Authors Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith & Kim Rogers on Ancestor Approved

By Cynthia Leitich Smith and Kim Rogers

Cynsations Native Books Reporter Kim Rogers’s poem, “What is a Powwow?” and her short story, “Flying Together,” appear in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Heartdrum, 2021). The anthology is a collection of intersecting stories and poems set at a powwow that bursts with hope, joy, resilience, the strength of community, and Native pride.

From the promotional copy:

“In a high school gym full of color and song, Native families from Nations within the borders of the U.S. and Canada dance, sell beadwork and books, and celebrate friendship and heritage. They are the heroes of their own stories.”

Today, Kim and Cynthia discuss the story behind the stories and poems in the anthology and much more.

CLS: Kim, I’m so grateful to you for lending your voice to the anthology! Could you tell us about your writing journey? What first inspired you to begin writing for young readers, and how would you describe your craft and career apprenticeships?

Kim Rogers


Thanks so much, Cyn! I’m incredibly grateful and honored to be included in your anthology alongside so many amazing authors, established and new!

My love for writing started at a very young age. I wrote my first poem in the first grade on a spelling word sheet. It was raining that day. I remember loving the sound and smell of the rain. It filled me with so much emotion that I wanted to describe it. So, I drew a picture of a girl under an umbrella and wrote a poem called “April Showers” next to it.

I was surprised when my teacher commented that she liked the poem. It made her feel something, too. I saw the power of writing for the first time that day.

My passion bloomed from there. But it wasn’t until several years out of college while working in public relations that I felt a desire to write for children. I have strong memories of my childhood and teen years, so I started writing for kids in magazines and anthologies. That led to book writing, eventually for Native children and teens.


In college, I earned a degree in journalism and public relations. I loved taking writing classes, including Magazine and Creative Nonfiction. That gave me a good foundation for my career as an author.

When I began writing books for children, I joined SCBWI, went to writing conferences, took writing classes in person and online, and read craft books and current children’s–YA books.


Having you as a mentor has been one of the greatest catalysts for my career. The way you encourage writers, Native and non-Native alike is uplifting. Thank you, Cyn, for all you do for the writing community at large!

Also, one of the greatest things I’ve even done for my career is attending Kweli’s Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York City. The lovely and talented Laura Pegram started this wonderful conference.

The first time I attended was in 2016 on a virtual scholarship along with other Native authors who would become friends and critique partners. I was able to go in person in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, because of the pandemic, the conference went online. Spending time with like-minded and talented authors and illustrators has given me the confidence to pursue a career as an author.

KR: This anthology is such a brilliant idea. Tell us the story behind it. How did you come up with it?

First, thank you for your kind words. It’s been an honor to cheer you on your creative journey.

As for the anthology, let’s see…

Big picture, I have published a dozen short stories in various collections over the years as well as a handful of poems. The latest of them appear in The Hero Next Door, edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (Random House, 2019) and Hop to It: Poems to Get You Moving, edited by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong (Pomelo Books, 2020) respectively.

I’ve always been tempted to try putting together an anthology myself, though I was warned about the workload and time involved. It had to be the right topic and approach.

Meanwhile, like so many of us, I was thinking about ways to heighten Native and First Nations representation in the conversation of books. By centering the collection on an intertribal powwow, we were able to open it up to a myriad of interconnected narratives.

When people hear “powwow,” they tend to think of dancers, and of course related stories appear in the book. But these cultural events include a lot of other Native people, each of whom are heroes of their own stories, too.

Beyond that, my debut book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000), which is coming out in paperback (Heartdrum, 2021), is about a young girl bringing together her jingle dance regalia with the help of women in her family and intertribal community.

Coordinating a powwow middle-grade book felt like coming full circle.

CLS: In any anthology, the first and last entries must meet the highest possible literary standard, capturing the reader and bidding farewell with words that linger in memory. Could you tell us about your opening poem, “What Is a Powwow?” and how it works in conversation with both the short stories and Carole Lindstrom‘s poem, “Circles,” which brings the collection to a close?

For me, poetry is the emotionally deepest form of writing. I wanted to share that with readers, what I feel every time I go to a powwow. I also wanted to show the special relationship between Jessie and Grandpa Lou. Laughter is one of the things that bonds them.

Carole’s gorgeous poem continues that emotional experience of a powwow and ends the book in a beautiful and magnificent way.

CLS: On a related note, what was the initial spark for “Flying Together?” What were ah-ha! moments and challenges of bringing it alive on the page?

I come from a military family. In children’s literature, especially Native literature, we don’t see many stories about military families.

When my husband was active-duty Air Force, he deployed a lot. Our boys were small. They struggled and so did I, with their dad being away.

I wanted to create a character dealing with her mom’s deployment, passing the time, and gaining confidence without her mom there. The biggest ah-ha moments were recognizing that it’s comforting for kids to read about families like theirs. They don’t feel so alone.

It’s always a challenge to write a compelling story that will touch readers. I’m thankful to have brilliant feedback from you and editor Rosemary Brosnan to help make the story better.

KR: Great question! I’ll ask you the same. What was the initial spark for your story, “Between the Lines?” What were ah-ha! moments and challenges of bringing it alive on the page?

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Ancestor Approved is set at the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which isn’t that far by train from Chicago. It struck me that my Windy City based characters—Ray and Grampa Halfmoon from Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002)(Heartdrum, 2021)—might attend the powwow for some reason. Grampa is a veteran, and as you say, the military is underrepresented in children’s literature. So, I thought a filmmaker might be traveling across the continent interviewing Native folks about their military service and rendezvousing with the Halfmoons in Ann Arbor.

That said, Grampa takes a backseat in this story, which is centered on Ray, a budding artist, and Melanie (or Mel), an avid reader. It’s about making a friend, despite a bountiful amount of tweenage awkwardness.

CLS: The cover of the anthology features an illustration by Nicole Niedhart of your short-story protagonist. Could you tell us more about that? Did you enjoy the process? What was it like?

When editor Rosemary Brosnan told me that Jessie would be featured on the cover, I was shocked and delighted. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a Wichita character illustrated anywhere.

I have to admit, I teared up a little. It was what I needed as a kid, and soul-soothing to see as an adult. Rosemary sent me an early sketch and then asked for input on how Jessie’s Fancy Shawl should look. I sent her a few examples from the internet.

I’m so happy how the cover turned out. It’s absolutely beautiful. Nicole captured so many story details like the daisies in Jessie’s earrings to the butterflies on her shawl.

KR: Nicole Neidhart’s art is stunning. Could you tell us about your philosophy about Native/First Nations childrens-YA book illustration and how it manifests at Heartdrum?

I have a tremendous appreciation for visual artists, visual storytellers. The way in which Nicole’s art is in conversation with your story and, thereby, the collection as a whole adds layers of meaning and resonance.

We’re making more an effort to emphasize and celebrate our cover artists than is industry practice. As is true in the Native literary arts, our illustrators have been underrepresented and marginalized. So, we’re shining a light to invite readers to really study their work, to come to better understand and appreciate it.

CLS: I’m delighted that you’ll be publishing more with us at Heartdrum! For all the readers who’ll be looking for your byline, what’s on the horizon?

I’m so excited that my debut picture book, Just Like Grandma, illustrated by Julie Flett is slated for Winter 2023 with HarperCollins/Heartdrum. I have another picture book coming soon with Heartdrum as well as a picture book biography that has yet to be announced. I cannot wait to share the details soon!

Right now, I’m slowly working on a YA novel-in-verse.

KR: I’m delighted to see several of your beautiful books re-envisioned with Heartdrum including Jingle Dancer, Rain is Not my Indian Name, and Indian Shoes. What are the joys and challenges of re-envisioning these books?

I can hardly wait to share Just Like Grandma with young readers! It’s such a charming story, and the intergenerational relationship has tons of heart.

And thank you for your enthusiasm! As I mentioned, Jingle Dancer is coming out in paperback with updated text and back matter.

New paperback and ebook editions of Rain Is Not My Indian Name feature new cover art by Natasha Donovan (Heartdrum, 2021) as well as updated text and back matter.

New paperback and ebook editions of Indian Shoes feature new cover art by Sharon Irla and new interior illustrations by MaryBeth Timothy as well as updated text and back matter.

You can read more about that process here.

CLS: What advice do you have for beginning Native and First Nations writers for kids and teens? How about fellow children’s and picture writers in general?

Thanks so much for your kind words, Cyn! I cannot wait to see more kids being introduced to your fabulous books.

As for advice… Read as much as you can. This is where you will learn what type of books are selling and where you could possibly fill in the gap with your own stories. Join writing organizations like SCBWI, read blogs like Cynsations to be informed of publishing news, and take classes. No matter how seasoned you are, keep learning and striving to be better.

KR: What advice do you have for Native writers and illustrators who want to publish with Heartdrum?

You’ve already shared wonderful advice. I’ll add a hat-tip to the Kweli Conference, which you mention above, and also urge folks to read like writers per se. It’s not always about the books that hit all the right notes. You’ll find positive and negative models, and both can be instructional.

Coming June 1; now available for pre-order. Cover by Floyd Cooper.

On a related note, remember that not every book is meant to please. Many are written to make us think, to stretch our humanity. Ask yourself why the authors made the craft decisions they did. Ask yourself what you might do differently, your reasons for that and the impact of alternative approaches.

Native and First Nations writers should feel free to reach out to me for guidance or creative feedback. Native and First Nations illustrators are also invited to touch base and share their online portfolios.

Beyond that, keep in mind that Heartdrum has a particular slant. It’s Native and First Nations focused, but there’s a specific conversation within that subject-matter category. Our books are contemporary or 20th century historicals—mostly fiction (about 10 percent nonfiction). However, we publish across all age markets, genres and formats. So, there is breadth in a certain way, too.

For context: We have absolutely passed on fantastic manuscripts by writers I greatly admire. Sometimes it’s not about quality or even my own tastes but rather “fit” with the line. Believe me, I have cheered and done the Snoopy dance when they sold elsewhere and will put my full support behind them.

So, if you’re interested in working with us, please realize that even if there’s not a first-or-second try “yes,” the next project might click. (Thinking back to the salad days, I believe Rosemary first signed me up after three or four submissions.)

CLS: More globally, how do you unwind when you’re not writing—both during the current health crisis and beyond?

The top thing I do to unwind is cook. It relaxes me, and I love the feeling of accomplishment whenever a recipe is successful. Like Jessie and her Grandpa Lou in my anthology story, I enjoy making fry bread. My dad has always been the main cook in my family. He taught me to make it the “eye-balling it” way. That’s how we cook a lot of things!

The cast iron skillet I use is one of my most prized possessions. It creates crispy fried chicken (My dad’s is the best though.), fluffy angel biscuits, and other yummy things, too. I wish I had a great story to tell about how the skillet was passed down from one of my ancestors, but I bought it at Walmart. I also enjoy making candy, baking bread, cookies, cakes, and pastries.

Other things I do are watching shows and movies, reading on my backyard porch, and going for walks. My soul longs for nature therapy. I miss traveling. The last family trip we took was to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. I miss spending in-person time with family and friends, but I’m thankful for phone and online chats. And I love listening to nostalgic music. I miss going to concerts. The last one I went to before COVID-19 hit was the Goo Goo Dolls.

KR: Same great question for you. How do you unwind when you’re not writing—both during the current health crisis and beyond?

I live in a cozy condo in south Austin, and the winter weather floats somewhere in the sunny 70s. Little Gnocchi and I take long walks in the late afternoon, and I’ve been making an effort to improve my photography.

Normally, I’d be constantly traveling or out and about with dear friends in town. I miss all that, including Zilker Botanical Garden, the Zach Theater, and writing afternoons at Austin Central Library. But there’s something grounding and deeply satisfying about studying snails and rain-drenched autumn leaves and the chalk drawings of young children on the neighborhood walkways.

I’m also cooking—in fact, I’ve finally really learned how.

My most successful invention is lox breakfast tacos. One half of the tortilla slathered with avocado, one half with cream cheese, and filled with smoked salmon, capers, chopped green onion, and scrambled eggs. Delicious.

Typically, while I work during the day, my television is turned to the live Jelly Cam at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but during the winter, I sometimes shift to fireplace YouTube videos.

At night, I do as much as I can to change the atmosphere. The lights go off, the candles light up, and I either listen to music or read or watch movies.

As of this interview, I’m watching “The Queen’s Gambit” miniseries on Netflix. I’m not tempted to take up chess, but from what I can tell, playing the game is a lot like surviving 25 years of publishing.

KR: Oh wow, your tacos sound scrumptious. And I have “The Queen’s Gambit” in que on my list of shows to watch. My hubby and youngest son are chess players, but like you, I am not. Although I’m at the beginning of my book publishing journey, I have to agree with your publishing analogy.

It was a joy to read Ancestor Approved. I cannot wait for kids to get their hands on your lovely and groundbreaking book as well as all of your re-imagined titles and every book coming soon with Heartdrum.

What a pleasure it’s been chatting with you. Thanks so much, Cyn!

Cynsational Notes

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. She is a contributor to Ancestor Approved coming February, 2021 with HarperCollins/Heartdrum. Her debut picture book, Just Like Grandma, illustrated by Julie Flett, is slated for winter 2023 with HarperCollins/Heartdrum.  Her work has also 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.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including HEARTS UNBROKEN, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. Her 2021 releases are the middle grade anthology ANCESTOR APPROVED: INTERTRIBAL STORIES FOR KIDS and novel SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA.

She is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and serves as the Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cynthia is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.