Although Native-authored and approved children’s titles used to be few and far between, bookshelves are filling up with options including We Are Water Protectors, Firekeeper’s Daughter, A Snake Falls to Earth, and a forthcoming young readers’ edition of Braiding Sweetgrass. At Children's Institute 10's “Native Stories Now” keynote, three authors assessed this development and talked about the care they take in crafting tales. Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek Nation), Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation), and Danielle Greendeer (Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe) sat down for a conversation moderated by ABA copy editor Britt Camacho.
“I’m not surprised anymore that I’m not the only Native author at an event,” said Leitich Smith, the author-curator of HarperCollins’s Heartdrum. Leitich Smith told the audience about the origins of her Native-centered imprint, which developed from conversations with We Need Diverse Books and operates as a partnership with editor Rosemary Brosnan. Brosnan edited Leitich Smith’s debut, Jingle Dancer (2000), and “she may be part of the reason I was able to survive those lean years when the multicultural boom went bust,” said Leitich Smith, citing Brosnan’s commitment to diverse authors including Rita Williams Garcia. “I went home to her [to establish Heartdrum] because I knew her heart had been there all along.”
There remains “so much work to be done,” she said. Of 3,183 U.S.-published books shared with the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books in 2021, 62 were about Native people and 47 were written by Native authors. (The CCBC, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, compiles an annual survey of books by and about BIPOC people.) Nevertheless, Leitich Smith is optimistic: “For all the challenges we are facing, and they are fierce, we are in a much better place now, and we are not giving up any ground.”
In her forthcoming novel, Sisters of the Neversea, Leitich Smith creatively responds to injustices. “I remember very clearly being a little girl at the drive-in with my parents,” she said, watching Disney’s Peter Pan. She loved Tinkerbell, but the notoriously racist representations of Native people “made me cringe. Will they [my classmates and neighbors also watching the movie] think that’s me, think that’s us?” Her new book reimagines J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and its Disney version, replacing the coarse stereotypes with the magical story of a suburban Tulsa girl named Lily.
Another familiar narrative transforms in Greendeer’s picture book, Keepunumuk: Weâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story (co-authored with Anthony Perry and Alexis Bunten, and illustrated by Garry Meeches Sr.). Keepunumuk prompts readers to reflect on Thanksgiving from the perspectives of plants and animals. Greendeer saw the holiday as an opportunity to rethink rituals and “give voice to corn… and to all the beings who are not always heard,” she said. The book is a way of “honoring those who nourish us.”
Keepunumuk will be published by Charlesbridge, partly due to Sorell’s encouragement. Sorell’s forthcoming picture book Powwow Day, an intergenerational story illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight, is a Charlesbridge title too, and the publisher offers free 30-minute editorial consultations for unagented BIPOC authors through its Connections program. Sorell first encountered Charlesbridge’s backlist in a museum gift shop that carried David Pennington’s 1994 picture book Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival. “Fast-forward to [my 2018 book] We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga,” said Sorell, which editor Karen Boss found in the slush pile. We Are Grateful includes a Cherokee glossary and alphabet, as do many contemporary Native books, and the panelists talked about the importance of back matter—recipes, pronunciations, curricular guides—as an educational tool. “All books about Native people are rooted in nonfiction,” said Sorell.
The speakers likewise remarked that non-Native readers of their narratives likely miss subtle allusions to specific communities, details that help Native children feel seen. “Not everything is talked about cross-culturally,” said Leitich Smith, referring to private or sacred knowledge. “Oftentimes it feels best to brushstroke in a line that can be read in more than one way.” She advised “humility, responsibility, and prioritizing community.”
Sorell agreed: “First and foremost, I center the readers from the place,” she said. Sorell reviews all cover art and illustrations for historical detail, because it is “important that no harm is being caused.” Greendeer described “a protective process” of preparing her manuscript, which involved requesting permission from tribal elders and consulting with experts in the Wampanoag language.
“I’m excited to be in the industry at a time when so many are bringing stories forward,” said Sorell, who wants to remedy inaccuracies and model a respectful approach to Native stories.
“I didn’t think we would get this far in my lifetime, but as they say, ‘the bigger the challenges, the stronger the heroes,’ ” said Leitich Smith, calling out the persistence and power of Native storytellers. “I look forward to the day we can celebrate 100 debuts.”