It’s a “total Minneapolis story,” said Lerner Publishing Group CEO Adam Lerner about the events leading up to the fall release of the YA edition of Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. It might be more specifically called an “only in Minneapolis publishing” story. The book is based on Braiding Sweetgrass, originally published in 2013 by Milkweed Editions—its offices are about a mile down Washington Avenue from LPG’s offices. Lerner and Milkweed’s CEO, Daniel Slager, who’ve known each other for about 25 years, began negotiating the rights to the YA edition with a picture book option last year while sitting in front of a firepit in Lerner’s backyard and sipping bourbon.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and professor of plant ecology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, mixes science, botany, Indigenous teachings, and Potawatomi legends with personal memoir to explore the role of plants in Indigenous and Western traditions and to advocate for a more mindful relationship between humans and the natural world.
“It’s a very timely book,” Lerner said. “Young people are really concerned about the planet and this book addresses that in an original way—at least original for non-Native people.”
Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults, written by Kimmerer, adapted by Monique Gray Smith, and illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt, will be released on November 1 under LPG’s Zest Books imprint, with a 50,000-copy initial print run. The cover for this edition of Braiding Sweetgrass is being revealed here for the first time.
Adaptations Are Trending
Lerner credits Shaina Olmanson, Zest’s editorial director for young adult nonfiction, with identifying the growing trend of larger houses adapting adult bestsellers published by one imprint and re-packaging it under one of their children’s imprints.
“There are more and more of these crossover books, like [Michelle] Obama’s memoir [Becoming],” Lerner said. “And then there was Stamped [adapted from Ibram X. Kendi’s book by Jason Reynolds]—that’s a big one. The New York City houses have both children’s and adult divisions so it’s easier for them. We don’t have an adult division, so Shaina suggested one of our adult publishers in Minneapolis that doesn’t have a children’s list. She identified Braiding Sweetgrass as a great title to consider for this: it’s a natural fit. It’s really about identifying the right titles: they typically have to be bestsellers to break out [as adaptations].”
With more than 1.1 million copies sold in all formats, Braiding Sweetgrass is Milkweed’s bestselling title in its history. Originally published in trade paper, Milkweed released a special edition in hardcover in November 2020 to celebrate the press’s 40th anniversary that contains a new foreword by Kimmerer. The paper edition is in its 26th printing, and the hardcover in its fourth. The book first landed on the New York Times bestsellers list in February 2020 and has remained there for 107 weeks.
Not only does Braiding Sweetgrass complement other trade nonfiction releases on Zest’s list but, Lerner pointed out, like Milkweed employees, LPG personnel live and work in a geographic region with a large Indigenous population.
“Native culture is part of Minnesota’s culture,” Lerner said. “Natives are often friends or neighbors here. We’re closer to the environment and spend time in the natural world. We have an appreciation for this book.”
Creativity and Collaboration
Once Kimmerer agreed to the project, Lerner said, LPG moved quickly. Smith and Neidhardt agreed to collaborate on the project as writer and illustrator, respectively. Smith, a Canadian author of two YA novels, three picture books, and two nonfiction books for adults that all spotlight Indigenous issues and themes, is of Cree and Lakota ancestry. Neidhardt, who lives in Santa Fe, is of Navajo descent and has illustrated three picture books with Indigenous themes, including When We Are Kind, written by Smith.
Smith said that her first order of business in adapting the book for a YA audience was to reach out to Kimmerer, as she wanted “to make sure our relationship was one where she felt trusting to hand over this piece of work for me to do.” Kimmerer, Smith said, had “final say” on everything: “what to keep in, what to remove, what to add, and what to weave into the text.” As the project progressed into its final edits, collaboration between the two included “some tender discussions over Zoom that couldn’t happen over email; they needed to happen face-to-face.”
Smith said that, for her, the most difficult part of the project was deciding which chapters to cut from the original edition, as she regards Braiding Sweetgrass as a sacred text. “There were some chapters that were removed,” she noted, “some chapters that for young adults may not be where they’re at yet.”
At 300 pages, whittled down from the Milkweed editions of more than 400 pages, the Zest edition still has a high page count for a YA nonfiction book, Smith said. Describing the package as very “interactive and very engaging,” with a combination of “illustrations, pull-outs, and reflection questions,” Smith is confident that, despite the length, it will inspire young readers “to be responsible in their ways of contributing to climate wellness.”
The final product is a mixture of Kimmerer’s original writing and Smith’s rewriting, much of it woven in to tighten up the material and set it within a more contemporary context, as well as to provide a social-emotional learning element.
As she wrestles with final edits, Smith describes her first experience adapting an adult novel into a YA read as “overall the most joyous project I’ve worked on yet,” reawakening in her “a love for the land, taking care of the land, and the water—that is part of the joy.”
The Illustrator’s Artistic Vision
Smith credited Neidhardt’s 28 black-and-white interior illustrations, which expand on the original edition’s photographs and simple drawings, as “really helping bring the book alive in a whole new way.” The two collaborated closely, as well as with LPG, to conceptualize a visual to accompany each of the 23 chapters, as well as the introduction.
The introduction includes five different illustrations; Neidhardt explained that she drew four panels on one page to tell “the story of Sky Woman falling and the creation of Turtle Island. We wanted to bring the story that Kimmerer starts off her book with into this [edition] in a graphic novel type of fashion. There are a couple of things in the text at the beginning that really set the tone for the illustrations in the book.”
Smith and Neidhart discussed every chapter, she noted, “and the images that really resonated with us, and the ways in which we could use the artwork to complement and really add to the text.” In contrast to illustrations that she previously created for children’s books, consisting of “the bare bones of what was happening in the text,” most of the illustrations in Braiding Sweetgrass are “more theoretical, symbolic; the ideas and concepts in each chapter are translated into an image,” with plants serving as the focal point in each illustration.
The jacket art features a young adult’s hands braiding sweetgrass on the front cover. The braid wraps around the spine onto the back cover, where a child’s hands hold the other end of the braid. It was the only time during the process, Neidhardt said, when she consciously linked the YA edition of Braiding Sweetgrass to the previous Milkweed editions.
“Designing the cover for this book,” she said, “I looked at the past covers and the art inside of those previous editions. I felt like [the cover] was part of that legacy, and could reference that. The art, I would say, stands on its own [otherwise] for this edition.” As for the “luscious purple” below the braid that surrounds Kimmerer, Smith, and Neidhardt’s names, the color pays homage to Kimmerer’s revelation in the text of Braiding Sweetgrass that she takes notes in purple ink. “I thought purple was an important color,” Neidhardt said, disclosing that as the illustrations are being finalized, she has been consulting with Kimmerer to make sure that the art reflects her vision as much as Smith’s adaptation does.
After a year of Zooms, phone calls, and emails, Kimmerer, Smith, and Neidhart will at long last all three meet in person in Minneapolis on May 17. After a full day of meetings with LPG personnel for Smith and Neidhardt, the two will be in the audience as Kimmerer sits down for a conversation with another Milkweed author, the novelist Diane Wilson, who is of Dakota ancestry; it is billed as a discussion of “reciprocity, storytelling, and the interconnectedness between all beings.” Lerner and Slager will also be in attendance at this event, which will take place at the Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus.