An enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Cynthia Leitich Smith has been writing across genres and categories since the 2000 publication of her debut picture book, Jingle Dancer, about a Muscogee girl in contemporary Oklahoma who wants to honor a family tradition by jingle dancing at a powwow. Rosemary Brosnan, who bought that first book and has been Smith’s editor at HarperCollins ever since, calls her “a trailblazer in writing Native children’s literature.”
Over the subsequent two decades, Smith has written realistic and speculative middle grade and YA fiction, in addition to essays and articles, and since 1998 has maintained the website Cynsations, which she describes as “a resource for the children’s and YA community, in which creators’ voices are centered.” An original (now honorary) advisory board member of We Need Diverse Books, for which she coordinates and leads the annual Native writing intensive, she also teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Most recently, she’s partnered with Brosnan to start up a HarperCollins imprint, Heartdrum, with a mission to publish children’s books by Native American creators.
Smith grew up as an only child traveling between her home in Kansas and her mother’s large extended family a few hours’ drive away in Oklahoma, where she soaked up the tales told by her relatives. “I was the kid who lingered to listen to family stories while the other kids went out to play,” she recalls. “Like many Native families, my mother’s had a strong military and urban tradition.”
Even though Smith didn’t have any Native schoolmates that she knew of, “I didn’t think being Native was at all uncommon,” she says. “It was my everyday life.”
Smith’s love for story propelled her to journalism school at the University of Kansas and then on to law school at the University of Michigan. Already writing fiction (“short stories that had nothing specifically to do with being Native”), her goal was to become a professor—a life she naively envisioned would provide plenty of time for writing. Her mother encouraged her to write for children, an idea Smith initially eschewed, despite a childhood filled with reading Newbery winners.
It was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that pushed Smith into writing children’s books. She was working as a law clerk in a federal government office in Chicago when she heard the news, and it was “a wake-up moment,” she says. “Family members lived in [Oklahoma City] and I had been there often; the bombing felt very close to home. I asked myself what was really important to me and realized it was children and children’s books.”
Smith’s realization took clearer shape one day in a Borders store on Michigan Avenue. “I found Dancing with the Indians by Angela Shelf Medearis, illustrated by Samuel Byrd,” she says, “which showed Seminole and Black people coming together in celebration, and I was struck by the joy and friendship the book presented. Then I came across Joseph Bruchac’s Eagle Song and The Heart of a Chief. They were the first two novels I read that featured Native people in urban settings.”
As a child, Smith says she shied away from books that represented Natives. “But these new books were transformative,” she recalls. She quit her job, moved to Austin, Tex. (where she still lives), and began teaching and writing children’s books.
Smith wrote Jingle Dancer between tutoring students—“literally on the back of a torn envelope,” she says. “By now, I had read plenty of Native books about boys, both as protagonists and secondary characters. Girls were always stereotypes—background figures or wise grandmothers. I wanted to write about a Native American girl, and jingle dancing is primarily passed down through women, as is the regalia they wear.”
Smith consciously structured the story around the idea of four, as in the four directions, informed by a Native worldview, even though she was advised that the traditional (Western) picture book is structured in a framework of threes. “This was probably the first sign that I was also interested in breaking the craft barrier of cultural literary framework,” she says. “This was the next step for me, after representation of character and content.”
Hearing through the SCBWI grapevine that Brosnan was interested in depictions of contemporary Native American life, Smith sent her the manuscript, along with two others. Brosnan recalls that when she read Jingle Dancer, “I knew I was in the presence of a very special writer. The prose was lyrical, and the story held many meanings, in addition to being an enjoyable read. And Cynthia was breaking new ground with this wonderful book, as well.” The other two manuscripts became short stories in Smith’s 2002 collection Indian Shoes, about the daily adventures of a Cherokee-Seminole boy named Ray and his grandfather, Grampa Halfmoon.
Between those two books, Smith’s first middle grade novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, was published. In her fiction, she often addresses death and other difficult issues. “One of her greatest skills is dealing with serious themes in a way that holds great appeal for young readers,” Brosnan says.
Smith notes that this is one of her concerns in all her books: “I want to address some of the trauma my family and community have experienced in a way that empowers kids rather than makes them feel like objects of inevitable oppression.”
All three of Smith’s realistic early books received much acclaim, but she eventually turned to speculative fiction, a genre she has always loved. Her decision was also influenced, though, by changes in the publishing industry during those years.
“Multiculturalism went bust in the early 2000s, and the market was suddenly even less open to Native narratives,” Smith says. “Big-house publishing had Joseph Bruchac for young readers and Sherman Alexie for YA, and that seemed to be enough. For me, the magic of speculative fiction is in its metaphors, so through my fantastical YA novels [the Tantalize series and the spin-off Feral trilogy] I was able to address themes like gender equity and social justice at a slant while showcasing diverse co-protagonists.”
Sisters of the Neversea (Heartdrum, June), Smith’s new novel for a middle grade audience, continues that focus. “She takes the story of Peter Pan and brilliantly turns it on its head,” Brosnan says. “Girls star in Cynthia’s version, including Lily, a Muscogee girl.”
Smith felt that the story of Peter Pan was “begging for the Native perspective to enter into conversation with it,” she says. “How did Native kids get on the island of Neverland? I always wondered.”
Hilary Van Dusen, who shepherded Smith’s speculative titles from hardcover into paperback at Candlewick and then worked with her on the 2018 realistic YA novel Hearts Unbroken, believes that Smith’s efforts at raising awareness of Native American voices extends to “creating a strong sense of the community in which the characters live,” she says. “She’s an ambassador for Native writers.”
The word community comes up often in conversation with Smith. “I’m a community author,” she emphasizes. “I want to do service to children through story. I want an opportunity to provide hope and support for Native American writers and children. I’m also invested in a community of craft, a community of writers. I want to help build a community and to lift up voices, especially those that haven’t been heard.”
Though that is her mission, Smith hesitated when Ellen Oh, cofounder of WNDB, floated the idea of an imprint for Native American creators. “You need somebody famous, somebody fancy,” was Smith’s response. But a revelation came to her while she was teaching at the 2018 Loon Song Turtle Island retreat in Cook, Minn.: “I could be a bridge,” she remembers thinking. “I could help connect the Native creative community and mainstream publishing.”
So Smith wrote to Brosnan. “It was a huge ask, but I knew that if anybody could make it happen, it was Rosemary,” she says. “And within 24 hours, the wheels were in motion.” The imprint launched in winter 2021, and the first year’s offerings include Ancestor Approved, a just-released collection of short stories by 17 Native authors, edited by Smith, and Sisters of the Neversea.
Smith’s next project is a middle grade graphic novel series, the Blue Stars, about cousins with superpowers, which she’s writing with Kekla Magoon. The first installment is due from Candlewick in fall 2022. It’s the first series Smith has collaborated on with another writer—yet one more example of her focus on alliance with fellow creators. Or, another form of building community.
Krystyna Poray Goddu is the author of numerous nonfiction books for children, including 'A Girl Called Vincent: The Life of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay,' and a frequent contributor to PW.