Author-Illustrator Interview: SD Nelson on the Power & Magic of Picture Books & Grandma’s Tipi

By AJ Eversole

I’m excited to share an interview with picture book author-illustrator, S.D. Nelson. He is the author of many picture books featuring his Native heritage, his newest release, Grandma’s Tipi (Abrams, 2023) released in early May.

What is at the heart of your new non-fiction picture book Grandma’s Tipi: A Present-Day Lakota Story?

Legacy and family. I’ve thought a lot about legacy and this book is an intergenerational story. What comes across is that teaching the young about their past, through memories, traditions, and stories, encourages these children to really live their Lakota legacy. They are fully in the present, and the book shows two young girls reaching for their futures – one as a basketball player, the other as a jet pilot. Hands on action, being outdoors, learning from relatives, all open up exciting possibilities. This is what the young cousins, Clara and Juniper, experience when they spend the summer with their grandma – their unci (oon-CHEE) – on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Grandma introduces them to their Lakota past as the girls learn how to set up the tipi, always with the doorway facing east to welcome the new day, the traditional way. In the tipi, they tell stories by firelight with family and friends. I remember as a child learning that when people enter the tipi they circle to the left and then take a seat, which reflects how the sun, moon and stars circle through the cosmos. The cousins sleep looking up at the stars through the open smoke flaps, just as their ancestors did.

A quote at the start, by Oglala Lakota medicine man Black Elk, says, “I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and of starlight … and I saw that it was holy.” The tipi is such a hoop. This is the world that Clara and Juniper are immersed in and connected to, as active participants in a vibrant way of life and being.

What is your creative process?

My preparation is very broad. I dive into both fiction and nonfiction resources, and the history of the Lakota people and the broader Great Plains region. I build models and find period artifacts for my paintings.

SD’s tipi model with pictographs

The endnotes and authors note of many of my books provide expanded information and background on the story. I feel a responsibility to bring real life events and real-world content to the page, so a lot of investigation and research go into my books. It’s important to get the story right, as an authentic portrayal of Indigenous people and life.

The tipi is an iconic traditional dwelling – but very often misrepresented, stereotyped, and placed in the wrong parts of the country. When the Sioux moved with the seasons they carried their tipis, put them up and took them down. Like any dwelling, it protected the people, and in the story Clara and Juniper rest in its shade in the hot summer sun and stay dry in a pouring rainstorm. They have fun in the tipi, and also absorb its seriousness and meaning.

In creating this book, I saw the girls shaping their identity, envisioning their past and their future. By the way, I have granddaughters named Clara and Juniper. They inspire creativity!

And I also spent 28 years as a middle school art teacher, which always pushed my own creative awareness of so many different and fresh perspectives. In my two decades of creating books for children remaining curious, loving the challenge of a new idea, experimenting in an elemental and childlike way … all are part of my process.

What have you learned during your career?

Every book is a new lesson! Being the author is satisfying, but for me a book is very much about the power and magic of its art – the illustrations.

Interior illustration from Granma’s Tipi by SD Nelson, used with permission.

The whole work comes together when I get to live the tale all the way through by putting myself into the story with the characters. I spent many summers as a boy on Standing Rock with my mother, grandmother, and my cousins. My memories of the physical place had a deep impact. It’s true to say that those long-ago experiences – listening to my mother and grandmother speak their language, at a time when it was forbidden, while telling their stories – make their way into my stories.

Will other people want to read about any of this? Yes. If I keep in mind the reader’s experience page by page, and create an illusion that draws people in, with texture and color, that delights the eye, and text that fills the imagination. It’s about all of us on an artistic adventure!

I won’t, however, paint the creative process as all smooth and delightful, or always fun. Many days in my home studio it’s back and forth, playground and battleground both. I stumble along, use different techniques, get it wrong, then find the flow. I must get some of this right because the illustrations for Grandma’s Tipi have recently been described as exquisite, multilayered, enduring, and alive. That feels good.

What did you learn from this book?

Grandma’s Tipi is perhaps my most personal book. I recognize it as my mother’s story. It’s written in the first-person voice of a young girl, and I can honestly hear her voice, and relive her storytelling, while revealing just a bit of it to the world. I found it surprising, this felt experience, but very satisfying.

I’m very satisfied that my work is Native American to the core – I am honored to claim this – and it’s because of my early influences, especially that of my mother. This has been a part of me for my entire life, and I’m grateful for this book and my others, which all along have been labors of love, but I believe this one especially. Returning to legacy, I just recently realized that my ancestors came to this vast land of North America in two very different waves – German 150 years ago, and Indigenous 15 thousand years ago. That strikes me as a magical family story, that I’ve shared only some of with others … so far.

SD Nelson in his studio

What are you working on next?

It’s an exciting addition to bookshelves as a contemporary Indigenous themed children’s book about one of my all-time heroes, Billy Mills, a 1964 Olympian who won Gold in the 10K foot race. The title is Wings of an Eagle: The Gold Medal Dream of Billy Mills. The book is written by Billy Mills and Donna Janell Bowman and will be published by Little Brown & Co. I had the honor of illustrating the book.

Mills is from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and lives there today. The book evokes emotion and portrays personal triumph and championship, alongside the rough road to it, filled with hardship, racism, low expectations, and exclusion. The title offers insight into Mills, a young man of strong spirit on a spiritual journey.

One of the Read at Home participants, photo used with permission.

Beyond book projects, I’m committed to early literacy for young Native children through Read at Home, an organization I co-founded in 2018. We currently reach 500+ children in four Indigenous communities from Arizona to Alaska with quality early reading materials.

Cynsations Notes

SD with his dog, Lily

S.D. Nelson is motivated as an author and illustrator to give back to his community, to contribute to literacy among Indigenous children, and literacy in society as a whole. He creates books for children that detail vibrant Indigenous community, that honor and preserve Lakota legacy through storytelling and an innovative and contemporary artistic style, and that deliver visually engaging learning experiences for young readers.

An enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas, Nelson is descended from Norse and American Indian heritage. S.D. moved often as a child in a military family but spent summers at his mother’s home on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. There he absorbed his Lakota heritage as his mother told him memorable traditional stories that later sparked his creative concepts. In his many books, Nelson colorfully depicts the imagery of the open prairies, expansive skies, towering clouds, and seas of grassland that filled his early years. Nelson has lived most of his life off the Reservation, but lessons from his mother’s homeland have indelibly shaped him; he says, “My blood roots run deep.”

His numerous children’s books, inspired by his Great Plains heritage, include Black Elk’s Vision, The Star People, Greet the Dawn, and the dual biography Crazy Horse and Custer: Born Enemies, a 2021 middle grade reader. Grandma’s Tipi, published in May 2023, merges present-day Lakota family life and tradition, with artwork that offers a contemporary interpretation of traditional Lakota imagery. The artist’s paintings are held in many permanent collections and his books have consistently received starred reviews.

In 2018 Nelson co-founded the non-profit organization Read at Home, to inspire early literacy among Native children ages 2 to 6. Today 500 children in four Indigenous communities from Arizona to Alaska participate in Read at Home.

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. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her family. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or on Twitter @amjoyeversole.