In Memory: Charlene Willing McManis

Charlene Willing McManis,
photo by Pam Vaughn

By Katherine Quimby
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

If the collective noun for writers is a plot, then several subplots are mourning the loss of one of their own.

Charlene Willing McManis died May 1, 2018, at home in the small Vermont town where she had lived for the past 30-plus years. In addition to her family and friends, Charlene leaves a Vermont writing community, a Native American writing community, and a forthcoming middle-grade novel, Indian No More, to be published by Tu Books in fall 2019.

Born in Portland, Oregon, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (Umpqua), Charlene moved to California with her family.

After graduation from Inglewood High School and a brief stint in banking, Charlene joined the U.S. Navy. That she would choose this branch of the service made a lot of sense, because Charlene loved the ocean.

While stationed on Guam, she met fellow service member Roger McManis. Such was the depth of her love for Roger that when they left the service in 1986, she moved to land-locked Vermont and made it home for the rest of her life.

Charlene was only 64 years old—and how she would have disputed that “only.” Charlene’s approach to life was unfailingly positive and she lived life fully. First came family: She and her husband had five children—four from his first marriage and one together—and seven grandchildren, and she loved nothing more than to be surrounded by as many of them as possible.

Charlene was also deeply involved in her community. On the veterans’ side, she was a member of the American Legion and VFW. On the artistic side, she directed musical theater and theater at a number of central Vermont venues, served briefly on the board of the League of Vermont Writers, and never failed to volunteer for the New England SCBWI conferences she attended.

Charlene (right) volunteering at the registration table
for 2014 New England SCBWI conference, photo by Pam Vaughn 

If Charlene was sitting, her hands were busy with handwork, including Native beadwork and crafting Native dolls. In her last months, Charlene completed graduation feathers for her grandchildren.

Education was most important to Charlene. She made sure students at her local elementary school had the energy to learn by starting the breakfast program there; that breakfast program led to the school’s hot lunch. In 2011, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Native American Education from Union Institute and University’s Vermont College.

She also served three years as a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and was always ready to contribute a Native American perspective—when “We are all immigrants” was filling social media, Charlene provided the succinct reminder, “Some of us were already here” when the first Europeans landed.

Charlene, The Writer 

Storytelling was another of Charlene’s talents, and while she was working in schools, she began to write.

Kate Ross, a long-time educator and one-time co-worker, remembered,

“We shared stories about our young daughters and about life in general. I knew Charlene’s heart was in the right place—caring about the well-being of children and others, filling bellies and souls. She shared her cultural background, passing valuable information on to next generations. Years later, we were both pleasantly surprised to meet at the NESCBWI conference, where we began writing adventures and our critique group together.” 

Kate was one of the first, if not the first, to see the story that would become Indian No More.

Charlene talked Kate into attending one of the early Writing the Novel for Children and Young Adults retreats held at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I met them both.

Vermont is a small state, and plenty of children’s writers call it home, but in the days before social media, it wasn’t always easy to find “your people.”

Charlene began her open mic with: “My name is Charlene and I am a writer. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and I can’t get it out of my head. I have to get up and write it down.” Her confessional had us all howling with laughter and recognition, and at that moment, I knew I needed to know her better.

Charlene, Kate and I met for coffee and to talk writing several times, but eventually life got complicated, as it often does when children are teenagers, and our meetings ceased. Most years we’d catch up at New England SCBWI conferences, which Charlene attended regularly.

Charlene not only volunteered at conferences, but gave wonderful critiques and was generous with her praise and laughter. When news of her death went out on the regional listserv, she was also remembered for her kindness.

Sarah Rosenthal hosted a more recent local writers’ group Charlene belonged to. Sarah recalled:

“I remember reading her first draft of Indian No More and thinking that it was a story that needed to make it into classrooms throughout the United States. Written from the perspective of a young girl, Charlene crafted a beautiful story of Indian identity during the tribal termination in the fifties.” 

Encouragement and Success

When We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) announced its inaugural mentorship contest in 2016, Sarah immediately sent the information to Charlene, who applied.

Sarah said,

“Several months later, I received a text from Charlene that she had won the middle grade division of the contest and was matched with author Margarita Engle. This began Charlene’s journey into revisions and reshaping her novel.” 

As Charlene told author Traci Sorell (Cherokee) in an earlier Cynsations post,

“I was so honored to work on ‘Indian No More’ with Margarita Engle as my mentor. It was a wish come true! She was so insightful in my work and helped me tremendously to improve my storytelling.” 

The pairing with was particularly apt, because, in addition to basic writing advice, Margarita could provide the perspective of Charlene’s Cuban-American classmates, who faced their own difficulties and challenges.

Margarita Engle

When she learned of Charlene’s passing, Margarita wrote,

“I love her like a sister, and I love her book. I learned as much from her as she learned from me.” 

Encouraged by the validation of the mentorship, Charlene took another chance and submitted her manuscript to Lee & Low Book’s New Visions Award. She also signed up to attend the 2016 Kweli Color of Literature Conference.

Charlene with Laura Kaye Jagles (Tesuque Pueblo/Western Shoshone/Paiute) (seated), Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe), Traci Sorell (Cherokee), Natalie Dana (Passamaquoddy), Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee)  at #Kweli16 conference.

At Kweli she found a welcoming community. Laura Pegram, executive director, Kweli Journal & The Color of the Children’s Literature Conference, wrote:

“Charlene was such a bright light and generous spirit. I am so very grateful that I had the chance to meet her at #Kweli16. I gained another sister that day.” 

Laura’s words are echoed by playwrite, poet and freelance writer Marcie Rendon’s (White Earth Anishinabe):

“From our first meeting Charlene was a warm and generous person.” 

And Traci, who is a Cynsations reporter, wrote,

“Charlene brightened any space she entered. Her smile, warmth and authenticity embraced you and made you feel welcome.” 

Charlene at #Kweli16

At the same time, writer Andrea L. Rogers (Cherokee) noted,

“In the brief time I spent with Charlene, her passion for telling her nation’s story was clear. She emanated with a kindness and a devotion to teaching using her talents and knowledge.” 

Traci spoke for a host of Charlene’s friends when she wrote:

“I grieve the loss of her physical presence deeply. But I take comfort that her book, Indian No More, will be part of her legacy in addition to the love and encouragement she gave to those who knew her.” 

At Kweli, Charlene also met Stacy Whitman, publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low. Charlene’s manuscript didn’t win a New Visions Award, but Stacy remembered,

“I was drawn to the book, as I’d been actively looking for Indigenous voices. There are so few books out there about Native Americans from a Native perspective that I gave it a second look just knowing she was Umpqua, and hoping the book would be good. I took a second look at her book after the contest for that year was over and asked her if she’d like to send me the full manuscript outside the contest.” 

Stacy Whitman

Charlene did. Stacy’s reaction was strong:

“Knowing what I know about Native American history and how the U.S. treated Indigenous people—and how little I was taught about this in school—reading this book hit with a gut punch. 

“I did not know about tribal termination, despite the remedial reading I’d done over the years, and to hear about the personal experience of it from the point of view of a young girl who doesn’t quite know who she is yet, or why the government is telling her she can’t be Indian anymore, was just such a powerful read. 

“This is such an important book—I can’t wait to share it with the world.” 

Stacy sent the manuscript to Elise McMullen-Ciotti (Cherokee), Native freelance editor/sensitivity reader. Elise said,

“I was asked, ‘Would you let us know what you think about this?’ I printed it out, stapled it together like a book, sat on my couch, and read it almost clear through in one sitting. Because I read with a pen, I began marking the margins with hearts and ‘love’ and ‘true,’ and stars and underlining. 

“There were times when I cried, sitting with the manuscript next to me just to be with it for a while. There was still work to be done, I marked that, too. But I knew that this was what I call ‘true true.’ A true representation of our history and present lives without trope or stereotype for Non-Natives, and a heart-true story for Natives—a mirror, a knowing.” 

Charlene’s friends rejoiced when the announcement appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, Publishers Weekly.

Indian No More is slated for publication in Fall 2019.

Charlene’s Legacies

Charlene’s life on this earth may have ended May 1, 2018, but the ripple of her impact runs far and deep. She leaves a loving family and friends, and memories of generosity, warmth, laughter, and caring.

Stacy recalled,

“I only met her the one time at Kweli, but as she was dying of cancer, she was as concerned about the health issues I was dealing with as she was with her own situation.” 

It was so like Charlene to be concerned for someone else’s welfare. 

Marcie speaks for me and for so many of Charlene’s friends when she said,

“I was humbled and honored to be included in her journey as she beautifully showed all of us how to fully embrace the life we live each day and how to graciously and generously shift worlds.” 

These are intangible legacies. Charlene leaves tangible ones as well.

Laura Pegram, editor-in-chief of Kweli Journal, recently announced:

“Kweli plans to honor Charlene’s memory with a scholarship in her name for emerging Native writers interested in attending the Color of Children’s Literature Conference.” 

The next conference will be held in spring 2019.

Charlene also leaves her book baby, Indian No More, scheduled for publication in fall 2019.

As Traci said,

“Charlene’s book will help educate others about the impact of two federal policies—termination and relocation—on Native American tribes and their citizens nationwide. Unfortunately, this is not a well-known area of our national history. But Indian No More, drawn from some of her own childhood experiences, shines a light on this era and the ramifications of those policies that we still live with today.” 

Elise recalls a line from the book:

“Chish, Regina’s grandmother, says, ‘Regina, just remember this. It is your heart that makes you Indian. It is our stories that keep you Indian.’” 

Charlene kept the stories, and shared them. Sarah Rosenthal said:

“As we say good-bye to a woman who kept her culture alive through her writing, we welcome the birth of her book Indian No More into the world. I look forward to next year, when I can revisit my friend again in the pages of her book.” 

If you live near Charlene’s beloved ocean, next time you are at the shore, honor the final wish she posted on Facebook: “I will become the ocean. When you see the ocean, please think of me.”

And when Indian No More comes out in 2019, please join us in celebrating Charlene’s achievement.

Cynsational Note

Author Interview: Charlene Willing McManis on Mentorships & Believing in Your Work by Traci Sorell from Cynsations.

Organizer Interview: Laura Pegram on Kweli Conference

Laura Pegram, Kweli Journal Executive Director 

By Traci Sorell 
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I am honored to showcase Kweli Journal and its Executive Director, Laura Pegram, on Cynsations.

Kweli’s The Color of Children’s Literature Conference for Native/POC emerging writers and illustrators will take place in New York City on April 6 and April 7.

I first attended this conference in 2016 just after I sold my first picture book. Meeting the legendary Joe Bruchac, who was on faculty that year, as well as other emerging Native/POC writers like myself gave me a community that I could connect with all year long. I’ve been a cheerleader for the conference ever since, especially for the networking and the information shared by faculty.

Last year, Cynthia Leitich Smith gave the keynote with even more Native writers in attendance. But this wonderful event does not happen without Laura Pegram and her vision to create a welcoming environment for Native/POC writers to learn, ask questions, network and celebrate together.

Native authors at the 2017 Kweli Conference. Back row: Brian Young (Navajo), Renee Sans Souci (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska), Alia Jones, Kevin Tarrant (Hopi/Ho Chunk) Front row: Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation), Kara Stewart (Sappony), Anna-Celestrya Carr (Métis), Carole Lindstrom (Métis/ Ojibwe) Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee), Murriel Borst-Tarrant (Kuna/ Rappahannock Nations), Marcie Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe)

Laura, Kweli Journal focuses on supporting writers of color in a variety of genres. How did the idea of having a national conference specifically for Native and POC writers and illustrators for children and teens first come about? How long has the conference been in existence?

As an education activist and a multidisciplinary artist, I have always been guided by the NACW motto “lifting as we climb.”

Once I met with folks at Dial Books for Young Readers and had my first book contract in hand for Daughter’s Day Blues, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (2000), I looked for ways to give back to the community.

As the Acting Director of the John Killens Young Writers Workshop, I created curriculums for young children and teens enrolled in Saturday enrichment programs in Brooklyn using interdisciplinary arts (poetry, music and dollmaking, for girls and boys, to study the history of Black Cowboys and Black Indians). The program culminated with a field trip to Dr. George Blair’s New York Riding Academy on Randall’s Island and a horseback riding and grooming lesson.

As an instructor at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Manhattan (now defunct), I designed workshops for emerging children’s book writers of color, modeled in part by the children’s literature course I took with June Jordan as an undergraduate. Notably, June’s reading list for the course was global and inclusive, a first for me. It served as a beautiful and inclusive model for Kweli years later when I was newly disabled and adjusting to life in a wheelchair.

I have autoimmune disease, and it’s on the rise in the black community. After my discharge from the hospital, I tried to be optimistic about my prognosis. From my fifth floor walk up, I joked with my at-home nurse and at-home physical therapists and listened to second-hand accounts from friends about the arts world that was now in my rearview mirror.

Then one day I realized that it didn’t have to be behind me; I could create an alternative arts community from my living room. In the summers of 2008 and 2009, I gathered three of my former students from Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center (FDCAC) to serve as editors and readers and four friends and colleagues from FDCAC to join our founding board of directors. We had our first board meeting in a Harlem brownstone, with donated food and space, wholly owning our vision for a multicultural literary community.

In December 2009, we happily pushed Kweli out into the world after a hard labor. Over the past eight years, a small army of volunteers has helped Kweli grow from a biannual journal to a thriving community organization.

Scenes from the 2015 conference with some speakers appearing via Skype.

Our first tentative steps are noteworthy. Our online literary journal and free Reading and Conversation series, presented in partnership with Black@NYT, have allowed bold new voices to share both page and stage with Hodder Fellow Cristina Garcia, MacArthur Fellow Edward P. Jones, and other notables.

In addition, our Annual Writers Conference provides emerging writers of color with tools for success as well as access to industry insiders. For those with limited resources, our scholarships provided local writers, as well as those living around the country, with tuition-free writing classes and mentorship.

Joe Bruchac (Abenaki) talking with attendees at the 2016 Kweli conference.

In 2012, we offered our first mini writers conference at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem (now defunct). It was a multigenre conference that catered to writers of color working on books for children and young adults, as well as writers of adult fiction and poetry. But I found that children’s book writers were being given short shrift during our early conferences.

Debbie’s blog.

In September 2014, I reached out to Kweli contributor Dwayne Martine (Jicarilla Apache/Navajo) about Kweli’s First Annual Children’s Book Writers conference at Poets Den Theater and Gallery in East Harlem and specifically, Kweli tuition scholarships for Native and First Nation writers.

Dwayne introduced me to Debbie Reese and she was enthusiastic. As a result of Debbie’s introductions, five Native writers were able to virtually attend our 2015 conference: Brian Young, Kara Stewart, Sarah Cortez, Kim Rogers and Andrea Rogers. Heid E. Erdrich was scheduled to join us as well but she had a conflict.

Registration fees for our Annual Writers Conference and tuition costs for our writing and photography workshops can be quite prohibitive if you are a high school student from a large lower to middle class family in East Harlem or Brooklyn, or a mother of three living in a tribal town in Oklahoma.

Attendees at a previous Kweli conference.

Kweli is committed to serving writers of color from lower to middle class income neighborhoods throughout the country.

The overwhelming number of writers who receive financial support from us to cover conference registration fees or tuition costs for workshop are mothers with young children, underemployed single women and retired women working on their third chapter in life as writers.

We also provide financial support to high school, college and graduate students. We have offered full and partial scholarships to girls and women since our inception.

What has been the most rewarding part of the conference?

It is a joy to hear writers speak to the community they have found at Kweli conferences, and to see the deep and lasting connections they have made at Kweli lead to these beautiful expanded families. It is also a joy to see our writers gain representation by literary agents as well as book deals.

This year we will have three writers who attended our 2016 Color of Children’s Literature Conference returning to #Kweli18 with debut books:

Each of them will sit on #Kweli18 panels and/or teach workshops so they will be “lifting as they climb” as well. These full circle moments make my heart sing.

The most challenging?

Kweli is run and operated by a small circle of volunteers. Grateful for each and every one of them, but sustainability is a real issue.

2018 Kweli faculty Nic Stone

We operate on small grants from Poets & Writers, NYSCA, the John Blackmon Foundation and the kindness and generosity of Victoria Sanders & Associates, friends and family. They keep us going. But nonprofits are fragile.

It is a challenge for most executive directors (of non profits), particularly in this political climate. I am disabled and live on a fixed income. For years, I have used my personal funds to cover Kweli deficits so I could honor my word and pay Kweli contributors. That is hard to do when you are able bodied, but difficult to do when you live with autoimmune disease and have spent your adult life in and out of the hospital.

With autoimmune disease, there is this ongoing fight to keep inflammation at bay. I can be fine one minute and in the hospital the next. Grateful to my doctors: they keep me going so I can keep Kweli going. But it is not easy.

Is there a general theme for the conference this year? If so, what is it and why was that chosen? If not, what will be some central areas the conference will emphasize or educate participants about?

2018 Kweli master-class faculty Rita Williams-Garcia

As a new midlist author, I often found myself stumbling in the dark about how to navigate a disproportionately white publishing industry, how to protect my voice and promote my first book while working full-time, etc.

There was no guide for writers of color like myself on navigating this new world.

The central guiding theme for Kweli is lifting as we climb: lifting up our narratives and our voices and our histories. That guides us year in, year out. Each year we try to provide concrete takeaways for emerging POC and Native writers and illustrators and we make a concerted effort to improve upon the offerings from the previous year. This year is no different.

For #Kweli18, we are offering a panel discussion on Global Storytelling moderated by Namrata Tripathi, the publisher of Kokila, a new imprint at Penguin Random House  that will focus on diverse books for children and young adults, adding “depth and nuance to the way children and young adults see the world and their place in it.”

Another panel will focus on moving the discussion from diversity to inclusion, inclusion to justice, using an article written by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich as a starting point (“Say That to My Face: On Teaching and Learning Diverse Literature for Empowerment and Transformation“).

During the conference day, we will also outline specific steps on developing a platform for published or soon-to-be-published authors in the panel, Beyond the Book Birthday. We will also be offering perspectives from authors and illustrators on their distinct approaches to revising the novel, and plotting, creating a picture book. Concrete takeaways are key.

What are you most excited about at this year’s upcoming conference on April 7th?

Angela Johnson

A number of things excite me about #Kweli18. The keynote will be delivered by Angela Johnson, a writer I admire for the lyric in her lines as well as her brave approach to storytelling.

We have more workshops for advanced writers this year, so there is full spectrum of information for artists just beginning their journey to those who are a few steps along on the path.

We will also be offering Master Classes for the first time with Angela Johnson, Rita Williams Garcia and Bryan Collier on a Friday half day.

This will be our largest conference to date and I am excited about the new venue at The Graduate Center CUNY and the opportunity to help more writers and illustrators. Last year a lot of folks had to be placed on a waitlist.

You are a published children’s book author yourself. What do you hope someone attending Kweli learns that you wish you had known about the publishing industry or craft when you first started writing and later submitting your work?


I hope that they learn how to protect their dignity and their voices. I hope that they see the beauty and benefit in reading widely and critically. I hope that they see the value of a global community like Kweli and the importance of lifting as they climb.

I also hope that they see the sky as their ceiling. That is something June taught me when I was a shy undergraduate still searching for my voice. The sky is your ceiling.

Cynsations Notes


Visit Kweli Journal’s Color of Children’s Literature Conference for registration, speaker bios, and schedule of events. Early bird registration ends March 11th! Find Kweli Journal on Twitter and Instagram @Kweli.journal.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures. In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.