Posts Tagged Native Authors

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!



Book Spotlight: Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell

Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis & Traci Sorell is an exceptional and unique middle-grade historical fiction set in Oregon and Southern California in 1957-58. It’s an entertaining and realistic look at 10-year-old Regina Petit’s Umpqua Nation life on their Grand Ronde reservation in Oregon and their eventual termination. 

After the Umpqua’s termination by the government, the story follows Regina’s extended family’s exodus from Grand Ronde to Los Angeles after the Umpqua termination to begin life, as her father says, as Americans. Regina experiences the trials and tribulations of trying to fit into her new Los Angeles neighborhood where nothing is familiar while navigating three big questions: Am I Indian? Am I American? Am I both?

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Indian No More gives the reader an important glimpse into what it was like to be a member of a tribal nation targeted by the government for termination. Among other things, the termination policy ended the government’s recognition of tribal sovereignty, allowed the government to step away from their financial commitments from previous treaties, and established themselves as custodians over their land. Those native peoples affected, mainly against their will, were thrown into a mainstream society they really didn’t want to be thrown into and generally weren’t prepared to handle. For more background on U.S. Termination Policy, check out the wiki and the reference resources listed

The switch from the relative comfort of the Umpqua Grand Ronde reservation to the discomforts at the house on 58th Place in LA is emotionally felt as one reads the book. Both places have similar fundamental issues of poverty and racism, but one is home and the other is completely foreign to Regina. Falling back on her own Umpqua experience and move to Los Angeles, Charlene Willing McManis masterfully takes us on a journey of family, friendships, and fitting in among an often cruel racial backdrop of late 1950s America. 

Sadly, author Charlene Willing McManis passed away on May 1, 2018. She left the revision responsibility and the publication journey in the capable hands of her friend and talented author, Traci Sorell. To get an idea about who Charlene was as both a writer and a human, Traci agreed to answer a few questions about her and the process of directing Indian No More to publication. 

Charlene Willing McManis

How and when did you first meet Charlene?

I first met Charlene at Kweli’s Color of Children’s Literature Conference in April 2016. All of the Native writers attending sat together at lunch and marveled to be at a kidlit conference where there were so many of us. That never happens! So we all said we’d be back again the following year.
Charlene and I became fast friends that day and stayed in touch after the conference. She got cancer after that and could not attend the 2017 Kweli conference, but she received treatment. I interviewed her for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog when Charlene sold Indian No More to Tu Books that fall. All the Native writers cheered when they heard the news!



Traci Sorell

What was the process of taking over Indian No More after Charlene’s much-too-early passing in May of 2018?

In late January 2018, Charlene posted on Facebook that her cancer had come back and could not be cured. She did not have long to live. I sat there in shock for a few minutes. Then I immediately reached out to her. I cried the rest of the day, not wanting to accept that my joyful friend and her family had just received such devastating news.
In early March, Charlene emailed that her publisher, Stacy Whitman, asked if Charlene could recommend anyone to finish the revisions needed to get Indian No More published. Charlene wrote and said that she immediately thought of me and sent me the manuscript. While honored and humbled, I felt overwhelmed at the thought of revising a historical fiction middle grade novel in prose. I knew it was not autobiographical, but it was informed by her childhood and that of the experiences of her fellow tribal members. It seemed way out of my league. I had only written picture books and poetry to that point. And I’m from a completely different Native Nation with a different language, culture and history.
I quickly sent Charlene’s novel to my agent, Emily Mitchell, without reading it. As a former children’s book editor, I knew she could evaluate whether I would be able to pull it off. She responded that I could absolutely do this. I then read it and fell in love with the voice of the main character, Regina. I wanted to finish this book for my friend.

The responsibility of guiding this important story to publication must have been difficult. How did you manage and find the proper footing to continue Charlene’s vision of the book? Did you have any members of the Umpqua turn to?

I’m not going to lie. Very difficult. Normally when you co-author a piece, there is someone there to ask questions to, throw ideas out with and take turns drafting or revising sections. I only had her written words. Thankfully, the voice of Regina captivated me as soon as I started reading. I felt like I could write in Regina’s voice. I understood each character’s back story enough that I was able to revise and not lose their essence on the page. But I needed a lot of help and I got it.

Lee & Low, the parent company of the Tu Books imprint, supported my trip to visit the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (CTGR) in early January of this year. This Native Nation is comprised of 29 tribes that were removed to the Grand Ronde reservation in northwest Oregon from their own tribal homelands. Charlene’s tribe, the Umpqua, are part of CTGR. The Cultural Resources Department staff, led by David Harrelson, were top notch. I had full access to their archives and museum including a new exhibit of their cultural items on loan from the British Museum. They helped me ensure we used the correct Chinuk Wawa words in the book, which Regina’s grandmother speaks and teaches her granddaughters. The book would lack so much without their input.

My husband and mother also helped me fact check all late 1950s pop culture and daily life references in the book. They also read it out loud for me so I could hear what the prose sounded like, which greatly helped my revision process.

The termination policies of the United States Government were damaging, to say the least. Many of the terminated Native Nations, against all odds, recovered and re-established themselves. What message do you think this perseverance of heritage speaks to future generations who may have to deal with these issues again?

Yes, it was devastating when Congress passed the termination resolution stating it would be their policy to cease having a government-to-government relationship with some Native Nations that they had signed treaties and entered into other legal agreements with to uphold. Through a series of statutes that followed, the federal government terminated one hundred and nine tribes. They sold off the land and resources of these tribes. It led to many tribal citizens being displaced because they could not afford to buy the land they lived on outright at the marked-up prices. That’s what the main character Regina, her family and the Grand Ronde tribe experience in the story.

The neighborhood at 58th Place is so full of life, positive and negative, good and bad, kind and mean-spirited. It felt so incredibly real to me as I read the book and I think many readers will be like me and be completely immersed in this setting. How did Charlene and you go about crafting this “feel”? (It’s masterfully done, by the way.)

That was really all Charlene. I certainly crafted some scenes that needed to be fleshed out more, but because she had grown up there, her descriptions of the place are spot on. Her husband sent me photos of her in that neighborhood, so I had those around me as I worked. I visited with him and found out her entire block of 58th Place had been torn down to build a large supermarket mall. But the rest of 58th Place still remained. The three-story red brick school building had been replaced, but I got a black and white photo of it from the Los Angeles School District. So I felt like I was there as I revised the story. This summer when I attended the SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles, I went to Charlene’s old neighborhood and saw how close the houses are with their postage stamp yards, more concrete than grass, just as she describes.

The cover art is spectacular! Can you shed some light on the details of the cover art and design?

My editor, Elise McMullen-Ciotti, and the Tu Books publisher, Stacy Whitman, asked if I had any additional Native illustrators they could add to their established list. I gave them Marlena Myles’ name as she illustrated Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, a picture book poetry anthology, edited by Miranda Paul and published by Millbrook, in which I have a cinquain poem. I took a lot of photos when I visited Grand Ronde in Oregon from Spirit Mountain and the community plankhouse to their iconography in the art, museum and books I viewed there. I shared all of that with Marlena who is based in St. Paul, Minnesota, so she could take what she found useful to create the cover. Beyond that, she and the staff at Tu Books made the magic happen!

What do you think Charlene would say about the finished product and all the well-deserved accolades that Indian No More has garnered?

I assure you that Charlene would be smiling profusely as she always did. She would also thank so many people: her family for their support, her fellow Grand Ronde tribal citizens for sharing their termination and relocation experiences, all those who had helped hone her craft including her critique group, her mentor Margarita Engle, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Supriya Kelkar, those at Tu Books – Stacy Whitman, Elise McMullen-Ciotti – along with the rest of the Lee & Low staff, and the readers who have already said how much they enjoyed and learned from the book.
Charlene wanted to shine a light on a period of US history that is not taught in schools. Until now, there has not been a story for young people that shared what many Native Nations experienced at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. This book is now part of her legacy and I am grateful for that.

Author Katherine Quimby wrote an exceptional memorial tribute following Charlene’s death on the Cynsations Blog.

Final Note

One of my greatest hopes for this book is that educators, librarians, and adults who work with kids, will carefully read the chapters in Indian No More about media representation and the Pilgrims & Indians “First” Thanksgiving pageant at Regina’s school. After reading, look at what we are still doing in 2019 at schools all across this nation to continue the harmful representation built into these false mythologies. It’s time to find a better and more accurate way to celebrate both Thanksgiving and the Native American Heritage Month in our classrooms. 

As we plan for November and Native American Heritage Month, let’s not only bring more of these great Native & Indigenous works into our libraries, curriculums, and bookshelves but let’s expand this to a 365-day celebration, year after year after year. Because not only are books like Indian No More great examples of the work produced by Native authors, they’re just plain great books. So many stories from the past, present, and future are being produced by Native creators it’s a shame to confine the spotlight to only one month a year.


Native writers at Kweli in 2016 photo: First row: Charlene Willing McManis, Andrea Rogers, Marcie Rendon Back row: Natalie Dana, Laura Kaye Jagles, Traci Sorell, Joseph Bruchac, Kevin Noble Maillard