In January, Vashti Harrison became the first Black woman to receive the Randolph Caldecott Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Harrison’s Big (Little, Brown, 2023), one of the most empowering children’s books in recent years, centers on a young Black girl who’s treated with hostility and derision because of her size but eventually finds a way to make space for herself.

Harrison, 36, has spent much of her career showing Black children that they belong. Before Big, she was known for her Little Leaders books, which profile pioneering African American historical figures; she also illustrated Hair Love (2019), the story of a Black daughter bonding with her father as he styles her hair, written by NFL wide receiver and Academy Award–winning filmmaker Matthew Cherry, and Sulwe (2019), Academy Award–winning actor Lupita Nyong’o’s story about a Black girl who learns to embrace her dark skin.

Making children’s literature more inclusive is “something I’ve been thinking about since I started in this industry, just wanting to carve out space for us,” Harrison told me during a Zoom conversation from her parents’ home in Miramar, Florida. (The author/illustrator lives in Brooklyn.) “[I wanted] to reimagine what it would have looked like if I’d found, right next to all the little Beatrix Potter books at the library, a book with a girl that looked like me.”

The last few months have been emotional for Harrison. The day she got the call from the Caldecott committee was a roller coaster. Having heard earlier in the day that Big was a Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Honor book, she wondered if a Caldecott was in the cards. But as the hours passed with no word, “I went through every stage of grief.” When she finally got the call that night, she was deeply moved—and thrilled to share the news with her parents; she was spending the weekend with them for her father’s 89th birthday.

Though Harrison is the first Black woman to win the award, other Black women have received Caldecott Honors—including author and illustrator Faith Ringgold (Tar Beach, 1991), who died in April—and they were on her mind as she prepared her speech for the ceremony, to be held at the ALA’s annual meeting in San Diego later this month. “There are actually seven Black women that have been honored, Faith being the first. I was really excited to be able to add an aside: She’s 93 and she’s still with us; how amazing is that? So it feels extra bittersweet to hear of her passing right before this event.”

Harrison has long admired Ringgold’s work, as well as that of Carole Byard, who received a Caldecott Honor for her work on Sherley Anne Williams’ Working Cotton (1992). “They were both part of the Black Arts Movement, and I feel so inspired to want to make art that celebrates Black beauty, Black liberation,” Harrison says. Just as many Beatles fans wear T-shirts with the first names of the group members, Harrison has a shirt honoring female visual artists, including Ruth Asawa, Hilma af Klint, and, of course, Ringgold. “She’s one of my heroes, and I love the way she brings together traditions and Black art and [how she] brought that into the space of children’s books.”

Harrison is also deeply grateful to her contemporaries: Black women such as Janelle Washington, who received a Caldecott Honor for her work in Angela Joy’s Choosing Brave (2022), and Ekua Holmes, who was honored for her work in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom (2015). “Every step they’ve taken in their career paths has made an extra-wide path for me to come along. And I just hope that this win opens up a pathway for more of us to follow afterward.”

Growing up, Harrison loved to draw, but she didn’t set out to become a children’s book illustrator. As an undergraduate, she fell in love with experimental film and eventually earned an MFA in film from the California Institute of the Arts. In graduate school, she says, “I was like a kid in a candy shop…I took an illustration class and animation classes and visual development classes and found this newfound hunger and fire for drawing.”

She has directed several short films, and that film background still informs her illustration work. “Even when I’m illustrating other people’s books, I’m trying to think about my shot position,” Harrison explains. “I still call them shots, even though they’re really spreads. Turning a page is sort of like an edit or a cut in a movie. If we’re going to go from a wide shot, we should go to a close-up or a medium shot, and we should switch it up and try not to be on the same angle.”

Harrison feels a great responsibility to her Black and brown readers. Before she wrote her first book, Little Leaders (2017), she read a study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality called “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” “It broke my heart to hear…that adults view Black girls as young as the age of 5 as less innocent and more adult than their white counterparts,” she says. “This results in adults believing that Black girls need less nurturing, need less care.” To combat these harmful misconceptions, she chose to depict the historical figures in Little Leaders as children. “I wanted to make a mirror for young Black girls to be able to see themselves in each of their stories,” she explains. “That’s a reminder: Oh yeah, I’m cute, I’m cool, I can be any of these people. I wanted to make a book that felt sweet and charming and innocent. That’s what I wanted to offer these kids.”

With Big, she set out to explore “how anti-fat bias can be a factor that can lead into this adultification bias…I wanted to create a world that felt innocent and gentle, and I wanted that to be at odds with the way the world was judging [the protagonist]. I wanted every choice in the book to be a reminder that she is soft and sweet and innocent and deserving of love and care and nurturing.”

Big is making waves in the publishing world—last year, it became the first picture book to be named a National Book Award finalist. Harrison wants to see other children’s book illustrators get their due. “I’m really grateful to have brought picture books into that space. But I feel like there could be many more places to celebrate this artwork. I’m a major advocate for thinking about picture books as literature and thinking about children’s illustration as artwork: Art with a capital A. So maybe that means we just need another award.”

Harrison hopes the kid lit world will continue to make space for marginalized voices. “I don’t want the character from Big to be the only Black girl sitting on this Caldecott shelf. I would love her to have friends and community up there. I would love to see more books be published that offer a full spectrum of the Black experience.” She adds, “I tend to make really serious and tender books. But I have friends who just make the funniest, silliest characters, and I don’t get to see enough Black and brown kids just having a fun, Dragons Love Tacos experience. I want more and more silly books…That’s what I want to see, just more diversity.”

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.