Vashti Harrison's Big (Little, Brown, May 2) pulls off a difficult feat. Taking on lofty topics such as antifat bias and the ways in which Black girls are often forced to grow up far too soon, this stunning picture book—shortlisted for a National Book Award—nevertheless remains utterly accessible for its young audience. Telling the story of a Black child whose body provokes cruel commentary from those around her, Harrison uses deft visual metaphors to reassure readers that they are enough just as they are. The author/illustrator answered our questions via email.
Big feels more intimate than your other works—did you approach it differently?
Yes, definitely. I always knew I wanted this to be a very internal story, where we focus on the main character and her emotional journey. I wanted to draw readers in by placing us firmly in her point of view for most of the book. I tried to keep the illustrations spare, with limited colors, to really indicate we are in her world. I hoped [this approach] would help readers truly feel what she feels. This story is partially a reflection on adultification bias and Black girlhood, so I wanted to create ways to bring readers in close, in the hopes that they might feel compassion for her and her experience.
What was your inspiration?
The image that sparked this story was that of a young girl struggling to fit within the frames of a box. She’s trapped. She can barely move. With nowhere else to go, she curls up in a ball and turns her back to the viewer. I wanted to show visually what it feels like to be so overwhelmed with emotions that you feel trapped by them. It’s something I go through [today] and remember going through as a child. I wanted to communicate with others just how tough that feels. Knowing I wanted to get to this dark, emotional point, I worked backward and forward to try to figure out how we got here and where we go from here.
This book will empower the young people who read or listen to it. But what do you hope grown-ups will take away from the story?
Many adults have reached out to tell me how much the story has resonated with them, so I definitely hope it can be a mirror for so many who have never had a story like this to look to for comfort. But for other adults, I hope it’s a window into the world of children like the girl at the center of this story. I hope the book encourages adults to really consider the words we use with children and truly think about how our words can stick with kids.
Were you able to do live events for the book this year? Any memorable highlights?
My favorite thing is hearing kids react to the story—[such as] responding to the page turns—and [listening to] their thoughtful questions. But at one school the students wrote out advice for the main character on Post-it Notes on their door. The affirmation and love they offered her was so kind and sweet but also so powerful. I love knowing those words are hanging up for them to look at and take in every day.
Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.