Author Interview: Laurie Goodluck Reflects on her Influences & Forever Cousins

By: AJ Eversole

Today on Cynsations we are chatting with Laurie Goodluck. I had the pleasure of meeting her during We Need Diverse Book’s Native Writing Intensive in its debut year, 2020. Seeing her career move forward since that time has been absolutely beautiful.

Forever Cousins (Charlesbridge, 2022)

What is the heart of Forever Cousins?

At the heart of Forever Cousins, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson (Charlesbridge, 2022) is the complex history of the enduring impact of the 1950s Indian Relocation Act. It infuses the story but doesn’t overwhelm the experience of the main character’s dilemma of one cousin moving away soon. 

It was a muddling experience trying to strike a balance. I wanted to incorporate every idea linked to why Native Americans often have two communities we call home. I was also new to writing picture books; honestly, I was still learning the craft, adding another layer of difficulty. Ultimately, I knew I needed to make this story accessible and enjoyable to kids who might read this book. I could focus on the story’s core through the two cousins’ emotions. The two main characters go through so many ups and downs. First, they realize they will miss one another when they move away from the city⁠—their home. Next, the cousins endure a year apart before they are reunited at the family reunion on the Rez, which is also home. Last, they realize they have to say goodbye once again. The story relates how family love and cultural rituals can keep a family connected even when they are miles apart.

A Relocation Flyer

Later, I realized I didn’t have to incorporate every idea because there was a space called “backmatter” in picture books. Backmatter can be used to convey the reasons behind the story. In this instance, the history of the Indian Relocation Act. 

Backmatter became important for an additional reason. Our nation’s history does not include all history. Native American history, which is American history, unfortunately, is not covered in 87% of our nation’s history standards past the 1890s. I save a couple of pages for backmatter in all the picture books I write as it is a powerful tool that adds a layer of “truth-telling.”

Laurel with sister Karen and friends on the Rez (MHA Nation, ND)

What writers/people have influenced your writing the most?

One of the writers that influenced me is Juana Martinez-Neal. I fell in love with her modern story Alma (Candlewick, 2018) when I was just beginning to learn the craft. When I grew up and when my boys were little, we had no modern picture books that captured our Native everyday life and culture. It was groundbreaking to find Alama. There was a book written by Juana, born in Lima, Perú, that was full of fun and whimsy while capturing a young girl’s curiosity about her long name. The book exuded pride, relationships, connections, understanding of identity, family history, and culture. All the elements of a book I yearned to create someday. 

Then I attended the Kweli Conference in New York City in 2019. It was a whirlwind of workshops and finding my Native community of writers that would also inspire me over and over. The conference was so quick and full of information, editors, critiques, and powerhouse lectures that my head was spinning. We did have one moment to slow down and have lunch. Organically, the Native participants gathered at one table. I joined the group, and so did Juana. We sat next to one another, and the dreamy conversation began about her inspiration for Alma. I was a “fan girl” for life. 

Laurie with their sister, cousins, and friends in the city.

I had finally made some writing progress with Forever Cousins, and it was being considered with rewrites with expert editor Karen Boss at Charlesbridge. I knew it was time to find an agent. I researched Juana’s path to an agency and found Stefanie Sanchez Von Borstel represented her at Full Circle Literary. It turned out that Stefanie owned the agency and had been in publishing for over twenty years.  Most importantly, she was Latina with an understanding, experience, and desire for diverse representation in all areas of publishing before the #WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) movement. I wanted to be with this agency just like Juana. Naive, I only solicited one agency.

Then, with my mentor’s help through WNDB, the other author who has influenced me tremendously, Traci Sorell, I had an introduction. I joined the Full Circle Literary Agency family with an extraordinary agent named Nicole Geiger. She is patient with this new-older writer, has experience as an editor with Native books, and most of all, believes in my stories with her giant heart. I thank Juana and Traci, for they both led me to the next step in my career. 

What are you working on next?

I am proud to say that I have three announced picture books: Forever Cousins with Charlesbridge, Rock Your Mocs with Heartdrum at Harper Collins (fall, 2023), and Too Much with Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers (2024). I am also part of the She Persisted Sisterhood chapter book series with Philomel at Penguin Random House (2023). I am honored to have voted for Madame Secretary Deb Haaland when she was a Congresswoman in my New Mexico district, and now I am writing her story.

Three more picture books are acquired but not announced.

I have the fortune to work with four editors at four publishing houses. Each editor has their style, but all have years of experience. I also am learning to work with editors as they decide which illustrator will best tell the rest of the story through their art. A Native illustrator must complete the story for their valuable cultural insight, and it is equally helpful that editors support this process. It is exciting to get preliminary sketches and later beautiful bright, vibrant spreads. I still have to pinch myself to think my words inspired the art that takes so much precious time, skill, and insight to produce. 

As Forever Cousins is introduced to readers, I’m introduced to the business side of writing with the marketing team. The marketing process allows me to revisit the influences and ideas that sparked this book that was written so long ago. I am making appearances at educational conferences with teachers and librarians. I will soon be participating in school visits—the long-awaited connection to children. 

I am revisiting a picture book manuscript I began last year and polished up in January this year. I just sent it to my agent, and she loved it. This story has a few more rounds of editing before we send it off to publishers, but I am sure it will be loved by children and inspire them to know they have people who believe in them as they navigate life and do beautiful things. 

Cynsational Notes

Laurel Goodluck writes picture books with modern Native themes that reflect Native children’s cultural experiences and everyday life, showing Native children that they have a perspective that is unique and powerful.

Charlesbridge will release Laurel’s debut picture book, Forever Cousins (Charlesbridge, 2022), illustrated by Jonathan Nelson. The Heartdrum imprint of HarperCollins will release Rock Your Mocs (Heartdrum, 2023), illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight, in Fall 2023. Too Much, illustrated by Full Circle Literary client Bridget George, is slated for Spring 2024 from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Laurel comes from an intertribal background of Mandan and Hidatsa from the prairies of North Dakota, and Tsimshian from a rainforest in Alaska. Laurel received both a BA in Psychology and an MA in Community Counseling and Family Studies from the University of New Mexico. She began writing by crafting curriculum for community advocacy involving Native teen leadership and later for children newly diagnosed with mental health challenges.

Laurel lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her Navajo husband, where they raised two children also bent on storytelling in journalism and acting. Laurel was a recipient of a 2019 mentorship with We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) Picture book Mentorship paired with award-winner author Traci Sorell. She is an active regional chapter member of New Mexico SCBWI and volunteer Equity and Inclusion Lead.

Follow Laurel on Instagram and Twitter @lauriegoodluck.

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.