“It’s incredible. I’m really happy to be here,” Harrison said.
The Caldecott is just one of the many laurels Harrison has received. She’s topped the New York Times bestseller list multiple times and taken home the NAACP Image Award for Children’s Literature twice, in addition to creating character designs for award-winning movies. But her path to being an acclaimed writer and illustrator was far from straightforward. Harrison said UVA helped her get there.
She grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, taking field trips to visit Grounds. She never considered going anywhere other than UVA. Deciding on a major, however, proved much harder.
“I very much was trying to convince myself that there was no future, no career for me as an artist,” Harrison said.
A successful high school public speaker, other people expected her to go to law school. Harrison planned to study political and social thought when she came to UVA, but that changed when she took a class called America Through Film. It was just supposed to fulfill her English writing requirement, but it did more than that.
“It really opened my eyes to the idea of filmmaking as a means of communication and expression,” Harrison said. “It changed everything for me.”
One thing it showed her was that she wasn’t a bad writer. In high school, Harrison was insecure about her writing abilities. The summer before she was supposed to take Advanced Placement English, she cried at night, believing she wasn’t good enough. At UVA, she realized she was good enough – and that she had something to say.
It wasn’t in her personality to be totally undecided, but she cycled through a few options before declaring a double major in media studies and studio art, with a focus on cinematography. She joined a relatively small group of students who were interested in making movies; at the time, UVA only offered one practical filmmaking course, taught by Kevin Everson. As a student, Harrison mostly made experimental films.
“I always thought of it as a bit like poetry,” Harrison said.
After UVA, Harrison sought a master's degree at the California Institute of the Arts, considered one of the best schools in the country for art students. She didn’t turn to illustrating until her last semester at CalArts. She decided she needed to take a class that was fun while she labored over her thesis project.
“I realized I wasn't as good at drawing as I once was when I was a younger person, and it was just a challenge,” Harrison said.
Though she felt a “spark,” she went to work for an animation studio as a production coordinator after graduation. She would come home every night and start drawing instead of editing the movies she was supposed to be working on to submit to film festivals. Harrison was laid off from the animation studio where she worked and started working as a freelance illustrator. Eventually, she submitted work to a competition for children’s book writers and illustrators. She won.
An art director saw her work and reached out.
“I was terrified,” Harrison said.
Since her first book, Harrison has illustrated other books, including “Hair Love” and Lupita Nyong’o’s “Sulwe” and written and illustrated a nonfiction collection called “Little Leaders” about important Black women in history. But “Big” was her first work of fiction as both writer and illustrator.
“There was not one single point along the way where I thought, ‘Yes, this what I'm supposed to do,’” Harrison said. “It makes it all the more wild and crazy that I’ve reached this point.”