Above image: AJ Eversole with her well-read copy of Buffalo Gal by Bill Wallace (Holiday House, 1992).
It’s my pleasure to introduce our newest Cynsational reporter, AJ Eversole, who will cover children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators. And like me, she grew up in rural Oklahoma and now lives in Texas.
Welcome to Cynsations! Could you tell us about your vision for Native voices coverage here at the blog? Why did you decide to take on this role in the conversation of books?
My biggest mission within Native storytelling lies in the idea that we are still here. The last few years have been amazing for Native stories, and I want to celebrate that while also being aware of the fact that there are so many more gaps to fill. ‘We are a modern people’ is a fact. I want more people to know it.
When the opportunity presented itself to join Cynsations I saw it as an opportunity to be a part of making that a reality. Modern Natives deserve to find ourselves in all sorts of stories. In this role, I can use my own niche knowledge about kidlit and stories to make an impact for all Natives, both within the community and as a steward to those outside it.
You’re also a writer in your own right! Could you tell us what led you to devote your voice to service for young readers?
I’m a lifelong reader. Story across all mediums has always spoken to my heart, whether it be through music, drawing, or writing. I am very passionate about finding how the art of story speaks to the heart. How coming across the perfect book or song at the right moment can really help you decide your own path and shape who you are. I know that I am a little bit of all the amazing characters I have read about in my lifetime.
At the moment, my motivator to write in the kidlit space has to do with writing the books I wanted to read when I was growing up. The rural experience. The Native experience. And not just in a literary, heavy way, but also in the just-because way. I want kids and teens to pick up my stories and feel seen. I want them to find courage and resilience in those worlds and maybe find ways to navigate their own world through them. And ultimately I want to create a moment of connection to them. A story can be a safe space for a child. I want kids to pick up my stories and find that space in a world that rhymes with their own.
What advice do you have for other new voices in embarking on their apprenticeship?
Find your people. Force yourself to take risks in introducing yourself. It’s terrifying, but rewarding. There are so many welcoming people out there if you let yourself find them.
When you find the people you click with, hold onto them and support them! This sort of work never ends, and creating authentic connections with people is beneficial for both sides of the relationship.
Also, don’t compare your journey to someone else’s. The journey looks different for everyone. It’s okay to have different mileage.
As a reader, what are two of the top children’s-YA books of your heart, those you’d lovingly place in the hands of kids of your own family and community? What makes them so special?
I stared at my shelves for so long trying to decide how I could possibly pick two books. It’s such a difficult question! When I read I look for how I connect to the characters. I believe that there is a piece of everyone that is relatable, you just have to find it. Books let us find ourselves.
First, I’m going to mention Buffalo Gal by Bill Wallace (Holiday House, 1992). I found this book when I was in middle school. It’s about a young girl and her mother from Boston who go to help save buffalo on the Texas-Oklahoma frontier. I liked this book, one, because the main character’s name was Amanda and I feel like as popular as my name is, I never find it. And two, because it features David Talltree, who is Comanche. David was one of the only Native characters I read about when I was a kid and I adored him. The story also offers a strong mother-daughter relationship that melts my heart, as I was raised by a single mother. I found myself in this story in so many ways.
Reading over it now, it is a bit outdated in some areas, but Bill Wallace was from Oklahoma and knew how to represent that in what I believe is an authentic way. My copy is well loved, and even now when I’m writing I reference it for its voice and characters.
Next, I have to say the deepest part of my heart lies in fantasy and adventure stories. So the next one is the classic, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diane Wynne Jones (Greenwillow Books, 1986). The whimsy of the story is beautiful and calls to every sense of wonder I have. Sophie’s journey to find her place in the world is something I think about often. And no character in the story is boring. From her sisters to Howl himself, they all challenge the perceptions of what the world thought of them. I’ve always loved that.
Tell us about the recent We Need Diverse Books Children’s -YA Native Writing Intensive.
I was so thankful to be able to participate in my second Intensive this year. I’m the sort of person who finds energy in quality engagement. So the whole intensive really fills up my creative well so to speak. The atmosphere of untied purpose- writing for the modern Native- makes me see that I am not as alone as I sometimes feel when writing. The Native community is already so small, but to see with my own eyes how much passion and love we all share for one another touches my soul. There is a future for us in publishing and the intensive helps to form a foundation block of that future.
The intensive panels and discussions challenge me to be a better writer not just on a craft level but on a conceptual level. My writing often leans towards fantasy, but I had a revelation about a contemporary piece I am working on while listening to Dawn Quigley‘s keynote. She spoke about how she handled her identity as a child. The ups and downs of how friends spoke about Native Americans with laughter, not realizing she was Native. Hearing her speak to her own experiences unlocked a key piece of what I was trying to say with my own piece. It was magical and has led me to make some major changes to the piece, but I know it will make the story stronger in the long run. Participating in things like the Native Intensive directly led to that breakthrough for me.
I will forever be grateful for the program because of this.
What do you hope for the future of publishing for kids and teens?
I desire there to be something for everyone on the shelf. That teens of all backgrounds, races, identities, can go to the shelves and pick up something they will find a home in. And I hope the stories they find help them learn something about themselves and the world around them.
AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or Twitter @amjoyeversole.
Gayleen Rabakukk teaches creative writing classes for the Austin Public Library Foundation, is an active member of the children’s literature community and the former assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.