Books by and about Indigenous people have been around for decades, but only in the last few years have these books drawn serious attention from all parts of the North American book business.
For instance, Rosemary Brosnan has published works by Indigenous authors for years, but it wasn’t until this January that she had a permanent home when she and Cynthia Leitich Smith, who is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, cofounded Heartdrum, a new imprint of HarperCollins. Small presses that have published Indigenous books in the past have been able to add new subject areas to their lists as interest— and sales—have grown.
These types of publishing initiatives have increased the overall title output of Indigenous works and given authors more opportunities to explore topics of particular interest to them.
The authors profiled below have something in common—their books are about kids and teens finding, exploring, and coming to terms with their Native identities: coming-of-age journeys that will resonates with readers of many different backgrounds. And in another encouraging sign for the future of Indigenous publishing, the titles highlighted here come from major publishers. In addition to Heartdrum, these releases were published by Henry Holt, Puffin Canada, and Simon & Schuster. The marketing muscle of the big houses can only help spread the interest in Native works.
Cynthia Leitich Smith: Finding the Beat at Heartdrum
A citizen of Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, Cynthia Leitich Smith is a prizewinning children’s and YA author who’s been opening doors—and holding them open—for Indigenous writers for more than 20 years. She’s taking the next step this year as the author-curator of Heartdrum, a new imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books focusing on Native and First Nation stories for kids and teens.
Published between 2000 and 2002, Smith’s first three books—Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name—were, she says, “all quintessentially what you’d call Native fiction for young readers.” But following the advice of an early mentor who suggested she write what she loves to read, Smith shifted gears to speculative fiction, penning the successful Tantalize series and Feral trilogy. “That allowed my inner geek to write magic and monsters,” she says, “while still integrating my core themes of social justice and gender empowerment.”
The prolific author and teacher then returned to realistic fiction with her acclaimed young adult novel Hearts Unbroken and a middle grade anthology titled Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, one of Heartdrum’s inaugural titles. However, her love for fantasy still shines through in this summer’s Sisters of the Neversea, an Indigenous, girl-centered reinvention of Peter Pan.
When We Need Diverse Books cofounder Ellen Oh approached Smith about the possibility of establishing a children’s and YA Native imprint, she mulled it over and took the idea to Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins. Smith marvels: “She was enthusiastic about the idea, and here we are!”
Over the course of the next year, Smith laid the groundwork by choosing Heartdrum’s first list—which includes The Sea in Winter by Christine Day (Upper Skagit)—developing a logo with Iñupiaq illustrator Nasuġraq Rainey Hopson, and coming up with the imprint’s mission statement: to offer “a wide range of innovative, unexpected, and heartfelt stories by Native creators, informed and inspired by lived experience, with an emphasis on the present and future of Indian Country and on the strength of young Native heroes.”
With Heartdrum up and running, Smith has hope for the future: “I look forward,” she says, “to the day when new Native literary voices say that, growing up, they looked for the Heartdrum logo because it was a signal that they belonged in the world of books.”
Angeline Boulley: Firekeeper’s Daughter Brings the Heat
Michigan-based Indigenous author Angeline Boulley brings an informed perspective and a clear goal to her writing for YA readers, after serving as the director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education.
“Too many schools rely on outdated and inaccurate resources that treat Indigenous peoples as a monolith of the past and without regard to specific tribes in the region,” she says. “I hope that my book, and others, provide educators with contemporary and tribal-specific stories that increase awareness and understanding of the lives of our Native students.”
An enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians whose work features her Ojibwe community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Boulley published her first YA novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter, in 2021.
“I decided to write the ‘Indigenous Nancy Drew’ novel that I’d wanted to read,” she says, “a twisty thriller set in my tribal community.”
Her decision paid off. The story of a perceptive Native teen who goes undercover to expose corruption in her town became a New York Times bestseller and a YA pick for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club. It’s also set to be turned into a Netflix project by former president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground Productions.
A fan of Indigenous writer Louise Erdrich’s intricate storytelling interwoven between families, communities, and generations, Boulley acknowledges that her main character’s journey to find the truest version of herself and her place in the world is a common YA theme. But she admits to being surprised by the reaction of non-Native people “who find familiarity within the identity struggles presented in the book.”
And amid all her success, Boulley has a wish for her Native readers as well: “I hope they feel seen and that I got a lot ‘right’ in terms of representation.”
David A. Robertson: Indigenous-Inspired YA Fantasy
“I like to challenge myself,” says prolific and versatile Canadian author David A. Robertson, whose works are aimed at a wide range of young readers. “I’ve gone from graphic novels to literary fiction to picture books to more graphic novels to young adult fiction to middle grade fiction to memoir and so on.”
Storytelling seems to come naturally to Robertson, a Winnipeg resident and member of the Norway House Cree Nation. It’s how he explored his Indigenous heritage. “I learned through stories. Stories I heard and stories I read and people I met,” he says. “But mostly, it was just sitting down with my father and talking to him for an hour. And doing that a thousand times.”
Robertson pays that knowledge forward through picture books like When We Were Alone, a gentle story about a young girl who learns that her grandmother was sent away to an Indian residential school as a child. The recipient of a 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for that effort, Robertson decided to delve into a different genre in 2020, with The Barren Grounds, featuring a pair of Indigenous foster kids who find a secret portal into an icy land. Named a best book by Kirkus Reviews, NPR, the CBC, and the Centre for the Study
of Multicultural Children’s Literature, the middle grade Misewa Saga was inspired by Indigenous constellation and sky stories. “There’s this rich, beautiful, powerful quality to our traditional stories, and the messages they share,” says Robertson, who continues his novel series with the soon-to-be-released The Great Bear.
For Robertson, though, nothing beats the pure reaction he gets from his readers, “It’s been really humbling, and thrilling, to hear a few kids say that The Barren Grounds was their favorite book,” he says. ”That means a lot, and it warms my heart. Reactions like that will stay with me forever.”
Jesse Thistle: From the Ashes to Literary Success
Released in 2019, Jesse Thistle’s prizewinning memoir, From the Ashes, turned into a surprise hit, becoming the bestselling Canadian book by a Canadian author in 2020 and sending the Métis-Cree-Scot author on a wholly different path. Atria Books will be publishing the U.S. edition of From the Ashes on June 8. “Change is too soft a word to describe how my life has been revolutionized,” Thistle says. He’s now become an in-demand speaker, lecturer, and consultant on a variety of social issues. “I guess that’s the greatest thing that’s happened: I’m heard and valued. Rarities for Indigenous people.”
His story is that much more remarkable for the challenges he faced, which include homelessness, addiction, and incarceration. Thistle discovered a love of reading during a 2007 stint in jail and began to soak up writing techniques by greats like Hemingway and Voltaire. “I focused on how they told their stories,” he says, “and how, through simple language, they captured the reader’s mind with the fewest words.”
He was later introduced to Métis authors. “I discovered that they had similar stories to my family,” Thistle says. “Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed was the book that changed everything for me. It details how our Michif people have been dispossessed since 1885, when Canada went to war with us and stole our lands after the Northwest Resistance.
“They say great writing always involves tension and drama,” Thistle says. “I cannot think of a more resistant and dramatic story than an Indigenous person who’s been stripped of everything—family, love, safety, well-being, connection, land, home, culture—living and dreaming and loving their way back to their people.”
His research as a PhD candidate in the history program at York University in Toronto focuses on intergenerational and historic trauma among the Métis people, and he recognizes the themes of grief, destruction, cultural conditioning, dispossession, racism, and more in works by Native authors. But, he says, “alongside those run the concurrent realities of joy, belonging, fellowship, reconnection, reclamation, Indigenous sovereignty, and—most importantly—love.”
Christine Day: Inaugural Heartdrum Author
Inspired by her own family history, Christine Day’s debut novel, I Can Make This Promise, about a young girl coming to terms with her Indigenous heritage, was met with wide praise. Kirkus Reviews called it “enlightening and a must-read for anyone interested in issues surrounding identity and adoption... Day (Upper Skagit) handles family separation in Native America with insight and grace.”
Day says she made a deliberate choice to write her first book for a middle grade audience. “I think of Madeleine L'Engle's iconic quote,” she says. “ ‘You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.’ ” That advice seems to have worked well, as I Can Make This Promise is not only an American Indian Youth Literature Award honoree but was named a best book of the year by the Chicago Public Library, Kirkus, NPR, and School Library Journal.
Day is also an accomplished historical storyteller whose thesis on Coast Salish weaving traditions earned her a master's degree from the University of Washington, and whose latest book, a biography of Osage ballerina Maria Tallchief, is part of a new series inspired by Chelsea Clinton’s New York Times bestseller, She Persisted. Day says, “I would love to do more biographical and nonfiction work. I had a lot of fun writing and researching Maria’s life story.” That said, she’s excited that her sophomore novel happens to be one of Heartdrum’s inaugural titles. The Sea in Winter is an emotional and engaging story of a Native American girl facing tough times after an injury ends her dream of being a dancer. “This imprint is an example of Indigenous leadership and creativity in action,” Day says. “And the joy and solidarity between Heartdrum authors is a palpable force. We are all so nerdy and passionate about kids' books. It's awesome.”