Cynthia Leitich Smith Interview

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the award-winning author of Hearts Unbroken, Sisters of the Neversea and Ancestors Approved among many others. She also serves as falculty for the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and curates the Heartdrum imprint for HarperCollins . She kindly took the time to answer my questions about representation, creating her imprint, story process and more. She also provided the images for this interview.

1.      While there’s a call for diversity in literature these days and an audience for these stories, what was it like in the beginning for you to break into this industry to share your stories focusing on your heritage?

My first book manuscript, JINGLE DANCER, sold in the late 1990s and was published in 2000. My first three books—including INDIAN SHOES and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME—sold in quick succession thereafter.

While they all feature Native protagonists, I don’t think of them as being about heritage per se. To me, JINGLE DANCER is about a tradition passed down intergenerationally, INDIAN SHOES is a collection of daily life stories about a boy and his grandfather; and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME is about beginning to heal after sudden loss.

That said, I was blessed to connect early on with Rosemary Brosnan, with whom I still work at HarperChildren’s. She’s one of the few long-time advocates of inclusion within the editorial branch of the publishing industry.

2. The first book I read from your portfolio was Hearts Unbroken which
discusses the overlooked history of Frank Baum’s beliefs calling for native genocide. Did you find that history and create the novel from there? Or was it woven organically as you depicted the backlash of color-blind casting in the story?

HEARTS UNBROKEN was sparked by the love story. The initial idea was to
write a novel-length apology to my high school boyfriend.

We were both student journalists, and our joint connection to Story birthed my unpacking of different types of speech—not only journalistic but also political, artistic, religious, interpersonal—in society today.
The subplot around “The Wizard of Oz” theater production and Baum’s anti-Indigenous, pro-genocide legacy was a natural extension of those themes.

3. Louise (of Hearts Unbroken) hopes to be a journalist, of which you
know quite a bit as you graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. You also bring up the vitality
of journalism in your middle-grade novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name. With the divisive world we live in now, what do you think of the continued importance of journalism and literature?

Fiction offers- the opportunity for readers to think through complex or
conflict-ridden dynamics. Those of us who came of age with a largely unchallenged free press may find ourselves surprised by the recent political vitriol aimed at the fourth estate.

But young student journalists have always been at a disadvantage against
the powers that be and have traditionally been afforded far less deference, so in a way, their experiences are a microcosm for the current societal landscape.

4. Starting from a journalism and law background, how did you pivot
into writing? How did your previous occupations influence your current work?

Really, I have three professional strengths/passions—I can write, read, and speak. That skill set is an ideal fit for those pursuits. Probably journalism was most helpful in my overcoming my shyness, law in gaining confidence, and fiction in giving flight to my imagination.

5. I’m a big fan of anthologies, but I have always wondered. What is
it like to be writing and editing one: What is the process like, how do you choose your fellow contributors etc. when you worked on Ancestor Approved?

At the time the contributor list was approved, there were really only so
many actively publishing Native children’s-YA writers with an interest
in middle grade fiction.

This was before the landmark LoonSong event, a four-day Native writing workshop coordinated by Debby Dahl Edwardson on Ojibwe land, which preceded, and perhaps kicked off, a notable expansion of Indigenous representation in the field.

That said, I sneaked in Carole Lindstorm’s voice through poetry anyway because I just loved her writing so much.

The real challenge was in connecting the various stories, which are all set before, during, and after the annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Well, that an wrangling the paperwork from so many contributors.

6. Many of your characters share your Muscogee heritage, but others
like Ray Halfmoon (Seminole-Cherokee) of Indian Shoes come from a
different tribal heritage. How do you go about research?

I don’t stretch far from home. My family is intertribal. For example, I have Cherokee ancestors and cousins who’re members of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Tribal specificity is important, and meanwhile, Indigenous Country is interconnected. So, I draw on those connections, especially with secondary characters.

7. You have several upcoming works next year like Harvest House. Are
you able to divulge what it is about and if it relates to the ongoing
exposure of abuse in residential schools or the under-reported numbers
of Native women who are murdered?

I’m a second-generation survivor of the U.S. Federal Indian Boarding Schools, but my work has only touched on that in passing. I don’t know that my writing skills are up to the task yet.

The #MMIWG2S crisis is referenced in HARVEST HOUSE, in particular the
involvement (or lack thereof) of the news media in covering related
stories. That said, the novel also shows Native daily life, joys, and loving romantic relationships—both platonic and romantic—in the lives of Indigenous girls and women. We are so much more than the worst crimes committed against us.

Cynthia with E. Lockhart and Kekla Magoon.

8. You’re also working on a graphic novel for the first time. What has
it been like collaborating in this new medium?

I did two YA graphic novel adaptations of the entry-point novels in my
TANTALIZE series in the 2010s. That said, I adore working with co-author
Kekla Magoon. Our writing process is like play, and we can hardly wait to celebrate the final art, incoming soon from illustrator Molly Murakami.

9. Your new imprint, Heartdrum, for HarperCollins seeks to put out
more Native stories onto the market. When did this exciting idea start, how did you get partnered with We Need Diverse Books, what work did you do to bring this about, your role as curator etc.?

Ellen Oh of We Need Diverse Books is Heartdrum’s fairy godmother. It’s
Ellen who first suggested the idea to me, and so the partnership with
WNDB was a natural extension of our conversation.

 From there, I approached editor Rosemary Brosnan, who got back to me
after only 24 hours! It’s been a wonderful experience. I’m wowed by the
Heartdrum authors and illustrators, by the support we’ve received in-house from HarperCollins, and from the children’s-YA book community and readership more broadly.

My role as author-curator is partly developmental, working with new and
up-and-coming voices to ready their manuscripts for consideration; partly ambassador, raising awareness; and partly auntie, offering mentorship and occasionally care packages.

10. What releases from your imprint should people look forward to?

In 2023, we’re especially celebrating JO JO MAKOONS: FANCY PANTS, written by Dawn Quigley and illustrated by Tara Audibert. It’s the second book in the JO JO MAKOONS chapter book series, which is warmhearted and hilarious, as well as the first Native chapter book series from a major trade house.

We’re also thrilled by the reception for THE SUMMER OF BITTER AND SWEET
by Jen Ferguson, our first YA novel, which has received six starred reviews. It’s the story of a family secret and a demi-representation romance—with a side of iced cream.

First up, next year, we’ll be cheering our first picture book, JUST LIKE GRANDMA by debut author Kim Rogers and acclaimed illustrator Julie Flett.

Our books are contemporary or near (20th century) historicals, mostly fiction, and mostly realism, though we do publish a bit of nonfiction an speculative fiction. We publish for all age markets, and oh, our first graphic-format novel, TWO TRIBES by Emily Bowen Cohen, comes out next year two. It’s centered on a Jewish-Muscogee girl, and the sort of intersectional representation is really important to us.

11. Any contact information, news, blog, website you want to put here
so readers can learn more/contact you.

Look for me, my blog, and links to my social media accounts at:

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s working space in her Austin,Texas, home.

The site also includes substantial resources for those interested in
Native books for young readers, equity and inclusion in children’s-YA
literature more broadly, as well as the craft of writing and business of
publishing books for kids and teens.

Cynthia and Kathi Appelt
Cynthia and Guadalupe Garcia McCal

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