When flipping through the pages of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, I found myself getting emotional more than once, reading the stories detailed within. Author and artist, Vashti Harrison beautifully illustrates over 40 truly groundbreaking individuals, while educating as well via mini biographies for each. The figures featured include enduring Black icons Octavia Butler, Nina Simone, and Ida B. Wells, to modern day leaders Julie Dash and Dominique Dawes. “I wanted to tell all of their stories together to celebrate not only their collective contribution to history, but also their diversity,” says Harrison in the book’s introduction. Little Leaders started off as a personal challenge for Black History Month, as Harrison, sought once a day, to illustrate famous Black women from history, while detailing their personal achievements.
“As I researched and read amazing stories of women both known and unknown, I was surprised to be moved so deeply.” – Vashti Harrison
The book’s title is a reference to Vashti Harrison’s art style, which I’ve described to in the past as “Afro-Chibi.” While some of the women showed talent at an early age (Audre Lorde, for example) all of the women are deliberately illustrated as little girls. This was an excellent choice, as I always received favorable reactions from my 3-year old daughter whenever we’d look at some of Harrison’s artwork online. I imagine that the cover and title would lead some to feel that they’re buying a children’s book, and what a wondrous error that would be! I was already familiar with Harrison’s work, coupled with my own home “research” with my youngest daughter. With that in mind, I bought this with the sole intent of bedtime reading. (I have two daughters, ages 3 and 7, and you better believe each has her own copy!) My youngest child is really starting to recognize the power that comes through frequent inquiry, so thankfully, the information on each non-illustrated page is plentiful to match.
I learned a ton when reading this book, and am honestly almost ashamed of how little I was familiar with some of the women Harrison highlighted. As of this writing, I may slowly be turning into a major Mary Bowser fanboy! Why her story hasn’t been more prominently featured throughout my education seems like a personal offense, but maybe that’s sort of an intended side effect by Harrison, to inspire the future in subtle, but just as effective a manner. The same sentiment drove an earlier desire in me to learn about Octavia Butler. Though it isn’t the best impetus for knowledge, we all know what Mr. Nancy says about Anger. Other standouts to me were modern-day leader, Marcelite J. Harris and Raven Wilkinson, the latter of whom paved the way for American Ballet Theatre pioneer, Misty Copeland. To be truthfully honest, it took a lot longer to read the 40 bios than I’d initially as each of the “Little Leaders,” is worthy of lots more further exploration. I’d find myself sidetracked for hours at a time, frantically trying to fill my head with information, to combat the questions I imagine my daughters will have, but also to sate my own desire for knowledge.
Today it’s just as important as it ever was for young Black girls to not only see a world where they fit in, but one they helped create. Without Nichelle Nichols, also featured, we’d never have Dr. Mae Jemison! That spirit must be paid forward, that cultural symbiosis, must continue, and it’s through books like Little Leaders that our path is laid out. Nichols famously almost left Star Trek, not realizing her place in history, until she was convinced to stay by the self-professed “Biggest Trekkie on the Planet” to stay. Stories like this are where you find out what your tear ducts are made of, while you pass them down to the next wide-eyed generation. While there are 40 fully featured leaders with page-length biographies, there are an additional 12 near the end, some connected directly to the others. It could be stated that you don’t get to Serena Williams without Althea Gibson, but both are featured as a sort of a historical “Connect the Dots.”
Lastly, from Vashti Harrison, “You’ll meet Scientists, Politicians, Doctors, Painters, Sculptors and Dancers, and they are all Black women. This in no way means that this book is only for Black girls – I hope readers of every background find these stories compelling and inspiring.” Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History released on December 5th this year and is available from Amazon.com, as well as through the artist’s site.
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