By Jane Kelly
A self-challenge posed in a tiny, sublet room last year in Brooklyn has taken a University of Virginia alumna to a place she never expected: the New York Times best-seller list.
Vashti Harrison, who graduated in 2010 with a double major in media studies and studio art, moved to New York City in December 2016 to see if she could make it in the big city. Soon she was working full-time as a freelance illustrator.
In the late hours of January 31, 2017, in that small room, a thought came to her: Why not draw one African-American woman every day for the month of February in honor of Black History Month? She would post her art on her Instagram account as a way to challenge herself. “Work can get a little bit monotonous,” she said. “It can be hard to remember that I like to draw.”
A few days into the project, Harrison reached out to her agent to ask if she thought there was potential for a book. As it turned out, the agent was about to ask her the same thing.
The pair pitched the book idea to a couple of publishers, and Harrison says that Little, Brown and Company just “got” the idea.
“I had known about Little, Brown since I was a little kid,” Harrison said. “I remember reading the publisher’s name on the side of one of my books.”
It also didn’t hurt that the name of her book—Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History—bore a certain resemblance to the name of the publishing company.
“It felt like a really nice resolution—Little Leaders... Little, Brown.”
Little Leaders was an instant New York Times best-seller, rising to the No. 2 spot on the Children’s Middle-Grade Hardcover list as of February 5.
The book features 40 black women from American history. There are civil rights activists, artists, musicians and astronauts. Each illustrated entry includes a brief biography Harrison wrote for readers aged 8 to 12.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to share the stories that are doubly neglected through history—that is, women and people of color,” Harrison said.
Little Leaders has drawn major media interest, including from New York magazine, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. In January, Harrison appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Harrison got inspiration for her drawings from characters in children’s classics, such as Eloise, Madeline and Winnie the Pooh. “I really wanted to create this character that felt timeless and really sweet,” she said.
The drawings look like paper dolls. “I wanted them all to have the same face and similar poses,” Harrison said. “I wanted them to feel interchangeable.
One other thing readers may notice is that in all the illustrations, the subject’s eyes are closed.
“It goes back to that vibe I was looking for—that very vintage, classic illustration,” Harrison said. One reviewer characterized the closed eyes as meaning that each of the girls was looking within themselves to embody the story. “I love that,” Harrison said.