my favorite cartoons and landscapes from National Geographic, and I’d pored over fashion magazines, copying long, lean, slender bodies. I dreamed of one day being tall and skinny like a model. Until then, I would draw. I don’t know if it was the magazines or cartoon princesses or diet culture or American beauty standards, but my brain was hardwired to make my characters thinner. It all came flooding back.

When I started posting my art online, I could see that my drawings of beautiful women performed better than my landscapes or still lifes. Over time, though, I became more conscious of my tendency to draw white or light-skinned women. (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that there was very little diversity in the fashion magazines and character design books I’d learned from.) But the world was changing. A boy named Trayvon Martin was killed while he was out walking; a young woman named Rekia Boyd was shot by a police officer; Eric Garner pleaded “I can’t breathe” while he was choked to death. I heard that Black women had founded a social justice organization called Black Lives Matter. I thought, Black lives do matter, Black joy matters, Black stories matter, Black art matters.

I started to draw beautiful Black women, princesses and mermaids and fashion models. People online sent me so much love and support! They were hungry to see themselves in this art style, and I was so fulfilled by making illustrations that meant something to me and to others. But every time I drew another impossibly thin woman, I fed a self-hatred roiling inside. So, I pushed myself to draw curvy bodies, fat bodies with dark skin. A correction, a confrontation, a subtle form of exposure therapy, maybe. But these women were still conventionally beautiful and had curves in all the “right places.”

Eventually I had an intervention with myself. This hyperfixation on my body, bodies I draw, and what is good or bad was not healthy. By then I was firmly established as a children’s book illustrator, but drawing had become impossible as I dealt with creative block and paralysis. To the outside world, I described this as burnout from too many books too fast; inside I was agonizing over every drawing, every choice being political. Hair is political. Skin color is political. Bodies are political.

I resolved to only draw children, children who are allowed to be chubby and chunky and thick, and we love them for it. Children, who have no wrong or incorrect curves or folds. Children, for whom big is good.

Drawing is such an intimate practice. You spend time with characters, you make decisions that seem microscopic but can change a character entirely: the placement of their eyes, the length of their neck. As I made these tiny creative choices, I wondered, At what age does big start being bad? For me it was in second grade, when a girl looked over at my round belly and asked if I was pregnant. That version of me is still inside, still hurting.

I needed to make something to heal myself, and I needed to confront my internalized bias.

* * *

Here is the darkest part of my story. The part that makes me ashamed. I was visiting a school for a book event. In a line of what appeared to be ­kindergartners, I saw one Black girl, squirming and being silly along with everyone else. She wore a pink and purple and blue tutu that rode high on her round bottom. I thought, She should know better than to wear a skirt like that.

As soon as I thought it, I hated myself for it. She should know better? She’s a child. Just existing in her body. I placed a bias on her that assumed she was old enough to know that her body was different from the other kids’, old enough that she should police herself.

How dare I?

Let’s carry that moment out to its fullest extent: what would happen next if I truly believed the girl had done something wrong? Should she be pulled out of line and scolded for dressing inappropriately? (Ignoring the fact that children’s clothes are not size inclusive.) Would she get in trouble? Would she be made to change? Would she miss class? Would she fall behind? Would her grades slip and get her placed on a slower track? Would she get into more trouble for more absurd things?

This is the ripple effect of adultification bias.

A study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality called Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood describes adultification bias as the perception that some children are more adult, more mature, more responsible, and more knowledgeable than their age would suggest. The study found that adults view Black girls as young as five as less innocent and more adult than their white counterparts, which results in their believing that Black girls need less nurturing and less protection.

There are numerous metrics that feed into this bias: skin color, height, voice, body shape, size, and weight. I knew firsthand that Black girls were always being judged and punished for being too something. Too tall, too loud, too big.

I didn’t learn this bias in a vacuum. It is part of our society, and it steals the joy and future from Black girls every day. That girl in her tutu could have been me. I saw in her my hair, my skin, my round belly, my joy, my silliness. And I saw how this bias had left a huge scar inside me.

Big was my response. If I couldn’t heal myself, then maybe I could help create a world where girls never have to hurt like this. Confronting your implicit bias is not an easy thing, but it is important ongoing work that we all need to do. My call to you, coming from me, an imperfect person who has flaws and makes mistakes, is to do the work in addressing and dismantling your implicit bias, not just for yourself but for every child, every young reader, every person who comes after you.

There is no dedication in Big. I wanted this book to be for anyone who needs it. For the kids who might use it as a mirror or a window into someone else’s experience. For the adults who spend time with young people and want to be more thoughtful with the words they use. For every person who has felt like there was something wrong with their body.

There are very few words in this book, and very few colors. Every visual choice I made was to bring readers inside the girl’s perspective, to ask them to feel what she is feeling, so when the book is shouting, You are allowed to take up space, you are allowed to grow and change! You are okay! You are good! I hope it rings true inside you.

I’m still learning how to believe that for myself. But I am still growing.

* * *

This entire book was created during a global pandemic. I struggled with isolation, loneliness, and depression before the lockdown and fell into an even deeper darkness after it. I slowly kept on the creative path of Big, but there were times when I couldn’t see anything ahead of me. There were a few beacons of light that helped me find my way.

Carrie Hannigan, thank you for holding my hand and leading me when I was scared to take a step forward. You have been a mentor, friend, ally, and advocate from the very beginning, and I could not be more grateful for you.

Farrin Jacobs has been more than an editor — I’m lucky enough to call her my friend. Thank you for being someone I could trust with this story. I cannot express how grateful I am and how invaluable you were to the catharsis of writing Big and shaping it with care.

Renée Watson, Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Andrea Beaty, Matt de la Peña, and Suzanne Kaufman: thank you for sharing your wisdom and guidance. Thank you to Caroline Sun, Kwesi Johnson, Kassiopia Ragoonanan, and Zoë Bisbing.

Thank you to all the wonderful people at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers who I’ve had the pleasure of working with for many years on many books. Thank you Megan Tingley, Deirdre Jones, Marisa Russell, and Mary McCue.

Thank you to creative director David Caplan for your care, attention to detail, and passion for books. I am grateful for your confidence, steadfastness, and grace. There were times when this book felt like a three-dimensional puzzle that could fall apart at any minute, but you never let it crumble.

Thank you to designer Prashansa Thapa, production director Nyamekye Waliyaya, and production editor Jen Graham.

Thank you to Victoria Stapleton. Early on in my career I got some advice that always stuck with me: define yourself as a professional and demand to be treated as such by others. Our work as children’s book writers and illustrators and publishers and librarians can sometimes be diminished by outsiders as silly or frivolous. Victoria reminds me that so much thoughtful, serious work goes into making something that can be fun and sweet and whimsical. She is the kind of professional who makes me want to be better, to work harder.

Thank you to the 2024 Caldecott Award Selection Committee. You ­humble me with this honor. While the award feels overwhelming and a little terrifying, I cherish it with all my heart, because if there’s a chance that a little girl like me, growing up in a small town, with a small library, might come across this book and see a bit of herself and feel a little less alone, then I will know it was due in no small part to the reach and access of this golden sticker, and to the time, effort, and care you put into awarding it.

I want to celebrate my fellow winners: Marla Frazee, Molly Mendoza, Hanna Cha, and Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey. It means so much to be recognized alongside you. I am in awe of your vision, techniques, and skills. ­Congratulations.

And lastly, I need to thank my mom and dad, Ted and Chandra Harrison. Thank you for loving me, thank you for supporting me and my art in the ways you knew how, and thank you for being open to doing the work.

Vashti Harrison is the winner of the 2024 Caldecott Medal for Big, published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in San Diego on June 30, 2024. From the July/August 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2024.

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Vashti Harrison

Vashti Harrison won the 2024 Caldecott Medal for Big (Little, Brown).

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