Co-Author Interview: Kekla Magoon & Cynthia Leitich Smith on Collaboration, Careers & the Joy of Creating Children’s Books

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By Gayleen Rabakukk

Today we welcome authors Kekla Magoon and Cynthia Leitich Smith to Cynsations to discuss their collaboration on a new middle grade graphic novel series, their other 2024 books, and how their writing careers have evolved over time.

Congratulations on Blue Stars: Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem, a graphic novel, co-authored by y’all and illustrated by Molly Murakami (Candlewick, March 5, 2024). I’m eager to hear about your collaboration process. Can you tell us how this story evolved and what your writing process is like?

CLS: The story sprang from a place of friendship and play. Kekla and I first became friends while teaching writing and reconnecting regularly as authors at book events. That progressed to my visiting her home in Vermont and her visiting me in Austin.

I have a little, blue Honda Fit, which I’d named “the Bluebird” in honor of my grandmother who adored bluebirds and always named her cars. As children’s authors, Kekla and I both have a vibrant imaginative streak. So, in a superheroic tradition, we began calling out “to the Bluebird!” whenever we rushed to the car. We got to talking about what we’d be like as superheroes and then as young (middle school!) superheroes, drawing inspiration from our twelve-year-old selves.

Illustration of Maya and Riley by Molly Murakami, used with permission.

KM: We become like kids again whenever we spend time together, and it’s always joyous to enter that state of playful banter. Our dynamic just felt like it needed to be part of a story, and our writing process was extremely organic. We got together in person as often as possible, which meant a couple of times a year pre-pandemic, and then virtually during the times we could not travel.

Every collaboration between two writers probably looks different, but our process required shared time and space and the willingness to get comfortable, be silly, and toss out ideas freely until we landed on one that worked. It was a very safe and supportive space, and our conversations always led to consensus, never to conflict, which was amazing.

Kekla, this is your first graphic novel. Were there any resources you drew on to make the shift to that format? Was there anything about the process that surprised you?

KM: The greatest resource was Cyn! The collaborative process of working on the series taught me so much about graphic novel format and conventions of the genre. I did not read a lot of comics growing up, so I felt a little out of my depth at first, but Cyn’s enthusiasm for the form quickly won me over and her belief in me gave me courage to try something new. I had been studying graphic novels leading up to this project, and I found a few craft books that really helped me, including Scott McCloud’s books Making Comics (William Morrow/Harper, 2006) and Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Tundra, 1993).

The most surprising thing, in the end, was how similar most of the storytelling approach ultimately was to writing prose. We still had to do all the same character work, plotting and scene design that I’m used to; it just looked a little bit different when we put it on the page in script format!

Cynthia and Kekla at a Vermont College of Fine Arts residency.

CLS: The greatest resource was Kekla! When we first announced the project, a few fellow authors cautioned me about the perils of co-authoring for a friendship. But my experience has been a blessing in every way. First, Kekla is a tremendous literary voice (and especially smart at writing action sequences). I learned so much from her logic-wired brain. But perhaps more importantly, she has such a generous and supportive heart. Our process is wholly collaborative, and we’re cheering each other on with every word on the page.

Sometimes the world is more product focused than process oriented. But Kekla and I both genuinely adore the creative journey and traveling it together. This whole experience has been terrific fun and facilitated creativity, companionship, and emotional comfort during the pandemic.

One of the cozy writing spots where the Blue Stars series took shape.

What was the timeline from inspiration to publication?

CLS: Graphic novels take a while to write and illustrate and edit/direct and produce, and Mission One is a formidable story. In November 2017, Kekla and I both spoke at the Savannah Children’s Book Festival. Later, on the breezy veranda of a historic downtown hotel, we wrote a proposal for a middle grade graphic novel trilogy (the Blue Stars) and sent it to our shared literary agent Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown, who in turn passed it on to our shared publisher, Candlewick Press. (We both also publish elsewhere, but zeroing in on an overlap made the most sense for the project.)

Editor Andrea Tompa said “yes,” and then the search was on for the perfect illustrator. The books were announced, along with artist Molly Murakami, in June 2019.

Self portrait of Blue Stars illustrator, Molly Murakami, used with permission.

KM: Once we had the series placed with Candlewick, we got together in Austin to draft the first book script. In those initial creative sessions, we also did a lot of world-building and character development, and thought about big-picture questions for the series. We had several more writing sessions: after our teaching residencies in Vermont, in Austin again, and at hotels in cities around the country during conferences we both attended.

We celebrated over the phone when the first art sketches came in, and spent many hours in Google Docs revising our scripts long-distance. It feels like we started so long ago, and we’re thrilled that the first book is finally here!

What aspects of your younger selves did you draw on to create Maya and Riley?

KM: We wanted the characters to be different but complementary, just like we are as friends, so we definitely drew on our own personalities.

Cyn is very community-minded and great at collaboration and celebrating the strengths of others, so we gave those qualities to Riley. Maya is quieter and more of a loner who tends to work independently (like me) but can shine when she is drawn into a group project, whether it’s preparing for a young inventors’ fair with her Robotics Club teammates or being superheroic around the neighborhood with Riley.

Young Cynthia

Blue Stars: Mission One implies we’ll be seeing more of Riley and Maya. Can you confirm that and share where you are in the process?

KM: Yes! This is the first book in a series. So far we’ve written scripts for Books 2 and 3, and reviewed sketches for Book 2. Our illustrator Molly is working on the final art for Book 2, and we’re revising the Book 3 script to prepare to send it off. Every step of the process is exciting, but one of our favorite aspects of the journey is seeing the characters and stories come to life through Molly’s beautiful illustrations.

CLS: We’re also moving into the most public phase of the series, sharing it with readers. We’ll be on tour throughout spring and summer of 2024.

Are there any other tidbits you’d like to share?

CLS: Before elementary school, I learned to read by embracing comic books–superhero, sci fi, and horror. When I was little, my dad used to take me on runs to the local quick mart to pick up my books, and I continued subscribing into adulthood. (As a kid, my favorite heroes were Spider-Man and Wonder Woman.)

KM: I was a Superman/Lois Lane fan, but mostly from television and movies. I loved Storm from the X-Men, too. Kid me would be very surprised that I grew up to write a graphic novel, but then, kid me would be amazed that I grew up to publish any kind of book at all, let alone many! I was a huge reader, but I wasn’t aware of too many Black authors, and being a writer was never a childhood dream of mine.

CLS: In the early 2010s, I created graphic novel adaptations of two books in the Tantalize series. So, I was familiar to some degree with the format. But it’s different to adapt a story and to create one from wholly new cloth.

Ultimately, the Blue Stars series benefits from our fresh and combined energy. Since Kekla and I began writing the series, representation of both Black and Indigenous superheroes has increased in popular culture, and I’m delighted that we’re building on that in literature for young people.

Author William Alexander

KM: The series is full of inspirations from our own lives. We gave the girls a pet turtle, partly inspired by the fact that I have a pet turtle. We named her “Savvy” as an ode to Savannah, where we wrote our series proposal. And, Mission One is dedicated to our friend and fellow author William Alexander, who–as we mention–is a tremendous supporter and a superhero in his own right.

Kekla, you have three additional books coming out this year: Prom Babies (Henry Holt, April 30, 2024), a young adult novel, The Secret Library (Candlewick, May 2024), middle grade fantasy, and Naomi Osaka (Philomel, July 2024), a chapter book biography in the She Persisted series.

KM: Yes, it’s a very busy publishing year for me, which is exciting. Fans of the Blue Stars series will be excited to know about The Secret Library, which is for the same age group. It’s a time travel fantasy. Dally discovers a hidden library in which each volume on the shelves is a different person’s secret, and opening one transports her to a time and place where the secret occurred or was shared. Dally learns about her family’s past by visiting ancestors and she touches a lot of U.S. history in the process. It’s an adventure story, and also about finding out who you are and being yourself.

Prom Babies is a multi-generational book, something we don’t see that often in young adult novels. Could you talk a little about how you landed on that structure and if there were any mentor texts that influenced that decision?

KM: An intergenerational YA that I loved is You Bring The Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Macmillan, 2017). The subject matter and the feel of that book and mine are quite different, but I’m always interested in multiple perspectives and different angles on my characters, and following their parents as teenagers offers fun insight and enriches the contemporary worldbuilding. Prom Babies is the story of three girls who get pregnant on prom night in 2005, and then eighteen years later, their three kids are getting ready to go to their own prom. The moms-to-be become friends in the 2005 storyline as they each figure out what they’re going to do about their respective pregnancy.

In the 2024 storyline, their kids are grappling with their own decisions about sex and relationships and what to do on prom night. The intergenerational structure was part of my original concept, and I thought it was a fun idea to play with. Cyn actually helped inspire the project.

CLS: We were riding in the Bluebird one day. Kekla told me she was good at coming up with novel ideas and writing proposals, so I challenged her to pitch a new book to me on the spot, and she came up with Prom Babies. A few years later, she sent me a written proposal to review. Amazing!

Kekla, you write both fiction and nonfiction. To what degree does one influence the other? Setting the research element aside, what parallels are there in how you approach the writing process?

KM: Many aspects of my writing in different genres inform each other–I think fiction influences nonfiction and vice versa, just like learning to write in graphic format influences my prose writing. I’m a history buff, so my fiction is often informed by history, in particular. Things I’ve learned writing historical nonfiction, for example, helped my world-building of the historical moments that Dally experiences in The Secret Library.

In terms of the writing process, I’m always very haphazard in my first drafts, in writing both fiction and nonfiction. I often have more of a clear outline in mind from the beginning when writing nonfiction, but I still don’t start writing on page one necessarily.

In fiction, I always have to write my way into a story, and I have to work to find the structure that comes more naturally in nonfiction. But, the experience of writing nonfiction and the structural clarity I often find there helps ground me when I’m flailing amid the mess of a first draft of fiction, because I remind myself I’ve found structure before and I’ll find it again.

Cyn, you also have another book publishing later this year, On a Wing and a Tear, cover art by Natasha Donovan (Métis)(Heartdrum/HarperCollins, Sept. 17, 2024) a middle grade novel in which animals play a big role. Is this your first time to write point of view characters who are animals? What mentor texts or authors inspired you when crafting the character of Great-grandfather Bat?

On A Wing And A Tear is an example of modern folklore told in an omniscient point of view with a conversational, storyteller’s voice. However, animal characters are featured as main characters. Specifically, a bat and squirrel are among our heroes, and other animals play a supporting role.

I was inspired by traditional stories of birds and animals and ball games, especially the one I reference in my picture book Jingle Dancer [illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (HarperCollins, 2000)(Heartdrum, 2021)].

Also, we’re starting to see more contemporary stories that nod to Indigenous storytelling–for example, The Song That Called Them Home by David A. Robertson (Norway House Cree Nation) and Maya McKibbin (Ojibwe) (Tundra, 2023), Brian Young’s (Navajo) Healer Of The Water Monster (Heartdrum, 2021) and Heroes Of The Water Monster (Heartdrum, 2023), and Cheryl Isaac’s (Mohawk) forthcoming The Unfinished (Heartdrum, Oct. 15, 2024).

Although my prior middle grade novel Sisters Of The Neversea (Heartdrum, 2021) is a fantasy and On A Wing And A Tear isn’t, my hope is that both appeal to young readers with a sense of wonder who appreciate themes of family and friendship, of daily life and the mysterious, of travel and adventure.

Cynthia Leitich Smith, Heartdrum currator and author, after an event at the Austin Public Library and co-sponsored by Book People, an Austin independent bookstore. Photo by Christopher T. Assaf/ ©2023

Cyn, you are also the author-curator of Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins. Can you give us an overview of the imprint since it launched in 2021 (Heartdrum has popped up on a lot of award lists), and what’s coming up that you’re most excited about?

Heartdrum is an Indigenous-focused imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books with We Need Diverse Books. We publish literary trade fiction and creative nonfiction for all age-markets of young readers–picture books, chapter books, middle grade, and young adult novels. The majority of our books reflect story-based fiction centered on young Native heroes.

We’re grateful for the high-flying critical acclaim and the support of readers from Pre-K to grownups, including of course teachers, librarians, and booksellers.

It’s not fair to ask which of the books I’m most excited about because of course they each have their shining qualities and I’m a devoted fan of the whole list. We just released our first nonfiction title, I Am Osage: How Clarence Tinker Became The First Native American Major General by Kim Rogers (Wichita) and debut illustrator Bobby Von Martin (Choctaw). Y’all may be familiar with Kim’s award-winning Heartdrum titles Just Like Grandma, illustrated by Julie Flett (Cree–Métis), and A Letter For Bob, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson (Navajo).

For March, we look forward to Circle Of Love by Monique Gray Smith (Cree-Lakota-Scottish) and Nicole Niedhardt (Navajo), which highlights Indigenous families at an urban community center. It’s a must-read for its reflection of intertribal, city life and inclusion of 2SLGBT+ families. Middle grade fans may recall the gorgeous cover art of a shawl dancer that Nicole created for the anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids.

May will bring another picture book, When We Gather (Ostadahlisiha): A Cherokee Tribal Feast by Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee) and Madelyn Goodnight (Chickasaw). I adore it! When I was young, I lived with an auntie who had strong opinions about wild onions. Madelyn’s art is charming and so kid friendly. I’m hopeful that southeastern Native families will appreciate this celebratory story that showcases a living tradition.

In June, we’re publishing Dawn Quigley’s (Ojibwe) touching middle grade novel in verse, Red Bird Danced. Fans of her popular, humorous Jo Jo Makoons chapter book series are sure to be wowed by her extraordinary range and skill as a writer.

That same month, we’re publishing K.A. Cobell’s (Blackfeet) much-anticipated YA debut, Looking For Smoke. It’s a rez-based thriller sure to attract a wide and devoted audience. There’s more to come in the fall, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Both Kekla and Cyn, what insight and advice do you have for others interested in writing across age markets, formats and genres?

CLS: You may want to wait until you’ve published at least three books for a particular audience before shifting gears so that you can build your transferable skills and a readership. That said, especially if you’re a novelist, I recommend branching out into the short story early and often. It’s a valuable end unto itself, a confidence builder, and a venue for experimentation. I first wrote comedy, male point of view, and tried collaboration in short form before transferring the skills learned to lengthier manuscripts.

KM: It’s definitely possible to write and publish lots of genres, but it requires some juggling–both creatively and in the industry. I recommend following your inspiration and writing the stories that feel most urgent and most organic to you at any given time, because that is where you’re likely to do your best work.

It’s also useful to keep in mind that things don’t have to be published in the order that you write them. Some stories take longer to come to fruition or to find a home in the marketplace, but keep creating in response to what drives you, regardless of what the response is at first.

Both Kekla and Cyn, how have you grown into your writer selves in the industry over time?

CLS: Authors hit a tipping point, wherein the main question is less about whether you can pull off your manuscript from a craft perspective and more about what it is that you’re trying to say. Of course you’re still learning and growing artistically, but it’s sunk in that the life of a published book isn’t only about a debut season or even its year of release. You’re going to be talking about that story for the rest of your professional life. But more importantly, your book has the power to deeply impact young readers and that is a huge responsibility.

It’s interesting. I write contemporary realism and speculative fiction. Some people think of me as an Indigenous author, and some think of me as a horror novelist. (I published my tenth paranormal novel in 2023.) I’m verging on twenty-five years since my first title was released, and it’s been quite a journey.

I had a foothold (three books) in Indigenous literature before the so-called “multicultural boom” went bust and then spent over a decade writing a wide variety of picture books, short stories and Gothic fantasy novels with scant-to-zero Native content that nevertheless made me happy and heightened my know-how and provided an opportunity to build lovely relationships.

Today, I’m still writing for all age groups and working with Heartdrum and living in a place of gratitude.

KM: This spring marks fifteen years since my first book came out in January 2009. It has taken almost that long (not quite, but almost) to attain a sense of comfort in the field and confidence that my work has some kind of impact in this space. I’ve always believed in myself, on the level of thinking that I am a good writer and that my work has value, but it has been much harder to trust that the publishing industry would ever really embrace me.

These years of experience have shown me that even when the sales for a particular book are not booming, there is a child out there who found comfort in those pages and there is a teacher out there who loves teaching the book and there is a reader out there who learned something new from spending time with my words. I’ve learned to trust that for every negative review there will be a positive one, and for every kind word there are many readers who feel the same but have no way to express it to me.

I’ve learned to trust in other invisible things, like inspiration, and process, and voice, and to take chances in my work because if I’m not challenging myself at every turn, how will I ever be sure I’ve become the best I can be?

CLS: I first met Kekla at a MFA workshop in Vermont. She was a graduating student, and I was a first-semester workshop teacher. It was a tough residency for me. I’d caught a bug on the plane, lost my voice, and came home afterward with a 100+ degree temperature. But I remember Kekla’s quiet confidence, and I remember the more established faculty members talking about what a strong writer she was.

Fast forward a half dozen years, and we began teaching together, which gave me a front-row seat to a children’s-YA literary phenomenon. As a reader, she had me hooked from The Rock And The River (Aladdin, 2009), and it’s been fascinating to watch her continue to stretch herself in fiction and nonfiction, middle grade and YA, series and stand-alones.

Consider the brilliance of How It Went Down, X: A Novel, the Robyn Hoodlum series, Revolution In Our Time, The Season Of Styx Malone…I could go on. Any one of those books would be a lifetime achievement for the most writers. Kekla is someone with an incredible depth of intellect, and that comes through in the way that she acts as an ambassador for her books and their themes. In addition to being a formidable literary artist, she’s a thought leader and guiding light.

KM: Wow. To be honest, it still amazes me that I get to call myself a colleague and friend of Cynthia Leitich Smith. I cannot dare to say “an equal,” because Cyn really has no equal. She is a powerhouse, operating on many different levels in the industry.

When I was new to writing, Cynsations was one of the guiding stars for finding my way in a big scary publishing world, and this phenomenal resource is a testament to Cyn’s teaching heart and community-minded outlook.

She is not only a huge creative force and talent herself, but she is also the greatest champion of other writers, especially her fellow Indigenous writers, but also our former students and fellow faculty and the many, many other writers she has taken under her large and generous wings. Cyn gives so much to our field, and we are truly blessed by the gift of her kindness, brilliance, beauty and vision.

Cynthia with fellow authors Ellen Oh, Meg Medina, Tracey Baptiste and Michelle Knudsen at the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

Both Kekla and Cyn, what do you wish for children’s – YA writers and readers, looking to the future?

CLS: I wish for our expert partners–school and public librarians, educators, and booksellers to be broadly trusted to do what’s right for kids and teens.

I wish for courage, for ourselves and each other. I wish for compassion and grace. I wish for us to recognize that–like our manuscripts–we’re all works in progress, growing every day, and that none of us fully understands each other’s challenges. That’s why we need stories, both the true ones in nonfiction and the fictional ones that illuminate truth from a slant. We need them to nurture understanding and empathy, knowledge and wisdom.

We need stories that spring from lived experience and from the power of imagination. We need books that dare mighty things, lift up when needed, push back when needed, and welcome every young reader into the story circle. I wish for everyone to have a writing friend who inspires them as much as Kekla inspires me.

Kekla and Cynthia signing Blue Stars ARCs at NCTE.

KM: I like Cyn’s answer. Can I just say “ditto?” She is absolutely right.

We are in a moment when we need books more than ever, although having said that, I’m not sure there is ever a time when we haven’t needed books and stories and narratives to help us grapple with the deep, beautiful, difficult truths they illuminate. We will always need them.

So, I suppose most of all I wish for all of us to find our unique voices, for each writer to feel able to speak and each reader to feel inspired to express themselves in the world. We need writers, readers, teachers, activists, leaders, voters, changemakers…we need so much, but collectively we have so much to offer.

I wish for all our readers to go out into the world and, as Maya and Riley’s Grandma Gayle would say, “Be the stars you are!”

Cynsational Notes

Join co-authors Kekla Magoon and Cynthia Leitich Smith for a Launch Party for Blue Stars: Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem, showcasing illustrator Molly Murakami, at 6:30 p.m. March 5 at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minn.

Other tour dates include: Tucson Festival of Books, March 9-March 10 at the University of Arizona Mall; Texas Library Association Conference, April 16-April 19 in San Antonio;  LA Times Festival of Books, April 20-April 21 in Los Angeles; Gaithersburg Book Festival, May 18 in Gaithersburg, Maryland; LITapalooza, July 25-July 26 with Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill. and YA Midwest (YAM), July 27 with Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois (Chicagoland).

Kekla Magoon is the author of many novels and nonfiction books for young readers, including The Season of Styx Malone, The Rock and the River, How It Went Down, and Revolution in Our Time: The Black Panther Party’s Promise to the People.

She has received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, three Coretta Scott King Honors, the Walter Award Honor, an NAACP Image Award, and been a finalist for the National Book Award.

Kekla conducts school and library visits nationwide and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. Kekla holds a B.A. from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on faculty.

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee citizen) is an acclaimed, NYTimes bestselling author, the 2024 Southern Mississippi Medallion Winner, and the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate. Reading Rockets named her to its list of 100 Children’s Authors and Illustrators Everyone Should Know. Her titles include Hearts Unbroken, winner of an American Indian Youth Literature Award; the anthology Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids, which was an ALA Notable Book and winner of the Reading of the West Book Award; an Indigenous Peter Pan retelling titled Sisters Of The Neversea, which received six starred reviews; and the YA ghost mystery Harvest House, which Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called “a spine-tingling, edge-of-the-seat chiller.”

Her 2024 middle grade releases are Mission One: The Vice Principal Problem (Blue Stars #1), a Junior Library Guild selection, also by Kekla Magoon and Molly Murakami, and a road-trip novel titled On A Wing And A Tear. Cynthia is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint of HarperCollins and was the inaugural Katherine Paterson Chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library, an Austin SCBWI volunteer and bookseller at Paper Bark Birch Children’s Bookstore. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.