Ashlee Latimer’s career has taken her to the Broadway spotlight and onto the Tony Awards stage. But her next step – the debut of her first children’s book – will be performing in her hometown of Knoxville.
Latimer, 30, is the author of “Francis Discovers Possible,” released Tuesday. A 2016 graduate of the University of Tennessee, her roots in Knoxville run deep. She graduated from Bearden High School and has performed, produced and directed over a dozen plays with Knoxville Children’s Theatre.
She was inspired by her own life to create Francis, a girl who accepts her morphology, as a message to everyone that big characters deserve to take their place in stories and in life.
“One of my goals with this book was, of course, to center an obese child having an ultimately positive experience and learning to love themselves, but really this book is for anyone who has felt wrong about of how they looked in one way or another at some point,” Latimer told Knox News.
Francis’ first suspicions came when Latimer read a Twitter thread from a librarian friend about how little positive depiction of fat is in picture books. She vividly remembers one of her friend’s examples, an illustration of President William Taft struggling to get out of a bathtub.
“Although I had noticed the lack of positive portrayal of fat in mid-level books and YA books and of course adult media of all kinds, I hadn’t really thought about that for picture books. “, said Latimer.
In the resulting story, Francis discovers the negative associations of the word fat from a classmate’s sarcastic remark. Francis used to think of “fat” as something warm and comforting, but now she’s forced to reconsider. With the help of his father, Francis redefines fat by imagining what it can do.
Shahrzad Mandayi’s pastel and watercolor illustrations echo these themes beautifully. Big characters glide across the page on roller skates, in swimming pools, dance through ribbons, all to normalize people living full and rich lives.
Latimer said the book is aimed at children ages 3 to 8, but the lessons in it are for everyone.
“I have now become an advocate for people of all ages who read picture books,” Latimer said. “I think they’re so helpful in so many ways, and yeah, I really hope it starts a lot of cross-generational conversations or starts the process of self-acceptance for some adults.”
She’s heard of adults buying “Francis Discovers Possible” for themselves as the first step on their journey to body acceptance. And, she’s heard of parents buying the book as a way to navigate body image conversations for parent and child.
“I really believe in the story we’ve created and the positive impact it could have. … I’ve heard from people how much they love the story, how much Francis resonates with them and that is already really special,” Latimer said.
Inclusions of all kinds are woven into the pages of the book. Maydani’s illustrations feature students wearing hijabs, mobility aids like wheelchairs and canes, and a caring and capable father figure.
“Francis Discovers Possible” has been in the works for over two years, selling to Abrams Books in October 2019.
Union Ave. Books will host Latimer for a reading and discussion on “Francis Discovers Possible” at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Knox News spoke to the author. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: We have this book for children learning to read, and Francis does the same. Is there a connection in how words shape our identity?
To respond: Francis already connotes fat but she thinks of it positively because her dad is also fat, just like her, and it has always been a morally neutral to positive word in their household. And I think that’s really the age when children go to school, they go out into their communities and they start to learn how what they’re learning at home intersects with how they’re received in the whole world. And I really think language is a huge, huge part of that.
Q: Do you have a favorite illustration?
A: I love them all so much. Shahrzad (Maydani) couldn’t have been more perfect for this story and for bringing Francis to life, but my favorite is the one where she and Baba are swimming together. They also swim alongside mermaids and other people from the community. And I just think that not only is this such a liberating and exciting illustration for me from the point of view of, I can’t imagine how much my life would have been positively impacted if I had seen illustrations like that to a young age, or really any age when I was growing up. But I also think that sums up perfectly the kind of whimsical space that this book lives in where there’s the very concrete reality and then there’s also the world that Francis is starting to imagine as possible, and so we have sirens at side of people and giant mushrooms and imaginary lions.
Q: “Possible” is a central theme in the book and it’s a word that elicits Francis’ safe emotional space. How did you come up with this being the word to represent this story?
A: When I started thinking about what I hoped for kids who would read this story, and what kind of ideas I wish I had when I was younger, that’s the sense of possibility and of what may be. I feel like so often, especially for young girls, they get bombarded with messages wanting to push you into a tiny little box and scolding you if you get out of that, and I really felt like it was possible to encompass this idea of getting out of what we are told we should be or what we are told we shouldn’t be.
And beyond that, I also wanted it to be, from a strategic point of view, a word that was big enough and unusual enough that it was plausible that Francis could just cling to this idea, while still staying in the realm of regular conversation. .
Q: Is there any reason you specifically wanted a father figure to be the one who shares this experience of negativity and self-acceptance with Francis?
A: There’s a lot to be said for mother-daughter relationships and how that (body negativity) is passed on, but I also feel like this relationship is another one that’s so rarely depicted in books. ‘images, or really in any media. Even though it wasn’t explored in the book, I’m sure his dad had to go through his own journey of self-acceptance.
I don’t mean it’s not important to keep unpacking this around mothers, but I’ve never seen a father and daughter – not to say it doesn’t exist – but I don’t I’ve never seen a father and daughter have this kind of positive relationship around this issue and this shared experience that they have. I definitely imagined that no matter how far Baba got there himself, that when Francis was born, he said to himself, “I’m not going to pass this on to my daughter.”
When I was growing up and seeing bigger men on TV, he was always the sort of clumsy husband, unable to do anything, from a useless husband to a really overworked, stressed wife on sitcoms. And I really wanted to turn the narrative around on that and show such a capable, warm, kind, and tolerant father.
Q: “Francis Discovers Possible” is primarily about the representation of fat, but if you look at the illustrations, you see other representations as well. How did it happen?
A: Some of this information was explicitly communicated in the art notes of the book, and some of it came from conversations with my editor and also the integration of the illustrator into the team, as Shahrzad (Maydani) is Persian . I wrote that when Francis and Baba, who were originally called Papa, when they walk through the park, they see people of all kinds of shapes and abilities. That was a really important thing to me that we included because a lot of body positivity – fat acceptance, fat release, whatever term you use – a lot of this movement goes with disability rights movements and how fat identities and disabled identities often intersect. And so that was really important to me right from the start.
When we sold the book, and we were looking for an illustrator, I pointed out to my editor that it was important to me that we find a woman of color to be the illustrator. And while we were working on the book and Shahrzad was shooting the first set of sketches, we all had a conversation about, “What if she did Francis Persian?” I’ve never seen a big Persian character, maybe never, but certainly not in picture books. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but it’s certainly not common that I’ve come across it and so it was really, really exciting. And once we locked that down, we asked Shahrzad if she wanted to change Papa to Baba, and she was really excited about it because that’s what her daughter calls her husband.
Q: What this tells me is whether you are fat or not, tall or not, whatever you are or not, is not a limiting factor in your life. That’s what the end of the book tells me. What are your thoughts?
A: I really wanted it to be accessible to children who are nothing like Francis to tell them that their bodies are good too and that they deserve to feel good about them. I came across this quote several years ago saying, “It’s not pretty the rent you pay to exist on Earth.” And that was a formative quote for me on this journey of self-acceptance.
Just as Francis learns what she thinks of her body, she learns what she thinks about it, that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if she goes back to school the next day and Jericho and Tabitha still have something to say about her. On top of that, she learns that you don’t have to look a certain way to do the things you want to do, to live the life you want to live. This is a message that I really wanted to send, not only to children but also to adults who read this book, and to anyone who has ever been made to feel bad about their bodies. I meant this is a book and an idea you can take with you to remind yourself that you are worthy of taking up space and living the life you want and seizing all the possibilities that life has to offer , no matter who you are.