If history is precedent, this University of Virginia alumna could soon land on The New York Times’ Children’s Bestsellers list again – this time with her new collaborator, Hollywood star Lupita Nyong’o.

Nyong’o – known for her standout performances in “Us,” “Black Panther” and “12 Years a Slave” – tapped Vashti Harrison, a 2010 UVA graduate who earned degrees in media studies and studio art, to illustrate her new children’s book.

Harrison grabbed the No. 3 spot on The New York Times’ Children’s Bestsellers list in December with her book, “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History,” which features 40 black women from American history. It is also a USA Today bestseller.

Aimed at readers aged 8 to 12, “Little Leaders” features such women as abolitionist Sojourner Truth, politician Shirley Chisholm and author Maya Angelou.

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Harrison’s new illustrations appear in Nyong’o “Sulwe,” which means “star” in a Kenyan dialect, Luo. It’s the story of a Sulwe, a girl who has skin the color of “midnight.” She is darker than the rest of her family. One night, she prays to God, “Please make me as fair as the parents I am from. … May I wake up as bright as the sun in the sky?”

In a tweet, Nyong’o said she wrote the book “to inspire children (and everyone really!) to love the skin they are in & to see the beauty that radiates from within.”

UVA Today reached out to Harrison to learn how she and Nyong’o began collaborating and how Harrison approached the art for the book, which goes on sale Oct.15. She also offered UVA Today readers a tantalizing sneak preview of her forthcoming book, “Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History,” which will hit bookshelves just in time for the holiday season.

Q. How did you get connected with Lupita?

A. Just like any other picture book, Lupita, the author, signed a deal with the publisher, Simon and Schuster. She works with the editor, the super-talented Zareen Jaffrey, to get the manuscript perfect. Meanwhile the art director, Laurent Linn, starts looking for illustrators. I was among a number of others who were sent the manuscript to read and consider. I did a sample illustration of one spread and together they decided they liked mine, so I was sent an offer. That’s typically how it works for every picture book.

Q. What is the book about? 

A. Sulwe is a girl with skin the color of midnight. She’s the darkest in her family and teased at school. She goes on an adventure through the stars to learn how to love herself and find the light inside. 

Headshot: Vashti Harrison, and Lupita Nyong’o,

Vashti Harrison, left, is the illustrator of “Sulway,” written by Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o, right. (Photos contributed by Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

Q. How did you approach the art for this book?

A. I knew I’d be working with a lot of dark colors, lots of blues, blacks and purples, both for Sulwe’s skin and for the night sky. For that reason, I wanted to make sure I had the latitude in my palette to get those subtleties. I do typically illustrate digitally, but I am not exclusively a digital artist. In the end, I thought digital would be the best medium to emphasize those nuances in light and dark. I wanted to use lighting and highlights and negative and positive to visually make Sulwe stand out, to give deep richness to her skin and clarify her isolation at times. Her eyes needed to pop and be really clear, to express those intense emotions that, to be honest, may not be visible because those subtle facial expressions might otherwise not be visible. 

Q. How long did it take to do the drawings?

A. Just a little over one year, from sketches to final. I was working on several books at the same time, so maybe it could have been faster!

Q. How did you and Lupita collaborate on the art?

A. We spoke early on about her ideas, and a few of mine, but typically the author and illustrator rarely talk. (There are some authors of books that I’ve illustrated, that I’ve never met!) The art director and editor have a huge task of translating both of our ideas and concepts to each other to help make this a product that children will enjoy.

There were, however, a few specific things that Lupita wanted to incorporate, like references to her Luo culture and a lot of the emotional reference for Sulwe. But for the most part, the thing I like most about illustrating is that it’s my job not just to translate the story, but to help extend it to a visual medium. 

illustration of a night sky and a little girl named Sulwe.  Text reads: Sulwe was born the color of midnight
Vashti Harrison based her color scheme of blues, blacks and purples on Lupita Nyong’o’s description of Sulwe’s skin being the color of “midnight.”

Q. Is there any particular illustration you are particularly proud of?

A. I really love the spread where the mythical figure Day goes searching for Night. It was one of the few that turned out almost exactly how I imagined it, which is a little rare! (Readers, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing has yet to reveal this spread.)

Q. When we talked last year, you mentioned you would be working on a new book, but you were not ready to share any details. Are you now?

A. I’ve been working on a lot of things, so I’m not even sure I know which one I was referencing! There are still a few things I’m working on behind the scenes and things I’m really looking forward to working on. Definitely more traditional media, hopefully writing something longform and maybe working my way back to film and TV. 

Q. Are there any other upcoming projects our readers should know about?

A. My third written and illustrated book is done. “Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History” will be out and in stores everywhere on Nov. 19.

I definitely think of it as a sibling to my first two books “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” and “Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World.”

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications