WNDMG Wednesday – Celebrating Heartdrum Launch: Cynthia Leitich Smith

We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

Heartdrum Imprint Launch

We Need Diverse Middle Grade celebrates the new Heartdrum imprint launch this week, in anticipation of its January 2021 launch. With Heartdrum (HarperCollins) in the picture, the future is bright for Native creators in the publishing industry.  What’s more, we’re going to have even more opportunities to fill middle-grade bookshelves with a rich tapestry of diverse stories and characters.

The Native-focused initiative launch list includes: Ancestor Approved, an anthology of stories that take place at an intertribal powwow, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith, and The Sea in Winter by Christine Day (Upper Skagit). Heartdrum logo


Leading the imprint are award-winning and New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek), and Rosemary Brosnan, Vice President, Editorial Director, HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith, NYT Bestselling Author, Heartdrum Author-Curator

We Need Diverse Middle Grade was delighted to have a chance to chat with Cynthia Leitich Smith recently, about collaboration and all things Heartdrum.

Heartdrum Origin Story

MUF: First of all, congratulations on launching the Heartdrum imprint. We at MUF are very excited for you and for the potential of your titles to really open some doors and windows for middle-grade readers. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got attached to this imprint and what your role will be?

CLS: Thank you for your enthusiasm and support! I’m honored.

Here’s the scoop: Brilliant author, WNDB leader, and Champion for A Better World Ellen Oh first conceived of the idea of a Native children’s-YA book imprint and pitched it to me over a bountiful, laughter-filled hotel breakfast at a librarian conference. I grinned and shook my head, flattered. We were talking about an ambitious project. Was I the right person? Was I famous or fancy enough? I thought it over for several months.

A Game-Changing Moment

Of course, the fact that only 1% of children’s books published are Native titles means there is an overwhelming need for Native and First Nations voices. But equally importantly, the Indigenous literary creative community is experiencing a boom in growth, in new and rising talent and enthusiasm.

As a writing teacher and mentor, I knew our radiant intertribal community was made up of Native authors and illustrators who could absolutely deliver excellent, innovative, authentic, and engaging books to the most important audience—young readers. Beyond that, I love teaching writing and mentoring writers, especially new voices.

What’s more, I knew the perfect editor to partner with for the mission! Rosemary Brosnan at HarperChildren’s was my original children’s editor, and she has been a steadfast industry advocate for equitable and inclusive literature for decades. Rosemary is an incredibly skilled, wise, and generous industry professional who commits deeply to her authors and genuinely prioritizes young readers. I trusted her to make the dream a reality. And she did. So, Heartdrum at HarperChildren’s is now a Native-focused imprint in partnership with We Need Diverse Books.

Rosemary Brosnan

Rosemary Brosnan: VP, Editorial Director, HarperCollins Childrens Photo Credit: Kate Morgan Jackson

Wow, it’s been quite the journey already! We’ve been blessed with so many incredible submissions and, consequently, have signed up three times more projects this year than originally expected. This is a game-changing moment in Native kidlit! I can hardly wait to share the final books with kids.

Ancestor Approved

MUF: Among the first titles Heartdrum releases will be your anthology ANCESTOR APPROVED – can you tell us a little bit about the collaborative process for this book?

CLS: ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS is a middle grade anthology featuring sixteen writers and illustrator Nicole Niedhardt. The book is centered on its setting—a two-day intertribal powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

All of the stories and poems spring from that event, and the cover art reflects Kim Rogers’s protagonist. We’re talking about a collection wherein the hero of one story might appear as a secondary character in another one. Each can stand alone, but in reading them all, kids will glean added layers of resonance. The contributors include well-established Native and First Nations authors like Joseph Bruchac and David A. Robertson, rising stars like Christine Day, Eric Gansworth, and Traci Sorell as well as new voices like Andrea L. Rogers and Brian Young.

Ancestor Approved Heartdrum

Collaborating Ancestor

Together, they collaborated on the worldbuilding, which took place via an online message board, emails, text messages, phone calls and in-person meetings. Traci Sorell graciously offered to take point on putting together an initial guide to the setting, and I began charting the existing links and opportunities for more. Questions flew! “What’s the weather like?” “Do we have video?” “Does the vendor hotel serve breakfast?” [Yes, I literally called a Holiday Inn to research their early-morning menu!] Everyone was good-humored about smoothing out any inconsistencies from story to story and even embraced revising major plot points when needed. They were all extremely patient with editorial follow-up questions, expansion and revision requests.

I’m so pleased with how the anthology turned out. Teachers, librarians, and tribal language advocates will be thrilled with the back matter. We have a Native-authored educator guide in the works. With any collection, the first and last contributions are especially high impact. Kim Rogers’s and Carole Lindstorm’s lovely, evocative poems brilliantly bookend the short stories, and their deeply felt writing really elevates the entire book.

MUF: Will you carry this approach forward as you publish other Heartdrum titles?

CLS: We wholeheartedly embrace a community and collaborative approach. That said, I don’t expect that we’ll publish several books with quite so many voices and visions.

Meanwhile, we’re really listening and respecting everyone involved in each title. As a personal example, when I saw Muscogee Creek Floyd Cooper’s magical cover art for my own upcoming middle-grade novel, SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA, I immediately made tweaks in my text to accommodate his vision. We deeply value our Indigenous illustrators’ efforts—whether their focus is a picture book, cover art or interior black-and-whites.

Need for Native-Focused Imprint

MUF: Stealing this question from your terrific interview with Roger Sutton of the Horn Book—Why, in 2020, do you think we need an imprint devoted to Native American books?

CLS: First, it should be noted that small Native-owned and tribal presses have been publishing high-quality, authentic Native and First Nations books for a long time. We must continue to prioritize and support them.

With mainstream trade publishing, it’s been more of a struggle. Misconceptions and biases in the overarching society seeped into the industry. For Native representation on the page, that has meant not only erasure but also effectively promoting the myth of extinction, the lie of Manifest Destiny, and the perpetuation of harmful Hollywood stereotypes.

Of late, because of early and ever-more-numerous activists, the WNDB movement, heightening inclusion of Indigenous voices, and a rising generation of publishing pros determined to do better, we’re experiencing a meaningful, positive change. As an industry, we all still have a lot of work to do, and I’m pleased that Heartdrum is a part of that effort.

Sending a Message

CLS: Our very existence as an imprint sends a message to our creative and professional colleagues that here will be fewer default barriers to Native narratives, that there is a substantial big-five-publisher commitment, that there is a widespread children’s-literature community commitment. Opportunities and ripple effects are following suit. More literary agents are signing Native writers. Other publishers are hitting PAUSE to consider the Indigenous representation (or lack thereof) on their own lists. Booksellers, teachers, and librarians are seeking out related resources and advocating for their peers to join them in raising up authentic, respectful Native narratives that are also outstanding, page-turning reads.

Everyone living within what’s currently called “the North American market” is on Native land. We have a past, present, and future that is fascinating, reflecting a full range of humanity. Our kids deserve to cheer for heroes who share their tribal identity/ies, and when it comes to books with Native-content, kids in general deserve better than most of what’s been published before, the overwhelming majority of it by non-Indian creators.

It’s past time to move the conversation forward–to focus on books that reflect Native sensibilities and humor, that reflect our own visual and literary styles and innovations.

The existence of a Native imprint is a statement. It says we belong in the world of books.

((Want to read more about Cynthia Leitich Smith? Read MUF contributor Mike Hayes’s interview here.)


MUF: Will the authors and stories be all #ownvoices Native Americans?

CLS: The authors, illustrators, audio-book voice actors, and the educators writing our teacher guides…! I’m not saying “never” to non-Native collaborators. My newly repackaged book JINGLE DANCER features non-Native illustrators, who are POC. (Cornelius Van Wright is Black, and Ying-Hwa Hu is Taiwanese American). At twenty years old, the book is considered a “modern classic.” Neil and Ying-Hwa’s loving visual depiction of Jenna Wolfe reflects who she is to Native kids. But that book is an exception, not an expectation for books on our list.

Addressing Troublesome Classics

MUF: What’s your feeling about the “troublesome classics” like Little House on the Prairie – what do we do with them in the 21st century?

CLS: It’s timely that you ask that. I mentioned SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA, which is an Indigenous retelling of J.M. Barrie’s PETER PAN, centered on the girls in the story.

The premise is that Wendy Darling (who’s white and British) and Lily Roberts (who’s Muscogee Creek) are stepsisters living in suburban Tulsa. As the story begins, they’re navigating a time of uncertainty and transition in their family. One night, Peter and a fairy named Belle appear at the girls’ little brother Michael’s window. Hijinks and adventure follow suit.

Certainly, there are profoundly problematic aspects of the original PETER PAN. Especially with regard to the so-called Indian characters—or rather, caricatures—in the story, though the gender representation and disability representation are disturbing, too.

sisters of the neversea

That’s where the conversation of books can come in. Reinvention that talks back. Reinvention that makes us think. Still, SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is by no means a treatise debating with Barrie’s classic. The heart of my story is about the love between the girls, about the bonds of blended families. It’s filled with humorous moments as well as high-stakes action and wonder.

All of which is to say, I think we authors of today can address many of those “troublesome classics,” as you put it. We can actively engage. And if the classic’s “troublesome” aspects are harmful to child readers, we update our choices and collections accordingly.

What Does and Doesn’t Need Updating

MUF: Following up on that question, how do new editions of your own work reflect changes in how Native kidlit is written and framed?

CLS: For context, my first three books—JINGLE DANCER, INDIAN SHOES and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME have been updated and are being published in paperback editions. Due to teacher demand, the updated version INDIAN SHOES is already available as an ebook.

As for how Native kidlit is written and framed…. First, it’s important not to overgeneralize. “Native” is an umbrella word referring to more than 500 tribal nations within U.S. borders alone—all with their own languages, histories, cultures, and literary traditions. In writing, a lot of us take a hybrid approach—combining our literary traditions with mainstream influences. Intersections abound. Individual artistic discretion and innovation are welcome. [The best way to familiarize yourself is to read extensively.] So, while we’re not without discernable patterns and commonalities, I’m speaking for myself.

Here are a few of my own considerations and how I addressed them:

With JINGLE DANCER, the primary update is the author’s note. I tweaked the language used to reference Jenna’s heritage in keeping with evolving tribal preferences. I made the text a bit more timeless. I also included a more comprehensive description of various regalia choices, among other tweaks, as the jingle dance has grown in intertribal popularity over time.

What I didn’t do is probably more significant. There has always been this pressure to provide an overly heavy social studies overlay or punctuation mark on Native fiction. It’s due to what sometimes is called “the white gaze”—which includes the expectation that fiction about us is not also for us and, rather, its only role is to educate non-Natives.

Instead, in my author’s note, I offered an appropriate, illuminating amount of information to supplement a fictional story and provided teachers with sufficient springboards for discussion without crossing that line.

The text of INDIAN SHOES stayed mostly the same, though—as in all of my books—I specifically made it clear in the author’s note that my readers included both Native and non-Native kids and spoke more directly to them than in the past.

Indian Shoes 2020

Urban Cover Art

The most significant change was in the cover art by Cherokee Sharon Irla and interior illustrations by Cherokee MaryBeth Timothy. The cover is more unabashedly urban, which is important in one of the very few books reflecting the reality that most Native people live in cities. The interior illustrations are also more inclusive of Native girls and women, who’re especially historically underrepresented in children’s literature. Although I’m Muscogee Creek by tribal affiliation, I do have Cherokee ancestors and very close family members who’re citizens of the Cherokee Nation (Oklahoma). Ray and Grampa Halfmoon are Cherokee-Seminoles and that choice was in a way a love note to those close relations. Given that, having Cherokee artists join the creative team made perfect sense.

The update of RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME was the most extensive. It features a lovely new cover by illustrator Natasha Donovan, whose artistic sensitively conveys the emotional nuances of the protagonist’s healing journey and new beginnings.

Beyond that, the text shows a shift among younger tribal members to “Native,” though many still say “Indian” and certainly most of their elders do. I also took a more direct approach to communicating a few cross-cultural interactions, including those around a Black Seminole character and Ojibwe characters. While these elements were already present in the original text, I added brushstrokes to further contextualize racial and socio-economic diversity within Indian Country. We are by no means a monolith, and that goes beyond tribal affiliation to include a myriad of additional identity elements.

Contemporary Fiction

MUF: Will you be publishing books across all genres: contemporary, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.? And will you also publish nonfiction? Or are you looking for a more specific niche?

CLS: At Heartdrum, our focus is on realistic and speculative contemporary fiction centered on young Native heroes. We’re also publishing a limited amount of recent (20th century) historicals and nonfiction.

My feeling is that all age market, genre, and format categories of quality Native and First Nations books for kids are desperately needed. I’m busy supporting manuscript development in other categories as a mentor and writing teacher. I’m actively promoting them on my platform.

Meanwhile, for me, nurturing heartfelt kid-to-kid connections on the page and beyond is a heightened priority. No matter how compelling a, say, nonfiction narrative about a landmark historical event may be, the book about it will struggle to connect with Native young readers if they don’t believe that people like them belong in the world of children’s literature. What’s more, it will struggle to connect with non-Native young readers, if they don’t recognize, respect and relate to our humanity.

Writing in a Pandemic

MUF: If you’re comfortable answering this, and I understand if it feels it’s too raw or personal, please feel free to disregard this question. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your creative life?

CLS: I’m blessed to be able to do my work from home. The main logistical challenges have been space and time. I normally travel a lot, meet friends in town for breakfast tacos, and run to the grocery store two or three times a week. Not right now. I live in a small condo, and my bookshelf has been largely converted to a stocked-up pantry. Review copies that I might otherwise be donating to, say, the neighborhood high school or public library books ale, are really piling up. They’re stacked on chairs and hiding out under the beds.

Meanwhile, my schedule is cheerfully bursting with online events and meetings in preparation for them. I’m also now sharing my office space with someone doing much of the same, which means a lot of more migrating between upstairs and down. But I dearly love and believe in what I do, and so far, all the bowling balls I’m juggling have stayed mostly airborne.

I miss spending time with everyone in person, but one blessing is spending quality time in Austin when the weather is at its most pleasant. For decades, my biggest author travel months (not counting VCFA) have been March to May and mid-September through November. That’s also when the air cools, the flowers bloom, and golden leaves spin through the air.

My long-haired Chihuahua Gnocchi, who is always living her best life, is reveling in long walks and day-to-day cuddles.

The main creative challenge is new writing scenes. I can revise anything anywhere anytime. But fresh scenes require uninterrupted focus and clarity that is oh-so rare and precious right now. I currently have two novels under contract, a YA companion to HEARTS UNBROKEN for Candlewick and an ambitious middle grade for Heartdrum that is requiring a lot of reflection in terms of its worldbuilding and, more personally, in gathering courage.

The one exception to that creative struggle is in the graphic-format books I’m writing with Kekla Magoon—THE BLUE STARS series, being illustrated by Molly Murakami for Candlewick. No doubt due to the utter magical brilliance of Kekla and our upbeat and playful collaborative approach, writing those scripts feels like it comes easier. And I know “easier” is the wrong word, but with the two of us writing, we’re somehow able to transfer energy back and forth and build on it together. Joining forces amps up our literary superpowers.

All that said, working on Heartdrum has been like a beacon of hope and joy. For me, and I’m hearing the same from our imprint authors and illustrators, from our Native kidlit family members more broadly, and from our many dear friends and committed supporters in the conversation of children’s books.

Indeed, Heartdrum is a source of hope and a reason to celebrate. It’s a healing influence in the industry, a tribute to Indigenous Nations and peoples, a signal of long overdue respect to Native literary and visual artists, and a transformative gift to children. And we’ve only just begun!

MUF: Thanks again so much – and we look forward to hearing more from Heartdrum!


About Cynthia Leitich Smith 

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including HEARTS UNBROKEN, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. She is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and serves as the Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cynthia is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.

Twitter: @CynLeitichSmith

Instagram: @cynthialeitichsmith

You Tube: Cynthia Leitich Smith

Heather Murphy Capps
Heather Murphy Capps has always had a deep appreciation for comfort and elegance. She and Claudia would have run out of money quickly together but would absolutely have been on the same page about taxis and nice restaurants. And of course, solving mysteries about beautiful art. That said, Heather also appreciates Jamie’s love of complication, which is why she spent several years living in rural Kenya and then became a television news reporter, which involved standing for hours in the middle of hurricanes and political battles. Now she’s raising middle-grade readers and writing for them. She loves to read and write books with lots of great science, magic, mystery, and adventure. Heather is the communications coordinator for Mixed-Up Files, as well as creator/curator for our We Need Diverse MG series. She is committed to creating more diversity in publishing.