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Austin author shares Native stories in new children's book imprint

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman
Austin author Cynthia Leitich Smith is behind the Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins, which celebrates Native voices.

Cynthia Leitich Smith thought they were just going to have breakfast.

The Austin author was looking forward to connecting with her friend and colleague Ellen Oh. The two were anchors of the children’s literature community, both for their years as writers and their advocacy for inclusive books, and they ended up at the same literary convention.

Oh started chatting about author-curated imprints, or publishing partnerships that focus on a particular theme or passion of the writer.  

“I was nodding along, saying, ‘Yes, this is definitely going on,’” Smith recalled. “And she says, ‘You know, you would be such a wonderful person to do that with Native children's books.’”

Smith laughed at first. An enrolled member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, she agreed that the world needed more stories from Native authors about Native children. But she didn’t yet see herself in the same category as “Percy Jackson” series author Rick Riordan, who’d launched the diverse mythology-focused Rick Riordan Presents, or Newbery medalist Kwame Alexander, who led the Versify imprint for Black stories and creators. 

“I knew she could do it. I just figured I had to wear her down,” joked Oh, co-founder, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books and one of Smith’s many fans. “I would just float the idea to her over and over. … ‘I just can’t imagine anyone else is going to be able to do that’.”

Oh was right. More than two years after Smith decided she could help harness and hone the talents of Native writers for children, the first books in her Heartdrum imprint begin arriving on shelves this month.

HarperCollins vice president and editorial director Rosemary Brosnan leads Heartdrum with Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Leading Heartdrum, which she helms with HarperCollins vice president and editorial director Rosemary Brosnan, is the latest in a long list of accomplishments. 

She’s a New York Times bestselling author who’s written stories for ages that range from picture-book to young adult audiences, and in formats that include prose, poetry and graphic novels.

She’s a longtime faculty member and the Katherine Paterson Endowed Chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Master of Fine Arts program in writing for children and young adults. She publishes the revered industry blog Cynsations, packed with author interviews, news and resources.

She’s won plenty of awards, most recently the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, which carries a $35,000 purse. Announcement of the prestigious honor delighted supporters like National Book Award finalist Laurie Halse Anderson, who tweeted out congratulations to “our queen.”

“I knew she was exactly the right person to do it,” said Brosnan, who secured approval for Heartdrum within 24 hours of receiving Smith’s email proposal. “She’s really an icon and a legend in the children’s literature field.”

Heartdrum’s books aim to fill a significant gap in the market: Only 1% of children’s books published in 2019 featured Native or indigenous characters, according to the most recent survey from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

Christine Day’s novel "The Sea in Winter" is the first book from the Heartdrum imprint.

By design, the books are also page-turning contemporary stories, Smith said.

On Tuesday, Christine Day’s middle-grade novel “The Sea In Winter” arrives. It follows a young girl of Makah descent who struggles with anxiety and loneliness after being sidelined from her beloved ballet training with an injury.

Cynthia Leitich Smith collected stories in the anthology "Ancestor Approved."

February brings the Smith-edited anthology “Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids,” featuring stories and poems from a wide swath of Native authors connected by the thread of travel to an intertribal powwow.

"Jingle Dancer" by Cynthia Leitich Smith is being reissued under the Heartdrum imprint.
"Rain Is Not My Indian Name" by Cynthia Leitich Smith is being reissued by Heartdrum imprint.
"Indian Shoes" by Cynthia Leitich Smith is being reissued under the Heartdrum imprint.

Also on tap in the next few months are re-issues of Smith’s celebrated trio of Native books – “Jingle Dancer,” “Rain Is Not My Indian Name” and “Indian Shoes” – and her new “Sisters of the Neversea,” a modern take on “Peter Pan.” Brian Young’s middle-grade novel “Healer of the Water Monster” centers on a Navajo boy, and Dawn Quigley’s chapter-book series showcasing a spunky Ojibwe girl kicks off with “Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend.”

“I describe it as Junie B. Jones, but on a reservation,” said Quigley. “Jo Jo just really has her own way of thinking about things, and she’s sure that her ideas are always right,” Quigley said. “In the first book, she’s navigating how you make friends.” 

Quigley traces the start of her writing career to thoughtful feedback more than a decade ago from Smith. (Quigley is not alone. The Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has instituted a mentor award named in Smith’s honor.) 

The universal theme of "Jo Jo Makoons" helps all readers see Native children, Quigley said. Such a story “doesn’t make a Native character exotic … it doesn’t exploit them, it doesn’t make them a rarity, it doesn’t make them an oddity, it just normalizes that this character is going through this amazing story. Native children will see themselves centered as the star, as the hero, as the main character, as the funny one.”

Telling modern stories about Native children reminds readers that Native people are far from extinct, Smith said. 

“It's not a radical idea, really. It's just the idea of treating Native people as people in books, like other people have been treated, as opposed to these mythological props for one stereotype or another,” she said.

It’s a mission dear to Smith both as a writer and as a Native woman. The U.S. government put her grandfather in a boarding school aimed at stripping him of Native culture. As a child, she was taught to be proud of her Native heritage, but also not to tell any of her friends about it.

“It's tremendously hopeful,” she said of Heartdrum’s launch, which also includes a dedicated writing workshop for Native authors in partnership with We Need Diverse Books. “There was a time when I was told point-blank, and in a loving way, that there just wasn't a space for voices like mine in the conversation of books. And now I'm able to bring in new voices … to put books into the world that will go to schools and elevate and correct the dynamics around Native people, nations and cultures.”