On May 26, the second day of the U.S. Book Show, author and co-curator of the HarperCollins Heartdrum imprint Cynthia Leitich Smith (member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation) led a sponsored panel highlighting Indigenous voices in children’s and YA, featuring Angeline Boulley (Firekeeper’s Daughter, Henry Holt); Christine Day (The Sea in Winter; I Can Make This Promise, Heartdrum); David A. Robertson (On the Trapline, Tundra); and Jesse Thistle (From the Ashes: My Story of Being Indigenous, Homeless, and Finding My Way, Atria).
Kicking off the panel with introductions to their books, the authors also shared some of their reflections on what it means to be an Indigenous writer for young readers. “It’s a way for me to represent Indigenous characters in a way that I think will empower children,” Robertson (member of the Norway House Cree Nation) said. When asked about the importance of relationships that transcend generations in books, especially for younger children, he answered, “This book represents the importance of intergenerational connections in how we learn from our elders, respect our elders, our grandparents and keep our traditions alive. Books are a way that we can continue to keep them alive.”
Building on Robertson’s points, Boulley (member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) highlighted the depictions of Native women and girls in particular. “What I have found in every tribal community is there are these strong matriarchs,” she said, detailing an experience she had with two sisters she met while working in a tribal community. Recalling the research that goes into her writing, Boulley described the connections she was able to forge with the people around her, from former FBI and IRS agents to state police, who through a connection with a university professor, showed her how to make meth, an important detail for her novel. “I was really able to talk about the book and ask questions.”
Talking about writing a series vs. a stand-alone novel in an Indigenous framework, Robertson emphasized the planning stages but “more than anything it’s a way to pay homage and respect our traditions and stories.”
The topic then turned to writing relatable young characters. “For me, it’s trying to capture the essence of [first time big shifts],” Day (Upper Skagit) said, “and being mindful of taking kids’ problems very seriously”.
Speaking to sharing personal experiences with a wide audience, Thistle (Métis-Cree-Scot) detailed the challenges he had to go through in order to tell his tale. “My book is really just a collection of my AA steps,” Thistle noted. “It’s a quest for literacy. I couldn’t read until I was 32; that’s why I’m reluctant to say I’m a writer. I’m just a guy who was lucky enough to tell this story.”
Next, the authors related their experiences with having their book in the world and what they hope readers will take away. “It is such a really unique thing to go through,” Day said. “I’m still continuing to think through how I want to develop my future works.”
Thistle added, “You better tell your story honestly and pull no punches.”
For his part, Robertston urged fellow writers, “Read diverse literature. Learn as much as you can, because it helps us grow together as a stronger community.”