Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison is a phenomenal book. Beautifully designed and charmingly illustrated, Harrison's book features the biographies of 40 amazing women. In her introduction, Harrison writes that Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History began as a challenge to herself to illsutrate one African American women from history every day during Black History Month. Deeply moved by the stories she uncovered in her research for this project, Harrison brought the stories of all these women together in a book, celebrating, "not only their collective contribution to history, but also their diversity." She also created it with her younger self in mind, writing,
I think about what kinds of dreams I might have had if I had known about all these women when I was growing up, if I'd known that so many people who looked like me had done such incredible things. To be able to see yourself in someone else's story can be life changing. To know that a goal is achievable can be empowering.
To this end, Harrison's illustrations depict each of her subjects as a sort of "everygirl." While their skin tone may vary, they all have the same little girl shape, posed with "eyes down and subtle smile" that is one of serenity, as described by Harrison. Inspired by the classic illustrations of Mary Blair and Roger Hargreaves, Harrison wanted to, "see black girls treated with the same sweetness as classic characters, like those that inspire me," while also showing that "boldness and bravery can come in different shapes and sizes. It can also come in the form of the quiet, shy or introverted."
Harrison's wonderful illustrations compliments a truly fascinating range of subjects. While there are the familiar, important names among the 40 women in the book, Harrison brings new names into the realm of children's biographies. It is exciting to see women like Gwen Ifill, Oprah Winfrey, Julie Dash, Octavia E. Butler and Nichelle Nichols, their accomplishments and contributions, made accessible for young readers.
It is equally exciting to learn about women from history I had never heard of, like Charlotte E. Ray who, in 1872, became the first African American woman to graduate from law school in the United States and only the third woman - of any race - to complete law school in America! Then there is Alice Ball who, while working on her master's thesis, discovered what would become the leading treatment for leprosy. Less than two years after this discovery, Alice died and the director of her program took credit for her discovery. Decades later, historians unearthed the truth and worked to ensure that Alice got credit for her discovery. Then, there is the incredible story of social psychologist and counselor Mamie Phipps Clark. While at Howard University, Mamie and her future husband, Kenneth Clark, began the breakthrough research on what became known as the doll tests, showing an overwhelming preference for white dolls in black children aged three to seven. These studies led to the conclusion that students from segregated schools had developed a sense of inferiority and self-hatred, and that integration was helpful to both black and white children in achieving a healthy racial self-identification and improving race relations. Their work became key evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
I am not a fan of non-fiction, but I am increasingly finding that new non-fiction books for young readers are deeply engaging and inspire me to want to know more. Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is definitely one of these books. Happily, Harrison is working on her next book, featuring women from around the world, and she even promised that there will be some boys some time in the future.