If you haven’t heard of Vashti Harrison, you’ve almost certainly seen her recognizable, fantastical work filling the shelves of bookstores and children’s rooms across the globe. With titles to her name like “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” and “Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World,” #1 “New York Times” best-selling author and illustrator crafts kids’ books that are inspiring a new generation of thinkers and doers. She’s also collaborated with some of the biggest names in kidlit today, from filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry (“Hair Love”) to actress Lupita Nyong’o (“Sulwe”).
With her talents in such high demand, it’s no surprise that Vashti’s got a lot on her plate. So when the stars and planets aligned for us to work with her on a brand-new collection of digital invitations for birthday parties, pool parties, sleepovers, and everything in between, we jumped at the opportunity. The best part? They’re available now, exclusively at Paperless Post.
“Infinite Wonder” by Vashti Harrison for Paperless Post
We recently got in some face time with the prolific author-illustrator to discuss why representational storytelling is so important, how illustrating children’s books is a lot like making movies, and the one thing she thinks every kid’s goodie bag should have in it.
Read on for more—and be sure to preorder Vashti Harrison’s latest book illustration project, “Hello Star”, written by Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic and available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on October 5, 2021.
How did you first get into illustration?
When I was a kid, I was always drawing—starting with my favorite TV show characters, and then later, drawing people I saw in magazines. Fast-forward several years, and I developed an interest in filmmaking and ended up going to graduate school to study it. My school, CalArts, was actually nicknamed “The Disney School of Animation” because so many graduates go on to work for Disney—so while I was there, I of course wanted to take classes at this world-famous school of animation. That’s where I was reintroduced to drawing and animation and fell in love with it again.
I challenged myself to sit down and draw every day and began to approach illustrating from the storytelling perspective I’d picked up in film school. I loved figuring out, who am I creating these stories for? As it turned out, telling stories for children was the perfect fit.
How does your background in filmmaking influence your work?
My time as a filmmaker still influences my work a lot. I tell kids that illustrating a book written by someone else is a lot like making a movie: I think of the author as the screenwriter, and it’s my job to design the characters, their costumes, and figure out what their rooms look like. I’m doing all those different behind-the-scenes jobs that make that story come to life.
Walk us through your process. When you’re illustrating a new book or character, do you start sketching by hand or digitally?
When I’m in the very early stages of a new project, I make a lot of messy drawings in a sketchbook or on scraps of paper just to get the ideas out… I try not to be too precious about it. Then, when I’m working out a character or a costume that represents how the story feels to me, I’ll sketch out those explorations on my iPad. And when I’ve really landed on something, I’ll do my final work in Photoshop using a mix of brushes meant to replicate gouache and watercolor. Other times I play around with actual gouache, watercolor, India ink, and crayons!
How do you stay inspired with each new project?
As an artist, you can get inspired by lots of different things, and sometimes, the weirdest things. Right now, my materials are getting me excited. I’m really excited about using this new colored paper I just got—it’s really helping me set the tone for a project I’m working on. Other times, it might be a new set of markers, reading a new story, or even the changing of the seasons.
What is your all-time favorite children’s book?
I love the work of Gyo Fujikawa, who I just discovered a few years ago. She was one of the first to fill her books with children of many different backgrounds, and she uses such a beautiful color palette. And the books I remember the most from when I was a little kid are “Danny and the Dinosaur” or “Corduroy.” They’re both about falling into a new world and exploring places you’ve never been before, and that’s very in line with my own work now.
Tell us about how you got involved with your latest book, “Hello, Star.”
When I first read Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic’s manuscript, it stood out to me for being such a sweet, empathetic, and classic story that just happened to be set in outer space. The main character is an every-girl—someone any kid can understand and relate to. She’s not the bravest or loudest kid in the classroom, but she’s changing, growing up, and doing wonderful things. I love drawing outer space and stars, and I wanted to contrast that soft and sweet tone with something as massive and exciting as outer space.
You’ve said you want to design characters who are “innocent and adorable,” particularly young girls of color.
I want to tell stories that haven’t been told before, but give them the same power and significance as the books we deem “classics.” To achieve that same level of thoughtfulness the classics have, only now, it’s in stories about little Black and brown girls, and children of every race.
What went into choosing the designs for the digital invitations in this collection?
I spent a lot of time thinking about which images would get a kid excited about seeing friends and family again. I loved going through my older pieces and finding the ones that felt joyful and celebratory, and encouraged parties, communion, and people being together.
Do you have a favorite card in your Paperless Post collection, and why?
I really like the design with lots and lots of balloons. I’ve never had a big party with so many balloons, but I think it symbolizes all of the joy we have to look forward to.
“Great Heights” by Vashti Harrison for Paperless Post
You’ve drawn inspiration in the past from illustrations found in classic Little Golden Books. What drew you to include that familiar typography in your invitations?
I love anything that references that classic era in children’s storytelling, particularly when juxtaposed with my work, since so many of those books I read growing up didn’t have characters that looked like me or reflected the diversity we see in the world. It’s exciting and fun to be able to bring together our contemporary world and a classic, sweet style of storytelling, and view my characters through that lens.
What’s one item you would never want to throw a party without?
Anything that sparkles—I really like sparklers. I’d love to host a bright and magical party, probably in the evening, and create a safe space for everyone to light up some sparklers.
What’s one thing every kid’s party goodie bag should include?
A pencil and a sketch pad to encourage all of those creative kids.
Can you give us a hint at what’s next for you?
I’m writing and illustrating my first fiction picture book—up until now, everything I’ve done entirely on my own has been nonfiction. I’m really excited to incorporate all the different styles and techniques I’ve picked up over the years into this new project; it will be really personal and 100 percent mine.
Now that you’ve gotten better acquainted with the woman behind the illustrations, browse the Vashti Harrison collection for invitations to your child’s next party.