Cynthia Leitich Smith talks about being an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee Nation
I’m an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee Nation. Our capital is in Okmulgee, which is in our reservation is contained within the borders of what is currently called Oklahoma. We’re a large nation. I believe we’re the fourth or fifth biggest tribal nation within the boundaries of the United States today, and it is one of the five Indigenous nations that were originally located in what’s now called the Southeastern United States and were forcibly relocated by Andrew Jackson and his soldiers during what’s often referred to as Removal, or the Trail of Tears. We weren’t the only tribes that were forcibly removed out of our territory to a near one, but that is the signifier that’s usually associated with our particular slice of that larger historical movement.
Feeling at home in the suburbs and tribal towns
I had a tremendously blessed childhood. I was raised predominantly in the Kansas City area on both sides, the Kansas and Missouri side of the state line. I also went back and forth between Kansas City and tribal towns in Oklahoma to visit extended family. I have wonderful memories of fishing on a pontoon boat on Lake Tenkiller with my great-granddad and all of my cousins and a lot of dogs and bare feet and screaming. And I don’t think we ever actually caught a fish, but we had a wonderful time.
So, in some ways it was an average kind of lower middle class suburban upbringing, and in other ways it was a very rural extended family country kid upbringing, but I tended to think of myself as almost a dual person. I was this Cindy in Kansas City, and I was that Cindy in Oklahoma, and they were friends, but they led separate lives and moved in separate circles.
Growing up with a sort of dual childhood, I had a sense of what different homes gave us. So, for example, in suburban Kansas City, it was a more hectic place. I had school and homework and dance lessons. As I grew older, I babysat a lot for other kids in my neighborhood and had various other activities.
When I was home in Oklahoma, in tribal towns, everything was slower paced. It was much more of a setting that was led by the Elders. You spent much more time listening than you might have. In fact, everyone spent more time listening and reflecting. It was more of a setting that was dominated by that natural world, the water, the trees, the animals. Just being in any rural community is going to be like that, as opposed to the mall and the Olive Garden and everything that we might think of as sort of quintessential to a middle class kid’s life in the 1970s and ’80s.
“That Newbery company makes pretty good books!”
I was an avid young reader. My mother took me every Saturday morning to the public library. It was an activity that fit quite well into our mac and cheese and garage sale sort of budget. So, it was affordable, but it was also a place of magic. I felt welcome at the library. I knew all the librarians quite well, and I participated in the summer reading contest. In fact, the first sort of prize that I won was for “Most Books Read Over a Summer.” This was this Mid-Continent Public Library of Grandview, Missouri, and I believe we got to take home one paperback for every 10 books that we read and that was ideal for me.
I read all of the Newbery books with just a few exceptions because I was under the impression that the Newbery Medal was a brand logo. This was the age of Gloria Vanderbilt and Izod and name brands were very big in the culture. And so I thought that the Newbery Medal was a corporate logo and that they made pretty good books. And so I made an effort to keep reading those. I also really enjoyed the Nancy Drew Mysteries, and I believe that I spent a lot of my spare time writing poetry, in part because I read so much. And from there, I grew into writing short stories and it just continued.
What I remember about seeing Native imagery as a child
As a young reader, my favorite book, my heart book, my comfort book was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I just adored it. I reread it every summer, but I had never even opened Sign of the Beaver, which was another of her big books. It was another Newbery book, and I’m sure it was right there on the shelf.
Now, I don’t have a specific memory of a book with Native content that turned me off, but I do have a specific memory of opting out in a protective way. And I think that came from the larger society. I was very much aware of images of Native people. I had a memorable experience going to a drive-in movie theater with my parents when the double feature was Peter Pan and A Star is Born, and my parents told me that I needed to go to bed earlier, but my mother was not going to give up Barbra Streisand. So, we still stayed at the theater.
But and I remember thinking as a little girl that my classmates, many of whom were also out that evening, that I’d seen in the playscape area, were also watching that movie, and did they really think that that was who we were, did they associate that sort of imagery, and it made me very cautious about sharing that part of myself in my young peer group.
Read Across America
It’s a profound honor to have my writing included in Read Across America. When I think about being a young girl reader in Kansas, books were my window into other places. My family only went really between Kansas City and Oklahoma. If we got very adventurous, we might go to Colorado on vacation. And books opened up that world to me. They brought me to New York City. They took me to the museum. They took me to the desert states.
And when I think about kids from across the continent having that same experience at the same time, sharing a book, sharing in the conversation and circle of story, you never know what connections might be out there, and I would say the same to all the kids who are taking part in the program. Let your voices rise. Join in the circle and read.
The inspiration for “Jingle Dancer”
I had graduated from college with a journalism degree and law school and begun writing shortly after graduation. So, I was pretty young. I was in my late twenties, which back then was extraordinarily unusual for a children’s book writer. And more recently you see many more younger writers, but that wasn’t true at the time. And I had been clerking at the Office of the General Council for the Department of Health and Human Services in Chicago, had decided in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing that I wanted to do something I felt was a more heartfelt contribution to the world.
And so I relocated from Chicago to Austin because it was more affordable and began working at St. Edward’s University to help pay the bills, and I was a tutor in English for a program that served students from migrant farm families who were freshmen enrolled.
I loved it. It was a terrific job. It was as much big sister as it was English tutor, composition. And between students, I was thinking about the stories they were telling me and the family they were missing and what it was like growing up. I had just started really thinking seriously about writing for children. I was very much in my apprenticeship. I was reading and reading, and I was reading as many contemporary children’s books as I could find with Native content, and there were very few. Joe Bruchac had published a few in the late 1990s that really stood out.
And it occurred to me that the vast majority of them featured male protagonists, boys and men. There was this idea, especially with secondary characters, you would have this white boy who was for some reason lost in the wilderness, but it was okay because he had run into this Native person who could guide him through whatever was to come, which seemed a little ridiculous to me, especially then because I couldn’t find my car in the college parking lot.
And the idea that we have this magical compass by virtue of our Indigenousness just made no sense whatsoever. So, I was trying for something that was more authentic but also something that would speak to a larger experience than that boy adventure genre tradition in children’s literature.
And so I was thinking about jingle dancing because it is a dance that is traditionally passed from women to girls. Increasingly two-spirit Native people are also jingle dancing. And it’s a very popular dance. It was originated with the Ojibwe people and the Annishinaabe people. Then it spread across the continent, and it seemed like a wonderful way to touch on reciprocity, to touch on intergenerational relationships, and to craft something that was very modern day. The original draft was scribbled on the back of a torn envelope. It was actually a sisters story initially, and that element fell away completely over time and became more of a hybrid story and concept book around the number four as a structure.
Getting "Jingle Dancer" published
I had the story, and I was involved in a critique group in Austin, Texas. We were all baby writers. We’re all published today. And we would load up the car and we would all go together to these conferences and we would share the hotel room and we would go from place to place. And I had taken the manuscript to a workshop that Kathi Appelt did in La Grange, Texas, which is between Austin and Houston.
Kathi, a notable Newbery Honor author, National Book Award finalist, is my original children’s writing teacher, mentor, and bossy big sister. And she had hosted a workshop and invited editors down for that. I had gone to a workshop. I believe it was in Houston, and I had sent a copy of the manuscript to Rosemary Brosnan, who’d expressed interest in a prior manuscript, Indian Shoes. All of a sudden the editor who had gone to Kathi’s workshop was interested in acquiring the book, an editor at the Houston conference was interested in acquiring the book, and Rosemary was interested in acquiring the book too, and I panicked.
I was very concerned. I didn’t know what to do. Publishing, like every industry, has its culture and its expectations, its lingo, and I didn’t want to offend anyone or burn any bridges. So, I reached out to a literary agent.
Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown was my dream agent. I wrote her a note. It was by today’s standard shockingly unprofessional. It said something – I’m paraphrasing – “Dear Ginger, Hi. This is Cyn from the Pod list. I have a question if you don’t mind, and if you do, I’m sorry I bothered you. Bye.” Like it was literally – I was, what, 27 years old. I was very nervous.
And she wrote back. She’s so lovely. She said, “Dear Cyn, of course I know who you are. What is your question?” And I replied, “I have this terrible problem. I wrote this manuscript, and I took it to a workshop in a conference and I sent it to an editor, which back then was considered fine, and they all want it and I don’t know what to do. And I was wondering what I should do.” And I’ll never forget this. She writes and said, “Dear Cynthia, having multiple editors interested in one’s work is not what we in the industry call a problem.”
And so we had a lovely conversation wherein I sent her a couple of other things that I was working on, and she has been my agent of record for the entirety of my career, which is unusual in children’s publishing, but I’m profoundly grateful. Rosemary acquired the manuscript at Lodestar, which was almost immediately thereafter eliminated in a corporate merger.
And then she bought it again at Morrow Junior, which almost immediately thereafter was eliminated in a corporate merger. However, they kept her editorial team onboard. And so I have a somewhat unique distinction, I think Monica Brown is in the same situation, So, there is more than one of us who sold their first book to one publisher, had it produced at a second, and released at a third.
And that was my introduction to the industry. And real tears were cried along the way. I didn’t know if it would all turn out all right, but it has. And, you know, Rosemary and Ginger and I are still working together. It’s been – we’re in 2021, and Jingle Dancer sold in 1997, ’98. So, yeah, it’s been quite a journey.
Why Cousin Elizabeth 's character in "Jingle Dancer" made a big impression
The character of Cousin Elizabeth from Jingle Dancer has generated much more conversation than I had ever initially anticipated. She is one of the four women to whom Jenna goes, borrows jingles, and then dances to reciprocate that gift, dances in their honor. So, Cousin Elizabeth can’t go to the powwow, and the reason she can’t go to the powwow is because she is an attorney and she is working on her big case.
When I first conceived of that, my initial inspiration was somewhat personal. I was brainstorming reasons that Native people who wanted to go to powwow who were dancers, who were deeply invested in powwow couldn’t, and I remembered clearly being in Chicago and wanting to go to powwow and not being able to because I had a law job at that time. So, it seemed like a perfectly logical extension of my daily life.
It’s interesting because when I was first sharing the manuscript in its developmental stages, one of the editors at one of the conferences that I brought it to in a one-on-one consult said, “I love that you’ve included this character Cousin Elizabeth, and I noticed that she’s a Native woman attorney, and that is aspirational and I can see why you would want girls to have that sort of role model, but it’s not realistic.
There aren’t Native women attorneys yet, and someday when they are, we hope to see them in children’s books.”
And I remember being just baffled, immediately baffled by that. You know, I mean there I was, I had a tribal ID, I had a law degree. It seemed perfectly plausible to me that Cousin Elizabeth could be a Native woman attorney, but there weren’t depictions of people like her in the popular culture.
If you keep in mind through my entire childhood, I can remember seeing Native women largely played by non‑Natives in the far background on the occasional western movie that was on TV. The most positive and exceptional experience was seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie on Sesame Street. That was the shining light. And then there really wasn’t anything that stood out in my memory until Northern Exposure came on, and the actor who played the character of Marilyn Whirlwind made a tremendous positive impression on me. I thought she had a lovely presence on the screen and dignity.
So, depictions of Native women were almost nonexistent to me, and I was actively looking at them. So, I can only imagine what that would have been like for non-Native editors in the industry, especially at a time when there were so very few Native authors and certainly fewer Native women authors. And I nevertheless persisted with it. At that point I felt very strongly that Cousin Elizabeth had to work on her big case. I mean she took the job, she was a responsible character. She was named after my own Cousin Elizabeth so I was very invested in her.
And the second aspect of the character that has generated some conversation was the fact that she is both Black and Indigenous. The illustrators were Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, and they had never illustrated a book that was not reflective of either of their heritages. And so I sent them family photographs. I sent them video. I sent them as much primary source material as possible, and I emphasized that I don’t know what it is, but a percentage of our Muscogee people are both Black and Muscogee and that it was very important to me that all of our children felt that they would be reflected in Jenna’s world.
And so you see that in the character Cousin Elizabeth. You see that in one of the three little girls that she is jingle dancing with in a circle at the end. There’s also a lighter skinned Native girl who’s there to show that end of the diversity, but it was extremely important to me. And because there were so few depictions at all, let alone contemporary, what seemed very obvious to me at the time I realize now was somewhat ahead of the curve in terms of publishing conversation when it came to, you know, there’s the larger diversity and then you go deeper in the tree ring circles to diversity within, and that’s always been a priority.
Revisiting “Indian Shoes”
Indian Shoes was an early book that I wrote. We have repackaged it is what we call it in publishing. We gave it a bit of a facelift and made it available in paperback so it’s more affordable to kids. But something that we did that I was really excited about was bringing in a Cherokee illustrator. Sharon Irla did a new cover, and MaryBeth Timothy did interiors.
The models on the cover are Cherokee Nation citizens. One of my favorite moments was receiving a picture of the young model holding, proudly holding up his book and showing, you know, that he was a literary celebrity now too. I also had the opportunity to revisit the text and update it a bit. A lot’s happened in 20 ears of daily life, technologically and otherwise, as well as to write a fresh author’s note, and that for me is something that has changed quite a lot.
When I was originally writing author’s notes, I was thinking about it very much for the grownup readers of children’s literature, and I think it’s because I was always thinking about the kids who would skip the back matter and thinking that’s the territory of grownups.
But then when I stopped and thought about it, I was one of those kids that read every single word cover to cover. And so now as I’ve matured as an author, I see that as an opportunity to speak from the heart to young readers and offer them a bridge from that fictional world back to the real one and just let them know how much I love and appreciate and value them and that they are the heroes of their own stories. So, that is something that is a signal of growth for me as a creative artist that hopefully is a bit of a virtual hug to the kids who are connecting with my book.
Reimagining "Peter Pan" in "Sisters of the Never Sea"
I had been exposed to variations of Peter Pan as a child, and there were so many elements of it that spoke to my inner kid. I love mermaids. I love fairies and storybook pirates and adventures. All of that is wonderful and enticing, but it wasn’t a world that welcomed in Native kids in a respectful way. It wasn’t a world in which they were three‑dimensional people.
And to an extent, the same is true of the girl characters, and the same is true in terms of the depiction of disability. Hook, which is an adaptive device under the circumstances, is essentially shorthand for villainy. And so while there was much to love, there was also much to reimagine. And I wanted to give Native and non-Native kids a chance to enjoy the ties that they had to each other. The lost kids and Wendy are every bit as much a part of the book as Lily and the Native kids, and they do come together.
Lily and her stepsister Wendy, they love each other so much. These are kids in a blended family. And all of this I think goes in a larger way toward healing and recognition while also, you know, in a very contextual sense pushing back against ideas of colonialism and two-dimensionality and stereotypes. You can accomplish a lot in terms of raising the bar for inclusion and still have a really fun page‑turning adventure that is for all children.
You don’t have to choose. It’s almost a fallacy that is this book for these kids or those kids. The book is for kids. And certainly for kids that it reflects, that’s going to be an extra bonus for them, especially if they’re not used to seeing themselves reflected respectfully or with a loving care. But they’re all going to want to turn the page and find out what happens next, and that’s really what we’re going for ultimately.
With children’s literature, Pan has had such a tremendous impact on the idea of what fantasy is, what classic literature is, that I almost felt like to move forward, we needed to revisit and reimagine and realize that we really can do better and let that momentum carry us on.
The story behind Ancestor Approved
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal stories for Kids is a middle grade anthology of short stories and poems. My thought was in part a reaction. One day I was looking at statistics that were broken out from the CBC numbers of books by and about native people and Debbie recent American Indians and children's literature had taken that to a few more categories, I forget which year it was but the only short story, actually the only middle grade representation for native content was one inclusion, and I think it was it was a we need diverse books anthology.
It was by distinguished Choctaw author Tim Tingle, so throughout the entire body of literature, the only middle grade representation for native people and native voices was one short story. And that just hit me. I was thinking that somebody should do something about it. And then I realized that while I'd never edited anthology, short stories were among my passions. I had published short stories and multitude of anthologies, and so I decided maybe that person should be me. And I thought it would be wonderful if I could bring in established folks like Tim Tingle and Joseph Bruchac and also upcomers like Eric Gansworth and Tracy Sorell and brand new voices like Brian Young and Andrea Rogers.
Part of it was to expose more native writers too native and non-native kids, but also to expose them to native and non-native teachers and librarians so that they could follow that person’s short story to more of their work so that I can raise recognition of their bylines.
A secondary goal was to help foster more connections within the community of native creatives because it was a very collaborative anthology, we worked on a message board online. Message board texts were flying all over the place. I was pairing authors: “You two both have Cherokee character speaking Cherokee. Figure out the dialogues.” “You three both have Ojibwe characters speaking Ojibwe. All of you are giving me a slightly different glossary. Talk to each other.” “Your 2 characters both have uncles who are custodians at this high school where this fictional intertribal powwow is taking place. Do they know each other or are they going to cross paths?”
This really got everyone mixing. So for an author like Brian Young debut novel came out with part drum this past year, healer of the Water Monster to have the opportunity to talk to a very established long time writer and writing Professor Eric Gansworth, our new Printz Honor work winner who are Apple skin to the core that was terrific for both of them. And Brian has all this fresh energy and questions and was making Eric think about things in new ways.
And it was a wonderful opportunity for Brian to get to some of Eric's wisdom and humor, and to give himself a little bit more permission to be who he really was because it was an all Indigenous group. The sort of values that went into it the way that we framed it didn't have to be typical western structure.
Brian has more than one inclusion because he has a story told from 2 opposing characters points of view. Kim has a poem and a short story. The character in her story, her protagonist, is the character that Nicole depicts. In the cover art, if you look through, it's very specific and so then the cover artist was working with the author to learn more about the Wichita people about what would be appropriate to the regalia about the symbolism of what would be included on the show.
So all of that creates layers of connection of circles. That kind of like the home Carolyn's from Roche. One of our best poets that helps to book in the anthology. We didn't want to do something that would be a thinly veiled social studies project, but we wanted it to have a lot of terrific classroom application, so we were able to brainstorm ways to use backmatter and poetry to offer connective tissue to non- native readers but also native kids for whom Powwow isn't part of their cultural practice. Not all tribes are powwow tribes, and that's part of the diversity that we wanted to reflect too.
Why powwow is central to the “Ancestor Approved” anthology
When I was thinking about a way to bring together native characters from across the continent, including First Nations characters from across the U.S./Canadian border, I was trying to ponder intertribal events that really involved children and teens in an active way. And powwow struck me as the perfect opportunity in part because it, there are the dancers which people are very aware of, but there are also vendors. There are people who are associated with the powwow because they happen to live in the area.
A lot of native people may plan to meet up at powwow as a central location to do something else that is somehow decidedly Indigenous. So for example, in my short story “Between the Lines,” there is a native filmmaker who is interviewing Indigenous veterans about their experience, so it's a community gathering place. It has a commercial element. There's a performance element. It's family and community.
By setting it at a university town, I had the added plausibility of a wider range of Indigenous families who might be there because they're somehow connected to the school. They have the family members studying there or working there or there visiting for a conference, whatever it might be. Those are places of tremendous intersection.
I chose Dance for Earth powwow in Ann Arbor for a couple of reasons. The first is that it's central-ish within the United States borders. It's also north enough. But it didn't seem unrealistic that folks might come down across that U.S./Canadian border from First Nation. So it worked well geographically and more. Personally, I am a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and so I had been to that Pow wow as a student myself and worked on it a bit and I had a kind of larger sense of what that local and regional community was like and some ties there.
How a "rez dog" took on a starring role in "Ancester Approved"
Rebecca Roanhorse’s story “Rez Dog” features Ozzy, and it is the only story that is told from a character who is not a person, and I remember seeing that come in and, you know, there is such an affection for the personality and plight and vigor of rez dogs everywhere. It’s another of those almost universal qualities in Native communities.
Plus, it’s extraordinarily child-friendly. It seemed like it would be an opportunity for that character to connect with kids and characters throughout the setting and throughout the narrative. And, in fact, that’s what happens. Plus, there’s humor in that, and we really wanted to, like I said, emphasize joy in this book. So much of what we hear from Native kids is that – and from kids of color in general is that they are very aware of the need for important stories, those that had tremendous historical impact that may have involved trauma or tragedy, but they don’t want to be associated with that as their defining characteristic.
Everything bad that’s ever happened to your people shouldn’t dictate who you are. You are who you are. And, you know, laughter is medicine. And the way that we connect together is through humor. It’s interesting because everyone can pretty much agree on what’s sad, but to agree on what’s funny indicates the highest meeting of the minds. And once you have that, once you have the ability with Native and non‑Native kids to laugh together on and off the page, they will have achieved a higher point of understanding than we’ve really seen up ’til now in the history of the culture.
Young Adult Books
The high school memories that inspired "Hearts Unbroken"
Louise Wolfe in Hearts Unbroken and Cassidy Rain Berghoff from Rain is Not My Indian Name probably have the largest chunks of my personal experience integrated into their stories, and the girls are cousins. So, they’re essentially two sides of a coin or perhaps a glimpse of inner children at slightly different ages and stages. Like Louise, I grew up predominantly in middleclass suburban Kansas.
I was an avid student journalist. And I found myself often wrestling with my understanding of who I was and what that meant and the rest of the world. It was especially I think growing up during the eighties when conformity was king, but still today, an experience that was constantly riddled with what we now call microaggression.
You know, Kansas City Chiefs paraphernalia was everywhere. I remember walking through the high school and, you know, seeing sports posters that said things like scalp the Indians or this and that. I mean it was all very heavy-handed stereotypical work. And while that is changing, it is changing slowly, and Native kids today are still encountering all of that.
At the same time, you know, I had friends. I had young romances. I was particularly close to my best friend, as so many kids in high school are, and she was a white girl, and we’re still best friends today. And we had different experiences growing up. So, I was thinking about all of those elements coming together, and I wanted to write a book that in some ways unpacked speech, media speech, religious speech, interpersonal speech, political speech, all the different ways that manifest.
And particularly, with regard to artistic speech, the difference between the art and the artist if there is one and how we navigate it. What happens when speech goes wrong? And that can happen in any of those contexts. So, I personalized it because I don’t believe in writing characters who are too perfect. I think that flattens their humanity. I love flawed characters, and I particularly think that girl teen characters deserve the opportunity to be flawed and for that to be okay and for everyone to see and celebrate that on the page.
So, my character, Louise, says the worst possible thing with what she considered the best possible intentions and then has to wrestle with impact and apology. All of that sounds like a very grownup analysis coming from an overeducated person. So, I’ll boil it down another way and say that the book started as a novel-length apology to my high school boyfriend for having said the worst possible thing with what I thought were the best possible intentions and the rest was history.
Writing the "Feral Nights" and "Tantalize" series
I’m often asked about my non-Native work, and some of that is the assumption that we’re all going to write directly pulling from our experiences or what’s closest to our heart, and certainly that’s a big part of what I’ve done too. Due to the fact that I broke into publishing in the late nineties and I’m still around today, that means that I was actively publishing when the so-called multicultural boom went bust.
And that happened in the early oh-ohs, and it was a time when publishing retracted to a very few voices by BIPOC creatives, almost exclusively male voices. And it was considered reasonable for there to only be one at each publisher or perhaps one in the industry in the whole. I was certainly told, “We don’t need you, we have Joe Bruchac. We don’t need you, we have Sherman Alexie,” as though they could cover the full spectrum of books for young readers.
It should be pointed out that Joe himself was a tremendous advocate to raise up voices, including women’s voices throughout that period of time. That said, I didn’t want to stop publishing. And so I turned to other sides of my reading diet. We often tell beginning writing students to write what you know, which would be exhibited in much of my Native work and to write what you love to read. And I’ve always been a huge geek.
I saw Star Wars in the theater, paid admission hundreds of times as a child. Granted, it was at the dollar movie for a very long time and it was air conditioned and my mother thought that this was a valid place for me to spend my time. So, I wrote the Tantalize series and the Feral series, and if you look at them, they’re YA. One’s a YA gothic; the other is a YA fantasy sci-fi genre bender. They still touch on social justice issues, gender empowerment.
The casts are very diverse. There are Native secondary characters who are involved. And so it was a way of taking on an unfriendly publishing landscape, doing something I genuinely enjoyed that was kid-friendly, and continuing to write in those same areas of passion, but doing all of it through the power of a veil of metaphor.
So, I might not be able to write what contemporary Native tribes are struggling against, but I am able to write about inequities in a world with fantastical creatures, some of whom are marginalized to varying degrees. Is it a straight-up equivalency? No, of course not. We’re talking about real people versus manifestations, but you can certainly touch on some of the same values and give kids an opportunity to think through them with a little bit more distance that might in some cases actually give them space to accept the insights and illumination that comes along with that story.
We need diverse science fiction and fantasy books
A few years back, I had a really memorable conversation. It was with the niece of a dear friend. She was a kid from a Black Cherokee family. And it was at a height of middle grade fantasy. And she held up a book about a Black character in a book that was a fantasy adventure, and she, you know, was being somewhat – I was the power. I was publishing in her eyes.
And she asked me, she said, “Why is it in books that it’s only the white kids that get to have fun and have adventures?” And I thought to myself that is largely what she’s seeing. And she felt that it was pushing her out of the circle of readers, and she felt that it was sending a message to other kids, and it changed the way that they looked at her and not necessarily seeing her full humanity.
And it reminded me of the kid that I was. I was a huge superhero comic book reader. I read Stephen King as a teen. You know, I did love historical fiction, and I did love what we might now call literary fiction, but those weren’t necessarily the first books that I reached for when I was 14 years old. And if we want to build avid young readers, we need to give them options, and we need to allow them to play on the page. We need to put them in a situation where they know that a kid like them can be a hero no matter what the fictional construct might be.
Heartdrum, a Native imprint of HarperCollins
My role as author-curator at Heartdrum
Author curator is a new title of sorts in the children’s and young adult publishing landscape, and it means something different for every single person who is carrying that title. We’ve had some conversations, and it’s fascinating how it manifests in different constructs. For me, it means that I’m doing a lot of what I’ve always done. I’m Auntie Cyn. If there is someone in the Native creative community who is interested in trying something new or they’re facing a particular challenge or someone’s coming over from the adult side and they want to talk to a long-time voice, I’m happy to be that person.
Beyond that sort of nuts and bolts mentoring, I’m also doing developmental work with manuscripts. I might pair two creatives. I might connect someone to a researcher who can help them. Certainly, I’ll give manuscript feedback. I read marketing materials.
I write promotional articles for the house to use or resource articles or simply articles that write what Native children’s literature is, review teacher guides, whatever it might be, and then do my best to, you know, spread the good word that there are these exciting new voices and visions out there and let people know that now is the time to embrace them and to integrate them throughout their classrooms and homes and communities.
What is Heartdrum?
Heartdrum is an imprint of Harper Children’s, and an imprint is like a little umbrella under a bigger umbrella. So, if Harper Children’s is the big umbrella, then Heartdrum is one of many little umbrellas that come in underneath that. And that means that we have a specific list that has a personality. Our list is primarily focused on contemporary work centered on young Native and First Nations heroes and both their daily life and fantastical adventures.
We do a little bit of nonfiction, much of which is pulling on the mid to late twentieth century. There is this idea if you – you might glean if you look at the body of literature, that Native people stopped existing somewhere around 1900. And so there are so many untold stories between then and now that our historical fiction, they aren’t as distant, but they are still of great interest. So, a historical story set perhaps in the 1970s might be one that is of heightened interest to us as an example.
And with the imprint, we are able to really focus in on that group. That said, there is a lot of diversity in terms of format, age range, and genre. Our first list is very middle grade because of largely the way that it worked out, the stories that our authors were working on at that time, stories that I was working on at that time. But coming up, we also have more YA. We have a number of very exiting picture books. We have the Jojo Makoons chapter book, which is on our first list. We’re very excited about that.
And it’s Native humor. It’s a Native comedy. These are books that certainly do touch on serious issues and show emotional challenges, but they’re also stories of joy and laughter to the extent that we really haven’t seen in books available for young readers.
The origin story (and fairy godmother) for Heartdrum
I was at a teacher conference, I believe it was in Houston a few years back, and my friend and acclaimed author, Ellen Oh, champion of diversity, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, invited me to breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t think a thing of it at the time. She’s a friend. I was looking forward to catching up, and certainly we did that over sausage and scrambled eggs and breakfast tacos and all the bounty that the hotel breakfast can provide.
We really went for it. Trust me when I say this, we were in a good mood. And having filled me with joyful breakfast goodies and some caffeine, she slipped into the conversation an idea that I later realized she’d been contemplating for a while. She said, "We really could use a Native-focused children’s book imprint," and I said, "Yes, wouldn’t that be amazing. You know, we’re doing well though to get a few books here and there. If we ever break one percent of total representation, I will personally throw some sort of celebration."
And she said, "There are all these imprints popping up out there," and I said, "Yes, that’s true," and she said, "And I think that you would be the perfect person to head this sort of initiative up." And I said, "What? No, no, no. I am not famous or fancy in that way."
So, she made me essentially promise to just think about it. She pointed out that I have been in the business for some 20 years, that I have published at pretty much every age market category, that I’ve done both realistic and speculative fiction, that I’ve done some creative narrative nonfiction, and that I teach writing for young readers at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m an MFA professor.
So, a good part of the balance of my time is directly focused on developing new voices and helping them to shine. And so I filed it away in my mind. Every once in a while she would send just a little nudge, a friendly one, and I promised I would keep thinking. And then sometime later, it was less than six months later, I found myself teaching a Native workshop.
I was with Dawn Quigley and Tim Tingle and some professional industry faculty, and we were at a workshop called Loon Song Turtle Island that was organized by Debby Dahl Edwardson, who is a National Book Award finalist for My Name is Not Easy, which was essentially the story of her husband’s boarding schools experience. And Debby’s a white woman who is the mama of a bounty of Iñupiat children, and she very much wanted to empower voices from within the community.
So, I was carrying Ellen’s words in the back of my mind. I was meeting with Native authors. I found myself at one moment seated on a kind of screened‑in porch patio overlooking Cook Lake. We were in Annishinaabe country, Ojibwe country. We had wonderful Ojibwe wild rice. Apparently, the key to getting me to do anything is to feed me first, and that will, you know, get the synopsis snapping.
And I could hear these amazing Native writers inside the lodge laughing and telling stories. And, you know, we were talking about Dawn Quigley, Angeline Boulley, Carole Lindstrom, a number of people who are successfully and actively publishing now. Maybe they hadn’t yet or they were at earlier points in their careers. Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza were there from American Indians in Children’s Literature. We were going deep into what was out there, what needed to be out there, and I could see all these manuscripts spread out in front of me.
I’d had this conversation with Ellen, and she had said that one of the concerns that publishes had was that the voices weren’t necessarily out there, that they weren’t getting the submissions. And I realized that part of that was probably because a lot of Native people didn’t know that children’s literature was an option for them based on what had been previously published and that they didn’t necessarily know always who to turn to or where the door would be open.
And it just hit me, you know, all of this joy and laughter, all this hope for young readers, the commitment that I was seeing from these writers when we got together, they weren’t talking about how to get an agent and what editors were looking for. In fact, one of the editors said to me, “We’re here, they can ask us questions about publishing, but they’re talking about Native children and reading,” and I said, “That’s where their hearts are. Yes, they would love to have books that could be connected and that’s part of it, but that’s not the heart of it.”
And I thought, “Maybe, maybe I should try.” And so I came back home, and I reached out to Ellen and I said, “How serious were you about this?” and she said, “Extremely, very, let’s do it now. Yes, please.” I’m paraphrasing, but that is the energy I was getting. And I said well, I know the perfect person, and that was Rosemary Brosnan at Harper Children, and she was my original children’s book editor.
So, I knew that she was interested in groundbreaking and contemporary Native children’s literature 20 years before when nobody was doing it, when people didn’t even know what to do with those books because how were they historical. Well, they weren’t, right? So, I knew that she would understand. I knew that, you know, she had published authors like Uma Krishnaswami and Rita Williams-Garcia, that she’d been committed to this conversation around diversity and inclusion well before it really gained momentum.
And so I had trust. This was someone I could trust with my cousins. And I connected her and Ellen, and we came up with the idea that We Need Diverse Books would be a partner to the imprint. And so our work with them is in concert. We are able through HarperCollins to fund an annual workshop that develops up-and-coming Native authors and author illustrators, and some of their work goes to us and some of it goes to other publishers, big publishers, Native-owned publishes, tribally owned publishes. And that’s all part of the bigger mission.
We want to put out wonderful heartfelt books that focus on young Native heroes and joy, and we also want to help raise up more voices and visions throughout the industry. So, it’s so funny now when I talk to Ellen, you know. Originally, we were thinking about four to six books, and she was like, “If we could only have four to six books,” and I said, “Well, we’ve brought over 20 now this year.” And, you know, it’s so wonderful to even just joke back and forth.
She’s like, “Well, you did that.” I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. You’re the one who put me on the road so I could get my little, you know, wagon wheels churning.” And we’re happy. It was really exciting to release those first books. We experienced a wonderful critical reception. I think the five titles have received a combined 19 starred reviews and all of them multiple. And they were doing that while – doing what Ellen told us to do, write Native, Native structures, Native literary style, hybrid. You do you. And she was right. Our fairy godmother made it happen, and the magic rocks on.
Opportunities for Native youth in publishing
Through my work with We Need Diverse Books, and I am the program director for the We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive and our authors in the larger intertribal community, we’ve begun really emphasizing to kids that this is an option for them, that this is a world that they can enter, there are opportunities there. And I think that is going to be more true to the extent that we continue to embrace a hybrid approach to communicating.
A lot of Native people are reluctant to leave our tribal communities. We have daily life responsibilities to our Elders and children of our extended families. And so that will offer another venue as well as the idea that you don’t necessarily have to live in New York City, which is prohibitive financially for many of us. But in point of fact, New York does have one of the largest urban American Indian populations on the continent, and so we’re also trying to raise awareness there of job opportunities, of what the jobs even are.
You know, I was reaching out to an illustrator who was doing art classes for kids and was doing beautiful mural work and, you know, said essentially, “Have you thought about doing a picture book? Have you thought about doing cover art?” And the answer was, “Well, children’s books, you know, basically the Native representation isn’t anything that I would want to get involved with,” because this was someone of my generation who’d had that same experience.
And so I was able to say, “Hey, things are changed. It’s gotten better. We’ve had a lot of people working for a long time who will be there to support you. I will send you as a personal gift a handful of books that you can look at,” and, that person is now actively pursuing children’s book illustration. So, some of it is just having those conversations. We have to understand when we’re talking about industry representation of Native people, that for a long time the industry sent out the message, you know, showing more than telling this is not a place for you. And we need to improve that message to reflect the positive changes that are occurring, and we’ll only continue to build from here.
Native law is part of Native identity
An aspect of Native identity that isn’t always fully appreciated is that it is primarily and perhaps most importantly a political identity, that Native people are of sovereign Indigenous nations, and that comes with an entire body of federal Indian law. So, questions of tribal enrollment, of land use, resource use, the question of who can and can’t be adopted by whom and how, there are a myriad of laws that are idiosyncratic that in many ways govern our existence.
Perhaps for that reason, when we saw the first wave of Native people and second, I believe we’re probably on the third now going to college, many of them went on to law school because that would give them more power and influence in self-determination and protecting their nations and citizens and working toward reclamation of what they may have lost, not only in terms of land but a myriad of rights.
So, you often see that reflected in the pages of Native-created books and short stories for young readers. There are a number of us who are both recovering you might say lawyers as well as tribal members and children’s authors. My dear friends, Traci Sorell, who’s Cherokee, and Kevin Noble Maillard, who is Seminole, are also lawyers. And you get us together on a panel and one of the things we’re most interested in is how the question of sovereignty, for example, is really delineated.
I think that there is a tendency to think of us purely in terms of being another ethnic or racial group when really there is a larger political framework to it. You know, we vote for tribal officials, for example, and those parts of our daily life haven’t really been seen on the page until we’ve had a watershed moment in the creative Native children’s/YA literary scene.
To have members of those communities showing what it means to be specifically Muscogee, specifically Cherokee, specifically Seminole, Navajo, whatever nation it might be, makes a big difference on how that is framed to both Native and non-Native young readers.
The nuances of Indigenous identity
Native identity is complex. When I’m thinking about the question of who is Indigenous, I have to take into account federal recognition, state recognition, the fact that sometimes the United States federal government has derecognized nations and not necessarily because they were illegitimate but because they had their own agenda. There are tribal nations that are matrilineal, are patrilineal.
If I am looking at a friend who is asking me questions about where their voice fits in, their nation may say that they don’t have voting rights because they are the child of their mother and not their father or vice versa, and I believe that that is their sovereign right to do so. At the same time, children’s literature isn’t a tribal governmental structure.
So, if that person would be brought as a baby of the family to a tribal community event and accepted socially as a member, that holds great weight with me. It’s a little more complex. There are additional constructs. For example, Christine Day, who I worked with at Heartdrum, has published a beautiful novel on the Indian Child Welfare Act wherein you might have a child who is illegally but nevertheless adopted out of their nation, ties are severed, and they may need to go through a period of reconnection. That can be difficult. The child isn’t any less Indigenous the day before or after the paperwork goes through. So, there are some special cases.
I’m also very sensitive to the fact that with a number of Black and Indigenous folks, sometimes the records simply aren’t as available as they might be for other citizens, and there is additional construct around descendants of Freedmen, who I would accept as members of their tribal communities of origin but may or may not have voting rights depending on which nation is at stake.
So, when we’re looking at it, there are nuances, but certainly we want to look for tribal affiliation, we want to look for tribal specificity, we want to look for community ties and give grace to the fact that there are some special circumstances and also that there are due to a variety of traumatic, colonialist, anti-Native governmental acts, folks who are really working hard to reconnect with their families and tribal communities of origin and do what we can to support and welcome them home.
We Need Diverse Books
We need diverse books because every kid and teen deserves to be a hero that everyone cheers.