Winning ‘Big’: UVA Grad Gets Caldecott Medal

February 9, 2024 By Alice Berry, vfu6kd@virginia.edu Alice Berry, vfu6kd@virginia.edu

By the time she got the call, Vashti Harrison had given up hope.

Her book, “Big,” which follows a girl’s journey toward self-love, was receiving a lot of award buzz online. In October, it became the first picture book to become a finalist for the National Book Award for Young Peoples’ Literature. Many readers and educators suggested its next stop was the Randolph Caldecott Medal; the Youth Media Award from the American Library Association is considered one of the highest accolades in children’s literature. 

Harrison, a 2010 University of Virginia graduate, had heard the Caldecott committee usually lets artists know if they have won early in the morning the day before the library association's winter conference.

On that Sunday, she had flown from her home in Brooklyn to Florida to celebrate her father’s birthday. She was in the car with her family when she found out that “Big” had been selected for an author honor and an illustrator award from the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Committee – not the Caldecott Medal, but high honors all the same.

“It was especially nice because I took the call on speaker phone,” Harrison said.

But as the day went on without further word, her excitement turned into anxiety. By evening, she had texted her editor to say she didn’t think “Big” was going to win.

At 9:30 p.m., her phone finally rang.

 She had received the medal.

“It was just shocking and overwhelming,” she said. 

Along with the award, Harrison also made history, becoming the first Black woman to win the Caldecott Medal. 

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Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia
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“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.

While Harrison wasn’t sure what path she wanted to follow at UVA, she ultimately declared a double major in media studies and studio art, with a focus on cinematography. (Contributed photo)

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.

In addition to being a New York Times best-selling author and illustrator, Harrison has been honored for her film and video work, much of which centers around the story of her family and Caribbean culture. (Contributed photo)

“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.”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications