Bestselling artist and author Vashti Harrison joins us to talk about Big, her new illustrated storybook educating children on growth and self-love. We discuss how Vashti considers both the parents and the kids in her target audience, and how finding an illustrator works in the world of children’s books. We also get into the adultification of black girls, and how Vashti thinks about the color pink.
The Stacks Book Club selection for May is This Boy We Made by Taylor Harris. We will discuss the book on May 31st with Nicole Chung.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we welcome the award winning bestselling children’s book author and illustrator and filmmaker Vashti Harrison. Vashti just released Big, her first fictional picture book, which she both wrote and illustrated. Big is an emotional exploration which follows a child’s journey to self love and it shows the power of words to both heal and hurt. Listeners at home. You will know Vashti Harrison from her little leader series as well as being the illustrator behind Lupita Nyong’o and Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love. Today Vashti and I talk about her book Big, the ways that Vashti approaches writing versus illustrating and how she stays connected to young people and her own inner child. Remember, our main book club pick is this boy we made: a memoir of motherhood, genetics and facing the unknown by Taylor Harris. We will discuss the book on May 31 with Nicole Chung. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stats can be found in the link in the show notes. If you are sitting at home and you’re thinking, gosh, I love the stacks and I want more of this incredible podcast and book community. Well listen, you can have that you just head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stacks pack. It’s just $5 a month and you get a bunch of perks including our bonus episodes, our monthly virtual book club meetups, our incredible discord community. And you get to know that you’re helping to make this book podcast possible every single week, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join now. And if $5 a month seems like too much, we now offer a free snacks, pack membership, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join now shout out to our newest member Elizabeth Ellington. Thank you all so much. And thank you to the entire stacks pack. Now it’s time for my conversation with Vashti Harrison.
Alright, everyone, I’m so excited. I’m here today with Vashti Harrison, who is an author and a filmmaker and an illustrator and has a brand new children’s book out called Big. Vashti Welcome to the Stacks.
Vashti Harrison 2:18
Thanks so much for having me.
Traci Thomas 2:20
I’m so excited to talk to you about this book. We always sort of start here in about 30 seconds or so will you just tell folks about big?
Vashti Harrison 2:28
Sure. So big is my first picture book, my first piece of fiction, I think, something that I’ve tried to incorporate into all of my work and especially my illustration work are, you know, sweet and innocent children characters that we can fall in love with and want to go on adventures with and root for. So that’s definitely what I’ve tried to create with this book. So big tells the story of a little girl who’s experiencing some really big feelings about her body. And it follows her on her journey towards self love. And she sort of reclaims her own narrative. It explores some very real challenges that many young black girls are facing, including adult suffocation and anti fat bias.
Traci Thomas 3:14
Yeah, I mean, so I grew up as a dancer, and the little girl in at the center of beg it has a relationship with dance. And I just this book really, like hit the nail on the head. For me. I was like, I was emotional a little bit reading it, I just thought you did such a nice job of kind of bringing in a lot of like difficult things in this really beautiful and lovely way. And my big question, of course, is like, how are you thinking about audience? How are you thinking about the children versus the parents, because you’re writing for an age group where the parents are definitely involved in the book as well. So how do you think about that balance?
Vashti Harrison 4:01
Yeah, that’s a really great question. Because it’s something that I really kind of maybe agonized over for a long time. Because the story, you know, I felt really emotional writing it, it comes from a really personal place. You know, in it, I’m really trying to capture these feelings I experienced as a child. You know, the main character isn’t me, she doesn’t have a name. But, you know, I wanted readers to be able to empathize with her and her experience. And, you know, in that way, I hope it resonates with people on this universal level. But, you know, I am approaching these thoughts and feelings and experiences that I had as a child from as an from an adult perspective. So, I worried you know, am I writing something that is too adult, it’s from this adult perspective. And in some cases, like, I do want to be speaking to adults in the room, about what it’s like to be a kid walking around in the world. with other people’s labels on you. So, you know, this book is for children it is for, you know, anyone who, you know, might see themselves in this character story or know someone who feels who, who looks like this character. And I wanted it to sort of be a roadmap for how, you know, someone could be on this journey towards self love, and, you know, perhaps offer them a tool of how to process these heavy emotions and how to let go of the things that are not useful or helpful for you. But you know, it’s definitely, you know, something that I want adults to read and understand about how their words affect young people. And you know, how we can use and should use our words to empower and uplift children?
Traci Thomas 5:45
And how do you? Or what’s your relationship to children? Like now, because I know for me, I recently had children. But before that I wasn’t really around children. I’m obviously not a children’s book author or Illustrator. But I’m just wondering, like, how do you stay connected to young people? How do you stay rooted in what, what is interesting or exciting for them?
Vashti Harrison 6:10
Yeah, I think, as an author, something that I’m always trying to do is stay connected to the child within me and the child that I once was. And that’s definitely where I’m approaching a lot of my artwork from a lot of my storytelling from, but you know, like, I’m also I’m not a parent, and I don’t have kids around me all the time, I do very fortunate, we get to go to schools all the time, and interact with young people and like, get firsthand feedback on what they like, or what they don’t like, or what they’re interested in, you know, I tried to stay in touch with friends and family who do have kids, but for me, it’s really about trying to stay connected to that young person, what kind of story did I need, when I was growing up? What would have been really helpful for me, because, you know, I really didn’t see myself in books, you know, as much as like, I didn’t see characters that look like me, my skin tone, my race, my body shape, I also didn’t see a lot of like, really kind of shy and quiet characters, you know. So I really wanted to make things that spoke to these, you know, kids that may not get to see themselves in, you know, many different ways in the stories that they read and create something, you know, that they can reflect on.
Traci Thomas 7:19
I love that I’m a totally opposite personality. So I feel like there was a lot of little kids that acted like me, but not not a lot that looked like me. A lot of bad wild kids and stories, that’s, that’s my jam, a lot of Matt Madmax is around. I just think it’s so interesting. Because you, I know that children love your work. And I just it’s such a gift to be able to speak to young people and I love that you’re sort of rooting that in, in your own, like inner child and past self, because so many adults, myself included, lose that. It’s hard to stay rooted to that. And I think, you know, obviously, it works like it’s working for you. Because my niece, I told her I was talking to you today. And she was like, what are you gonna say? Like, I get to interview her, you know, I talked about books. And she’s like, Well, why does she want to talk to you? Like, she probably doesn’t want to talk to me, but she’s gonna be forced to. But just like that kids are so excited by what you have to say. And like what you’re doing, I think that’s just so to me, it’s special, it must be special to you to have that relationship with them.
Vashti Harrison 8:28
Yeah, I mean, I absolutely treasure and cherish that, because you can’t force it kids will definitely tell you when they don’t like something. So I just feel blessed that I make anything that resonates with any young person,
Traci Thomas 8:42
at the center of this will be talked about as a young black girl, she’s, you know, told that she’s too big physically. And she’s when she’s little, it’s cute and sweet. And like, oh, this baby is so big. And like such a, it’s a, something to be proud of. And at a certain point that changes. And I’m wondering, you know, at the end of the book, there’s an author’s note where you talk a little bit about how some of the things that happened in the book have happened to you. Some have not, it was sort of based on this personal story for you. And the thing that really stood out to me is like, when did you realize what had happened? Like when were you able to say, oh, there was a fat phobia or a racial racialization of fatness that impacted me at this young age. Like, do you remember when that kind of light bulb went off for you?
Vashti Harrison 9:30
I definitely, as a pretty young kid understood that there were some levels of prejudice. Because of, you know, body shape and size. I think, you know, the part of it that seems I don’t know, perhaps on the face is like the insecurity. Like I definitely remember feeling the insecurity but I didn’t want to make a book that’s just, you know, it’s a very internal book, but it’s not just about how she feels. It’s about way the world is responding to her and affecting her. And so that part of it that came from, you know, years of, of research and thinking about and understanding my body. And you know, a lot of it is inspired by me having read this study that came out of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty, Inequality and inequality, called girlhood interrupted, and it talks about the adult suffocation of black girls. And so through that study, you know, I mean, the heart of it, it says, you know, black girls as young as the age of five are viewed as less innocent and more adult than their white counterparts. And that’s not just from from white adults, or black adults, it’s across the board. And this results in them receiving less nurturing and less care. And there are many, you know, metrics that feed into these things about adult suffocation bias like that, that encourages people to believe that these kids are, you know, some kids are more mature, more adult Morris responsible or more knowledgeable than their like image would suggest, but you know, the way that they, you know, grow the way their bodies look, their height, their voice, all of these things feed into that. And so, that understanding and that sort of examination of the intersection of those two things that came from, you know, me being an adult looking backwards on all this. So, you know, I wanted to capture what it felt like to be a kid, but also to, like, speak to what’s actually happening in our society.
Traci Thomas 11:35
Yeah. And you You famously written book series, and something that popped into my head when I was reading this is like this. There’s so much of this book is about, you know, being a young girl and having these experiences, but we know from from similar studies, and from anecdotal evidence that also young black boys are suffer from the same kind of adult suffocation and the same sort of, you know, they’re too big and they’re bad. And, you know, all these things being being put into the school carceral systems and all this stuff. Do you think you would ever consider doing a second book about big black boys?
Vashti Harrison 12:14
Um, it’s interesting, because when I came up with the idea for little leaders, my first book, you know, one of the first questions people ask me is like, okay, so when will you write the one that features black men in history? I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t want to say no, because I definitely changed my mind on writing that book. So many people came to me and said that they really wanted something that they could show their kids and, and offer them this sort of reflection of themselves. And, you know, perhaps a roadmap for how to navigate, you know, they’re growing up. But specifically, you know, the study that I read was about black girls, because, you know, there, there tends to be more open conversation about black boys in our society, and just this assumption that black girls can handle it. And that is a direct result of the adult suffocation of black girls, that they are more knowledgeable that they are more responsible. And I just want to offer black girls who are shy, who are quiet, who maybe their bodies are bigger, maybe they look more mature, but who still need just as much care and nurturing. So for me, it was it was speaking to that specific girl.
Traci Thomas 13:21
I love that. I want to talk about the illustrations in this book. First of all, they’re gorgeous. There is one I don’t even know how to describe it. But where the little girl is like in this corner, like in the page, and I have like chills just even thinking about it. I think that the book is so beautiful. And one of the things that I noticed that you then talked about in the author’s note is the use of the color pink. And I would love for you to kind of expand, expound on what you say, and the author’s note and explain to my audience, why pink figures so prominently into this book. Yeah,
Vashti Harrison 13:55
well, I can’t remember what I wrote right now. But I know that, you know, I wanted to use color as a way to kind of help tell the story. So I chose pink specifically for this character. Because for me, you know, wanting to use a character that helps a color that helped define a character and show how it can grow and become more saturated and how it can be dimmed as her light is dim throughout the story. And so, you know, I don’t feel the most confident in my use of words I tend to express myself a little bit better through my art and so I wanted to be able to express the subtle things through the way that we see the lighting we see the brightness and and see that like it dimmed. But for me, you know, I was thinking about creating a world that’s fully within this character’s mindset. So we are viewing everything through her lens. And for her she really likes dance and she really likes ballet and for I chose ballet specific typically because I wanted to kind of evoke this idea of innocence and sweetness. And ballet is often a shorthand for that, at least in our culture, you know, wanting to make something that felt like those adorable recitals of little kids dressing in these little tutus and doing these sweet dances. Because I wanted people to look at this character and go, Oh, she’s so sweet. I just want to give her a hug. I just want to take care of her and care for her. Because, you know, that is the thing that you know tends to be missing in our society sometimes when it comes to black girls. So for me, the color pink and the flowers and the ballet are all shorthands for this innocence and this sweetness that I want to offer this black girl.
Traci Thomas 15:48
I love that I love it so much. And and just to refresh you what you said in the note about the psychology pink is associated with gentle love. This is a quote Yeah, you say pink is associated with gentle love, tenderness and nurturing pink flowers symbolize innocence, joy, playfulness, and happiness. These are all things this girl deserves, which is what you said, I just You did a great job. You wrote it, you knew it in your heart, even if you didn’t know the exact quote,
Vashti Harrison 16:16
but it’s the pressure of answering questions that it just goes blank entirely. It goes blank.
Traci Thomas 16:21
Well, and you also talked about earlier in that little paragraph you say, when you were a little you wanted to wear pink and you felt like you couldn’t? Or shouldn’t? Because it was like too much. Yeah, and what’s your relationship to wearing color now,
Vashti Harrison 16:33
um, my entire wardrobe is very neutral. I, you know, I try to force myself to step out to stand out to wear brighter colors, but it is like, I think, definitely a holdover from my adolescence of wanting to just hide and sink back into the background or, you know, unfortunately, I learned so many things growing up in the 90s and the 2000s. About like, what are slimming colors? Or what are your colors that, you know, make you disappear? And I just like that feels so you know, I’m still trying to, you know, process how I’ve internalized so much of that. And so, you know, I wanted a character who stood out and wore these bright colors, but also, you know, let those colors stand in for, you know, for her innocence.
Traci Thomas 17:22
Yeah, totally, I think around the same age as you and I also, I made a resolution for myself this year to wear more color because I realized that so much of it was steeped in my own like body image things and not in actually my taste necessarily.
Vashti Harrison 17:37
And that’s a shame. I want kids to be able to express themselves. However they want not be afraid of wearing stripes or particular colors like that. It’s so unfair. We didn’t deserve that.
Traci Thomas 17:50
No, for sure not. And now like that we have to fight against it sucks. You just mentioned that illustrations, the drawing the art part comes a little easier to you for storytelling versus like the words part. So how do you actually put it together? Do you start with the words? Do you start with the images? Like how do you collaborate with yourself?
Vashti Harrison 18:15
I tend to come up with ideas while I’m drawing. So I’ll end up you know, making a drawing takes a long time, right? So I’ll spend time coloring something in or adding textures. And through those moments of sort of like meditative coloring story ideas can come or you know, I’ll create a character really quickly and realize, oh, wow, I could I could imagine a whole story around her. So for me it is through the drawing process that that stuff comes with big, particularly, you know, had images in my mind really early on, especially from the latter part of the book where she’s really kind of boxed in and kind of stuck and I wanted her to kind of break free of the box that she gets put in. And so that stuff was really kind of clear to me super early on. But when it came to figuring out how I would execute that through, you know, particular styles, I tried lots of different things. So did tests and pencil and pastel. I really wanted to kind of evoke that, you know, classic soft pneus of like a day God dancer painting because those tend to be like the, for me the like epitome of like beauty and gracefulness and that sort of impressionistic use of color and and texture. I really wanted to incorporate a little bit of that while still making my character really pop off of the page. And so I sort of landed on this place of using pastel textures through and mixing that with digital techniques and making the character really rendered and making everything they’ll sort of kind of drift off into the background.
Traci Thomas 20:03
And then where do the words come in for you? Or how do the words come in for you?
Vashti Harrison 20:08
The words were difficult for me, I at one point, I really hoped that this could be like a wordless book. But there were just some very specific things that I needed to be clear. You know, I think if I wanted everything to be on the page, without any words, it would have been a really long book with a ton of panels. And I didn’t want it to kind of feel like a comic book or anything like that. So, you know, I tend to just kind of start talking about what I feel like is going on and working that through in my mind and writing notes down and relight I realized, one of the key things that I wanted to touch on is starting this book with her as a baby and having her grow. And realizing that I could use words in this sort of, like meta way on the page to kind of showcase how, you know, when she’s a baby, or when kids are little, we do often use this language, that you’re such a big girl, now you’re a big girl. And that’s a good thing. And at some point that changes. And so I wanted to, you know, when like the, you know, essentially, the inciting incident happens, like words kind of lift out of their speech bubbles, and become characters and kind of move on the page in, you know, in physical ways, and they kind of become character. So, it’s a mixture of just trying to really focus on what I’m trying to say, on a given spread. But I’m really, really grateful for my editor for helping me really pin that stuff down. Because I will be the first to admit like, I don’t express myself the clearest through through language. And clearly, I give long answers, because I can’t think of concise ways to express myself.
Traci Thomas 22:01
This is a podcast, everybody gets long answers here, right? They’re not any longer than anyone else’s. Don’t you worry. This is your first foray into fiction. How’s that been? What’s that? Like, compared to nonfiction? Like, what? How are parts easier and harder?
Vashti Harrison 22:16
Yeah, I think I just second guess myself a lot more. With fiction, the, the pressure feels higher, because it feels like it’s on me to have gotten it right. And to have done this character portrayed her in the right way and told her story in the best way possible. And shared language that’s going to resonate with kids, while also still being very clear, it feels so heavy, I mean, little leaders, and little dreamers and little legends, like, I feel at least what I’m doing is sort of translating someone else’s story, someone else’s real incredible life into these, you know, shorter versions that will get kids interested in it doesn’t feel like, you know, I’m I’m attempting to do the only version of this person’s story out there. So yeah, it’s just different, you know, I feel, you know, sometimes insecure about my story structure, or did I do things, the best way possible? And, you know, I think I’ll always have that little bit of anxiety around writing. But, you know, I think what’s so, you know, unique and special about picture books is that marriage between images and language, so yeah, I tried to really help myself and, and, you know, sort of scaffold the story with really strong choices in color and composition to help lead your eye and help you, you know, help the reader kind of fall into the story and, and really experience what’s happening. And I’m, like, personal level.
Traci Thomas 23:58
Yeah, I think, you know, I asked you before, you know, how do you get it to resonate with kids and adults, and I think some of like, what I’m hearing you say, translates as a reader of your work that like, you care a lot. And that comes through that like this, that there was a lot of, you know, not necessarily worry, but just like deliberate, creative energy put behind the work because as a mom of three and a half year old, I read a lot of kids books, and they don’t all feel as like full unspecific as as what as what you do. And so I think that may be on another level resonates with both kids and adults for sure.
Vashti Harrison 24:41
Yeah, it’s hard to kind of navigate this feeling of like, you know, when I tell other people, other artists about, you know, even just the process of illustrating a book, I always tell them and you know, it’s not like you’re just like translating the words into the image. You’re extending that story. into something visual, a whole new experience. And so like, it might, you know, say on the page that, you know, the kid looked under their bed, and rifled through all their toys for what they’re looking for. But you as the artist, you spend time and you have to draw all of those toys, or you have to make a decision about what that kid’s room looks like, and how that you know, what that tells us about that character, and what kinds of toys are under there. And, and there’s no, there’s no mistakes, you choose every single one of those things. And I always tell artists, like, it’s important. And you know, there shouldn’t be any mistakes. And so when it comes to my work, I’m thinking, Oh, my God, I can’t make any mistakes. So it feels like it is the most important thing in the world. But also feel that can feel really scary. But I want to make things that matter to young people, because I remember that feeling of, you know, curling up with a book at night, I remember that personal connection, I had to a story. So I want those things to matter. I want to think about those things. But you know, sometimes I can get in my head about how much pressure I should put into each individual choice.
Traci Thomas 26:08
I can relate to this, we’re going to take a quick break, and we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back just what you were just saying about, like having to know what every item is in the room or whatever, it made me think I was an actor for a while. And I went to school for acting. And it made me think about how you know, you’re given a script as a performer. And there are certain words that you have to say, but as the character, you have to know what else is in the room and like what else is going on with that person’s life and like there has to be some richness and just hearing you say that as the illustrators, like you have to figure out all the things that are unsaid, but are still present or, like aren’t specifically noted, but are still in the space and should be on the page. And that’s just such an interesting thing to think about. I want to ask you, so obviously, you wrote this book, and you illustrated it. But you also illustrated a lot of books with other people. You’ve been a collaborator in that way. How is it different when it’s when it starts with you versus like trying to get it, quote, unquote, right, with another person whose story it is?
Vashti Harrison 27:12
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It is, I think it’s very different, I think, because I know exactly what I want. And it’s not always easy to replicate exactly what you want. And you’re sort of like, I mean, that’s the kind of joy of experimentation and joy of art, making new things aren’t exactly anything, it just kind of comes out on the page in different ways every single time. So it can be a little bit more like agonizing over like, is this right? Questioning? Did I get it right? When it is my own work, and when it’s someone else’s work, I think I can do a little bit more examination of the story and really try to focus in on how to visualize or how I would visualize each single scene, it’s, it feels like, I kind of treat it like being a filmmaker, you know, I think of the author as like, maybe the screenwriter. And maybe the editor is our producer, but I’m playing multiple roles. I’m like the cinematographer, I’m choosing what the scene looks like, I’m the set dresser, I’m designing what the scene, what’s going on in the scene, what’s in the background, I’m designing the characters, I’m casting the movie, or the play, and I’m designing their costumes. So all through all of these choices, I get to sort of imagine like, here’s one single shot of of how to execute what’s on the page, and it feels a little bit sort of in the way that it’s easier to examine other people’s work than it is to examine your own, I can write a little easier for me to just kind of isolate a single scenes, whereas, you know, because I’m fully wrapped up in the story that I’m writing, I’m questioning, well, would this scene look better? If I changed the writing, I could rewrite the scene so that this the shot would look better. So I you know, I give myself a little bit too much freedom when I’m working on just my own projects to to question and rewrite. Whereas, you know, when I get a manuscript written by someone else, it is fixed, it is firm, you know, to a degree and you know, I’m doing my very best to execute what I feel is coming through in the story.
Traci Thomas 29:33
And when you work with other people, do you ever find that you maybe take on a project and then you realize, like, Oh, this is not a good partnership, or you take on something and you’re like, oh, my gosh, I could work with this person forever. Obviously, you do not need to name names, but I guess I’m thinking like, you probably get the story and you’re like, Oh, I would like to do this. And then sometimes, like, it’s not what you thought or it is what you thought, I don’t know, just like if there’s any dissonance in that collaboration, I guess
Vashti Harrison 30:00
Not usually because, you know, as an illustrator, I get to, you know, pick and choose what I work on, you know, often, often what will happen is like an author will sell their manuscript to a publisher, and the publisher will start reaching out, you know, the art director or the editor will start reaching out to different illustrators that they might have in mind for a certain project. So I’ll get to read the manuscript before, you know, and decide if I want to work on it. And so I never say yes to things that I don’t think I can bring something to. I do often ask like, do you guys have a particular style in mind? Because I think I changed my style up pretty differently based on the kind of story I’m illustrating. Or, you know, I’ll ask like, do you think that there will be a heavy use of cars and vehicles? Because maybe that won’t be as best for me to illustrate? Like, how much do you want to focus on the background? Or how much do you want to focus on the little details? And so, you know, I’ll know before I go in, if it’s something that I think I can really kind of collaborate with. So I think that’s one part of the process that a lot of people don’t know how it works. It’s not that like, yeah, you know, I’m, I’m assigned to a book and I have to illustrate it, or, you know, the author finds me and I have to work with them. Honestly, I get to pick and choose and, and I really only want to focus on books that I feel like I can bring my best self to my best work to, you know, probably share that story with young readers.
Traci Thomas 31:29
Okay, this is sort of a made up hypothetical here. Is there any person whose children’s book you would be like, I have to illustrate it that is my dream person to illustrate for? Does that exist for you?
Vashti Harrison 31:45
Um, no, I mean, this is, this is maybe a little bit of industry tea. I think, you know, I’ve had the opportunity to work with celebrities before, often, like, you know, I might say, like, Michelle Obama, just do like a work with Michelle Obama.
Traci Thomas 32:00
But that’s a good answer. So let’s say that for sure, on the record.
Vashti Harrison 32:05
But also, there’s a lot of pressure on a Michelle Obama book, sometimes it might be like, oh, yeah, we need this out to market in the next six months, you have to do the art in the next two weeks? And I would say, Absolutely not, I can’t do that. So, you know, I understand the stakes at play, when sometimes you might work on a big high profile book.
Traci Thomas 32:24
And what is your timeline normally, like, if long, like this long, like, like six months, like a year-
Vashti Harrison 32:31
You know, it really depends, like, right around the time that I got into the industry, you know, books take a long time, it’s usually like, on standard, like an 18 month process. So like, you’ll sign the deal, you’ll maybe get the manuscript after like, a month or a few months, or, you know, maybe later and I’ll have like, a year or so to work on the art. And that’s like, first round of sketches, second round of sketches, maybe third round of sketches, then final art, then another round of final art, and then all the changes. So, you know, those are, that’s usually about a year. But the year that I did hair, love, I think that was like the year 2018 or 19. And I did four books that your hair love school way, I wrote illustrated little dreamers and CC love science, the second one in that in that series, so that was a lot of books. And I had to go as fast as I possibly could. So, you know, I definitely got burnt out from trying to do too many projects. At one time, I just kept saying yes, because I was so sure, like, someone’s gonna figure out that, you know, I don’t have a background in illustration, someone’s gonna figure out that I don’t belong here. So I don’t know if this is gonna last forever. But now, like, you know, in the pandemic, things slow down a lot. And I had a lot more time on a book I did called Hello star, to do a lot of experimentation and change up my style work traditionally. And then, because big was a personal project, I had started writing and sketching that book many years before, you know, I ever sold it. And by the time it’s sold, it’s still took, like, almost two years to, to, you know, get everything done and get it out. So it can take a long time. I think if I really had to, I would go a lot faster, but I don’t have to anymore. So I don’t want to go fast if I don’t need to.
Traci Thomas 34:24
Okay, this might be a stupid question. But I am very bad at visual art, like deeply terrible at drawing and like any sort of rendering of a human face or anything in the world. And I’m wondering when you’re drawing a character that you’ve created like the girl and beg, is it hard to remember what she looks like?
Vashti Harrison 34:51
Yeah, I have to draw her over and over and over again to get myself comfortable with knowing her proportions and knowing what she looks Like, and I’m not that good at that part. Like I don’t love forcing myself to draw things over and over again. I remember when I was a little kid, I thought, oh, I can like animated movies, I could be an animator. And then I found out you had to keep drawing the same character over and over again, I felt like I could, I knew I was a little kitten. I was like, Oh, I can’t do that. That’s out for me. Like I can’t, I can’t recreate the same character from different angles. And that has, you know, that is a skill that everyone can get to if that is a goal for you. And it becomes easier and easier, the more you practice it, but it is not. It’s not simple. So I will acknowledge that. For anybody who does that work. It is like a very impressive thing. But it’s not impossible for you to learn if that’s where you want to get. But for me, there are some books where I think it’s a little bit more important to get the character just right on every single page, I was a little worried about Solway the books that I illustrated written by Lupita. anyango, she she has a very specific character. And she has a lot of emotions to show on her face. And, you know, it was little, you know, I was nervous about working with Lupita. She’s an actor, and so much of her work comes, you know, is about expressing emotion on your face. So I, I had a feeling that, you know, that was going to be really important. So, you know, that’s a book where I spent way more time trying to make sure I was like, accurate from spread to spread of that character’s face with big, you know, she’s really simple styled character, but she’s not exactly the same on every single page. And, you know, if I could, I would love to make it just perfect, but it’s actually not the most important part of the story that you know, her exact proportions are exactly the same. I think it’s perfectly fine that it varies from spread the spread, especially if the style of the book is a little bit more impressionistic. B, I remember being really discouraged when I was a little kid, realizing that animators draw the same character.
Traci Thomas 37:03
Did you always want to be an artist?
Vashti Harrison 37:07
When I was really little? I did. Yeah, I wanted to draw forever. And as I got older, I did. I didn’t know that there were other ways to be an artist. I, you know, I would see things in movies like, you know, famous artists in a movie or professional artists in a movie was always like a person who was painting on a canvas in like a big loft studio and throwing paint. And I was like, Well, I don’t want to be a painter. And in that way, so I guess I can’t be an artist. So this is why representation matters. Because I didn’t know there were so many different ways to be an artist to make art out there. And as I got a little bit older than that, I realized like, I would hear things about people saying, like, I like, Harriet, the spy was my favorite movie when I was a kid, the Nickelodeon version, starring Michelle Trachtenberg. And I learned I learned a term in that movie, starving artists and I got so scared. It really, it stuck with me and I got so scared that like you, people who are professional artists are starving, like the the, it was like one of the parents in the movie. And I just, it was a discouraging thing that I learned. So I tried to put that in the back of my mind like, Okay, well, you can’t be a professional artists, because those are painters. And if you are a painter, you’re gonna be a starving artist. Just like really bad things to internalize as a kid. But you know, so I forced myself to, you know, try other things. When I got to college, I was like, miserable, trying to study political and social thought. And eventually, you know, I took an art history class, which was like my gateway back into art. And I was like, well, maybe I’ll just take a drawing class. And it was from there. Like, I, I realized, like, I can’t, can’t keep myself from art, I need to do this. And it may not be my full time job. But I want to be able to be making art. And I had kind of a, you know, a breaking point in college where I was like, Well, I don’t even know if I want to stay in this college. Maybe Maybe I should go to art school. But if I go to art school, what do I study? I don’t I don’t want to be, am I am I going to be just a drawer is that are people just drawers for a living? So I was looking through all these different things. And I realized, you know, something I had been wanting to explore was filmmaking. And I, it was, you know, purely by by luck that I kind of fell into this. And I didn’t end up transferring, but I studied Media Studies and cinematography at the University of Virginia. And I fell into experimental filmmaking, which was an incredible process for me because it helped me to start making art that had meaning. It wasn’t just me copying my favorite characters off of the TV. It wasn’t me just copying, you know, bodies and clothes from fashion magazines. I was telling stories I was making meaning with my art. And that’s what got me into I went to grad school to study experimental film, and that’s where I picked up drawing again. at CalArts and that is like the beginning of my path towards becoming a children’s book illustrator it had many, many other bumps and side paths and got sidetracked for a while. But I think the the pole to make art was always there. And there were other things in life, you know, expectations and pressures from myself and from, you know, what I thought was success. That kept me confused for a really long time. But, you know, I’m grateful that I got here.
Traci Thomas 40:34
First of all, I love that story. Because I love when people’s stories super nonlinear, and just think it’s a good reminder to all of us. But something you said about when you started making film, and you started sort of making like, I guess, generative art where like, you were creating the thing from your own brain and mind and stuff. Can you talk a little bit about what that felt like for you from switching from kind of creating? Or, I think you said copying, but like, taking our things that were already in the world and rendering them in another way versus generating something that didn’t exist that came from you?
Vashti Harrison 41:13
Yeah, I mean, it was just, it felt like so powerful and meaningful to, to make something that came from within myself, and, you know, expressed something. And I think, you know, that’s the word I’ve been using over and over again, but I think that is it, like I was expressing something from within myself, rather than just, you know, doing, which was the kind of drawing that I was doing, which was just replicating, which is, like, really important, fundamental that many artists have to do like, taking these like life drawing classes, and still lives and stuff like that. So that is like a tool in your toolkit, but you as an artist is, you know, the ideas that you have within you and the things that you want to say. So just as much as I think that, you know, the pencil is one of my tools, you know, the film camera. And, you know, clay and toy making and wood are other tools in that toolkit to express and tell the different stories that you have. So I think it just felt really empowering to be able to, to know that I could create something that was on my own.
Traci Thomas 42:25
I just love that. A question I asked everyone, and I’m going to make it a two parter for you. I’ve never asked the second part before, but I’ve also never had a writer illustrator on the show before, so you get to be the guinea pig. But the first part of the question is, what’s a word? You can never spell correctly on the first try?
Vashti Harrison 42:45
Oh, I don’t know. I’ve like maybe undiagnosed but as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve become like slightly dyslexic, so I always swapped letters when I’m writing. So often, I mean, this crazy, I spell my name wrong all the time. So that’s the one that’s probably the most frequent but mostly, I read recently, anything that ends in a y like say the word spooky, I add an L y n to it like Brooklyn. So spooky becomes so Guerlain? I think it was just a habit. Everything that ends in a Why is now Brooklyn.
Traci Thomas 43:24
That’s funny. Okay, and then part two of this question because I’ve heard other friends who are artists. What’s the thing you can’t draw hands? Hands that’s I feel like that’s a common one pretty common hands and noses-
Vashti Harrison 43:38
Oh, yeah, that’s fair. I don’t know the the funny thing is you know everyone’s talking about AI art and AI art you know has been having a hard time replicating hands and I was like bro I’ve been there the the trick was putting people’s arms behind their backs like that’s what-
Traci Thomas 43:54
Lots of pockets. I love that. I love that even with this like insane AI situation. Ai two has the same human struggles but also they could be robots that will eat us all so let’s not be too friendly with them. Another question I always like to ask people and I guess this is also sort of two part but it’s how do you like to write and for you also illustrate where are you how many hours a day how often is there music? Or no? Are there snacks and beverages? If so, what are they? And I guess how do those two things differ for meal for you? Like how are you when you’re writing versus how are you when you’re illustrating?
Vashti Harrison 44:34
Writing needs to be quiet and or either either pure quiet in my house or in a coffee shop with some ambient noise but no music no headphones in drawing, ideally is in my office slash studio in my house I decided like supremely dislike when people are like watching me draw, which is the thing that everyone wants to do. I Get it I like I want to watch people draw to I prefer the privacy of my home to just like draw my bad hands 15 times over and over again. And drawing can have background noise either like a podcast or audiobooks or like the TV on kind of low or you know the TV on high and I’ll listen you know any show that’s like super drama, like dialogue base so those are those are good ones that you can just like listen to and follow the whole story without looking up from from what you’re doing. Or, or reality TV.
Traci Thomas 45:37
And are you watching Love is blind?
Vashti Harrison 45:39
I am and I watched a whole hour of a loading screen last night long with everybody
Traci Thomas 45:48
we won’t go too deep into what have you watched? I haven’t watched it yet. I was traveling yesterday so I missed it anyways, but I haven’t had time yet.
Vashti Harrison 45:55
The embarrassing thing is I watched I watched someone else’s livestream of it on their tick tock so I got some of it. Oh my gosh, it was it was purely for though like the this is a live moment and I’m I have to I have to be a part of it. Even if I’m not getting all the information in the right way. There’s something about like, the live tweeting and everyone’s trying to figure out what’s going on.
Traci Thomas 46:17
So I did watch I know I was glad because I was so worried there’s gonna be spoilers last night but because it got all screwed up there haven’t really been that many spoilers yet so I need to watch in the next like little bit before there are but I did before I know I’m also on succession travel days the worst ruin son traveling on a Sunday is impossible during succession and love is blind season. It’s just no good. Um, I did kind of jump over my favorite part of the question though. snacks and beverages.
Vashti Harrison 46:43
Usually just coffee, hot coffee. cold call? How
Traci Thomas 46:47
do you take it?
Vashti Harrison 46:48
I just got myself a fancy espresso machine. So I do you know if everything goes right and Americano with half and half.
Traci Thomas 46:58
I love half and half. I’m a tea girl. But I put half enough of my tea, which I know is a little excessive. But that’s me. How do you tap into your creativity? Do you have any things that you do to help you stay like generative? Or are there things that you do when you feel yourself like slumping either with your writing or your filmmaking or your illustrations or anything?
Vashti Harrison 47:21
Yeah, for me, the thing that always gets me reenergized is kind of switching up media. So you know, when I’m like maybe working on a book, and it’s, you know, I’m at the stage where I’m fully on the computer and I have to be, you know, illustrating on my, on my computer, with my drawing tablet, I will try to make space for doing something with my hands. So I’ll like just make a sketch with pastel or I’ll make something to post on social media or, you know, more recently, I’ve been experimenting with making figurines and dolls and toys. So and that will kind of get that creative spark going again, to make me want to go back to working on another project or make me want to write so it’s kind of tricking myself, like, here’s a treat. You can work on this for a little while. And then you get to work on this for a little while.
Traci Thomas 48:17
Hmm, I love that. I know that the at the time of us talking right now the book is not out yet. But when people are listening, the book is out in the world and you can get it wherever your books, but what comes next for you do you know,
Vashti Harrison 48:30
I don’t have anything on the books, I don’t have another book on the books right now. feels exciting. I get to kind of pick and choose what I work on next. But I am experimenting, forcing myself to do some more long form writing. And so maybe there will be something longer in the future. Who knows. I have another book coming out later this year, another hair love book and ABC books. So that one was really fun. Just exploring all these different hairstyles. I love drawing hair. So that was really great. And, you know, I think creatively I am excited about, you know, potentially just making more things, physical objects. So, you know, I’m trying to, like look forward to just experimenting throughout the summer kind of treat it like summer camp.
Traci Thomas 49:21
Hmm. That’s fun. yearbooks are beloved, and I’m wondering for you who the coolest person is who has expressed interest or gotten back to that they’ve read your stuff. Hmm.
Vashti Harrison 49:39
Honestly, I get to encounter a lot of adults who read my books when I get letters or notes or even just, you know, kids when I meet them, you know, at schools, it always feels like way more, you know, earnest and meaningful when a kid is out Like, no, I love this book, not my mom bought me this book or my family. My parents bought me this book. I think, a few years ago, right, right after a little leaders came out, I was in California and was walking down the street and I saw a little girl with my book. And I was like, flabbergasted is, I think the only time I’ve ever seen my book out in the wild for real, like, not at a bookstore, but just someone holding it and reading it. And that, like, Will, I’ll never lose that image. I took a picture with her and it always pops up on my phone. And it’s like, that feels so real. Feels so good. So, you know, it means so much when a kid expresses like a true appreciation for my work, because then I know that I’ve done at least something right.
Traci Thomas 50:50
Right. And that’s so special, because I feel like your books often stay in the house. Right? Like, it’s like a book that like, like you read at bedtime or whatever. Like, I don’t take my kids books out of the house very much. You know, I’m just thinking about like, what that was like a really special moment because that child took the book out of the house. And like so many kids books, just stay in the house or maybe like stay in a backpack or whatever. Anyways, very, that’s a very cute story. For for people who love big, what else might you recommend to them? That’s in conversation with big.
Vashti Harrison 51:28
I think there are a lot of really great other children’s books that tackle this conversation about our bodies. There’s one called bodies are cool by Tyler feta. That I think is the gold standard of just letting people know that all bodies are different that is really just cool and amazing. There is a book by Shelley anon called I love my body because and then for any adult that is interested in really examining more about adult suffocation, I would highly recommend this study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. It’s called girlhood interrupted, and you can find that on their website. And they have, you know, a few more. They have some videos and stuff on their YouTube channel. So I think it’s super useful. But for other kids, I think, a slightly older kid, there’s a great book in verse called starfish that I think is really lovely. Yeah, lots of beautiful illustrations. So I think they’re, I mean, I think we’re really fortunate that there are so many more options these days.
Traci Thomas 52:39
I will link to everything you said today in the shownotes for great, so So those will all be there. I just this question. I don’t know, I wasn’t planning on asking you about this. But I’m curious about this trend in publishing, where white authors and are writing books about children of color, and are not putting their the author’s like photo or face on the book in this sort of like, earnest way of capitalizing air quotes on diversity or whatever. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that. But as a parent of black children, it’s been really frustrating to me, in the bookstore, trying to figure out who wrote this book? And is this maneuver to sell books because black and brown kids are in quote unquote, or I don’t know. So I don’t know if you have any thoughts? Or if you can speak to that at all.
Vashti Harrison 53:37
Yeah, I mean, I know what you’re talking about. I feel like I haven’t encountered so many of those experiences. But yeah, I know that the Own Voices movement was really important to people and authors from like the We Need Diverse Books movement, so Own Voices, it just means that this is a story that speaks to the experience or the background that the author or Illustrator is coming from. And so, you know, I find those books to be the most meaningful for me. And so I think as a parent, or just a person who buys books for kids, I, I know that it is a little bit harder to to spend that extra time doing that research, but I think it makes the reading experience a little bit more meaningful. That’s not to say that there aren’t like well written books or beautiful books by people who are not from the background of the character that you know, that their protagonist but at least for me, you know, I, I tend to spend a lot more time following and keeping up with authors and illustrators that I really admire. And so, you know, I tend to know exactly what I’m getting at getting when I look for one of their books. So, you know, it’s tough, it’s complicated, and I have, you know, yeah, I don’t know I don’t feel I haven’t encountered it that much to feel particularly lost in the bookstore. But you know, I will always do my best to kind of promote Own Voices stories and recommend those to to young readers.
Traci Thomas 55:15
Yeah, that’s appreciated for sure. This is my last question for you. If you could have one person dead or alive, read big, who would you want it to be?
Vashti Harrison 55:25
I don’t know. I would be so scared to, to share it with like people that like I really admire and look up to but you know, if it was guaranteed that they were going to like it, and I wouldn’t say like, oh, like, maybe Toni Morrison, I would really love. I mean, I think she’ll love it. I would hope so. Honestly, I think this was a really tough book to write. And I just really hope that I got it right that I got the message right, and shared it in the best way possible. But the people that it’s for our for our young people, and so I just hope that it resonates with any one person. Because that’ll mean I’ve done my job right? If it resonates with a young reader
Traci Thomas 56:15
Well, everyone the book is Big. It is out in the world. Now. You can get it wherever you get your books. Vashti thank you so much for being here. Thank you, and everyone else we will see you in the stacks.
Alright, y’all, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Vashti Harrison for joining the show. I’d also like to say thank you to Caroline Sun for helping to facilitate this interview. Don’t forget our main book club selection is this boy we made by Taylor Harris. We will discuss the book on May 31st with Nicole chunk. If you love this show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stock spot. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stocks wherever you’re listening to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks. Follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and Tiktok and at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Cristian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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