Vashti Harrison Courtesy Vashti Harrison

Vashti Harrison (Col ’10) was just wading into the world of children’s literature in 2017 when she started a personal Black History Month project that began on social media and, before the end of the year, turned into a New York Times bestselling book.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History was an instant success when it launched in December 2017. The picture book, which Harrison wrote and illustrated, chronicles the lives of 40 accomplished African American women such as activist Rosa Parks, 19th-century lawyer Charlotte E. Ray and journalist Gwen Ifill, and includes illustrations featuring girls dressed as them.

It’s been a rapid ascent ever since for Harrison in a hard-to-crack industry that, until recently, hasn’t sought out books that highlight characters of color like the black women she features in Little Leaders. In three years, she’s become a major creative force with increasingly higher-profile projects that feature diverse characters.

She illustrated Academy Award-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe and former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry’s picture book Hair Love, both 2019 New York Times bestsellers featuring black characters. Harrison also is credited as a character designer on Cherry’s 2019 Oscar-winning animated short of the same name. And both Hair Love, the book, and Sulwe are nominated for NAACP Image Awards.

As a child, Harrison, who is black, didn’t see herself mirrored in the books she read at school. Most didn’t feature characters who looked like her, and they still don’t. Just 13 percent of children’s books published in the past 24 years contain multicultural content, according to Lee & Low, a publisher that tracks diversity in children’s books. 

“I didn’t think [books] were for me,” Harrison says. “That didn’t stop me from being a reader and it didn’t stop me from being a good student, but I think about that a lot. It could have stopped the kid sitting next to me.”

Covers of three books by Vashti Harrison
Harrison hopes to open up the world to young readers of her Little Leaders series.

‘Mad talent’

Harrison drew a lot as a child, copying cartoons from movies and books. But an art career wasn’t going to catapult her toward her teenage aspiration—to escape her small hometown of Onley, Virginia. Or so she thought.

At UVA, politics or law seemed like pragmatic choices, but Harrison quickly discovered she had no interest in those topics. An art history class was her gateway back into the art world. An English writing requirement class called America Through Film helped steer her toward her majors—media studies and studio arts with a concentration in film and cinematography.

After graduation, Harrison completed an art fellowship at UVA and, in 2014, earned a master’s degree in fine arts in film and video from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts. 

“She’s just got mad talent,” says UVA art professor Kevin Everson, whom Harrison impressed early on with the characters and worlds she built in her films. 

After years of focusing on films, Harrison returned to drawing during her final year at CalArts. After graduation, while working as a TV show production coordinator in Atlanta, the idea of illustrating children’s books bubbled up. When the show ended, she lost her job and eventually returned to the place she thought she’d escaped: Onley.

It wouldn’t be for long. There she made illustration a target, joining a children’s publishing industry group and submitting a drawing to one of its contests. She won. The day after her winning illustration was featured, book publisher Simon & Schuster contacted her about a project. Soon she had an agent and was living in New York. It was just the start of her meteoric rise.

An illustration from Lupita Nyong’o’s book, Sulwe

‘That’s me. I do that.’

Social media became an increasingly important venue for Harrison to showcase her work. There she’d share drawings to see what racked up likes. Fans gravitated to her animation-style drawings of women and children of color.

“There are thousands of talented artists out there,” she says. “I realized the only thing I can do is something different from what I’m seeing.”

It was on social media that Harrison started the Black History Month project that inspired Little Leaders, her first bestselling book. Every day in February 2017, she posted brief biographies of inspirational African American women and illustrations of children dressed like them on Instagram.

She wanted to highlight stories that weren’t featured in the Black History Month celebrations of her youth. Before the end of February, Harrison had a three-book deal based on the project with Little, Brown and Company, a leading publisher.

Harrison followed up Little Leaders with Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World in 2018 and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History in 2019.

In her books, she hopes to open up the world to her young readers, showing them successful people of color and sparking dreams of their own. She often starts a biography with a detail from the person’s childhood. For example, as a girl tennis champion Althea Gibson preferred sports to schoolwork. Sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler started writing at age 10, despite having dyslexia. 

“That can make all the difference if they see a little reflection of themselves,” Harrison says. “It doesn’t take a whole lot for a kid to say, ‘That’s me. I do that.’”

Working with Nyong’o

Harrison (right) with Nyong’o (center) and Harrison’s sister, Nicole, at a party for Sulwe Courtesy Vashti Harrison

Harrison has also accepted projects to illustrate picture books by other authors, including Nyong’o’s Sulwe, the story of a young girl who grapples with the darkness of her skin. Harrison was eager to work with Nyong’o, not because she was starstruck to meet the actor, but because she knew she could bring more life to the story about colorism, a form of discrimination where people with darker skin are treated less favorably than those with lighter skin.

Harrison says she is drawn to stories about magic and adventure. In Sulwe, the main character travels on a shooting star, a journey that Harrison portrays with vivid colors and her distinct style.“Illustrating a book isn’t translating the story,” Harrison says. “It’s extending the story.”

These days, Harrison is working on other projects, including turning Little Legends into a board book. More films could come. She’d like to write fiction, too. 

As she considers what’s next, she often reflects on what she would have wanted to read back in Onley as a little girl who didn’t believe books were for her. “I think about that a lot,” she says. “If I had a book, what kind of book would have been really fun for me?”