Interview: Author Brad Wagnon & Illustrator Alex Stephenson on The Land of the Great Turtles

By Traci Sorell

I’m delighted to feature Brad Wagnon, a fellow Cherokee Nation citizen and author of The Land of Great Turtles (Rowe Publishing, March 2018). He is joined by Alex Stephenson, the book’s illustrator.

I met Brad a few years ago in Tahlequah through his work for the tribe. I enjoyed their first book, How the World Was Made (CreateSpace), published in 2015, which shares a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

This second book, The Land of the Great Turtles, was a story that I hadn’t heard before. It centers on the consequences for Cherokee people of not listening to the Creator and the elders. 

Brad shares his version of the story given to him by Benny Smith, a revered Cherokee elder and retired counselor and teacher at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

From the promotional copy:

When the Creator gave the Cherokee people a beautiful island with everything they could ever need, it came with only one rule – to take care of the land and the animals living there. But what happens when the children decide to play instead of taking care of their responsibilities?

Brad, what first drew you to creating books with Cherokee traditional stories?

Brad and his wife, Tanya

For about seven years, my wife has been telling me I need to write a book. I believe it was Alex that first approached me about doing a book together.

 The main thing that drives me is: I don’t want these stories to be lost to future generations. 

As I say in my dedication of the book, paraphrasing a wise friend of mine, the time when we used to sit around family fires and tell stories is almost gone for us. We need to preserve these stories while they are still in our memories.

What was the timeline between spark and publication of The Land of the Great Turtles? 

I think we’ve been working on it almost a year. We had hoped to have it out by Cherokee National Holiday last year, which is the first weekend of September. But we both agreed we wanted to see a publisher acquire it, so it has been worth the wait.

What were the challenges (personal, literary, research, logistical) in bringing the book to life? 

My personal challenge was getting past the fact that this story has always been oral tradition and has never been put into writing before (at least that I know of).

Of course Alex and I are both busy and we wanted to get it right both artistically and historically, so we took our time and made sure it was right.

Brad talks with a group about Cherokee history.

What special considerations/permissions come into play when framing a book around a traditional Cherokee story? 

Well, with this story the very first time Benny told it to me he said, “I’m giving this story to you.” So really that was his permission for me to perpetuate this story. 
Cherokee traditions belong to all Cherokee and there are most definitely things that the entire world can learn from them.

This is my version of a very old story that belongs to all Cherokee people.

What cultural elements were key to your vision for the illustrations? 

The main one was the dress of the people. I wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible and so did Alex. 
He would draw something and send it to me. I would make suggestions and he would change it to fit what I said. The dress (with minor adjustments) represents the earliest known dress for Cherokee people without the influence of European trade goods. 
Also the turtles, they needed to be beautiful and larger than life because, after all, they are the stars of this story. I think Alex did an amazing job portraying both the turtles and Cherokee life.

What do you think Alex’s art brings to the story? 

Without him, there wouldn’t be a book. No one would publish this story without his art. He was very careful and took the utmost pains to make sure that what he was drawing both looked amazing and was representative of Cherokee culture and history.

Interior art from The Land of the Great Turtles by Alex Stephenson, used with permission.

Alex, I know both you and Brad work for the Cherokee Nation in different fields. How did you two connect?

I’ve known Brad since I met my wife around 2008-2009. Brad and his twin brother Brian grew up with my wife and her sister, and were so close that my wife refers to them as her brothers.

It was actually a funny experience when my kids were trying to work out the family tree one day, and they found out that “Uncle” Brad and “Uncle” Brian weren’t actually related to us. Our families are just that close. If you were to see us all together, it would just look like one huge family.

Alex working on illustrations as his daughter watches

From an artistic standpoint, how did you approach the illustrations?

This was my seventh children’s book, but probably the most daunting one for me, because it was so important that we get it right.

I know Brad felt a lot of weight on his shoulders because (to our knowledge) this story hasn’t been made into a children’s book before.

Brad and I would meet to discuss each page, and he would tell me what certain things would look like in the traditional story (or historically for Cherokees) – things like their traditional clothes or tools they used in their daily life.

I wanted to draw this in a way that was vibrant enough to keep young children’s attention, but also in a style that was respectful of the story being told.

Brad, I know you are busy traveling nationwide educating Cherokee Nation citizens about our culture in at-large satellite communities through your work at Community and Cultural Outreach. What plans do you have for sharing it with Cherokee people as well as those outside our communities?

Alex and I had a kickoff event at Northeastern State University on March 15, the book’s release date.

Alex and Brad celebrate the launch of The Land of the Great Turtles
at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The Cappi Wadley Reading and Technology Center hosted us as part of their Family Literacy night. About 90 children attended along with their families.

Brad signing books at the event.

We had lots of fun and got to read both of our books several times to various groups of children and parents. They also gave copies of the books to all the kids. They are talking about hosting a Festival of Books this summer for local authors and illustrators.

I have a book reading and storytelling scheduled for May 1 at Tahlequah High School for their annual cultural day, an event that I started while I was teaching there.

I am also working on details for a book reading and signing tour scheduled for May 24-28 in the vicinity of Cherokee, North Carolina. I will be at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Bearmeat’s Indian Den, Red Clay State Park and The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

Also June 9, Alex and I will be at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Arkansas for a reading and signing event.

All of these events have been scheduled by me. I’ve done a lot of the marketing myself. Our publisher is getting more active since the book released but I handle scheduling all my appearances.

Do you all have other works in progress together? 

Brad: Yes, we are hoping to do at least one more book using a Cherokee story.

Alex and his family

Alex: Personally, I am working on another book for children that struggle with sleep.

I have two of the most amazing children in the world, but my daughter has always struggled with falling asleep and over the years we have tried different approaches to helping her.

One that always worked well was making up adventure stories to read to her while she was lying in bed.

I started thinking one day, “Other parents might struggle with this, too.”

So I decided to make a book along the same lines that they can read to their little ones as they drift off.

Cynsational Notes

Traci says: When reading a retelling of a traditional Native story, I compare how closely the story aligns to the original, see if the storyteller changed or perhaps updated the story for today’s audience and learn their reasons for doing so, and also consider how accurate are the illustrations for the tribe and cultural information centered in the story.

Reading the author’s note or interviews with the author will assist a reader, educator or librarian in determining the author’s relationship to culture keepers and storytellers in that tribal nation, if not a citizen of the tribe themselves.

Previously, there have been other traditional Cherokee story retellings in picture books that young readers would enjoy.

They include: Gayle RossHow Turtle’s Back Was Cracked (Dial, 1995) and How Rabbit Tricked Otter (HarperCollins, 1994), both illustrated by Murv Jacob; Joseph Bruchac’s The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story, illustrated by Anna Vojtech (Dial 1998); and, Gayle Ross and Joseph Bruchac’s The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale (Dial 1995), illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud.

Brad Wagnon  is a Cherokee storyteller and works as a technical assistance specialist for the Cherokee Nation Community and Cultural Outreach in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

He is devoted to promoting Cherokee culture and history by sharing Cherokee stories with future generations. His first picture book, How the World Was Made, shared a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

He lives with his family in Gideon, Oklahoma on the land where he grew up.

Alex Stephenson is a licensed professional counselor, husband, and step father to two amazing kids.

He works for the Cherokee Nation at W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, helping patients who check into the hospital for multiple mental health related issues.

He loves drawing in his spare time. As a part of this, he enjoys making comics and children’s books based on experiences he has in his life – and topics he believes other adults may use to help the children close to them.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.