Author Interview: Laurel Goodluck Shares Her Writing Process & Positives of Promotion

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By AJ Eversole

Spotlight image: Authors Laurel Goodluck with Brian Young at the National Indian Education Association Convention with NIEA staff members.

Laurie Goodluck (Mandan-Hidatsa-Tsimshian) is back with her latest picture book, Too Much, illustrated by Bridget George (Anishinaabe)(Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2024). Laurie’s previous picture books, Forever Cousins, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson (Diné)(Charlesbridge, 2022) is a recent 2024 American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner and Rock Your Mocs, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight (Chickasaw)(Heartdrum, 2023) was a 2024 American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor Book. I was excited to see her continued success and was eager to have her back on Cynsations!

What is the heart of Too Much, My Great Big Native Family?

Like all my books, I like to say I have two hearts for the story—one in the main child-centered tale and one in the author’s note. My author’s notes often highlight either erased Indigenous history not taught in our schools that reflect the book’s theme or touches on the cultural value(s) expressed in the story.

First, in Too Much, My Great Big Native Family, the heart belongs to Russell, the protagonist, wrestling with the reality that he belongs to a big family that’s so boisterous and on the move that he can’t get their attention. Russell feels frustrated while he tries to share some good news about getting a part in a school play. He tries to convey his good fortune with every family-centered event and can’t even get Grandma’s attention.

This idea stems from growing up in a first-generation urban Native family. My parents preserved our Mandan, Hidatsa (Mom), and Tsimshian (Dad) tribal traditions of involving the extended family in raising my sister and me. Almost every weekend, my grandmother, aunties, uncles, and cousins gathered at our homes, parks, or the San Jose Indian Center. I’d have endless fun and adventures with my big Native family, but at times, there were the challenges of being heard—the usual big family stuff.

This tradition continued as my sons benefited from the large, involved family. Not only did they call upon their aunties and uncles when they were learning the Navajo language, but their uncle was always there, showing them how to make traditional drums and telling them stories. We were within driving distance of my husband’s Navajo reservation, so we would take road trips to attend ceremonies and celebrations with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and dozens of cousins.

The second heart of the story is embedded in the author’s note, explaining the large family’s cultural connection. Many Native children experience a big Native extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. However, many Native tribes also have a structure based on clans that further enlarge the family to others who belong to individual clans. In the case of my Hidatsa tribal background, I inherited my mother’s clan. So, clan members are also considered family, and I am responsible for them, and simultaneously, I can rely on them.

I love to reflect on Native children’s lived experiences that revolve around cultural traditions that are still practiced today. I hope my books remind children (and adults) that these cultural values offer strength and can be relied on when making decisions or solving problems. I like telling children at school visits that culture is their superpower.

Students wearing superpower capes at Mission Avenue Elementary.

How long did it take to write Too Much, My Great Big Native Family?

Writing Too Much began with a sketch and a song. I drew scenes on a large piece of paper on how it felt for the main character, Russell, to be in a big Native family, with each incident feeling “too much.” This part of the creative process is always the most fun and helpful for me to see the story visually progress.

As far as character, I thought of my cousin’s grandson from Mandan, North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold reservation as the main character. He is quiet, respectful, and thoughtful but persistent in getting what he wanted as a kid. But his politeness could hinder him from being heard, so he was the perfect one to draw upon as I developed the story.

I also mentioned a song. I was driven by wanting to express Russell’s emotions with similes. I kept listening to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” when I first started this story. The song lyrics inspired the emotion I wanted Russell to express as he traveled through the story, trying to be heard.

The similes I used to heighten Russell’s emotions are the roaming bison herd, the swirling and crashing sea, racing cars trying to catch the middle lane, and deep dark space. Of course, the similes are kiddo-friendly and relatable. I was also mindful of the legacy of the bison, as Native people still have a special reverence and some spiritual connection, so adding this simile was deliberate. The story progresses, and Russell finally realizes that his family always sees him shine and that there is never too much love.

Aquarium spread from Too Much

My mission is also to write a fun story that will interest all kids, and hopefully, they will want to read the story over and over. I wanted a universal theme of family and, in this case, a big family. I also strived to show Native families in modern settings, such as the aquarium and theaters in Too Much. I am also tickled by Russell’s astronaut costume for the school play. I love that Native kids can now see themselves modeled as astronauts so they can dream large.

School play spread from Too Much

While writing, I also reflected on the Native cultural elements of the main character and family in the story and sprinkled these cultural aspects organically and naturally as we Native people live. In Too Much, the cultural elements were the big family consistently gathering and being together, and the origin of this tradition is explored in the author’s note.

Therefore, developing the story was complicated, and combining all the elements took extra care and time. I began with the idea stage with sketches, then created the character, added poetic devices, was mindful of universal and culturally specific unique themes, and an added a cultural symbol of the bison for an extra identifier. I needed to fit this into a picture book structure in mainstream publishing. Thus, this balancing act took me about a year and a half to complete the manuscript, which does not count the time spent with the editor after it was acquired.

You’ve got a few releases under your belt now. Looking back, what has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

I had two books debut in October 2023 (She Persisted: Deb Haaland (Penguin Random House) and Rock Your Mocs (Heartdrum/Harper Collins), and now, in January 2024, my fourth (Too Much, My Great Big Native Family (Simon & Schuster)) is launching. For the last five to six months, I have felt like a southwest road runner darting from place to place promoting these new books, and in this process, I’ve lost a lot of writing time.

I’ve resolved in 2024 to write daily with some deliberate scheduling. I used to start my days with poetry to get warmed up, so I am now recommitting to this practice, even if it is for only thirty minutes a day.

Although I strive to get back to writing, there are still promotion benefits, which I thought I’d never say. Let me explain. After releasing my two new books in October, I deliberately focused on launching these books with Native educators by soliciting invitations to speak at two large national educational conferences. I presented to over 1500 educators as a keynote panelist about my new and fellow Native authors’ books. This promotion allowed the gatekeepers (educators) of Native children to realize the historical phenomenon of a new fierce group of Native children storytellers dotting the shelves with modern Native-themed books.

Thus, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to try to balance writing and promotion. Although I would love to focus on writing only, I also feel compelled to advocate as a Native author that promotion allows.

Recently, at a school visit, I chatted with the principal and teacher between presentations on stage. A little brown student approached our group and was excited about the author’s visit, but he looked straight at our group and asked where the author was. The principal had to inform him that I was the author. Children need to see people of color as role models in all industries so they can dream of a future full of possibilities.

Signing books for educators at the NIEA Convention.

How do you celebrate success?

At first, I thought I would not have a book launch for Too Much because of promotion burnout, but I changed my mind with some rest. I’ll celebrate my success with my family and community in Albuquerque at a local bookstore at the end of January. The preparation allows me to think about the process of the book, the more profound meaning that sometimes is realized after the book is published, and have some playful time with my community of friends and fellow writers.

I’ll formally celebrate at my launch, but I am also creating a personal celebration with a charm bracelet based on the themes of my books. I’ll have a visual reminder of my hard work, joy, and love of storytelling. I had a good start and found a bison and an astronaut. I’m still hunting for charms, so wish me luck finding a silver moccasin.

What are you working on next?

I have a variety of new projects that I am obsessed with because they’ve been stewing for a while. I’m stretching and learning new structures in picture books and exploring a novel in verse.

Laurel’s studio

When I was pregnant, I would read board books to my sons, so board books have a special place in my heart and memory. I also love that chubby little fingers and new teeth (gums) will be devouring these books. So, with the nudge of one of my editors, I’m expanding one of my picture books to a baby board book.

I’ve written a silly new tall tale picture book. I believe that picture book readers love to laugh and keep most engaged when they are entertained in this manner. So, I’m testing my comedic skills and crossing my fingers. More editing and a good critique group will tell me if I can pull this off.

As I grew up, my family continuously told stories about our legacy of leaders. The stories revolve around generations of chiefs and a tribal chairman who survived and led through devastating eras of termination. These stories taught my sister, my cousins, and me the resiliency of my family and the power of storytelling. I’m testing different novel structures, but I love the idea of a novel in verse to tell this story, which may take some time to figure out.

I’m grateful to be able to dream of stories and find such joy in creating. Thank you for your questions and for providing a platform to express myself.

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.

Her debut picture book, Forever Cousins, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson (Diné) (Charlesbridge, 2022) won the American Indian Youth Literature Award in the Picture Book category.

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