Native Voices: Traci Sorell on Writing With & About Community

By Kim Rogers

Today, I’m excited to welcome back Traci Sorell, former Cynsations reporter and award-winning author. Traci’s book Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, illustrated by Natasha Donovan, was published by Millbrook Press in March. Her book We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know, illustrated by Frane’ Lessac, was published by Charlesbridge in April.

From the promotional copy of Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross:

“Mary Golda Ross designed classified airplanes and spacecraft as Lockheed Aircraft Corporation’s first female engineer. Find out how her passion for math and the Cherokee values she was raised with shaped her life and work.

Cherokee author Traci Sorell and Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan trace Ross’s journey from being the only girl in a high school math class to becoming a teacher to pursuing an engineering degree, joining the top-secret Skunk Works division of Lockheed, and being a mentor for Native Americans and young women interested in engineering. In addition, the narrative highlights Cherokee values including education, working cooperatively, remaining humble, and helping ensure equal opportunity and education for all.”

From the promotional copy of We Are Still Here: Native American Truth Everyone Should Know:

“Twelve Native American kids present historical and contemporary laws, policies, struggles, and victories in Native life, each with a powerful refrain: We are still here!

Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people’s past, present, and future. Precise, lyrical writing presents topics including: forced assimilation (such as boarding schools), land allotment and Native tribal reorganization, termination (the US government not recognizing tribes as nations), Native urban relocation (from reservations), self-determination (tribal self-empowerment), Native civil rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), religious freedom, economic development (including casino development), Native language revival efforts, cultural persistence, and nationhood.”

Mary Golda Ross’s Slide Rule

What was your inspiration for writing Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer?

Carol Hinz, Associate Publisher of Millbrook Press, and I were talking about representation and she asked if I’d ever thought of writing about Mary Golda Ross. I hadn’t, but I felt that her contributions deserved to be known by young readers because she paved the way for so many Native people and women to enter STEM fields after her. So I set off to write my first picture book biography, which is superbly illustrated by Natasha Donovan. I’m grateful to Carol for asking me that question.

Mary Golda Ross’s notes

What were the challenges and joys in writing this book?

The challenge was convincing myself I could write about Mary without not having deep knowledge of mathematics and aerospace engineering. Again, this is where knowing oneself and how you want to tell the story helps.

Interior illustration from Classified by Natasha Donovan, used with permission.

I knew Mary’s Cherokee heritage had only been mentioned in previous accounts, but it was clear to me that she had the life she did and accomplished all she did because of her family, community and living out those values they instilled in her.

The interview she gave in the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper a few weeks before her death confirmed what I knew, so that was my approach to the story. I loved getting to know more about her and the people who helped me in that process. That is one of the true joys of bookmaking for me is the community of people I work with in order to create each story.

What was your inspiration for writing We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know?

Unfortunately, I wrote the book because nothing has changed in school curriculum since I was a child in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We have almost nothing about the experiences of Native Nations post 1871 when the United States stops treaty making with Native Nations and diplomacy takes other forms. Pop culture hasn’t made up the gap either. So I wanted a book that any young person, family, or community member could have as an entry point to understanding what has occurred and still goes on today. It’s information that everyone living in this country should know.

Interior illustration from We Are Still Here by Frane’ Lessac, used with permission.

What were the challenges and joys in writing this book?

The biggest challenge was how to make the information accessible to the upper elementary age group. There are a lot of policy and legal terms that can’t be included and others that must, so ensuring correct word choice and definitions was critical.

Similarly, I could not include the many pivotal Supreme Court cases because there simply wasn’t room, but the level of discussion one has to understand for those is best for the young adult reader and beyond anyway. Also, Frané Lessac’s folk art style helps young readers comprehend these historic and contemporary events more easily, too.

My greatest joy in writing the book is knowing younger readers can finally learn about the more recent role of Native Nations in U.S. history, which has been mostly invisible until now.

Your story “Secrets and Surprises” is included in Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Ancestor Approved Anthology. What was the initial spark for this story? What were the ah-ha moments in bringing this story to life?

I have a forthcoming fiction picture book entitled Powwow Day, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight, from Charlesbridge in spring 2022. It was originally to be published last year, but I’m grateful it wasn’t published with the pandemic. That story features two sisters, but focuses on the younger sister. I wondered what if I wrote a short story that focused on the older sister. Readers who liked the little sister might be interested in learning more about the family through her experiences, which occur after Powwow Day.

Because the book is contemporary fiction occurring at a real event in a well-known location, I wanted to make sure I represented the venue and powwow details correctly. I reached out to current staff and Native students at the University of Michigan for help. They were so generous in sharing their files – maps, powwow protocols, etc. that I felt like I could weave those into my story for young people and others who attend that powwow, where they would see that my characters were in spaces they knew well.

I also asked Native attorney friends who went to law school to talk about the prior location on campus versus the new off-campus location to share some of those reflections as well. I really enjoyed working with everyone who helped me craft my first short story and have a big list of acknowledgements as a result.

What is your writing process like?

Generally, I start out thinking about ideas for a while before I ever start brainstorming. I keep a list of things to write about and glance at it several times over the year. Whatever sparks my interest, then I’ll start brainstorming and make a mind map. From there, I’ll figure out a structure I want to use or just start free drafting. Getting the first drafts down are the hardest for me. Revision is where the fun comes in as the real story emerges as I sculpt and cut away what doesn’t work.

What advice would you give to beginning picture book writers?

Read as a writer. Go through the book a first time for understanding and enjoying the story. Then go through it as many times as you need to study what works and doesn’t work. If it provides a structure you like or a craft device you want to use, make note of it and employ that in a way that works for your own stories.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m looking forward to the time when I can safely meet with readers again in person. I love talking about books and hearing their stories.

Authors Art Coulson, Marcie Rendon, Debbie Reese and Traci Sorell at Returning the Gift 2019.

Cynsational Notes

See the teaching guide and additional resources for Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer.

Traci Sorell is a 2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow and the award-winning author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frane’ Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018) (which is a Sibert, Orbis Pictus, Boston Globe-Horn Book and American Indian Youth Literature Award (AIYLA) honor book); At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, 2019) (AIYLA Honor book); and co-wrote Indian No More, with Charlene Willing McManis (Lee & Low, 2019) which won the AIYLA Middle Grade category and was the 2020 Global Read Aloud selection for upper elementary.

She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives on her tribe’s reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. Her 2021 titles include her first picture book biography, Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer; and the nonfiction picture book, We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know. Both middle grade books are Junior Library Guild Gold selections and have received starred trade reviews from Kirkus Reviews.

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.