“In childhood, big is good. Big is impressive, aspirational. But somewhere along the way, the world begins to tell us something different: That big is bad. That being big is undesirable.” — from Vashti Harrison's author’s note

Words have an extraordinary influence on our perspective on the world, others, and most importantly, ourselves. Words can build and words can tear down. In Big, Vashti Harrison demonstrates the power of a single word in a semi-autobiographical narrative of a young Black girl’s early messaging around body image. When she's an infant, the word big is encouragement, approval, praise, and admiration. To this young girl, big is desired...until she gets “too big.” Psychologically, she begins to internalize the message that big is bad. She is mocked and insulted. Her developing sense of self is threatened by the bias and careless words of others.

Ironically, Harrison employs a scarcity of text to tell a story about the power of words. With fewer than two hundred words, she communicates a powerful narrative primarily through her moving digital and chalk pastel illustrations. The artwork is expansive, the color palette soft and warm, contrasting with the hardness of the subject. In her author's note, Harrison writes about the intentionality of the colors used in the illustrations as she herself was subjected to body shaming as a child: “I remember thinking I couldn’t wear pink, that it was too bright a color and might make me stand out. From an early age I’d developed insecurities that told me it was safer to shrink into the background and try not to call attention to myself." Harrison deftly uses size and perspective to grasp the reader’s attention. Throughout the book, the little girl's size grows as well as her self-consciousness about her body. The unnamed child shares a mortifying playground incident (for which Harrison drew on her own experience). Harrison's illustrations incorporate the stinging words of her teacher and her classmates, making her shame and their cruelty visible.

Even the child’s love of dance does little to shield her from anti-fat bias and othering. In an upcoming dance recital, the little girl expects to be a flower like the other dancers. Instead, she's cast as a dark mountain surrounded by rain clouds. A powerful spread shows her dance instructor painting her, from a delicate pink ballerina to a hulking gray mountain. The book's soft pink palette changes to steely gray, and these pages are highly symbolic of the early and insistent messaging of size bias and how it is reinforced through seemingly innocuous microaggressions such as limiting choice and autonomy. This messaging is reinforced and magnified through the lens of race and the social isolation and emotional neglect to which she, as a Black child, is subjected to, and the psychological impact that results.

Harrison brilliantly illustrates this impact through several spreads in which the little girl's world begins to shrink and grow increasingly smaller. Alone in what can be interpreted as a box, the girl wallows in her own tears and the callous words of others denoted in dark font in the art. A breakthrough occurs when she remembers the positive things about herself and uses them to extricate herself from the prison of other people’s perspectives. She gathers the words used by others to mock her and decides they do not belong to her. No longer psychologically boxed in, she hands back the cruel words to peers and adults. During this process, the girl’s tutu gradually transforms from sad, dark gray back to the sweet, soft pink of self-love. Here, readers encounter a massive gatefold illustration; as she rejects the hurtful words, the girl pushes at the margins of the actual page until the page itself must grow to accommodate her size. With the help of the gatefold illustration, the girl grows bigger, literally and figuratively taking up more space and more pages. The story ends with the little girl dancing again with words such as imaginative, creative, smart, and funny swirling around her. Unfortunately, we know that despite the happy ending, the words have done their damage. In the story, only one person apologizes for their transgressions against her, and even that apology comes with the message that being big is the issue and she still needs to change.

This begs the question about the counternarratives needed to combat not only the obvious anti-fat bias in the story but also the more subtle anti-Blackness that accompanies this. Where did the little girl find the strength and ability to resist what was being cast upon her through a narrow view of beauty and worthiness? In Big, Harrison creates one such counternarrative to push back against the barrage of messages that place more value on some humans than others, that fails to celebrate difference and demands conformity. This messaging is everywhere, and one only needs to pay attention to the public discourse on an array of current topics to understand how language is weaponized against the most vulnerable, including children. At the societal level, this has disastrous consequences that emerge in broken social contracts. On a personal level, the consequences are just as catastrophic, but less discernible, and result in broken people. Our words matter.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of Big]

Monique Harris

Monique Harris is a public educator, reading specialist and independent educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science degree in Education from Simmons University, and is enrolled in a PhD program at Florida State University.

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