KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — 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 — happened in her hometown of Knoxville.
Latimer, 30, is the author of “Francis Discovers Possible,” which published May 3. 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 Theatre.
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 Maydani 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.