Native Voices: Author & Illustrator Interview: Monique Gray Smith & Nicole Neidhardt

By Kim Rogers

Today, we’re chatting with Monique Gray Smith (of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish decent), author of When We are Kind (Orca Book Publishers, 2020) and Nicole Neidhardt (Navajo) who is the book’s illustrator.

From promotional copy:

When We Are Kind celebrates simple acts of everyday kindness and encourages children to explore how they feel when they initiate and receive acts of kindness in their lives. Celebrated author Monique Gray Smith has written many books on the topics of resilience and reconciliation and communicates an important message through carefully chosen words for readers of all ages. Beautifully illustrated by artist Nicole Neidhardt, this book encourages children to be kind to others and to themselves.

Monique is also the author of My Heart Fills with Happiness, illustrated by Julie Flett (Orca Book Publishers, 2016), You Hold Me Up, illustrated by Danielle Daniel (Orca Book Publishers, 2017), Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience (Sono Nis Press, 2014), Tilly and the Crazy Eights (Second Story Press, 2018), and Lucy and Lola/When We Play Our Drums They Sing (McKellar & Martin Publishing Group, 2018).

When We are Kind is Nicole’s first illustrated book. She’s also illustrated the book cover for Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Heartdrum, 2021).


What inspired you to write for young readers, and how would you describe your craft and career apprenticeships?

I never intended to write for young readers. I actually never intended to be a writer, but that’s a whole other story.

When I was writing my first novel, Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience I was thinking of non-Indigenous people in their 60’s reading the book. I wrote it as a gentle door opener for them to begin understanding the impact of Canada’s history on a young Indigenous woman and her family. When it won the Burt Award for First Nation, Inuit and Métis Literature everything changed because the award targeted books for readers aged 12 and up.

The first muse for my books for young readers came when I witnessed the love between a Kookum and her grandchild and that was the inspiration for my first children’s book, My Heart Fills with Happiness. I have been extraordinarily blessed since then to have ideas that seemed to be natural fits for books for our youngest citizens and their families.

When I was a child we didn’t have any books in our house, not until my dad started to sell Encyclopedias. What we did have though, were stories. There were always stories unfolding in my house, or when we were out gathering wood, fishing, or sitting around the fire. I grew up listening to stories and often spent a lot of time in the hallway when I was in school for talking too much… storytelling.

The greatest challenge I’ve had as a writer is bridging oral storytelling onto the page. I’ve learned to use my phone and record the story into an auto dictation app. It turns it into text and I have my first draft.


What was your inspiration for writing When We are Kind?

I was on holidays with my family in Phoenix, Arizona watching my son play in a baseball tournament.

The players all came from different parts of Canada and had not known each other previously, what I saw unfold were various acts of kindness between these teenage boys as they bonded and came together as a team. As well on this trip, I experienced and witnessed kindness between my teenage twins. This was not unusual, but because I was on vacation and slowed down I was much more aware of their mutual acts of kindness.

Near the end of our holiday I woke up at four in the morning with the book emerging. Very little has been changed since that first, and I am honored how Nicole Neidhardt brought the book to life with her gorgeous illustrations.

Your story, “Fancy Dancer” is included in Cynthia Leitch Smith’s Ancestor Approved anthology. What was your initial spark for this story? What were the ah-ha! moments and challenges of bringing it alive on the page?

It was a Tuesday morning and I was to give a presentation that day at the first Indian residential school that opened in Canada in 1831, The Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario.

Again, it was a 4 a.m. wake up and a visit by a character named Rory. He woke me and simply said, “When he moved into our house, it became a home.” I knew Rory’s visit had many meanings and his story percolated with me for months.

When the invitation from Cynthia came I knew I wanted to write about Rory, about the love of a stepdad, about a young person reconnecting with their culture and the ripple effect love has in a family. The story has gone through many iterations and the characters developed with each edit.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?

While my story is rooted in the relationship between Rory and his stepdad, we also learn about the disconnect mom has had from her community in Saskatchewan, Canada. As the story unfolds, we experience the healing as mom and the whole family begin to reconnect with their family and culture.

This is reflective of my own lived experience and of my families’ continued journey to reconnect, reclaim and recover. My mom was removed from her parent’s at birth in 1940, lived in an orphanage until she was adopted by a non-Indigenous family in 1943. She grew up knowing she was Cree, but knew nothing of her family, community or culture. When I sobered up in 1991, I began my own journey, and ultimately my families’ journey back to our Nehiyawak family and culture.

Monique’s mother holding a copy of My Heart Fills With Happiness.

These are not easy stories to tell. There can be internalized shame and shaming from others about not knowing all of your family history, or not being a registered Indian or tribally enrolled. It’s important to remember that there are multiple reasons families may be on journeys of reconnecting. Many of these reasons are a direct result of provincial/state or federal legislations specifically designed to remove us from family, community, culture and language.

In my story “Fancy Dancer” (Ancestor Approved, 2021), I wanted the young readers to get a sense of that disconnect and what it feels like to begin to reconnect. I especially wanted young readers who have a similar family story as mine to experience themselves on the page and know they are loved and valued.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Pay attention. There are stories, characters, dialogue, and descriptors everywhere.

Can you tell us about your upcoming works?

In Spring 2022, I have a children’s picture book, I Hope coming out. It is illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard and published by Orca Book Publishers.

No release date yet, but I am thrilled to have a children’s picture book coming out with Heartdrum. It’s currently titled, Circle of Love. I am also working on an adult novel that is like nothing I’ve written before and has been great fun! My wife teases me that I can’t publish it under my name, that might tell you how different it is from what I’ve created to date.


Interior illustration from When We Are Kind by Nicole Neidhardt, used with permission.

What inspired you to illustrate for young readers?

I have been painting, drawing, and making since I was a little kid.

When I was asked to illustrate When We Are Kind it felt like this returning to my childhood. I say this because illustrating for a children’s audience is so different than the artwork I do in other parts of my life. I want to create illustrations I would have loved as a child.

It’s also a big responsibility because this is some of the first representations of peoples and communities that children see. So, I felt a real earnestness to ensure I was thinking deeply about the characters I illustrated and the communities they each come from. I wanted to create illustrations that truly show the diversity of lived realities inherent in Indigenous communities.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?

When We Are Kind is the first book I illustrated, but I have a background in painting and drawing through my BFA at the University of Victoria.

Illustration was a new process for me. It took a lot of trial and error, but I had this rich background of making that really supported my learning. My illustration style really emerged with this book, and I incorporate a lot of painting techniques when thinking through my digital drawings—things like overlapping patterns, color plays, and expressive characters. I get so excited when thinking about all the future possibilities and ways I can improve and develop my style to tell these stories through illustration.

Interior illustration from When We Are Kind by Nicole Neidhardt, used with permission.

What was it about Monique’s text called to you to illustrate When We Are Kind?

Monique’s text really resonated with me. When I first got the manuscript, I was in awe at the teachings that abound in the book, about kindness in action, caring for the planet, caring for one’s community and one’s self. I started reflecting deeply on what kindness means to me. Kindness takes radical empathy and puts it into action. These teachings are communicated with such simple, clear sentences and get at the essence of these teachings. I wanted to mirror that in the illustrations. Simple moments of connection, friendship, love.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

The biggest challenges centered around illustrating a book for the first time and the development my unique illustration style. I had to find ways for the illustrations to speak to one another, and feel fluid and connected. When I create a digital work or painting, it’s usually just one piece, but for a book there’s so many more elements to weave together. I wanted to make sure I was grounding each illustration in these moments of connection between the characters. I have painted a lot of people and portraits, but there’s always such a finesse to creating intimacy that looks real.

Interior illustration from When We Are Kind by Nicole Neidhardt, used with permission.

What ways has your life changed after you became a published illustrator?

I have been asked to illustrate more projects, and I find this very exciting! My life is so full of different forms of arts practice – community engaged projects, mural painting, and installation through my MFA graduate work at OCAD University. Illustration has fit beautifully into this matrix of work and really enriched my overall arts practice.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

I am by no means an expert, but speaking from my own experiences, I can share a couple lessons I’ve learned. First, illustration is much more collaborative that I originally thought! There’s this balance between your own ideas and style and the vision of the people commissioning you.

If you can learn how to lean into that collaboration, and play with the ideas and visions shared, it can manifest in some really lovely possibilities that wouldn’t have come about otherwise.

An example of Nicole’s artwork, featuring a Futuristic Juniper Matriarch.

Second, seeking out constructive feedback is so important to the process as it can only make your work better. It is more a lesson I learned in art school, but feedback is about the art, not about me personally. This is such an important distinction that helps me not take critiques personally.

Also, if there is a critique about your work that you do not agree with, take a moment to breathe and reflect on what that critique is responding, too. There is usually a kernel of truth to the feedback. But remember, you are the illustrator! You have the ability to incorporate feedback about your work, in your own way.

You illustrated the cover of Ancestor Approved and captured my protagonist Jessie from my story, “Flying Together” so beautifully. Can you tell us about your process of illustrating this cover?

Illustrating the cover of Ancestor Approved was such a wonderful experience. It’s an example of a collaboration of ideas between author, publisher, and illustrator that led to Jessie being on the cover. Jessie dancing on the cover was so fitting for the theme of the book, as all the stories connect to the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor.

Full cover illustration of Ancestor Approved by Nicole Neidhardt, used with permission.

As I don’t have a background in powwow design or regalia making, I had to do a lot of research into Jessie’s nation, the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. I was given reference photos, and I practiced drawing design motifs so that I would be creating a work that represents this community’s visual culture respectfully.

The butterfly design comes from the story, when Jessie says she feels like a butterfly while dancing. I wanted the colors to be bright and vibrant to reflect the energy that permeates the stories in the book. The background colors are the early dawn, thinking about a bright new day and how children and youth are like the sunrise for our world. Always bringing new hope and possibilities.

Cynsational Notes

Monique Gray Smith is an award-winning, and best-selling author of books for children and youth, as well as adults. Her children’s books include; My Heart Fills with Happiness, You Hold Me Up, When We Are Kind. Her YA/Adult books include; Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, Tilly and the Crazy Eights and Lucy and Lola.

She is a proud mom of teenage twins, and is Cree, Lakota and Scottish. Monique is well known for her storytelling, spirit of generosity and belief that love is medicine. She and her family are blessed to live on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen and WSÁNEĆ people, also known as Victoria, Canada.

Nicole Neidhardt is Diné (Navajo) of Kiiyaa’áanii Clan on her mother’s side, a blend of European ancestry on her father’s side and is from Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has a BFA from the University of Victoria and is currently working on her MFA at OCAD University in Toronto, Ontario. Nicole’s Diné identity is the heart of her practice which encompasses installation, illustration, painting, murals, and community engaged work. She is passionate about Diné storytelling, design, and Indigenous Futurisms.

She is the co-founder of the Innovative Young Indigenous Leaders Symposium and the Groundswell Climate Collective. Her first illustrated children’s book, When We Are Kind, written by Monique Gray Smith was just released in 2020.

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, and A Letter for Bob, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson, is planned for summer 2023, and both are 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.