Posts Tagged Native American literature

WNDMG Wednesday – Celebrating Heartdrum Launch: Cynthia Leitich Smith

We Need Diverse MG
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

Cynthia Leitich Smith of the new HarperCollins imprint, Heartdrum

Heartdrum logo

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!



Native American #Kidlit Recommended Reading

If you’re looking to explore the rich world of Native American literature with your family, the following wonderful middle grade titles are a great place to start. (Thank you to the First Nations Development Institute who graciously let us share their list with the Mixed-Up Files readers, and to Debbie Reese, Ph.D., who chose these books. Dr. Reese is a expert in the field of Native children’s literature and an enrolled member of Nambé Pueblo. She is the curator of the Native American Children’s Literature Recommended Reading list and the editor and publisher of the “American Indians in Children’s Literature” website.)

Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)
Eleven-year-old Sonny and his mother can’t predict his father’s sudden abusive rages. Jake’s anger only gets worse after long days at the paper mill — and when Uncle Louis appears. Louis seems to show up when Sonny and his mother need help most, but there is something about his quiet wisdom that only fuels Jake’s rage. Through an unexpected friendship with a new school librarian, Sonny gains the strength to stand up to his father, and to finally confront his mother and uncle about a secret family heritage that may be the key to his father’s self-hatred.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa)
“[In this] story of a young Ojibwa girl, Omakayas, living on an island in Lake Superior around 1847, Louise Erdrich is reversing the narrative perspective used in most children’s stories about nineteenth-century Native Americans. Instead of looking out at ‘them’ as dangers or curiosities, Erdrich, drawing on her family’s history, wants to tell about ‘us’, from the inside. The Birchbark House establishes its own ground, in the vicinity of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ books.” –The New York Times Book Review

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III (Sicangu Lakota)
Jimmy McClean is a Lakota boy—though you wouldn’t guess it by his name: his father is part white and part Lakota, and his mother is Lakota. When he embarks on a journey with his grandfather, Nyles High Eagle, he learns more and more about his Lakota heritage—in particular, the story of Crazy Horse, one of the most important figures in Lakota and American history. Drawing references and inspiration from the oral stories of the Lakota tradition, celebrated author Joseph Marshall III juxtaposes the contemporary story of Jimmy with an insider’s perspective on the life of Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse (c. 1840–1877). The book follows the heroic deeds of the Lakota leader who took up arms against the US federal government to fight against encroachments on the territories and way of life of the Lakota people, including leading a war party to victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Along with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse was the last of the Lakota to surrender his people to the US army. Through his grandfather’s tales about the famous warrior, Jimmy learns more about his Lakota heritage and, ultimately, himself.

Son Who Returns by Gary Robinson (Choctaw/Cherokee)
Fifteen-year-old Mark Centeno is of Chumash, Crow, Mexican and Filipino ancestry–he calls himself “four kinds of brown.” When Mark goes to live with his Chumash grandmother on the reservation in central California, he discovers a rich world of family history and culture that he knows very little about. He also finds a pathway to understanding better a part of his own identity: powwow dancing. Riveted by the traditional dancers and feeling the magnetic pull of the drums, Mark begins the training and other preparations necessary for him to compete as a dancer in one of America’s largest powwows.

Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee (Creek)
What do Indian shoes look like, anyway? Like beautiful beaded moccasins…or hightops with bright orange shoelaces? Ray Halfmoon prefers hightops, but he gladly trades them for a nice pair of moccasins for his Grampa. After all, it’s Grampa Halfmoon who’s always there to help Ray get in and out of scrapes — like the time they are forced to get creative after a homemade haircut makes Ray’s head look like a lawn-mowing accident. This collection of interrelated stories is heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny. Cynthia Leitich Smith writes with wit and candor about what it’s like to grow up as a Seminole-Cherokee boy who is just as happy pounding the pavement in windy Chicago as rowing on a take in rural Oklahoma.

How I Became a Ghost: A Choctaw Trail of Tears Story by Tim Tingle (Choctaw)
A Choctaw boy tells the story of his tribe’s removal from the only land his people had ever known, and how their journey to Oklahoma led him to become a ghost–one with the ability to help those he left behind.