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.

Author Interview: Charlene Willing McManis on Mentorships & Believing in Your Work

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I first met Charlene Willing McManis at Kweli’s 2016 The Color of Children’s Literature Conference in New York City. (She’s dressed in yellow below.)

Native writers at Kweli’s
Color of Children’s Literature Conference in April 2016
Front: L to R: Charlene Willing McManis (Grand Ronde); Andrea Rogers-Henry (Cherokee Nation); Marcie Rendon (White Earth (Anishinaabe) Nation)
Back: L to R: Natalie Dana (Passamaquoddy); Laura Kaye Jagles (Tesuque Pueblo); Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation); Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki); and Kevin Maillard (Seminole)

Both of us attended the conference for writers and illustrators of color and Native Nations for the first time. Her bright smile and quick wit enveloped me right away.

A few months before the conference, Charlene became a member of the inaugural class of We Need Diverse Books’ mentees and was granted a year-long middle grade novel mentorship with Newbery Honor winner Margarita Engle. Her middle grade manuscript, “Indian No More,” was recently acquired by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low.

Charlene’s book highlights her childhood experience during one of the most impactful periods for Native Nations in contemporary U.S. history. The federal policy of terminating its treaty responsibilities with some tribes like Charlene’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in the 1950s caused major discord for tribal governments, programs and families. 


During this same era, the federal Indian relocation program, which moved Native people out of their traditional homelands and into cities, created a massive exodus of families. Charlene’s upcoming work will provide a window for Native and non-Native children to see what someone their age experienced in terms of identity, connection and family relations during this upheaval.

Charlene agreed to answer a few of my questions about her writing journey and offer advice for other writers.

How did being selected to participate the inaugural We Need Diverse Books year-long mentorship program in 2016 and working with award-winning author and poet Margarita Engle help writing this story?

Author Margarita Engle

That was so wonderful to be selected! 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.

I definitely suggest writers to submit their work to the We Need Diverse Books’ Mentorship Program and Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award.

I’d love to hear more details about your mentorship. Did you do one round of revision or multiple with Margarita?  What component of your writing do you think she helped you with the most?

Regarding the mentorship, after the initial shock and excitement of winning it, Margarita sent me a wonderful letter of what was in store. I kept all her letters, by the way.

We emailed regularly on my manuscript with regard to her great insight into what I was trying to say in my story. What helped me the most was her knowing my story and giving me suggestions to expand on my characters, especially the grandmother. Her suggestions brought more clarity on grandma.

She also was a big help with my Cuban friends in Los Angeles. Since we were all kids, no one really talked about politics or race. But I knew they were very proud of their heritage and that their mother was a doctor in Cuba but was a nurse in Los Angeles. She gave me insight as to why. So I feel my book was greatly improved and more colorful with her help.

You also mentioned unpublished writers submit their novels for the Lee & Low Books’ New Visions Award. Did you enter that contest? (At Margarita’s suggestion or on your own knowledge?)  Is that how Tu Books came to find your manuscript and give you an offer or did you submit it through the slush pile?


I sent my my manuscript to the New Visions Award competition later that year and was in the running but didn’t win.

However, a year later, Stacy asked the for entire manuscript because she remembered reading it during the judging.

So I discovered that, even though the story didn’t win the award, the editor felt the story was worthy enough to have a second look.

And a second look was all it took for her to offer a contract!

Margarita did suggest various agents to send my work to and I did. I received very nice feedback, but they did say it didn’t fit what they were looking for.

What did I learn from all this? Just because the story was “rejected,” it didn’t mean it was bad. And that if you believe in your work, you just keep on sending it out, taking the feedback and implementing the edits and moving forward. And that editors do remember you.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the story?

The lack of history books speaking about this subject. Many events had recently been put in the forefront regarding the truth of America. 

I felt the need to make children aware that Native people didn’t disappear after the 1800s, that we were alive during the era of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. (I really desire to see Native Americans win a Tony, an Oscar, an Emmy, album of the year, sport player of the year, things like that.)

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

It was by accident really. A friend needed support to attend the New England SCBWI conference and I tagged along. At a Highlights magazine workshop, everyone gave an idea for a subject matter to write in various genres. I gave powwows as an example. After the class, the instructor asked if I could write an article about powwows. I was so excited.

And that inspired me to write about termination and relocation. I discovered no [outside the experience] had heard about this historical event, which many had experienced. I wanted to bring this event to light for children and teachers.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing class and was told I could never be a writer. That my writing was terrible. 
It is amazing how a teacher’s opinion of you can affect your psyche. I kept writing though, and attended classes on how to write, how to create characters, plotting and such. SCBWI offered so many books on the subject, which helped me tremendously. 
When I decided to write “Indian No More,” it was more to have the audience understand what it is like to doubt your own heritage. I was so afraid to say I was Indian because I couldn’t prove it.

Writing the book taught me that I don’t need anyone to believe if I am Indian or not. I know who I am and now I am proud of it.

What delighted you the most about writing this book?

Editor Stacy Whitman

I loved my characters. And I do love editing and rewriting. I found joy in seeing my book come together.

I can’t wait to work with Stacy Whitman of Tu Books to help me create an even better story.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?


Never give up. It’s all right to take a break, even to say you’ll never make it as a writer. But as long as you have the passion to write and believe in your storytelling, keep going.

It took me 10 years to believe my story might possibly be worthy of publishing. But even if it wasn’t, I was proud that I finished the manuscript. That was half the battle. 

Every time I sent my story out, I felt “Well, at least one more person now knows about termination.”

And advice for Native American/First Nations writers for young people?

Put your stories down in words! We are a very oral culture, telling our stories. We all have stories about our lives, our ancestors and our culture. We are the First People and there are too many people who don’t know we still exist or what we are about.

Also, know that you are not alone. Many Native authors were nervous about writing. They wrote anyway. And there are many Native authors who will support you. They started the path to which we can follow. That is so inspiring to know.

Hiyu Mashe (many thanks) for offering me your time to speak. I am deeply honored to be featured on Cynsations.

Cynsations Notes

Charlene Willing McManis is a tribal member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde located near Salem, Oregon. As part of the federal Indian Relocation Program, her family moved from the reservation to Los Angeles, California. 
Charlene graduated from Inglewood High in Inglewood, CA, served eight years in the Navy and achieved a Bachelor’s Degree in Native American Education from Vermont College.

She writes about her personal knowledge of Native American culture and does school presentations for Native American Heritage Month in November. 

She currently lives in Vermont with her husband, grandchildren and pets of all kinds. She believes in the saying from Sitting Bull (Lakota): “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”

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 will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 18, 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.

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

Cover Reveal & Author Snapshot: Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover of Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Atheneum, June 2018). Note: a young adult novel-in-verse about the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943.

Margarita says:

“During World War II, my hometown of Los Angeles, California became the scene of riots so strange that they don’t seem real, unless viewed through the lens of modern trends toward increasing racial violence.  

“Sailors on their way to the battlefields of World War II attacked
Mexican-American teenage boys, beating them, stripping them of their zoot suits, and setting the clothing on fire. Unwilling to arrest men in
uniform, police arrested the zooters instead.  

“Clothes were not the real motive behind these shocking attacks. Interracial swing dancing was the trigger for white supremacist violence.  

“I chose to narrate this complex story in free verse, using many voices, including a Mexican-American family, a Cuban musician, policemen, sailors, reporters, and the ghost of a murdered man. 

“I hope Jazz Owls will help young readers understand how World War II changed the roles of women, as well as the hopes and dreams of Latinos in the U.S.”

Cynsational Notes

Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor.

She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient.

Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others.

Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

 Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World, and her newest picture books are All the Way to Havana, and Miguel’s Brave Knight, Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote.

Books forthcoming in 2018 include The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots.

Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She was trained as an agronomist and botanist. She lives in central California with her husband.

Guest Post: Padma Venkatraman on Voice: Writing Lean, Spare or Lush, Rich

Padma writing on the dock

By Padma Venkatraman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

One of the most vital aspects of timeless writing is voice. Every serious reader, every writer has (or must develop), a strong sense of what voice is. Yet, like time, voice eludes definition.

Of course, I’m going to try and define it. To me, voice is the promise of the first page – the texture of the writing. It’s like the background music in a movie – or the wash an artist lays down to prepare the painting – something that isn’t entirely visible and yet pervades the creation.

What’s the best way to develop your own voice?

Here are three tips I hope will help.

1. Read, read, read the voices of others. Immersing yourself in books with rich voices will help you hone your own.

While I don’t for a mini-second suggest that any writer try to copy another writer’s voice – I do recommend, strongly, that every writer read as much as is humanly possible.

The best way to get a feel for voice and to develop your own is to tune in to the music of the written word – by reading writers with strong voices.

Here are some books written in powerful voices that I highly recommend (and, as with all lists, I’m sure I’ll leave out some favorites, but these wonderful books for young people come to mind at the moment):

2. Experiment with sentences and paragraphs, if not entire stories.

Padma writing on the deck

Each of your characters has a different voice. Unless the novel is written from multiple points of view, however, you usually spend most of your time narrating in the voice that, most likely, comes closest to your own.

This is fine. 

But by briefly experimenting with telling the story in another’s tone and seeing the story through another’s voice, you may be able to more clearly define the narrator’s voice that you naturally gravitate toward.

If you are writing close third or first person point of view, try switching bodies. 

Write an important scene or two in another character’s voice. This will not only help you enhance your understanding of this character, it will also give you a greater appreciation for your main character’s voice.

If you tend to write long, luxurious sentences, try writing a paragraph with short sentences and sentence fragments. And the other way around.

My second novel, Island’s End (G.P. Putnam, 2011), is written in lush, rich prose.

My third novel, A Time To Dance (Nancy Paulsen, 2014) is written in lean spare prose. I learned a great deal by journeying from one style to another – and I love both, I’ll admit.

I also love the in-between, which is where, I think, my debut novel, Climbing The Stairs (G.P. Putnam, 2008) fits.

3. Respect your heart, not just your head.

I was an oceanographer. Now I’m a writer. I can attest to the fact that not even scientists are always objective.

Padma working on a research ship

The field of literature is largely if not entirely subjective. Thus, it’s only natural that we often subjugate our own responses to a piece in favor of revered reviewers’ opinions.

Yet if you wish to carve your own unique niche, you must let yourself love whatever you love. 

There’s no shame in loving a book that has been deemed ridiculous or at least one that hasn’t received the attention you think it deserves. 
It’s important to seek out such books, books that haven’t got a lot of hype, and asking yourself whether you think they deserved more (or less). 
It’s also important to question and pause and discover which books you adore, deep inside, regardless of whether they won acclaim and awards or not.

When you discover these lesser known books and less celebrated authors, you begin to celebrate your own opinions. And as you grow comfortable with your individual taste, your confidence as a writer also grows. 

You start respecting your ideas, your sense of strength. And you must realize what you truly love (regardless of what the world says you should love) if you wish to write in a voice that is powerful – which is to say, a voice that is uniquely your own.

Cynsational Notes

Padma Venkatraman is the author of three novels, which together garnered 12 starred reviews, and were included in over 50 shortlists. 

In addition, her books have won several awards (such as the Paterson Prize, the South Asia Book Award, the Julia Ward Howe Award, and the ASTAL RI Book of the year award), and received many honors, including ALA notable, ALA BBYA, Booklist BBYA, Kirkus BBYA, NYPL Book for the Teen Age, Bank Street Best Book amd CCBC Notable. 
She has spoken and provided workshops and keynote addresses at national and international conferences and festivals.