As a driving force behind Heartdrum, a HarperCollins imprint devoted to Native American children’s book authors, Cynthia Leitich Smith has seen firsthand how Indigenous representation in publishing has evolved.
“Only a decade ago, the Native children’s and YA author community, especially those of us publishing at major trade presses, was incredibly small,” says Smith, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and the author of books including Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Sisters of the Neversea. “For the most part, we were flying solo. It was difficult for us to connect authentic Native-focused publishing manuscripts with editors.”
That’s changing thanks to the efforts of Smith and other advocates in the children’s book world, with more Indigenous-written titles coming to market, deeper support for those books, and a reinforcing of ties among Native authors.
Room to grow
Heartdrum grew out of conversations between Smith and We Need Diverse Books cofounder Ellen Oh about the need for contemporary, diverse representation of Natives in fiction. Smith found an enthusiastic partner in Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and the imprint released its first titles in 2021.
In addition to publishing books by Native American authors and illustrators, “Heartdrum is committed to being a good literary citizen,” Smith says. The imprint makes financial contributions to WNDB’s Native Fund and provides faculty for the organization’s annual Native Children’s and YA Writing Intensive, first held virtually in 2021 and then in person in Austin, Tex., as of 2022. Each year, some 20 Indigenous authors receive feedback from industry professionals on their works in progress, receive broader publishing advice from editors and agents, and get to know other participants.
“After the first retreat, we started to come together,” says Andrea Page (Sioux Code Talkers of World War II), a board member of the Children’s Literature Assembly who is Lakota (Sioux). “This community has allowed me to share my viewpoint, allowed me to be heard. I didn’t realize there were so many other Native authors out there. Sharing our differences and similarities makes us stronger as a culture.”
Several books have grown out of the retreats, such as Mandan-Hidatsa writer Laurel Goodluck’s Rock Your Mocs and Too Much; Just Like Grandma and A Letter for Bob by Kim Rogers of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes; and Choctaw author Leslie Stall Widener’s Kindred Spirits, due out later this year. WNDB also recently launched the Indigenous Reads Rising website, which the organization’s executive director, Caroline Richmond, calls “a one-stop shop where educators and parents can learn about the incredible books that are available,” adding, “Currently, we have over 200 titles spotlighted on our booklist, alongside resources written by Native educators and authors.” (For more such resources, see “Tips for Building an Indigenous Children’s Literature Collection")
Other organizations, too, are bolstering Indigenous children’s book creators. In 2023, Highlights Foundation, which has offered writing classes and retreats for children’s book authors for nearly 40 years, remodeled a cabin on its Milanville, Pa., campus to devote entirely to Indigenous-written children’s books, and held its first Native retreat.
“We have a commitment to represent under-represented voices,” says George Brown, executive director of Highlights Foundation. “When [Cherokee] author Traci Sorell approached us with the idea for the retreat, we were able to give Native voices time together to do their work.” Sorell worked with various publishers to stock the cabin shelves with Indigenous works and raised funds to upgrade its amenities. Charlesbridge Publishing has pledged to maintain the cabin for three years and is sponsoring an annual scholarship for Indigenous writers.
Sorell, who had participated in previous Highlights programs, knows their value and is clear about the impact they’ve had on her work. “Both Powwow Day and Mascot would not be in the world without Highlights,” Sorell says.
Indigenous authors continue to forge their own connections outside of institutional support. “When Native people gather, we strengthen our collective,” says Stacy Wells, a youth librarian and a member of the Choctaw Nation; she has attended WNDB retreats and has a picture book forthcoming from Heartdrum in 2025. “Our community is growing, and we are growing together.”
Several peer-run online critique groups help Native authors develop their work. Smith’s Cynsations website spotlights new books by authors from underrepresented groups, including those by Native creators. Sorell runs a private listserv for Native children’s book authors and illustrators that publicizes scholarships and celebrates new publications and awards.
These grassroots initiatives, along with institutional efforts, are paying dividends for children’s book creators and their readers.
“Writers and illustrators from Native nations are growing their presence in the industry,” Sorell says. “It requires intentional actions by both non-Native and Native folks working together to make that happen.”
Patricia Morris Buckley, who is Mohawk from the Kahnawá:ke Reserve, is the author of books including The First Woman Cherokee Chief and the forthcoming To Walk the Sky (Heartdrum).