Ashley Latimer’s career took her to the bright lights on Broadway and the Tony Awards stage. But her next milestone – her first children’s book – will take place in her hometown of Knoxville.
Latimer, 30, is the author of “Francis Discovers the Possible,” which was published Tuesday. A 2016 University of Tennessee graduate, her roots in Knoxville run deep. She graduated from Bearden High School and has worked, produced, and directed more than a dozen plays at the Knoxville Children’s Theater.
She drew from her own life to create Frances, a girl who comes to terms with her body type, as a message to everyone that fat characters deserve a place in stories and in life.
“One of my goals with this book was, of course, to focus on a fat kid who eventually has a positive experience and learns to love himself, but really, this book is for anyone who feels upset about their looks one way or sometime,” Latimer told Knox News. .
Frances’ first touches came when Latimer read a thread on Twitter from a librarian friend about how little positive representation of fat is in comic 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’ve noticed a lack of positive representation of lipids in middle grade books, YA books and of course, adult media of all kinds, I haven’t really thought about that for picture books,” Latimer said.
In the resulting story, Francis discovered the negative associations of the word “fat” from his colleague’s scathing remark. Frances thought “fat” was a cozy and comforting thing, but now she’s forced to reconsider. With the help of her father, Frances redefined fat by imagining what she could do.
Scheherazade Munday’s pastel illustrations and watercolors reflect those themes beautifully. Chubby characters glide across the page on roller skates, in pools, and dance across bars, all to normalize people who live rich full lives.
The book is for ages 3 to 8, Latimer said, but the lessons inside are for everyone.
“I’ve now become an advocate for people of all ages who read picture books,” Latimer said. “I think it’s very useful in many ways, and yes, I really hope this starts a lot of intergenerational conversations or starts the process of self-acceptance in some adults.”
I’ve already heard of adults buying a “Francis Discovers Possible” for themselves as a first step in their journeys toward body acceptance. And I’ve heard of parents buying the book as a way to navigate conversations about parent-child body image.
“I really believe in the story we created and the positive impact it can have. I’ve heard from people about how much they love the story, how much Francis has influenced them, and it was really special,” Latimer said.
Inclusion of all woven types in the pages of the book. Maidani’s illustrations show students wearing headscarves, mobility aids such as wheelchairs and canes, and an affectionate and competent father figure.
Francis Discovers What’s Possible has been around for more than two years, and was sold to Abrams Books in October 2019.
It will be hosted by Union Ave. Books Latimer to read and discuss “Francis Discovers the 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 kids to learn to read, and Francis does the same. Is there a relationship in how words shape our identity?
Answer: Frances already has a connotation with fat but she thinks about it in a positive way because her dad is fat too, just like her, and that was always a morally neutral to positive word in their house. And I think that’s really the age when kids go to school, get out in their communities and begin to learn how what they learn at home intersects with how they are received in the wider world. And I definitely think language is a very big part of that.
Q: Do you have a favorite illustration?
A: I like them all very much. Scheherazade (Maidani) couldn’t be more apt for this story and for the revival of Francis, but my absolute favorite is when she and Papa swim together. They also swim alongside mermaids and other members of the community. And I just think that not only is it such a liberating illustration to me from a point of view, I cannot imagine how positively it would affect my life if I saw such cartoons at such a young age, or indeed. At what age when you were older. But I also think it perfectly sums up the kind of eccentric space that this book lives in where there’s a very tangible reality and then there’s also the world that Francis starts to imagine as possible, and that’s how we get mermaids alongside people and giant mushrooms and imaginary lions.
Q: “Possible” is a central theme in the book and it’s a word that evokes Francis’ safe emotional space. How did you come up with this word to represent this story?
A: When I started thinking about what I wish children would read this story, and what kind of ideas I wish I had when I was younger, this was the sense of possibility and what could be. I often feel, especially for young girls, that they are bombarded with messages wanting to push you into a box too small and scold you if you get out of that, and I really felt like it was possible to include the idea of coming out with what we were told we should be or what we were told wasn’t It is okay for us to be.
Beyond that, I also wanted it to be, from a strategic point of view, a word big enough and unusual enough that it felt reasonable for Francis to have stuck to that idea, while still within the realm of regular conversation.
Q: Is there a reason why you specifically wanted the father to be the one with whom Francis shares this experience passively and self-acceptingly?
A: There are a lot of mother-daughter relationships and how this (body negativity) is passed on, but I also felt like this was another relationship that is rarely depicted in comic books, or in any media. Although it’s not explored in the book, I’m sure her father had to go through his own journey of self-acceptance.
I don’t want to imply that it’s not important to keep this shit about mothers, but I’ve never seen a father and daughter – not to say it doesn’t exist – but I have never experienced a father and daughter having this kind of positive relationship about this issue and this shared experience they have . I certainly would have imagined that whatever journey Papa had to take 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 seeing bigger men on TV, it was always the case that they were the stuttering, can’t-do-anything kind, useless husband to a really exhausted and exhausted sitcom type. And I really wanted to flip the narrative around that and show the father that he’s capable, warm, kind, and agreeable.
Question: “Francis discovers the possible” relates first and foremost to the representation of fat, but if you look at the illustrations, you’ll see another representation as well. How does that come to be?
A: I have talked about some of that explicitly in the technical notes for the book, and others have come out of conversations with my editors and also by bringing the painter to the team because Scheherazade (Midani) is Persian. I wrote that when Francis and Baba, who were originally called Baba, were wandering in the garden, they saw people of all different body types and abilities. That was really important to me for me to include because a lot of body positivity — fat acceptance, fat liberation, whatever term you use — a lot of that movement goes hand in hand with movements for disability rights and how fat identities and often intersect Disabled identities. And so this was really important to me from the start.
When we sold the book, and we were looking for an illustrator, I assured the editor that it was important for me to find a woman of color to be an illustrator. And while we were working on the book and Scheherazade ran the first round of drawings, we all talked about “What if I make Francis Persian?” I’ve never seen a fat Persian character, perhaps ever, but certainly not in the comic books. Not to say it doesn’t exist, but it sure isn’t mainstream that I encountered and so that was really exciting. Once we locked that in, we asked Scheherazade if she wanted to change Baba into Baba, and she was very excited about it because that’s what her daughter calls her husband.
Q: What this tells me is whether or not you are fat, tall or not, or whatever you are or not, that is not a limiting factor in your life. That’s what the end of the book tells me. What do you think?
A: I definitely wanted this to be available to kids who don’t look 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 that said, “Beautiful is not the rent you pay for being on earth.” And this was a formative quote for me on this journey of accepting myself.
Just as Frances learns what to think about her body, she learns how to think about this being 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, you know 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 I really wanted to send, not just to children but to adults who are reading this book, and to anyone anywhere who feels bad about their bodies. I wanted to say that this is a book and an idea that you can carry with you to remind yourself that you deserve to take up space, live the life you want and pursue all the possibilities that life offers, no matter who you are.