Native Voice: Daniel Vandever Shares His Inspirations


By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Welcome to Cynsations, Daniel! You are the author-illustrator of Fall In Line, Holden! (Salina Bookshelf, 2017), which was an American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award Honor Book, and the author of a new book Herizon, illustrated by Corey Begay (Diné)(South of Sunrise Creative, 2021).

Could you tell us about your creative journey? Why did you decide to focus on children’s books?

My creative journey began out of necessity. I grew up of lesser means in a single parent household, and my mother had to be innovative to provide for myself and my siblings. Her resourcefulness inspired my creativity as I feel that I’m now able to make the most of any situation. I’ve applied this resourcefulness to my work in higher education, community development, and now creating children’s picture books.

What appealed to me about picture books is their ability to center families around a child. Children’s books serve as a resource to develop and improve literacy, but they also allow for intimate interaction between a parent, grandparent, or sibling as they read with a child. This is where learning and growth happens and creativity is developed.

I write with purpose in hopes of addressing topics that directly impact my community. Most of these topics—like boarding school era education or gender equality—aren’t addressed until high school or college. It’s my belief that if these topics are introduced early in life, and in a tactful way, more can be done to develop empathy for others and a better understanding of the world in which we live.

What was your initial inspiration behind Fall In Line, Holden!? What were the creative joys and challenges of bringing it to life?

Promoting individuality was the inspiration behind Fall in Line, Holden! as I wanted to gift my nephew a present that spoke to his unique personality. At the time, he was entering into an education system that suppressed identity while stressing common core and standardized tests. I wanted to create something that encouraged him to be himself, even if he got into trouble every now and then. While my final manuscript would draw the correlation to the boarding school era of education, my nephew was the book’s initial inspiration.

The greatest joy in bringing Fall in Line, Holden! to life has been the conversations I’ve had about boarding school in the classroom, community, and within my own home. Talking about the history has been challenging, but it’s been an important step in understanding our present so we can heal and move forward.

I’m hoping as this history becomes more recognized with the residential school discoveries in Canada and the investigation being conducted by Secretary Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna), steps will be taken to address and correct the past.

Community is at the center of Vandever’s work with children’s books. Here, he leads a workshop with the Emerging Diné Writers Institute in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

How did you come to connect with Salina Bookshelf, and what was it like, working with a Navajo press?

I connected with Salina Bookshelf through the Native network when a friend introduced me to her cousin brother, who was working as the art director with Salina at the time. He mentioned that Salina was looking for children’s picture books with a contemporary feel, and I told him about what I was creating for my nephew. I was asked to forward along what I had, and without me knowing, he passed it to Salina’s president and CEO. The book garnered interest, but not without some necessary revisions.

For one, the book only had 24 pages, which was short of the 32 pages required of a children’s book. Basic story elements that related to setting and character development were also missing, which prompted me to write an introduction to set the scene. I also had to strategically turn Holden’s classmates’ heads every time he got in trouble to show growth through his rising influence on the class.

Working with Salina, in this regard, was a privilege as they provided guidance in making these adjustments possible. The late LaFrenda Frank was the editor at the time and Corey Begay was the art director. Each are Diné, which provided me with a sense of comfort knowing my book would be handled by individuals that understood the book’s sensitive history. The support from Salina was tremendous and it led to an award-winning collaboration.

Even to this day, Salina is helping me as I venture into self-publishing and I’m grateful to their entire team.

Looking back, what are some of the highlights and lessons learned from your experience as a debut author-illustrator? What advice do you have for new voices and visions?

Classroom and library visits were the highlight for me because I got to see my book in action. I write and design my stories to be interactive in hopes that children will be able to participate in the story in one way or another. Whether that’s having students mimic a person of authority as they exclaim “Fall in Line, Holden!”, or asking a class to predict what Holden will see next, it’s nice to see kids engaged with something I created.

The experience has been beneficial because it allows me to see what’s working with different audiences, and what’s not. Inclusion is something I try to be mindful of, and if a student is holding back, I look for ways to adjust my presentations to bring them in. While books are great in developing the minds and capabilities of established readers, they can also be daunting for students that struggle with language and literacy. Storytime can be isolating from this viewpoint, which requires more from me as the author to make my books welcoming.

When I do readings now I tend to provide more opportunities for students to draw on their own experiences and offer their own perspective. I also try to consciously provide more opportunities for students to enter into the conversation so no one is overlooked or forgotten.

My advice for new voices and visions is that words are powerful. Use them wisely and with purpose.

Congratulations on the release of Herizon! What was the spark that ignited the manuscript?

My nieces were the spark behind Herizon as I wanted to lend my support to a more inclusive and equitable future that embraces each of them for who they are. I was fortunate to grow up around strong women who provided for their families and led by example. It’s my intention to have Herizon serve as the symbol of my family’s strength, which my nieces can use as a point of reference as they grow from adolescence into adulthood.

Female voices have long been muted in our communities, and it’s time we start advocating and acting on their behalf. The Navajo Nation is a matrilineal society, but its foundation has been systematically attacked through boarding school education and tactics meant to disrupt the family unit. My intention is to empower the future by supporting female and intergenerational strength.

Vandever’s grandmother and niece were the inspiration behind Herizon’s illustrations. Herizon is the story about a young Diné girl who helps her grandmother retrieve a flock of sheep with a magical scarf that transforms the world she knows.

You are not only the author but also the publisher of the book. Why did you decide to branch into self/independent publishing, and what advice do you have for other children’s book creators interested in taking that route?

I chose the route of self-publishing Herizon so I could have full control in carrying out its message. Many said I was going out on a limb creating a wordless picture book, and that it would be hard for audiences outside of the Navajo Nation to fully grasp its meaning and visuals. But I created it intentionally without words to honor those without a voice, including Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives. To add words would lessen my message and take away the creative space I envisioned for readers to interject their own experiences and perspective to the story. It’s been risky going this route, but to me, it would’ve been even riskier having my story compromised for a bottom line.

My only advice to someone wanting to take the same route in self-publishing is to do your research and be prepared for the unexpected. The process hasn’t been too difficult for me since I have a background in design and layout, but I have come across some roadbumps when it comes to printing, shipping, and fulfillment. I’ve been documenting the entire process, which I hope to share with others through a podcast. If more people can find success through self-publishing by following my example, I think it only furthers the industry’s push for diverse voices.

As an author-illustrator yourself, why did you decide to work with Corey Begay on the illustrations? What was it about Corey’s work that spoke to the narrative you were working to create?

Although I’m credited as author-illustrator for Fall in Line, Holden!, I really just got lucky throwing together shapes on my computer that would eventually qualify as illustrations. Since the words and cadence of Holden’s classmates carried the story, the illustrations didn’t have to play a major role.

Herizon, on the other hand, is a wordless book. Its illustrations would have to be more refined and would require someone artistically inclined to drive the story visually. I decided to work with Corey because I was familiar with his diverse capabilities creating murals, canvas paintings, and digital pieces.

Vandever, right, poses with illustrator Corey Begay next to a mural Begay created at a community event at Navajo Technical University. Begay illustrated Vandever’s new book, Herizon.

I also valued his knowledge working in the children’s book industry. Self-publishing is a daunting task and I felt it was necessary to work with someone who understood the intricacies of the independent publishing industry to keep me on course. Fall in Line, Holden! wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Corey and don’t think Herizon could’ve happened either.

Where can readers order the book for purchase?

Readers can order Herizon exclusively from my website. Once I’ve recouped the initial investment I put into the book, I plan on distributing it through larger retailers and distributors like Amazon and Baker Taylor. Fall in Line, Holden! can be purchased through Salina Bookshelf, while signed copies can be purchased from my website.

It’s been suggested that this is a moment of a rising constellation in Native children’s-YA literature. A number of exciting Indigenous writers and illustrators, yourself included. Do you have any recommendations of picture books by fellow Native writers that you suggest to our readers (and why)?

Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard (Seminole), illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (Roaring Brook Press, 2019) has been my favorite children’s picture book in recent history.

I recommend the story for its creativity in showing how Native Americans come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes, just like frybread. It’s a book that promotes inclusivity, but also goes into great detail about the history of frybread and why it’s important to Native American culture. The back matter of the book is extensive, which I tried to replicate on a smaller scale with Herizon. I didn’t have the financial means to do a 48 page book like Fry Bread, so I linked the last page of the book to my website utilizing a QR code.

It’s impossible to reference contemporary Native works without mentioning what Carole Lindstrom (Ojibwe) and Michaela Goade (Tlingit) created last year with We Are Water Protectors (Roaring Brook Press, 2020). There’s a reason why it won the Caldecott, which I attribute to the beautiful dance of the book’s words and illustrations.

What I enjoy most about Fry Bread and We are Water Protectors is the potential each have in driving meaningful change within Indigenous communities throughout the world.

Cynsational Notes

Daniel Vandever is a Diné author from Haystack, New Mexico. He obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and his Master’s in Community and Regional Planning from the University of New Mexico. Vandever worked ten years at Navajo Technical University where he led the university’s marketing and communication efforts, chaired the university’s Enrollment Management Committee, and advised leadership on the President’s Cabinet and Provost’s Council.

​His debut picture book, Fall in Line, Holden!, was awarded the Honor Award with the American Indian Library Association.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick), 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 (Heartdrum, 2021) and novel Sisters Of The Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021).

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 Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.