Book: Ambitious Girl
Photo Courtesy of Meena Harris
Header Photo Courtesy of Birdies and Phenomenal Woman
Author: Meena Harris
"Meena Harris was born into a family of ambitious women whose legacy continues to inspire her. Her grandmother, Shyamala Gopalan, was a cancer researcher and civil rights activist; her mother, Maya Harris, is a lawyer and policy expert; and her aunt, Kamala Harris, is the Vice President of the United States. Meena herself is a lawyer and entrepreneur, as well as a New York Times-bestselling author. In 2017 she founded Phenomenal, a female-powered brand that brings awareness to social causes. She currently resides in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters."
1. Fresh off your latest book, “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” you are back with another children’s book sure to inspire young readers called “Ambitious Girl”. Overall, what do you hope children and adults, reading to their children, get from this book?
I want my daughters, and every other girl in the world, to understand that the word “ambitious” describes something powerful and good. I also want boys and men to understand how “ambitious” is a word that can positively apply to all of us, and its connotation doesn’t change with gender. If we’re ever going to see change, we need boys and men on board too.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that not everyone sees ambition the same way my family does. In the Harris household, ambition means courage. It means living your purpose. But to a whole lot of other people, ambition—women’s ambition, that is—is code for taking up space that wasn't intended to be yours. So with Ambitious Girl, we are aiming to reframe and redefine this word that is too often used against us when it should be lifting us up.
2. Growing up, did you read any children’s books that instilled values in you? If so, which ones were your favorite?
There weren’t a whole lot of children’s books when I was growing up that centered Black characters, so when they could, my family made a point of finding them and emphasizing powerful images and messages that centered communities of color and multiculturalism.
Specific books that really stuck with me include Tar Beach, Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Whistle for Willie, and Shake It to the One That You Love the Best. Thirty some years later, however, we still haven’t made enough progress with diversity and representation in children’s literature. I became a mom in 2016 and started to notice this even more.
Think about this: in 2018, there were as many kids books with animals as main characters as there were books with Black, Latinx, Asian or Native main characters combined. That same year, only 21% of children’s books were written or illustrated by people of color. It’s outrageous, and it’s a huge reason I decided to write books that depicted characters and values I wanted my own daughters to see themselves in.
3. Ambitious Girls tend to grow into Phenomenal Women, can you talk a little bit about your Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign.... What sparked the original idea? Any accomplishments or accolades you would love to share?
I started Phenomenal shortly after the 2016 election. Like a lot of people, in that moment, I found myself wondering what I personally could do to lift up women, make our voices heard, and support issues I cared about.
It started as a very small initiative to raise money for women’s organizations — I had made a handful of “Phenomenal Woman” t-shirts for the first Women’s March in 2017, and I decided to sell them on International Women’s Day through Women’s History Month.
The original t-shirt was inspired by my favorite Maya Angelou poem, “Phenomenal Woman.” A lot of people know Angelou as an iconic author and poet. But she was also a fierce advocate — a true pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement, and a good friend of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
The more I thought about Maya the activist and that powerful poem, and about the energy and engagement I was feeling all around me in the wake of the 2016 election, the more the poem started to feel like a rallying cry.
I wanted to honor the work of black women like Maya Angelou who came before me and paved the way, while also celebrating the historic moment that was the Women’s March. We thought it was going to be a small thing, but we ended up selling 2,500 shirts in one day, and the rest is history.
We have a specific emphasis on centering feminism for women of color. From initiatives and partnerships focused on trans women to farmworkers to domestic workers, we have been amplifying the voices of female leaders across communities who are working to make the world better and more equitable for all. And recently, we launched Phenomenal Media to continue to bring greater awareness to issues affecting underrepresented communities.
4. Overall, what was your writing process like for this book?
After learning about the lack of representation on bookshelves still today, I could hear my grandmother’s voice saying, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” So I wrote a book myself! I’ve incorporated a lot of the lessons I learned from my family--and specifically from my grandmother--into both of my books.
My grandmother Shyamala, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist, raised my mom and aunt (and later helped raise me) to fight for change and be role models for others. It was my grandmother who would say, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something” -- a line in my first book Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea.
She would also say to us, “Don’t let anyone tell you who you are; you tell them who you are,” which became a call to action in my new book Ambitious Girl.
5. Do you plan on writing more books in the future?
Books can be essential tools for speaking honestly with our kids about what’s going on and how each of us can be change makers. In Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea, two Black girls work together to create positive change in their community.
In Ambitious Girl, we’re teaching kids (and adults) to reject and reframe the word “ambitious” when it’s used to tear down women. There’s still so much work to do, especially when it comes to increasing diversity in publishing, and I definitely have plans for more books — I can’t wait to explore topics for older audiences as well.
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