Native Voices: Author Dawn Quigley on Humor, Chapter Books & Decolonizing Grading

By Kim Rogers

Today, we are thrilled to have Dawn Quigley join us on Cynsations. Dawn is a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, ND and the author of the hilarious chapter book series published with Heartdrum/HarperCollins (May 11, 2021). The first book in the series is Jo Jo Makoons: The Used to Be Best Friend. She is also on faculty for the upcoming We Need Diverse Books Online Children’s and YA Native Writing Intensive.

From the promotional copy:

“Jo Jo Makoons Azure is a spirited seven-year-old who moves through the world a little differently than anyone else on her Ojibwe reservation. It always seems like her mom, her kokum (grandma), and her teacher have a lot to learn—about how good Jo Jo is at cleaning up, what makes a good rhyme, and what it means to be friendly.

Even though Jo Jo loves her #1 best friend Mimi (who is a cat), she’s worried that she needs to figure out how to make more friends. Because Fern, her best friend at school, may not want to be friends anymore…”

JoJo Makoons Cover Art, illustrated by Tara Audibert.

What was your inspiration for writing Jo Jo Makoons?

I say that Jo Jo Makoons chapter book series was born from a rejection. I had a picture book rejected in spring 2019 (rightly so! It wasn’t ready to go on sub). Then, Cynthia Leitich Smith and Rosemary Brosnan suggested I try a chap book asking, “I wonder if Dawn might consider writing a young chapter book…”

I thought: Well, I can’t write a chapter book because I’ve never written a chapter book.

But then, a little spunky Ojibwe girl began running around in my mind making me laugh with her antics! And the Jo Jo Makoons chapter books series was born. All because of a suggestion. Jo Jo is a team effort.

This is the first chapter book series featuring a Native character from a major trade publisher. What does this mean to you as a Native author? What do you hope kids will take away from this book?

Writing about contemporary Ojibwe kids is really important to me. I want to let all readers, teachers, librarians, families know that, indeed, we Natives still exist. It seems so unbelievable that there is the “Vanishing Native” story echoing throughout the U.S. Having the first chapter book series based on a Native character is so amazing! I wanted to write a fun, silly book that all readers will enjoy. Oh, and the main character just happens to be Ojibwe. I describe the series as “Junie B. Jones…on the rez.”

I hope children everywhere, especially Native readers, can fall in love with Jo Jo. The world, especially now, is so hard for our young people. I want them to laugh, to be able to pause and enjoy the fun world of Jo Jo. Also, I love that Jo Jo sees the world in a slightly unique way that many times is the basis for laughs. We all need more laughter in our lives.

Dawn Quigley and Kim Rogers

What joys and challenges have you faced in writing and publishing this book?

Doing some editing with Cyn was a joy. She is not only an incredible author, but the kindest and most supportive writing mentor. Another joy was to hear the reactions of the early readers- Jo Jo made them laugh! Of course, my own kids don’t think I’m funny at all (apparently I’m not supposed to laugh at my own jokes?).

As far as challenges, I think getting into the mindset of a seven-year-old was hard at times. I needed to be sure to use the vocabulary of a first-grader. Sometimes thinking of jokes and funny situations was a challenge, but I’m a big believer in: If something makes me laugh, maybe others will too!

I adore our Native humor. Learning the ins and outs of publishing with a large publisher, too, was not so much a challenge, but a big learning curve. I’m so honored to be with Heartdrum.

This book is a series. How many books will be included?

Right now, I am signed for three books in the series. But (looks around)…I have so many more ideas for Jo Jo. I taught for 18 years in K-12, and have my own kids, so I want to write about child-centered stories that young readers can relate to and be the heroes (e.g., losing teeth, sleepovers, report cards, school, friends, etc).

If you love Jo Jo, please let the world know!

Your story “Joey Reads the Sky” is included in Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Ancestor Approved Anthology (Heartdrum, 2021). What was the initial spark for this story? What were the ah-ha moments in bringing this story to life?

As I mentioned, I was a teacher for 18 years, mostly in literacy/English. I also knew the value of seeing other ways of “being smart” for my students. At times I saw such brilliance in students in nonacademic ways of knowing.

We Natives understand that there are so many ways to learn about the world, and school is only a small part of it. We learn from our elders, our storytellers, and for me, nature.

I wrote this short story based on a student I had, who if you only looked at their test scores, you might believe the negative deficit viewpoint. Yet, this student, each week, would tell us about walking in the woods and what nature was telling them: ice looks a certain way when it’s starting to be unsafe to walk on, deer leave certain scrapings on trees as they look for a mate, and so on. This student could read nature, and I wanted the readers to expand what they might think “being smart” means.

Let’s decolonize only looking at school grades and standardized testing to measure learning success.

What advice do you have for writers who want to write a chapter book series?

I suggest they read, read, and read more! Every chapter book I read was my teacher. I looked at pacing, page length, reading level, etc. I’m also a literacy educator, so I tried to use my knowledge of developmental growth and mindsets of young children to write Jo Jo as a true-to-life first grader.

Really though, the best thing is to read everything in a certain genre/level you can get your hands on, then take notes on what you’re seeing. Watch for your favorite chapter book authors to have virtual seminars, since we learn the best from other writers!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A big shout out to all my fellow Native authors who continue to support and cheer each other on!

Writing with a community is an incredible gift.

Cynsational Notes

Dawn Quigley, Ph.D. and citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, ND, is an assistant professor at a Midwest University Education Department. She taught English and reading for 18+ years in the K-12 schools along with being an Indian Education program co-director. In addition to her debut coming-of-age young adult novel, Apple in the Middle (NDSU Press), “Joey Reads the Sky” in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, the chapter book series Jo Jo Makoons: The Used to Be Best Friend(book #1), and Native American Heroes (Scholastic Books). Dawn has over 30 published articles, essays and poems. She lives in Minnesota with her family.

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.

To find more Children’s and Young Adult Books created by Native American/First Nations authors and illustrators, visit Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Book Resource pages.