How the Illustrator of Kamala Harris’s Best-Selling Children’s Book Translated the Candidate’s Inspirational Life Story Into Pictures
Mechal Renee Roe shares what it was like to illustrate the vice presidential nominee's book "Superheroes Are Everywhere."
Last month, the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, picked Kamala Harris as his running mate in the 2020 election. Harris brings to the ticket an impressive resume as a California Senator and a former state attorney general. She is also the author of a children’s book, Superheroes Are Everywhere.
The short, colorful volume was published last January, just a couple weeks before Harris declared her own candidacy for president, a bid she suspended by the end of the year. It shares Harris’s life story, offering children examples of the types of everyday heroes that inspired the politician as a young girl. (Biden is also the subject of a new picture book, Joey: The Story of Joe Biden, written by his wife, Jill Biden, and illustrated by Amy June Bates.)
The former attorney general of California, Harris is of Jamaican and Indian descent, making her candidacy the first time a Black or Asian American person has been nominated to the vice presidency by a major party, and the first woman.
Harris’s book was illustrated by Mechal Renee Roe, who has also authored two children’s books of her own, Happy Hair and Cool Cuts. Roe spoke with Artnet News about what it was like working with the prospective vice president and the importance of representing of Black characters in children’s literature.
What is your artistic background and how did you come to work as an illustrator?
I have loved art since I was a child. I went to art school for my undergrad at the Atlanta College of Art, now known as the Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia. At first I majored in illustration, but quickly decided to learn more about computers, and ended up in fashion design as my first career. After 10 years in the corporate world, I found myself going back to my first passion of illustrating characters and designing books. Art is currently my primary source of income.
How did you come to do the illustrations for Kamala Harris? Were you already familiar with her political career?
When my agent, James Burns, told me of the opportunity, I was excited to send Kamala a sample of my art. I was overwhelmed with joy when she chose my work to create her book. I was not familiar with the specifics of her political career at the time, but I was familiar with her as the attorney general of California.
Did you meet Harris and discuss her vision for the illustrations? What was the process of working with her like?
I had several phone conversations with Kamala as we worked on sketches and created the book. I was fortunate to meet her when she came to Spelman College while we were in the middle of the book. Her assistant let her know that I was there, and she paused within an entire crowd to welcome me with open arms. It is definitely a memory I’ll always cherish.
With the book we were on a tight timeline but it was a joy to hear her inspiration and how she wanted to tell her story. You can learn a lot about a person from how they articulate their vision. Working with Kamala made my job rewarding. She also was kind enough to call me and thanked me for the book’s hitting number one on the New York Times best sellers list.
What is your favorite illustration in the book and why?
My favorite illustration in the book was the one with her teacher and all of her classmates. I remember Kamala giving it a “gold star” as she really loved how it portrayed the feeling of her classroom.
How did you feel when you learned that Harris was the Democratic candidate for vice president?
I was overjoyed. After having the opportunity to get to work with her, I saw firsthand how genuine she is and the care she puts into her work. She was focused to get the job done right.
What inspired your books Happy Hair and Cool Cuts?
Happy Hair and Cool Cuts are inspired by my personal experiences growing up in the middle of three girls with different skin tones and hair types. I wrote the book to inspire and encourage boys and girls to love themselves, because there is little representation in the publishing industry.
You initially self-published your work. Why did you decide to move forward with the books on your own?
I started off as a children’s designer for a very large children’s clothing company and when I created mood boards I would rarely see little Black and brown children used as inspiration. In 2013, I knew that I wanted to create children’s books and toys for this underrepresented generation, and for the younger version of myself. I traveled across the southeastern US holding “Mommy and Me” and “Daddy and Daughter” events. I would teach dads how to love their daughters’ hair while reading my book Happy Hair. It was quite a transformative time.
How did you come to eventually publish Happy Hair with an imprint of a large publisher, Doubleday, last fall?
When I decided to self-publish, only three percent of children’s books created by traditional publishing houses featured Black and brown children. I wanted to change that. I was turned down several times by literary agents, so I decided to buy the books myself to get my message out there.
I bought the hardback copies of both my books from printers and distributed them myself through cold calls, ground work, trade shows, and selling out of the trunk of my late VW Jetta. (She was a loyal car!)
I hustled on my own for years. I cold-called all of the museums I could think of and Happy Hair was picked up by the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the National African American of History and Culture in Washington, DC, and some museums in Boston and Atlanta. By the time I ended up getting an agent at the Bright Agency, others had picked up on what I was doing with Happy Hair.
One day I was speaking to my agent, James, and sent him my self-published books to let him know I was interested in making more. I didn’t think anything of it when he asked me how many I had sold on my own—7,000 copies. The next day he was excited to tell me that he had five offers for my book!
I knew I wanted to work with my editor, Frances Gilbert, when she went above and beyond to purchase the books. She did not hesitate and circumnavigated the normal route of approval. I learned that does not happen often in publishing. I am so grateful more people get to read Happy Hair because of the Bright Agency and Frances at Doubleday books.
What projects are you working on next? Do you plan to do anything in support of Biden and Harris in the run up to the election?
I have an early reader coming out December 15 that is the follow-up to Happy Hair called I Love Being Me. I’ve also illustrated books for [children’s book author] Renee Watson, and I have a few more things coming down the pipeline.
When I see Kamala excelling at her dreams despite her struggles and setbacks, it reminds me that I can also achieve my dreams and goals. I expect to create and do big things.
I’ve already convinced a lot of my friends and family to cheer for Kamala, and I’m looking forward to doing more to help her win on November 3.
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