New Voices: Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith on Joshua and The Biggest Fish

Nancy stands behind co-author & grandkid, Kaylee.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

What an honor and joy it is to welcome debut children’s authors, Kaylee Morrison and Nancy Smith, who’re also citizens of Muscogee Nation!

Their picture book is Joshua and The Biggest Fish (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017). From the promotional copy:

The big fish are way out in the deepest part of the river. Will Joshua find a way to catch a really big fish? Maybe then, the men won’t see him as “cepane,” or little boy. 


A historical, coming-of-age story, based on true events.

You are a grandmother-granddaughter team. How and why did you two begin writing together? What has that been like?

KM: Growing up I was always interested in writing and my grandmother, who wrote her whole life, encouraged me to follow my talents. The older I got, the more I wanted to learn about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage.

My grandmother suggested co-authoring a book to learn about our rich past and provide a way to bring us closer in my teenage years.
The process was long, and a bit tedious at times, but that’s what comes with the territory of wanting our book to be historically accurate.

This involved many trips to the Muscogee tribal complex and talking to multiple people which lead to even meeting new family members.

NS: When my granddaughter, Kaylee, turned 16, she told me she wanted to learn more about her Muscogee Creek heritage. I was so happy to hear that.

So, we drove to the Muscogee tribal complex in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and met with Buddy Cox at the tribe’s Cultural Preservation office. He shared with us many ideas, but the subject that jumped out at us was “fish kills.”

Writing a children’s book about this part of our Muscogee Creek history and culture seemed like a wonderful project we could do together. Kaylee was in her last two years of high school, and then went away to college, so writing our book was a long journey, but so worth it.

What was the initial inspiration for Joshua and the Biggest Fish, illustrated by Dorothy Shaw (Doodle and Peck Publishing, 2017)?

KM: Initially, we both wanted to gain knowledge of our ancestors’ past. Although I have lived in Oklahoma my whole life, I knew very little about the Muscogee Nation and I feel that most Oklahomans are the same way. My little sister was about two at the time and a children’s book felt like a perfect way to teach her and many other children a little piece of Creek history.

NS: All young Creek Indian boys are nicknamed “cepane” (chee-BAH-nee), which in Creek language means “little boy.” Our book evolved as a coming-of-age story about a young Creek boy who longs to be accepted as one of the men, and who does not like being called “cepane.” The book is named after my Muscogee (Creek) grandfather, Joshua.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

KM: The idea came about when I was sixteen, and after six years of research and writing it was published in 2017. During all of this I was graduating high school and moving to college, so this also slowed up the process along the way.

We first heard of fish kills from Buddy Cox and we both found them incredibly interesting. We decided to go with it, but literature on fish kills is very slim. My grandmother came up with some creative ways to research history on fish kills that made this book possible.

NS: Our book took a total of six years to complete. This was mostly because we wanted our book to be historically and culturally accurate.

After doing research at the Oklahoma Historical Society (Oklahoma City), I discovered historic photographs of Creek Indians taken at the fish kill in the 1920s. Finding these photos was so exciting, and some are featured in our book. By the second year, the Cultural Preservation office changed managers several times, so that was a hurdle. Finding a publisher was also a challenge.

What were the challenges (emotional, logistical, research, professional) in bringing the book to life?

KM: After finishing the writing portion of the book, I think the biggest struggle was finding a publisher. Being first-time authors in a niche market was hard to sell to publishers.

My grandmother promised me from the very beginning that we would get the book published and I never doubted her; although, it is vexing to be turned down multiple times on something you have worked so hard on.

My grandmother never gave up, even through tough times, to get this book published and I couldn’t have done it without her. I am grateful for her every day.

NS: We took at least 8 to 10 trips to the Creek Nation in Okmulgee to do research, and several trips to the Oklahoma Historical Society. You must be very interested in your project, and very dedicated to work for long periods of time toward completion. One thing that kept me going was wanting to complete the book with my granddaughter, Kaylee.

What do you hope that young readers take away from the story?

KM: I want readers to learn a part of history that few know about and to spark their interest in Indian culture. There are very few Creek Indian children’s books, and I hope this book inspires more to come.

NS: I hope young Muscogee (Creek) readers will feel pride in their culture from our book, and pride in being Creek citizens. I also hope all young readers will enjoy reading about our tribe’s past and learning about our language and culture.

What did Dorothy Shaw‘s art bring to your book?


With illustrator Dorothy Shaw

KM: The first time I saw Dorothy’s artwork for the book, I was blown away and thrilled that she brought our words to life. The story would not be the same without her craftsmanship.

NS: Dorothy Shaw brought our characters to life in a wonderful and colorful way. Her beautiful illustrations along with the historic photographs provided inspiring images to our readers.

How have you celebrated the book’s release and connected it to readers, especially in the Muscogee (Creek) and larger Native community?

With Principal Chief James Floyd & Second Chief Louis Hicks

KM: We have done several book signings and hope to start having school visits soon in the Tulsa County area. The tribe has ordered and even re-ordered the book which is very exciting.

Imagining Creek citizens reading our book is a bit mind-blowing and very encouraging. After reading your own words so many times you start to not even recognize them as words, so it comes to a point where you must stop editing and get it out there or you could spend your whole life on it.

NS: We donated seven books to our tribe’s Head Start schools, to share with their young students. Kaylee also presented our Chief and Second Chief with their own personal copies of our book. “Joshua and the Biggest Fish” is carried at our tribe’s gift shop, and we have also done several book signings. Our Tulsa City-County Library has our book at seven of their library branches. I have personally contacted over 20 outlets, bookstores, etc. to market Joshua and The Biggest Fish.

What can your readers expect from you next?

KM: I currently have something in the very beginning stages that I presume will take me a considerable amount of time to finish. It’s a different genre and different age group but something that has been in the back of my head for a while.

NS: I have started working on a middle-grade historical novel about my tribe, which I’m currently doing research on.

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