Today we’re pleased to welcome Cynthia Leitich Smith to the WNDB blog to discuss her young adult novel Hearts Unbroken, her work on the Heartdrum imprint, and the Native Writing Intensive! The Native Writing Intensive is open for applications until June 30, 2020, and you can learn more and apply here.
How did you land on the idea to create a Native Writing Intensive and collaborate with HarperCollins, WNDB, and the other faculty to launch it?
My hope was to welcome new Native writers into the community while also offering craft support for their writing and career support more generally. HarperCollins and WNDB were quick to embrace that vision, providing logistical and financial underpinnings to ensure a quality program that’s more financially accessible than most.
I’ve been teaching in the MFA program in Writing for Children’s and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts since 2004 and informally since before that at venues like the Highlights Foundation in Honesdale, Pennsylvania; and Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers in Sandy, Utah; as well as various SCBWI International and regional conferences, among others.
Mainstream writing education opportunities are vital, but we also need spaces wherein the focus is on topics of concern to individual communities.
The American mythology tends to cast Native people as “The First Americans.” But we are anything but. We are Cherokee, Navajo, Ojibwe, Kiowa, and so on. We did not even have the right to vote in all 50 states until 1962.
The mainstream publishing industry has long tended to underestimate our complexity as a literary community. Consider: We are relatively newly dual citizens with literally thousands of years of our own storytelling and, more recently, literary traditions to draw on. That merits respect and presents its own questions and concerns, not all of which need to be discussed in mixed company.
What do you hope the writers in attendance will get out of the experience? What are some aspects of the Writing Intensive that you’re most excited about?
Community first. I hope that they will make new friends, connect with peers and mentors, and form supportive critique and career groups. I hope that they feel validated, that they feel their voices matter and are appreciated, that they realize they aren’t alone in trying to connect their literary art with young readers.
Then craft. I hope that they gain a better understanding of their vision for their works in progress and how to take them to the next level. I hope they build transferrable skills that will benefit their artistic journeys over time.
Finally, career. I hope they heighten their industry savvy and that the connections they establish will be of benefit to them both in the short and long term.
I am especially thrilled that our faculty includes award-winning Cherokee author Traci Sorell, agent Linda Camacho of Gallt & Zacker, and editor Rosemary Brosnan. VP/Editorial Director of Quill Tree Books and Heartdrum at HarperCollins Children’s Books.
Traci is a novelist, nonfiction and picture book specialist. She brings a tremendous range of skill and accomplishment, and as a relatively new voice, Traci is more closely positioned to the perspective of writers in their apprenticeship and early career. Linda is an established literary agent and VCFA MFA graduate, and Rosemary is a legendary editor who was at the forefront of including marginalized and underrepresented voices in the mix.
Congratulations on the launch of the Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins. What has it been like working on that imprint so far? Do you have any hopes and goals for the next 5 years?
Thank you. So far, it has been a blessing. I am enjoying doing developmental work with writers and learning so much about the inner workings of a big publishing house.
It’s exciting to brainstorm with writers, to celebrate all they’re doing well and to offer guidance where it’s needed. Of course, Heartdrum is a small, selective imprint, and not everything will be a fit. So, I do my best to offer suggestions and support for those writers who will need to continue forward from us on their search for a home for a given manuscript.
Through this experience, I also have a heightened appreciation for the time commitment and dedication of in-house professionals. I have always been grateful for them, but now I have a better understanding of the many reasons why.
Tell us more about your work on your blog, Cynsations. Cynsations is full of useful resources and also uplifts marginalized authors and creators. Why did you start Cynsations and how has it evolved?
Cynsations is focused on the craft of writing, the writing life, and career. It features interviews and articles by authors and illustrators, editors and agent, educators, publicists, and a myriad of other folks in our industry.
The blog typically publishes Tuesdays through Fridays—with an industry roundup on Friday, and it is on hiatus during the summer and from mid-December until after the American Library Association conference.
The content is substantial. We offer an emphasis on voices from underrepresented and marginalized communities as well as new voices and those of every stage along the creative journey. We have always embraced inclusivity and equity in our coverage.
After a few years of publishing a monthly children’s-YA writing newsletter, I switched to the blog to offer more in-depth information and to boost more books and creators. This was 2004, and morale was low in the creative community, mostly due to socio-economic challenges in the industry.
My vision for Cynsations is that it’s to be useful and upbeat but not in a Pollyanna-ish way. I’m always mindful that as a children’s author, kids as young as seven years old may end up visiting. That doesn’t mean that the content is necessarily tailored for them, but it shouldn’t be inappropriate for them either.
What are some projects in the works that you can share more about?
Creatively, I am focusing on middle-grade manuscripts. I thrilled about my anthology, Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, forthcoming from Heartdrum. It will feature works by 15 Native and First Nations authors/poets/artists who’ve collaborated on worldbuilding to provide interconnected narratives centered on a two-day, intertribal powwow.
In addition, Kekla Magoon and I are collaborating on the Blue Stars series, illustrated by Molly Murakami (Candlewick, 2022). The series stars two cousins, Riley Halfmoon and Maya Dawn, who embrace their different strengths to become a superhero duo in their school and in their community. You can learn more at the official Blue Stars series website.
Louise, the main character of your latest YA, Hearts Unbroken, is smart, dedicated, and willing to take risks in journalism because she believes in advocating for the truth. Why did you choose to have so much of her journey centered around her work at the school newspaper and relationships with fellow student journalists?
I was writing from lived experience. Like Louise, I was a teen journalist—she’s a reporter; I was editor of my school newspaper. That story element was interwoven into the real-world, adolescent romance that was my initial springboard for the story.
At the same time, Louise’s role as a news reporter put her in a position to talk to a wide range of people about the theater casting controversy that fueled the subplot. I personalized the situation more by giving Louise something I didn’t have, a little brother, whose involvement in the school play is called into question on more than one level.
Are there any other YA books that you see Hearts Unbroken as being in conversation with?
The story specifically references Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here (Arthur A. Levine, 2013), which in the story, the school librarian has sneaked to Louise’s brother Hughie. (The same hateful parent group that is critical of the theater teacher’s inclusive approach has been harassing the library, too.) I would also add Dawn Quigley’s Apple in the Middle (North Dakota State University Press, 2018), which likewise features a middle-class Native girl, navigating family dynamics and mixed societal signals about her identity.
Do you have any recommendations for children’s through YA books by Native and Indigenous authors?
I have too many recommendations! So, for now, I’d like to highlight this list of Native children’s-YA books along with links to curriculum tie-ins and related resources here. It may be especially useful to teachers and homeschool families, but anyone who loves a terrific story should find a book of their heart. Just keep in mind that there are many more wonderful books by Native and First Nations children’s-YA authors and illustrators.
What else? Since I am responding to these questions on Earth Day, I’d like to give shoutouts to the Water Walker by Joanne Robertson (Second Story, 2017) and We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade (Roaring Brook, 2020).
What’s one question that you wish you would get asked more often?
Other than a writer, what do you dream of being?
Cynthia’s answer: LEGO artist, once the blocks are available in plant-based plastic.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is a New York Times bestselling author of fifteen award-winning and highly acclaimed books for young readers and the author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins. Her debut picture book, Jingle Dancer, is widely considered a modern classic and a groundbreaking title of contemporary Native children’s literature. In addition, she was named a Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for her debut novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, and she won the American Indian Youth Literature Award for her most recent novel Hearts Unbroken.
Exhibiting noteworthy range, her writing spans age markets and genres as she is successfully published in the picture book, chapter book, middle-grade novel and short story, young adult novel and short story, speculative fiction, realism, children’s poetry, young adult narrative nonfiction and graphic format.
Her Cynsations blog is among the most popular and respected in the children’s book industry. She serves on the core faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and on the International Board of Advisors of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Cynthia is an enrolled member of the Muscogee Nation of Oklahoma. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. Cynthia makes her home in Austin, Texas.