Ashlee Latimer’s career has taken her to the bright lights of Broadway and the stage of the Tony Awards. But her next milestone – the debut of her first children’s book – will happen in her hometown of Knoxville.
Latimer, 30, is the author of “Francis Discovers Possible,” which published Tuesday. A 2016 University of Tennessee graduate, her Knoxville roots run deep. She graduated from Bearden High School and has acted in, produced and directed more than a dozen plays with the Knoxville Children’s Theater.
She drew from her own life to create Francis, a girl coming to terms with her body type, as a message to everyone that fat characters are worthy of taking up space in stories and in life.
“One of my goals with this book was, of course, to center a fat kid having an ultimately positive experience and learning to love themselves, but really, this book is for anybody who has been made to feel bad about their appearance in one way or another at some point in time, ”Latimer told Knox News.
The first inklings of Francis emerged when Latimer read a Twitter thread from a librarian friend about how little positive fat representation is in picture books. She vividly recalls one of her friend’s examples, an illustration of President William Taft struggling to get out of a bathtub.
“Even though I had noticed the lack of positive fat representation in middle grade books and YA books and of course, adult media of all kinds, I hadn’t really thought about it for picture books,” Latimer said.
In the resulting story, Francis discovers the negative associations of the word fat from a classmate’s snarky remark. Francis thought of “fat” as something warm and comforting, but now she’s forced to reconsider. With the help of her father, Francis redefines fat by imagining what she can do.
Pastel and watercolor illustrations by Shahrzad Mandayi beautifully echo those themes. Fat characters glide across the page on roller skates, in swimming pools, dancing through ribbons, all to normalize people living full, rich lives.
Latimer said the book is intended for ages 3 to 8, but the lessons within are for everyone.
“I have now become an advocate for people of all ages reading picture books,” Latimer said. “I think they’re so useful in so many ways, and yeah, I really hope this does start a lot of cross-generational conversation or starts the process of self-acceptance for some adults.”
She’s already heard of adults buying “Francis Discovers Possible” for themselves as a first step in their journeys to body acceptance. And, she’s heard of parents buying the book as a way to navigate conversations about body image for both parent and child.
“I really believe in the story that we’ve created and the positive impact that it might be able to have. “I’ve gotten to hear from people how much they love the story, how much Francis resonates with them and it’s been really special already,” Latimer said.
Inclusion of all kinds is woven into the book’s pages. Maydani’s illustrations feature students wearing hijabs, mobility aids like wheelchairs and canes, and a caring and competent father figure.
“Francis Discovers Possible” has been in the works for more than two years, sold to Abrams Books in October 2019.
Union Ave. Books will host Latimer for a reading and discussion of “Francis Discovers Possible” at 6 pm 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 is doing the same thing. Is there any connection in how words shape our identity?
Answer: Francis already has a connotation with fat but she thinks of it in a positive way because her dad is also fat, just like she is, and that’s always been a morally neutral to positive word in their house. And I think that this really is the age to when kids are going to school, they’re going out in their communities and they’re starting to learn how what they learn at home intersects with how they are received out in the wider world. And I definitely 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 a more perfect fit for this story and for bringing Francis to life, but my absolute favorite is the one when she and Baba are swimming together. They’re also swimming alongside mermaids and other people in the community. And I just think that not only is it such a liberating, exciting illustration for me from the standpoint of, I can’t imagine how positively my life would have been impacted if I had seen illustrations like that at a young age, or really at any age when I was growing up. But also I think it perfectly encapsulates the kind of like 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 get mermaids next to people and giant mushrooms and imaginary lions.
Q: “Possible” is a central theme in the book and it’s a word that sparks Francis’s emotional safe space. How did you come to this being the word to represent this story?
A: When I started thinking about what I hoped for kids reading this story, and what kind of ideas I wish I had had when I was younger, it’s the sense of possibility and of what can be. I feel like so often, especially for young girls, they’re bombarded with messages that want to push you into a tiny little box and that scold you if you step outside of that, and I really felt like possible encompass this idea of breaking out of what we’re told we should be or what we’re told isn’t okay to be.
And going beyond that, I also wanted it to be, from a strategic standpoint, a word that was big enough and unusual enough that it felt plausible that Francis could just be latching on to that idea, while still being within the realm of regular conversation .
Q: Is there a reason you specifically wanted a father figure to be the one sharing this experience with negativity and self-acceptance with Francis?
A: There’s a lot to mine with mother-daughter relationships and how this (body negativity) gets passed down, but I also felt like this relationship is another one that’s so seldomly depicted in picture books, or really in any media. Even though it was not explored in the book, I am sure that her father has had to go through his own journey of self-acceptance.
I don’t want to imply that it’s not important to continue to unpack this around mothers, but I had just never seen a father and daughter – not to say it doesn’t exist – but I had never experienced a father and daughter having this kind of positive relationship around this issue and this shared experience they have. I definitely was imagining that whatever journey Baba had to go on to get to this point himself, that when Francis was born, he was like, “I’m not going to pass this on to my daughter.”
When I was growing up and would see bigger men on TV, it was always that they were the kind of bumbling, can’t do anything, useless husband to a really overtaxed, stressed out wife in sitcoms. And I really wanted to flip the narrative on that and show a father as capable and warm and kind and accepting.
Q: “Francis Discovers Possible” is first and foremost about fat representation, but if you look at the illustrations, you see other representation as well. How did that come to be?
A: Some of that I explicitly communicated in the art notes for the book, and others came out of conversations with my editor and also with bringing the illustrator onto the team because Shahrzad (Maydani) is Persian. I wrote that when Francis and Baba, who used to be called Papa originally, when they’re going through the park, they see people of all different body types and ability. That was a really important thing for me to include because so much of the body positivity – fat acceptance, fat liberation, whichever term you use – so much of that movement goes hand in hand with movements for disability rights and how fat identities and disabled identities often intersect. And so that was really important to me from the get-go.
When we sold the book, and we were looking for an illustrator, I stressed to my editor that it was important to me that we find a woman of color to be the illustrator. And as we were working on the book and Shahrzad turned in the first round of sketches, we all had a conversation about, “What if she made Francis Persian?” I have never seen a fat Persian character, maybe ever, but definitely not in picture books. Not to say that it doesn’t exist, but it’s certainly not prevalent that I’ve encountered it and so that was really, really exciting. And once we locked that in, we asked Shahrzad if she would want to change Papa to Baba, and she was really excited about that because that is what her daughter calls her husband.
Q: What this says to me is whether you’re fat or not, or tall or not, or whatever you are or not, that’s not a limiting factor to your life. That’s what the end of the book says to me. What are your thoughts?
A: I definitely wanted this to be accessible to kids who don’t look anything like Francis to tell them that their bodies are good, too, and they deserve to feel great about them. I came across this quote several years ago saying, “pretty is not the rent you pay to exist on Earth.” And that was a formative quote for me in this journey of acceptance for myself.
Just as Francis learns what she thinks about her body, she learns how she thinks about that is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if she goes back to school the next day and Jericho and Tabitha still have anything to say about her. On top of that, she learns 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. That is a message I really wanted to send, not only to kids but to adults reading this book, and to anyone anywhere who has ever been made to feel bad about their body. I wanted to say this is a book and an idea that you can carry with you to remind yourself you are worthy of taking up space and living the life you want and going after all of the possibilities that life has to offer, no matter who you are.