By Kim Rogers
For my first interview with Cynsations, I welcome author Traci Sorell! First off, so:ti:c?a to you and Cynthia Leitich Smith for this opportunity. I am thrilled and honored to join Cynsations as a reporter covering Native books for children and teens.
Traci, your debut picture book, We are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), is a gorgeous nonfiction book set in the Cherokee Nation. It highlights the wonderful ways Cherokee people express gratitude even for the little things.
Congratulations on its widespread acclaim! We’re talking a 2019 Sibert Honor Book, 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Picture Book Honor, 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor Book, NPR’s Guide To 2018’s Great Reads, Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2018, School Library Journal Best Books 2018, 2018 SCBWI Book Launch Award, 2018 JLG selection, and the 2019 Reading the West Picture Book Award!
You have two more books recently published—your first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, 2019) and a historical fiction middle grade novel, Indian No More, co-authored by the late Charlene Willing McManis (1953-2018)(Tu Books, 2019).
Let’s start with At the Mountain’s Base. Tell me about your inspiration for the book.
First, wado for inviting me to Cynsations, and congratulations on joining Cyn’s team! I’m so excited! Yes, this last year has been a whirlwind. I’m grateful for all the readers that We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga has reached because of the recognition it has received.
We need culturally accurate, authentic work for children and teens to know Native Nations are still here, what our contributions have been and how we continue to serve.
Regarding At the Mountain’s Base specifically, sometimes inspiration comes from an idea or an observation. Other times reading a book and wanting to replicate its structure sparks my writing.
In this case, I read Muon Van’s In a Village by the Sea, illustrated by April Chu (Creston Books, 2015), and adored the circular story in verse structure about a family waiting for a fisherman to come home.
It sparked a completely different poem for me. At the Mountain’s Base centers on a family waiting for their relative, a female pilot, to come home from war. I wanted to highlight the service of Native American women, which is all too often forgotten or left out of history books altogether.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logical) in bringing the text to life?
With picture books, the greatest challenges for me are twofold: keeping the text succinct and giving the illustrator lots of room to bring their vision to the story. Since I had the poem structure in place, I spent time choosing the best words to convey the family’s feelings and actions.
For the illustrator, I put nothing in the text signifying that this was a Native family, but that’s what I envisioned. I didn’t specify a Tribe because that would have limited the culture, beliefs, language, geography, flora and fauna which I intended for the illustrator to select.
When Weshoyot came on the project, she wanted to know the types of weaving that Cherokee people do. I shared about our basket making, finger weaving and loom weaving. She chose to center the story around a Cherokee grandmother and her granddaughters—a wonderful surprise!
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope it sparks discussions about the contributions that Native people have made that go unnoticed. I also want to uplift how Native Nations honor those active duty military personnel and veterans regardless of how they are treated in the broader United States culture or by its federal government. Similarly, there is no separation between our lives here and the spirit world, all are connected. I love that Weshoyot’s art shows that so beautifully.
Indian No More was written by Charlene Willing McManis who passed away on May 1, 2018. How did you get involved with co-authoring this book?
I first met Charlene at Kweli’s Color of Children’s Literature conference in April 2016. We became fast friends and stayed in touch after the conference. She got cancer, but received treatment.
I interviewed her for Cynsations when she sold Indian No More to Tu Books.
Then in late January 2018, she posted on Facebook that her cancer had come back and could not be cured. She did not have long to live. I immediately reached out to her and then cried the rest of the day, just sick that such a loving, joyful person received such devastating news.
In early March, Charlene emailed that her publisher, Stacy Whitman, asked if Charlene could recommend anyone to finish the revisions needed to get Indian No More published. She wrote and said that she immediately thought of me and sent me the manuscript.
While honored and humbled, I felt overwhelmed at the thought of revising a historical fiction middle grade novel in prose. It seemed way out of my league, having only written picture books and poetry to that point.
I immediately sent Charlene’s novel to my agent, Emily Mitchell, without reading it. As a former children’s book editor, I knew she could evaluate whether I would be able to pull it off. She responded that I could absolutely do this. I read it and fell in love with the voice of the main character, Regina. I wanted to finish this book for my friend.
What were the challenges in finishing this book?
Normally if you co-write a book, your co-author is available to share thoughts on revision and clarify why this character or this event is in the story. With Charlene’s passing, I didn’t have that option. Thankfully, her family, the Tu Books team and her Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, became my sounding boards as I verified the accuracy of what was represented in the text as well as refashioned the book to make it flow for readers.
I had studied the termination and relocation period (1940s -1960s) of federal Indian policy as an undergraduate and graduate student, so I knew that piece. But I didn’t have the specifics of those policies as applied to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which Charlene and her protagonist both come from. I’m proud of our collective effort, and I know Charlene would be, too.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
The book offers a wonderful way to introduce a critical part of U.S. history that is not taught in schools. Termination impacted 109 Native Nations and their citizens while the relocation policy impacted many more beyond that. As Native people, we still live with the lasting effects of these policies today. Yet so few know what happened, and I love that this book provides it in a very accessible way.
Now that you have three published books, what have you learned?
I’m in a constant state of learning in this business. Here are two examples:
1. Balance. This debut year has involved a lot of travel and presentations, coupled with illness and little downtime. There’s no need to accept every request.
2. In spite of the hectic first year and two books to launch this fall, I work with fabulous folks and love what I do. Taking on this new career in my middle years has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
What has been the biggest surprise to you throughout your publishing journey?
How it just keeps getting better. Each book, poem or short story takes me on its own journey. I love to challenge myself to write for different age groups in fiction and nonfiction. Hanging out with students as well as their teachers and librarians brings me a lot of joy. The growing number of Native creators fills my cup. I didn’t anticipate any of this when I first started writing.
What advice would you give to new writers?
Have a strong work ethic and a strong backbone. As everyone will tell you, revision is the name of the game. Some stories require a lot more than others to reveal their essence on the page. Get folks you trust who are skilled writers to review your work, give you honest feedback, and help you through that process.
The strong backbone is for not only receiving those critiques, but also in knowing what to change and what to keep if true to the story’s essence.
The same goes for accepting the rejections which will happen once you submit your work to editors. It’s part of the process.
What do you have coming up next?
In 2020, I have shorter works coming out in anthologies. The only one publicly announced is No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, eds. Jeanette Bradley, Keila V. Dawson, and Lindsay H. Metcalf, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, Fall 2020). My poem features Cierra Fields (Cherokee), an activist on sexual assault and health issues impacting Native Nations who has advocated at the White House and the United Nations. Many talented young people will be featured in this picture book anthology.
In 2021, Frané and I team up again with We Are Still Here (Charlesbridge), a nonfiction picture book showing how federal policies impact Native Nations. I also have another nonfiction picture book and one fiction being released, so that’ll be a busy year! But I’m looking forward to more time to research and write some longer works until those are released.
Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction books as well as poems for children. Traci’s lyrical story in verse, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre celebrates the bonds of family and history-making women pilots. Her middle grade novel, Indian No More, with the late Charlene Willing McManis, explores the impact of federal termination and relocation policies on an Umpqua family in the 1950s.
Her debut nonfiction picture book We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac, won a Sibert Honor, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor and an Orbis Pictus Honor along with four starred reviews.
A former federal Indian law attorney and policy advocate, she is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma where her Tribe is located.
Kim Rogers covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations.
Kim writes books, short stories, and poems across all children’s literature age groups. Her work has been published in Highlights for Children, Guideposts Sweet 16, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and many other publications.
Kim is an enrolled member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Much of her current writing highlights her Wichita heritage. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband, two boys, and one ornery, but very cute Chiweenie dog named Lucky.
She is represented by Tricia Lawrence at Erin Murphy Literary Agency.