By Traci Sorell
I adore picture book poetry anthologies. The variety of poems and artwork inspire me every time. Thanku: Poems of Gratitude (Millbrook Press, Sept. 3, 2019) marks the debut of artist Marlena Myles as a picture book illustrator. Edited by the award-winning author Miranda Paul, the anthology features many well-known poets and a portion of the book’s sales support the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit organization.
I love that I’m getting to interview both of you about this important anthology!
Let’s start with Marlena. What first inspired you to illustrate for young readers?
It was young readers who inspired me! During my first art market, I noticed every child walking by with their parents would have their eyes glued to my art and implore their parents to bring them over. I think naturally, I have some of the same aesthetics enjoyed by youth.
Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?
Well, I’m not a children’s book artist full-time; I do enjoy showcasing my art in different museums and galleries.
I would say I’m still learning, but being in a community of contemporary Native artists, there’s a lot of support and also a bit of a competition to improve—especially to make your art “good enough” to be shown with the top artists.
What about Thanku: Poems of Gratitude called to you as an illustrator?
Thanksgiving is a holiday known for its history of Native Americans and Pilgrims, so it’s nice to be illustrate a book that gives a fresh perspective on both Native Americans showing our gratitude through poetry but also sharing the diversity of all the immigrants to America since the first Thanksgiving.
You are illustrating the picture book Powwow Day and the cover of Indian No More, both of which like Thanku: Poems of Gratitude I’m involved with too. Is your process for illustrating those books different from this first one?
It is a bit different because ThankU is a compilation of different poems, so each page or spread doesn’t exactly need to connect to the one before it. With Powwow Day (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020), I’m illustrating a family throughout the pages.
The cover of Indian No More (Lee & Low/Tu Books, Fall 2019) is also unique, working on something without the principal author (Charlene Willing McManis) being able to approve of it due to her passing away before the book is published. Hopefully her spirit is proud of all involved to get it out in the world.
What advice do you have for other Native artists who want to work as children’s book illustrators?
If you are working on a Native American related story, my advice is don’t be afraid to be the one who is the expert on Native art or history in a piece if you feel the art direction is missing something. Until there are more Native American art directors, you’ll have to make sure the authenticity of our unique cultures is done correctly.
Miranda, I’m humbled to be included in such a wonderful collection of poems by renown poets. What first drew you to the idea of editing a poetry anthology?
Poetry has been a love of mine for as long as I’ve known how to write.
Although this is technically my editorial debut, I’ve been making and editing collections of poetry since I was young.
In high school, some friends and I jumpstarted a literary magazine (and an underground newspaper, but that’s a story for another day).
In college, I used to collect clippings of favorite poems and make chapbooks, sometimes stapling poems of my own between pages written by the Greats.
During my junior year in college, I submitted some of my own poetry to Lucille Clifton, and was selected to be in her class on writing for children.
What a remarkable mentor.
I learned from her that writing for children was the most difficult kind of writing. I didn’t complete a single manuscript that I liked all semester while in her class.
And I will never forget my first public poetry reading that year, either—I was invited to read some of my own poems with Lucille at a Women in Poetry event at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
My lessons and time with her became a turning point in some personal aspects of my life.
After graduation, I went on to teach writing and during my second year as a teacher, I revived that school’s old literary magazine—which hadn’t been published in years—by getting my freshmen students to contribute poetry and art.
I’m so grateful for all of these life experiences; but mostly I’m grateful for the good words that authors and poets like Lucille Clifton have put into the world.
Lucille was one of the many champions of the We Need Diverse Books movement long before WNDB existed.
How did Thanku: Poems of Gratitude come to be with Millbrook?
I’d had the idea for this anthology for a very long time, and I told a friend and fellow founding member at WNDB about it, and they were very receptive.
One publishing house passed on the idea, but I took it to editor Carol Hinz, with whom I had been working with on several other books. Carol and the team at Lerner have a strong commitment to diversity and to poetry, so it seemed a natural fit.
Millbrook is their trade imprint, and Lerner has a strong presence in schools and libraries—so it seemed like the best of all worlds and a way to reach many children. Plus, my other Millbrook books are printed in the USA and they were willing to work with us on making this a charitable title in which 100 percent of future royalties are forwarded to an organization directly.
What were the challenges (personal, literary, logistical) in bringing the anthology to life?
Although I anticipated (with excitement) several challenges, there were a few surprises. I wasn’t able to secure the rights to one author’s previously-published poem, so that couldn’t be included and I was pretty bummed about it.
Then, to fill in two open slots, I did an open call for submissions. Within two weeks I received 200 poems in my inbox!
I had to close submissions early, but I read every single poem that people had sent in, which took an incredible amount of time. And although I only had space for two more poems, I ended up keeping six of them and telling my editor we needed to make the book longer than my original proposal.
On top of all that, keeping six poems meant having to pay for the rights to those extra poems out of my own pocket. That was an expensive lesson—but looking at the anthology as it is now, I can’t imagine cutting any of those wonderful poems.
Once the poems were selected, there was the challenge of dealing with the 194 other poems in my inbox.
I definitely didn’t have the budget or space to publish them, but sending those rejections was incredibly difficult. The majority of poems were wonderful.
I still worry that some people hate me; I had to turn down some really big names! Poems were rejected for various reasons, but mostly because people kept writing about being thankful for the same stuff (like pets and nature) or submitting the same kinds of poems (like ballads or other ABAB rhyme schemes).
This anthology features 32 different kinds of poems so that children can try their hand at an array of styles, so I looked for new formats, originality, and authenticity to whichever format they used.
The experience of reading slush flipped the desk; in some ways I now know what agents and editors feel like—and it’s pretty rough. Hitting SEND on an email that was going to disappoint someone made me feel sick each time.
Being on the editorial side of the desk also meant dealing with contract negotiations and being a liaison between an artist and 32 individual creators with distinct personalities.
Finding cohesion among the text of the 32 poems was a challenge—albeit a wonderful exercise in creativity and logistics. The anthology went through at least four different phases of evolution in terms of the order of poems and the overall concept behind that order before it went to illustration.
What do you think Marlena’s art brings to the poetry collection?
Marlena’s artwork breathes life into Thanku as a whole.
Her palette makes it a collection that reflects any season, not just autumn or the times of year some people associate with being grateful. The consistency of her soft lines and vibrant color brings cohesion to poems only loosely connected through their theme and brevity. The personality of Marlena’s distinct style renders the book playful for children who might be reluctant to explore poetry, and both deep and sophisticated at the same time.
The artwork makes the book equally appealing as a gift for an adult friend or something practical in the classroom. Above all, there is an authenticity of detail and a thoroughness to her art process which carries symbolic significance and allows for accuracy in some of the poems’ cultural references.
What she brings to this anthology from her personal experience and taste has made it incredibly rich. Most anthologies with this many contributors don’t get full color illustrations from a single artist, so her artwork also makes Thanku rare and distinct.
Sales of this book will benefit We Need Diverse Books. How was that decision made?
Back in 2014, I was one of a big group of fellow authors who helped establish WNDB (first as a hashtag).
Several of the contributors to Thanku have served on the board, as mentors, supporters, donors, or even as mentees and grant winners.
This anthology, from its inception, has never been (for me) a means of generating income or taking the spotlight.
Bringing established voices together with brand new and diverse voices in children’s publishing is the goal, really. So when I asked contributors to make suggestions for nonprofit organizations for this collection, WNDB received the most votes.
That decision was fairly easy for most of the contributors. It seemed like the best beneficiary for this type of collection and we’re all excited that Thanku’s publication and 100 percent of its earned royalties will benefit such an organization.
Marlena Myles is a Spirit Lake Dakota/Mohegan/Muscogee Creek artist. She has exhibited at the Sioux Indian Museum, the Heritage Center on the Pine Ridge reservation, All My Relations Gallery, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and more.
Marlena uses her art help the public understand the significance of Native oral traditions and history.
Miranda Paul is a picture book author whose titles include four Junior Library Guild selections—One Plastic Bag, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Millbrook, 2015), Water is Water, illustrated by Jason Chin (Roaring Brook, 2015), I Am Farmer (co-written with Baptiste Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Lerner, 2019), and Little Libraries, Big Heroes, illustrated by John Parra (Clarion, Sept. 3, 2019).
Miranda has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist. Her work has been translated into more than seven languages, and her books have been included on more than a dozen state award lists. Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, features 32 poems from distinguished and new children’s authors.
Miranda makes regular appearances at schools and libraries, and has been a guest presenter at the Library of Congress Young Readers Center along with environmental activist Isatou Ceesay. She also teaches an annual Highlights Foundation workshop on science writing for kids and is a co-founding member of We Need Diverse Books, currently serving as Mentorship chair. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.
She is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.
Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, fall 2019); and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, April 21, 2020).
Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.