Author Interview: Traci Sorell Reflects on Powwow Day

By: AJ Eversole

Traci Sorell is an award-winning author of children’s books, notably We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frane Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know, illustrated bv Frane Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2021), At The Mountains Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre  (Kokila, 2019) and Classified, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Millbrook Press, 2021).

Today we are celebrating her newest picture book release, Powwow Day, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight (Charlesbridge, 2022).

Most recently, Traci Sorell received 2022 American Indian Youth Literature Honor Awards for her books Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer, illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Millbrook Press, 2021) and We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know, illustrated by Frane Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2021). We Are Still Here! also was named a Sibert Honor Book, an ALA award program which recognizes distinguished informational children’s books.

What is the heart of Powwow Day?

It’s a story exploring that bittersweet reality where we’re not feeling well, but still looking forward to gathering with others and have to accept that our participation may look and feel different because of our circumstances. River knows that going to her tribe’s powwow is not going to be the same as before she got sick. And she’s absolutely right about that. But by being there and feeling her discomfort, ultimately she experiences the healing power of connection to family, community, and culture—which I believe sustains us all.

Flowers from Wernick & Pratt Agency and Lerner Books celebrating Traci’s recent awards, January 2022

What was unique about writing Powwow Day compared to your previous works?

Initially, I wrote Powwow Day as a concept early reader over seven years ago. I enjoy reading those books and wanted to craft one myself. After writer friends read my manuscript, they loved it and wanted me to rewrite it as a picture book. I wasn’t convinced, but I expanded it (still as a concept book) and enriched the language beyond what could be included in an early reader.

After submitting it to several publishers and sharing it with a couple of editors at writing conferences, the message was clear. “Give the book a character arc.” UGH! That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, so I began reworking it while also drafting other manuscripts.

I saw my Charlesbridge editor, Karen Boss, at Kweli Journal’s 2017 Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York. As we caught up at dinner after the conference, she asked what I was working on. I mentioned this story. She told me to have my agent send it to her.

Karen’s feedback was that while the writing was strong, she wanted me to dig deeper into the character’s experience. If I was open to revising and resubmitting, she’d love to see it. Thankfully, I had just received a scholarship to attend an upcoming workshop at the Highlights Foundation. So I attended the novel-in-verse sessions, but I spent the rest of my time recrafting the manuscript.

Faculty members Kathy Erskine and Alma Fullerton were incredibly gracious to read and give me feedback on the new draft that week. While there, I also called a dear friend whose child had been seriously ill at a younger age to refresh my memory on those experiences and visit about how they had navigated going to powwows as her daughter recovered.

That time away at Highlights was magic (it always is). I left with a stronger manuscript and signed the contract with Charlesbridge that fall.

Highlights Foundation – where the magic happens for me – when I stayed in Floyd Cooper’s cottage full of his books and artwork, November 2021

What have you learned between this release and your debut release? Are there any significant changes in process?

I’ve learned that there are so many twists and turns in publishing, which I didn’t even know could occur when We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga was published. To be unagented, sell that manuscript through the slush pile very quickly, and have a smooth experience getting that book out into the world was a true gift. Some are more harried.

I am reminded constantly that the only piece I control in this entire process centers on the words I write. Beyond that, there are external factors (like an ongoing global pandemic) and many people involved in bookmaking that affect what happens with each story I create.

In terms of process, I spend more time reflecting on what I need from myself to create certain work. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction doesn’t matter, but can I bring my full self and attention to the story absolutely does matter. I also have limited time to create as I balance all my life roles. So I examine who I labor alongside to put the work into the world and where those mutually supportive relationships exist because that is critical for me.

How do you celebrate success without feeling the pressure of the next deadline?

It’s incredibly difficult. Often the best news arrives when I’m in the middle of a deadline or when personal loss has just occurred. So I’ll be honest, celebrations are usually truncated. That’s just my reality since I started in this business.

Sharing a meal with family and friends or booking a ninety-minute massage are two of the ways I usually celebrate. I love gathering with others as well as carving out a little time just for me.

Do you have any advice for Native Writers specifically?

My first-time meeting Madie in person at the First Americans Museum, OKC, December 2021

Our young people need more representation on the page in both fiction and nonfiction. While you may not feel you have all the skills needed to share your stories, craft can be learned. Storytellers from our communities have honed theirs over lifetimes, and that’s what you are doing in the written form. There’s a welcoming community already here for you, so it’s a great time to be in this industry.

Know that what you write today will not be as strong as what you write in the future, if you continue working on your craft. It’s the same in the oral tradition. You learn and know more about pacing, voice, and the intricacies of language as you continue to write. Plus, your own life experiences continue to add to what you draw from to research, sculpt, and create.

Writing can also bring you closer to your culture, deepen your identity, and allow you to share vulnerability on the page, drawing readers into your story. That’s not how I’d ever envisioned writing before, but it’s been my experience as an author for young people.

How do you decide what project to work on next?

It’s usually an idea that won’t leave me alone. I find myself waking up super early with words, images, or whole paragraphs that I need to write down. I work on multiple projects simultaneously, so whichever one becomes the loudest in my mind (or has the next deadline) gets my attention first.

What’s next for you?

I just finished final edits on a chapter book biography during my teen and early adult years about Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. It’s part of the She Persisted series, an extension of the picture books written by Chelsea Clinton, about women who spoke up and rose up against the odds.

Chief Mankiller has always been a role model for me, so I’m grateful to be able to share her challenging childhood and inspiring story with young people on Oct. 4, 2022.

Cynsational Notes

Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction books as well as poems for children. Traci’s lyrical story in verse, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre celebrates the bonds of family and history-making women pilots. Her middle grade novel, Indian No More, co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis, explores the impact of federal termination and relocation policies on an Umpqua family in the 1950s.

Her debut nonfiction picture book We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac, won a Sibert Honor, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor and an Orbis Pictus Honor along with four starred reviews.

A former federal Indian law attorney and policy advocate, she is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma where her Tribe is located.

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.