Vashti Harrison, creator of Little Leaders, the bestselling illustrated nonfiction series, makes her fiction debut with Big, a simple yet immensely significant picture book. Harrison marshals her considerable talents for a story that celebrates a young Black girl’s aspirations and highlights how words have the ability to empower or to cause suffering.

The book opens as an adorable baby reaches up to touch a mobile of multicolored stars that hangs over her crib. “Once there was a girl / with a big laugh and a big heart / and very big dreams,” reads the spare text on the opposite page. As the baby becomes a toddler and then a girl, Harrison considers the shifting connotations of the word big in her life. At first, when she’s very young, the girl receives praise from adults who call her “a big girl,” and the word rewards her growth and accomplishments. But the word soon takes on hurtful dimensions that culminate in a playground scene inspired by Harrison’s own childhood. When the girl is unable to get out of a swing, her classmates rain down taunts and an adult scolds, “Don’t you think you’re too big for that? You’re in big trouble!” 

Harrison uses powerful visuals to explore the effect of others’ opinions on the girl. Though the girl is illustrated in vibrant shades of brown and pink, everyone else in the book is drawn in shadowy monochromes. Their words hurtle forcefully across the page, and Harrison conveys their negative impact as the girl gradually grows disproportionately large in relation to the people around her. In one scene, she stands twice as tall as her dance instructor, who uses a paint roller to cover the girl’s pink tutu with a shade called “husky blue.” Eventually, the girl becomes so large that she pushes against the very edges of the pages themselves before curling up in a ball, turning her back to the reader and beginning to cry. In the pool of tears that forms around her, the girl discovers words of affirmation (“creative,” “graceful,” “kind”), as well as the words that caused her so much pain. What follows is a beautiful journey of healing, transformation and self-love.

In Big, Harrison invites readers to reflect on how we treat others based on their body size and to consider the implicit biases we hold about which kinds of bodies are “acceptable.” Her sophisticated use of color, design and space make for an outstanding reading experience. In a moving and personal author’s note, Harrison writes of her hopes that the book will especially resonate with “those of us who are Black girls in big bodies.” 

Straightforward enough for even very young children to understand and appreciate, but with a vital message for adults too, Big is one of the year’s most exceptional picture books.

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