Author Interviews

Cynthia Leitich Smith of the new HarperCollins imprint, Heartdrum

The latest diversity in children’s book data released by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows the publishing slice for American Indians/First Nations books stayed relatively flat. This percentage increased only slightly from the 2015 data (0.9%) to 1% reported in 2018. The excellent infographic, Diversity in Children’s Books 2018 by David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen, visually represents this striking data.

There is a need for action.

The first step has been around a long time for the readers and educators who have found it. It’s the abundance of exceptional Native content produced by exceptional Native creators. I highly recommend digging into Native kidlit and giving these books a try. You’ll be glad you did.

A solid and promising second step came recently from a major publishing house. HarperCollins Children’s Division is taking a step forward with the announcement of their Heartdrum imprint. Better yet, this exciting new imprint will be led by two awesome and talented individuals, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Rosemary Brosnan. Today, we are honored at From the Mixed-Up Files to have Cynthia Leitich Smith graciously answer a few questions about Heartdrum.

Cynthia, welcome! Thank you for being our guest and sharing this great news about Heartdrum.

What does having a Native imprint at major publishing house mean to you personally, now and for the future, as an author, advocate, and enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation?

It’s a signal that Native voices and artistic visions are more fully welcomed and embraced by children’s-YA book publishing per se. It is a noteworthy and encouraging intersection between the industry and the intertribal Native literary community—most importantly, young readers, centering Native children and teens.

When we think personally, “community” is the first, most important word that comes to mind.

As excited as all us Native Kidlit fans are for the news of the Heartdrum imprint, we mustn’t look past the tremendous creative work that has been and will be released in the future from independent publishers. Can you touch on some of those wonderful houses?

We must remember that tribal presses and Native-owned presses are and should always be the leaders in this industry conversation. We must also pay tribute and continue to support small presses that have been at the forefront of bringing Native voices and visions to kids from the start.

When seeking out Native literature, we’re all blessed to have high-quality titles from houses like Salina Bookshelf, Lee & Low/Tu Books, Charlesbridge, Cinco Puntos, Levine Querido, Native Realities Press, and Chickasaw Press (among others).

(A huge shout out to Lee & Low for taking a strong leadership position in encouraging more diversity and accountability within publishing as an industry and to Tu editor Stacy Whitman for bringing more Native voices in speculative/genre fiction into the world.)

This moment is also a testament to the importance and guidance of groundbreaking elder authors and illustrators like Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Michael LaCapa, Tim Tingle, Lucy Tapahonso, Joy Harjo, Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, and Simon Ortiz…to new and rising stars like Christine Day, Dawn Quigley, Darcie Little Badger, Eric Gansworth, Julie Flett, Monique Gray Smith, David Alexander Robertson, Angeline Boulley, and Brian Young (among others).

Likewise, we should all be sure to herald breakout individual titles on big-house publisher lists from new sensations like At Mountain’s Base, written by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila/Penguin Random House), Fry Bread, written by Kevin Noble Malliard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (Roaring Brook/Macmillan) and the forthcoming We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade (Roaring Brook/Macmillan)(among others).

(A huge shout out to Traci Sorell for her leadership in the Native children’s-YA literary creative community.)

Together, these Native literary and visual artists have proven that authentic, well-crafted Native writing and illustration can entertain, inform, delight, foster empathy, validate and connect.

And their accomplishments didn’t come easily. They have persevered and broken through barriers of bigotry, misconceptions, and stereotypes—navigating and pushing against literary defaults to non-Native conventions and sensibilities. And that battle is still ongoing.

What is Heartdrum’s origin story?

Turning to the Heartdrum imprint, it should be noted that credit for the idea goes to Ellen Oh at We Need Diverse Books. And of course, she—like so many of us—was made more aware of the Native children’s-YA publishing book landscape in part from the hard work of folks like CCBC, former ALA President Loriene Roy, the American Indian Library Association, Drs. Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza of the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog, and rising voices like Kara Stewart and Alia Jones.

Ellen and the CCBC team are wonderful examples of friends who went above and beyond.

Remember that every act of support from each of us makes a difference.

Every Native or non-Native teacher who shares an authentic Native-focused book—especially when it’s not November; every Native or non-Native family member or friend who gives one to a beloved child….

As a fan, I’ve enjoyed the recent resurgence in Native-created content. Can you highlight some of these changes which have given Native creators in the industry the space they deserve?

Last year, author Debby Dahl Edwardson organized LoonSong: Turtle Island, a workshop for Native writers, that led to deep friendships and ah-ha moments that will long impact children’s literature in exciting ways.

This year SCBWI welcomed me to its Board of Advisors, and I’m working with a terrific committee of luminaries on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Bank Street College featured several Native voices at this fall’s book festival.

Just last month, educator Jillian Heise organized and moderated a Native author panel at NCTE. And Native representation was up at that conference across the board.

KidLitCon has announced that Dawn Quigley will be their upcoming keynote speaker.

Children’s librarians introduced authors like Traci Sorell and Kevin Noble Maillard to elementary students at their schools.

Native booksellers like Red Planet Books & Comics in Albuquerque and Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis (among others) have become essential destinations.

Of late, Meghan Goel, the children’s book buyer and programming director, at Austin’s legendary independent bookstore, BookPeople, reached out to ask how she and the store could better support Native voices, and she took positive action from there, including writing a related article for Publishers Weekly.

The work of today’s veteran advocates is echoed and carried forward from Indigo’s Bookshelf: Voices of Native Youth.

I could share so many more examples—including this interview at Mixed-Up Files!

All of this is to say: We’re talking about a steadily building groundswell of support, over many years, that has been the most successful when Native voices have taken the lead and true friends have listened respectfully and responded proactively in cooperation.

What role do you envision for Heartdrum in advancing Native literature and literacy?

The Heartdrum imprint is another next step forward. Actually, it’s a leap of faith.

Twenty years ago, a big-house editor, Rosemary Brosnan, took a risk on my first book, Jingle Dancer, a contemporary Native story about a young girl bringing together regalia with the help of women of every generation of her family and community. Launching the Heartdrum imprint with her feels as though our journey has come full circle. And now, we’ll begin again with the goal of helping to nurture and lift more Native creative folks and books, to benefit generations of young readers.

A house with the reach and resources of HarperCollins, dedicating itself to this initiative, will be a game-changer for the future of children’s-YA book publishing.

Heartdrum will offer page-turning, heartfelt, sometimes joyful, sometimes reflective books that will speak to generations of young readers.

My hope is that Heartdrum books will validate fellow Native literary and visual artists of all ages—from preschoolers to elders. I also hope that educators will take note of our emphasis on tribally specific, contemporary (and perhaps futuristic) stories to recognize that Native people hail from distinct Nations with past, yes, but also a present and future.

We’ll be inclusive when it comes to the intersectional identities. There is so much diversity within Indian Country—intertribally, culturally, linguistically, in terms of faith, socio-economic status, body type, gender, orientation, and so on. If, say, a Native author with a disability reflects that experience on the page, we’re not going to say, “Your layers of identity are too much for the mainstream market to process.” We understand that the human experience is not a check-one-box proposition.

Joy, fun, and humor will be ever-present in the mix with more serious themes.

We’ll prioritize the needs of kid readers, especially Native kids.

Beyond that, I hope friends and colleagues take this moment to reflect on their relationship to Native literature and diverse and inclusive literature more broadly. And that’s something we’ll continue to do, too.

We must all be asking ourselves with each step forward: How can we do better?

I’m also deeply grateful that WNDB and HarperCollins are making it possible to organize annual workshops for Native writers to nurture their writing journeys. No doubt that some writers we’ll be working with will go on to publish with the Heartdrum imprint and some will go on to publish with other houses.

We’ll be filled with joy about them all!

 

 

Interview with MG Author Victoria Piontek

Writing can be very solitary; just a writer and their computer or notebook. But as writers of children’s books, we’re lucky to have a wonderful camaraderie between creators who support and help each other. The year my first novel, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, came out, I found heaps of support and help through my debut group, the Electric Eighteens, and the Spooky Middle Grade authors. I love to see how other authors are navigating their writing, so I thought today I’d interview one of the authors who shared and supported me during my debut year in both of these wonderful groups, Victoria Piontek. Victoria is the author of THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY (Scholastic, 2018), which A SNICKER OF MAGIC author Natalie Lloyd described as, “Wrapped in prose as mysterious and lovely as a southern breeze lies a story about loss that haunts, and the ghosts that help us heal. This story is a treasure.”

Victoria Piontek

Victoria Piontek

Samantha: What do you love about writing books, and on the flip side is there anything you don’t like?

Victoria: What I love most about writing is working with words and revising them to say just the right thing in the right way. I also really love watching a project take shape through revision and the way it gets a little more whole with each pass. The thing I don’t like about writing is getting started again after a break. Blank pages and flashing cursors are terrifying!

Samantha: What made you want to be a writer?

Victoria: My sister and I discovered a battered set of C.S. Lewis’s CHRONICLES OF NARNIA in our family barn. We spent the summer reading the books, and by the time I finished the series, I knew that I wanted to be a writer.

Samantha: What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome in your journey so far?

Victoria: Self-doubt. Even though I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer, I believed I wouldn’t be able to become one because I’m dyslexic. As a kid, even though I loved school and learning, I didn’t perform well in an academic environment, and I thought that meant I couldn’t be an author. I had to work really hard (and still do) to overcome some of the technical aspects of writing and to believe in myself.

Samantha: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your debut year?

Victoria: To enjoy and celebrate every milestone no matter how small because the debut year goes by surprisingly fast.

Samantha: Do you feel as though your debut year or your book has changed you in any way?

Victoria: THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY is, in many ways, a love letter to my family, especially my mom. It didn’t change me as much as reinforce how important family is to me and how grateful I am to have grown up in my family even though we were not picture perfect. As a family, we were a little messy and quirky, but my mom taught us to celebrate that difference, and I think that has helped me with my writing. I love writing characters who are good-hearted but imperfect.

Samantha: How has your writing process changed?

Victoria: My process has changed in two ways since I first started writing. I now outline before I start drafting. It’s a loose outline, but I’ve learned that if I don’t know what is supposed to come next, I get stuck and flounder. When I have a roadmap, I can work quicker. I also fast draft without editing or revising as I go. I’ve discovered it’s the best way to make progress because it allows me to get more words on the page and stops me from getting caught up in self-criticism. Nothing kills creativity like self-doubt.

Samantha: What draws you to middle-grade novels, and are there challenges or special considerations you have to think about when writing for this category?

Victoria: Middle grade is my favorite category to read and to write because it has all the qualities I love in a novel—heart, humor, and hope. I think when writing for this category, the most important thing to keep in mind is to not write down to readers. Kids are very discerning creatures. Adults have a tendency to forget that.

Samantha: What types of stories are you most interested in telling, and why?

Victoria: I love telling friendship and family stories because I feel like those connections are at the heart of who we are and why.

Samantha: What’s next for you?

Victoria: I’m working on a new novel about friendship and family.

Samantha: I look forward to reading it!

Find out more about Victoria Piontek on her website, VictoriaPiontek.com

Interview with Ridley Pearson, Author of Super Sons

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org and check out Ridley Pearson's The Foxglove Mission.Hey Mixed-Up Filers, we’ve got a super interview for you. Ridley Pearson, author of the Lock & Key, Kingdom Keepers, and most recently Super Sons series is sitting down with us today to discuss the latest book in the Super Sons series, The Foxglove Mission.

This is your second book in the Super Sons series. Can you tell us a little bit about the series and about DC’s middle grade graphic novels?

The most interesting character in suspense is, ironically, the villain. The trilogy of Super Sons books works off three “evils.” Book 1: gangs. Book 2: corporate corruption. Book 3: governments. Sometimes these evils are on the page; sometimes implied.

In The Foxglove Mission, our newest character, Candace, is in search of her lineage, her larger family, and her purpose as a human being. She is surrounded by friends who care about her: Ian Wayne and Jon Kent, the Super Sons. She goes off on a dangerous quest. Jon and Ian follow, trying to help her. The boys have their own missions: to find a way to heal Jon’s ailing mother, and to stop a chemical firm from making others sick. It’s high stakes, high action, and teamwork.  

You’ve worked with characters before that, like the Super Sons, have an already established canon, in projects like Lock & Key, Kingdom Keepers, and Never Land. What was it like working on a story with characters that have so much history attached to them? 

It’s a great question, and that was my question to DC when we discussed my writing these graphic novels. Thankfully, my editors said, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” (i.e., the past of these young superheroes). They allowed me to reinvent them, and hopefully they are likeable, strong characters with much to figure out. That’s how I felt as a kid.

Why Damian Wayne and Jon Kent? Were the Super Sons chosen before the story or did the story choose them?

Page from The Foxglove Mission

Art by Ile Gonzalez

These are the characters DC asked me to write about. I was intimidated. The son of Batman? The son of Superman? But I grew up with both Batman and Superman, so I eagerly jumped in!

You’ve created some amazing original characters in Candace, Tilly, and Avyrc. I was really happy to see Candace’s story expanding in The Foxglove Mission, and even Tilly having an expanded role. Can you tell us a little bit about these characters? For example, how did you choose Candace’s superpower? Why is Tilly’s superhero alter-ego Puppet Girl? And what makes Avyrc such a great villain for our team to go up against?

My wife and I have two daughters (grown now). I’m comfortable with such characters; I’ve witnessed so much success, drama, heartache, and redemption. We also have an adopted son from Kenya, and I’ve written about Kenya on my adult side of publishing, so when DC and I discussed Jon and Ian, I wanted to add a female character, and that became Candace. She has “elemental” powers of controlling weather, and working with birds. She is my Earth woman.

 You’ve written a lot of cool tech, such as the DHI and a lot of Batkid’s gadgets? What piece of tech from your books do you wish you could use?

I wouldn’t mind having a hovercraft!

Similarly, you’ve written a lot of cool supernatural powers? If you could choose a superpower, what would it be?

The power to eliminate all poverty and prejudice. I’ve looked on Walmart shelves, but it isn’t there. Yet.

I’ve read that you’re more of a plotter than a pantser. Can you tell us a bit more about what your writing process is like?

Stories are shaped in many ways. Two of the most common are: start with a situation; or outline. I fall into the outline group. I like to work with the puzzle pieces first, see where they fit and how to fit them together. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

What was your writing journey like? You’ve written for all ages. How did you get started writing for middle-graders?

My writing journey would take up a long dinner! Basically, it has come down to understanding it’s hard work; that stories aren’t written, they are rewritten; that stories are about character; and all the plotting in world won’t replace one terrific character. 

Peabody Headshot. Found on the press section of Ridley Pearson's website.

 

 What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received, and what writing advice would you give to someone just getting started?

My writing advice: Read. Then read some more. When you do try writing, dedicate some small piece of each day (for me it’s 6-8 hours) to sitting in the chair and putting words onto pages. Don’t worry if they are perfect—there’s time to fix that.

What are you working on next?

I have a new Kingdom Keepers series publishing September of 2020. Working title: Kingdom Keepers 2.0. I’m halfway through a new graphic novel trilogy for DC called The Indestructibles. It’s an original series that I’m incredibly excited about. I think the first book publishes in 2020 as well.

 How can people follow you on social media?

Very carefully. (Twitter. Insta. Facebook. I’m not great at it; something I’m working on.)