New Voice: Traci Sorell on We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

Traci & Frane in Tahlequah (Cherokee Nation Capital), June 2017

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell is the debut author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018). From the promotional copy:

Otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a word that Cherokee people use to express gratitude. 


Beginning in the fall with the Cherokee New Year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. 


…this nonfiction look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

What first led you to begin writing for young readers?

I decided to start writing for children when my son was four. I had collected picture books since my undergraduate days, particularly those featuring Native Nations. Having cycled through my books and those at my local library, I had difficulty finding any trade-published contemporary picture books featuring Cherokee children to read to my young son.

My tribe, the Cherokee Nation, is the largest in the U.S. with over 350,000 enrolled citizens. How could I not find a picture book about our present-day life and culture? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.

I contacted a friend from graduate school who I knew had trade published books for children for advice. I attended my first SCBWI conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to work toward a full-time career as an author in 2015.

For me, the biggest challenge was making sure I understood the craft, so I could execute the writing. I’ve written in many different formats previously, but I’ll admit writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief or code.

Writing sparse, lyrical text for a picture book to capture and hold the attention of discriminating younger readers is a challenge. They will put down the book, walk away, and turn their attention elsewhere when the story starts to drag – either from the words or the art. They have no sense of “I should finish this, so I’ll trudge on through it.” If they aren’t interested, it’s over.

Knowing that invigorates me to write at a higher level, knowing every word has to be precise to evoke the emotion, convey the information or provoke the question that I want reader to experience, understand or ask.

Thankfully, I have wonderful people – fellow authors, my agent and editors – who keep me on track if I stray from that.

Please share with us the story of your literary apprenticeship. How did you master the craft of picture book writing?

I read a lot of picture books written in the last three years to learn what the market wanted. That helped me shape and edit my own voice to write sparse, lyrical texts that sell in the marketplace.

I benefitted from reading Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest, 2009) and connecting with published authors in my local KS-MO chapter of SCBWI who provided solid critiques and guided to me beneficial workshops to further develop my voice and craft.

From there, I expanded my network to connecting with other authors via social media, including you!

Congratulations on the release of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018)! What was the timeline between your creative inspiration and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Traci & Charlesbridge editor Karen Boss

I wrote We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga in November 2015 because I won a free Skype critique for a nonfiction picture book from award-winning author Suzanne Slade through Picture Book Builders and had nothing to submit!

After revising based on her direction, I submitted the second draft with a few minor tweaks to some wording to ten publishers a month later. Then I sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016.

After Charlesbridge bought it, my editor Karen Boss did not have any substantial changes. She moved some text around based on the design layout that she wanted for the book, but otherwise the text was finalized quickly.

Karen asked if I had any illustrators in mind. I gave her a list of Native and non-Native illustrators. Frané was on that list. I was so overjoyed when she was selected.

The whole debut process has gone so smoothly, and I’m so thankful to work with such a wonderful team of people.

What did Frané Lessac’s art bring to your text? To what extent did you work together?

Her artwork takes the text to a different level. The detail, color, humor, and vivaciousness she creates in the book humbles me. I am in awe of what she envisioned and subsequently painted for all readers to enjoy.

Initially I sent her links to a variety of webpages and videos with information about the Cherokee Nation, its citizens, culture, and history to help her start her research.

Unless you’ve been to the Cherokee Nation (in the northeast corner of Oklahoma), you don’t have a feel for the people, landscape, flora and fauna. It’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been in all my years of living, studying and traveling elsewhere on this continent and abroad.

Even though she didn’t receive the research travel grant she applied for, she traveled to the Cherokee Nation from Western Australia last summer anyway. So we actually got to meet and spend a few days together in late June 2017.

I introduced her to fellow Cherokee citizens who work in our cultural and museum programs. She shared her rough sketches and sought their input to make sure she had details correct.

We traveled with Will Chavez, the Assistant Editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, our tribal newspaper, where he showed her a number of historic sites, types of foliage and animals common in the area. He also provided photos from his extensive collection for her to consult later as she created the final artwork. My brother, a trained chef, prepared bean bread and hominy soup (both mentioned in the book) for her to sample.

So I like to think she enjoyed the hospitality that Cherokee people are known for, while also working to gather the information she needed to tell her part of the story.

Tell us more about how you decided to weave Cherokee words into the story and your approach on what to include in the back matter.

For me, this was integral. I was elated when Charlesbridge wanted the book because they had published the picture book, Itse Selu: Cherokee Harvest Festival (1994), featuring Cherokee words unitalicized throughout the text. It had served as an early model for me as a writer that including my tribe’s language would be welcome.

We decided to add the Cherokee syllabary next to the English phonetics at the bottom of each page where a Cherokee word appears because that’s how Cherokee people actually read and speak the language. They are not learning and speaking it from the English phonetics.

Regarding the back matter, I knew I needed to provide a little more context to some of the text and artwork. Given how little people know about contemporary Cherokee life, adding the Definitions section allowed me to amplify any reader’s understanding of what they read and saw on the page.

The Author’s Note explains my reasons for writing this nonfiction picture book.

Including the Cherokee syllabary as it is currently taught in the Cherokee Nation helps readers to know that this language continues to be spoken and is the foundation of our cultural identity as Cherokee people.

As a Native author, how does that identity element inform your writing and your role in the children’s-YA book community?

It’s the foundation of my voice and everything I write. I can’t separate it. My educational and professional backgrounds have also been focused on Native Nations, their citizens, culture, history, law and policies and how those have been impacted under the colonial regime of the United States.

When I research primary and secondary sources or read children’s literature for example, I notice what voices and experiences are included, who is left out and how that shapes the narrative and information the reader receives.

Right now, I feel like I have three main roles in the children’s-YA book community besides getting my writing out in the world.

First, I want to bring additional awareness to invisibility of Native people in the text as well as omissions of accuracy, so other writers recognize the importance of doing the work to get it right. We all are responsible for this.

Second, I want to recruit other Native creators – writers and artists – to create great works for children. You have been extremely supportive of me and other Native creators coming into the field, and I strive to emulate that. We have amazing storytellers in word and art in our Native Nations. I want children to know about and experience the stories those creators have to share. It’s imperative to recruit, educate and encourage others to make that happen.

Third, covering Native/First Nations authors, illustrators, and publishers for your Cynsations blog allows greater visibility for the craft of Native creators in the industry. I enjoy showcasing what their stories and artwork are offering for children and teens in this field. I appreciate you asking me to assist in this way.



What advice do you have for new Native or First Nations writers, starting out?

We Are Grateful poster

I believe it’s important to read broadly across the various genres of children’s literature and determine which one resonates most with your voice as a writer. I gravitated to writing picture books first because I have always loved poetry, sparse use of language, and beautiful artwork. Any writer new to this field needs to make that same determination for themselves.

Then, I recommend studying books published within the last three years within that chosen genre. You’ll be expected to know and state what are comparable titles when you submit your manuscript for consideration. So anticipate that and be prepared.

Next, try to find fellow writers in your genre at the level just above your skill set to read and critique your work. This will pay dividends because your writing will be elevated more quickly with trained eyes providing feedback.

It is extremely helpful if some of these writers are also Native creators. In my experience, finding fellow Native creators will be a huge boost of encouragement and support as you embark on this journey.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Since Charlesbridge bought We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, I’ve sold two other picture books, At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020). Both are fiction. I’m looking forward to those being out in the world alongside We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I also have two picture book biographies, several other fictional picture books, a novel-in-verse and some poems in progress.

Cynsations Return & Author Update: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing, New Releases, Native Voices & Allies

Learn more about Cynthia Leitich Smith.

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As an New York Times bestselling author and the creator of Cynsations blog, Cynthia is well known to many. But after reading her upcoming YA novel, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9), this summer, I believe readers gain more insight into her earlier years.

The novel draws in part on her experience as a Muscogee (Creek) teen growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City and as a reporter and, later, editor-in-chief on her high school newspaper.

The fictional, contemporary story follows Louise, a senior forced to reconcile how bigotry and racism are coming to a head in her community through her various roles as a tribal citizen, sister, student, reporter, friend and, most definitely, girlfriend.

Cynthia, I welcome you to Cynsations, your own wonderful creation!

From the promotional copy:

When Louise Wolfe’s first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off immediately and dumps him. It’s her senior year, anyway, and she’d rather spend her time on her family and friends and working on the school newspaper.


The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper’s staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director’s inclusive approach to casting “The Wizard of Oz” has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town.



From the newly formed “Parents Against Revisionist Theater” to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students—especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou’s little brother, who’s playing the Tin Man.



As tensions heighten at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey—but as she’s learned, “dating while Native” can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey’s?



Pre-order a signed copy from BookPeople or order at your local store & request a signed bookplate & goodies!

Let’s start with the genre – you’ve crafted a contemporary, realistic young adult novel whereas your more recent novels have been YA fantasy. What prompted the return to a novel with a contemporary Native American teen and her family as the focus? 

I have this theory that where there are secrets, lies or regrets, there are stories. Think about it, in each case, there are stakes, there is nuance and competing interests. Conflict and reversals.

Hearts Unbroken began with a regret, as a novel-length apology to a high school boyfriend. I was an awkward teen (hey, I’m an awkward adult!). When I’m nervous or exhausted, I still babble a bit even though I can absolutely rock a podium with proper preparation.

Bottom line, I said the wrong thing, and I was sorry for decades. There’s a story in that and it’s not all in the book, which is only loosely inspired by what really happened.

How would you describe the story?

It’s a love story wrapped around a school-journalism story, written in an Indigenous style and sensibility. Or at least a hybrid style with strong Indigenous elements.

Enter to win 1 of 10 hardcovers!

The novel is thematically about speech, nodding to journalistic speech, religious speech, political speech, interpersonal speech, hate speech and microaggressions.

Or, put another way, it’s about speech, its blessings and its costs.

Early Native readers have mentioned to me that they see it as about empowering cultural voice, especially given the inclusion of Indigenous language in a daily-life reclamation context.

Big picture, the plot is infuriating and funny and representative and romantic. It’s also a little geeky. All of my stories are at least a little geeky. There’s also terrific kissing.

The narrative goes all in, fully submerging the reader in a Native teen perspective and suburban experience. The depiction of the family relationships is central. Meanwhile, the subplot, centered on the protagonist’s brother, (hopefully) offers more mainstream appeal.

Why did you decide to focus your protagonist on high-school journalism?

Again, personal experience. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and went on to major in news/editorial at the White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. As a student at The University of Michigan Law School, the First Amendment was a major focus of my studies. In my third and final year, I did an independent study on the right to speak (and the right not to) with Professor Lee C. Bollinger, who’s now the president of Columbia University in New York.

No, I didn’t set out to write Hearts Unbroken because news journalists are unfairly under attack right now, but I’m glad it’ll be out there for teens today. I hope it encourages at least a few readers to consider a career in reporting, editing, photo and/or videography.

You are always encouraging Native writers entering the industry. What craft and career advice do you have for those just starting out on this journey?

Get in touch with Native children’s-YA authors who’re agented and/or actively publishing. Read what’s already out there by members of our intertribal community. You’ll be able to gain an up-to-date, in-depth overview at Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.

Native authors at Kweli, 2016

Visit your local SCBWI regional chapter – attend a conference or workshop or both. They vary from place to place. Hopefully, it’ll be a fit. If not, look for another one that’s driveable.

Make an effort to attend Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature Conference.

Embrace the study of craft. Seriously, commit. Enroll in workshops – there are a variety on and offline at various price points. Find a solid critique group or partner.

If you want to get an MFA in writing for young readers, write me and we’ll discuss whether it’s the right choice for you. See also my writer resources.

For those who’re allies, how can they support Native voices?

Foremost, be respectful of Native people and cultures in working with young readers. Assume that there are Native kids in your classrooms and communities. They’re everywhere, and so are their peers, who interact with them based on what they learn from the larger society, from you.

Set aside everything you picked up from Hollywood. Treat the political noise out of Washington, D.C. with a hefty amount of suspicion. Forget those construction-paper headdresses you made in first grade for Thanksgiving.

Chris Evans, Hemsworth & Pratt 

Are you used to thinking of yourself as the hero of the story? We routinely see the underrepresentation of some folks but also the overrepresentation of others.

Three of the Marvel superheroes in the last Avengers movie were played by white dudes named Chris. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor.* And, hey, I enjoyed all of their performances. But no way around it, that’s seriously hefty representation.

Meanwhile, can you name any three on-screen Native girl or women characters from your entire history as a moviegoer? (Bonus points if they’re not animated.)

All of which is to say, when it comes to Native people, you may need to gut check your instinct to cast yourself as the savior.

Understand that you don’t know the history and are probably underestimating the complexity, not only regarding Native cultures but also Indigenous governmental structures and literary forms. The oral tradition is vital, but we have our own relationship to the written word, too.

What else? We’re a growing but small creative community with precious few gatekeepers of our own. Give us a chance to speak and not only about Native and diverse literature, though when we do talk about all that, listen carefully and reflect deeply.

Signal boost our new and existing releases. Advocate for our inclusion throughout the curriculum and book-events circuit, and integrate our titles not only in your Native Heritage Month celebrations but all year long.

Have you ever read a YA novel by a Native woman? Check out Apple in the Middle by debut author Dawn Quigley (North Dakota State University Press, 2018). In no particular order, also be sure to read books by Joseph Bruchac, Tim Tingle, Traci Sorell, Carole Lindstrom, Art Coulson, David A. Robertson, Cheryl Savageau, Lisa Charleyboy, Lee FrancisMonique Gray Smith, Erika T. Wurth, Jenny Kay Dupuis, Richard Van Camp, Arigon StarrKate Hart, Eric Gansworth, Louise ErdrichCherie Dimaline, Daniel Vandever…. I could go on and on, and there are more writers and illustrators on the horizon. See my teacher and librarian resources.

* Just to geek out: Chris Evans also played The Human Torch. Additional white guys named Chris who played superheroes include: Christopher Reeve as Superman; Christian Bale as Batman; Chris O’Donnell as Robin; and I’m giving partial credit to Chris Pine, as Captain Kirk because he also played Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” and appeared in “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Is there anything you’d like to say more broadly to writers from any underrepresented group?

In Memory: Nancy Garden

Offer private and public support to one another, especially those of you who’re bigger, more established names or members of groups with a stronger presence.

Years ago, I wrote a Horn Book article about Native humor and storytelling, and Nancy Garden sent in a letter to the editor in support. She was a very early, important voice in the LGBTQ writimg community and understood what it’s like when your numbers are small.

The fact that she took the time and made the effort? It meant the world to me. Still does.

You’ve been a leader in the conversation around diversity during both its ebbs and flows. What aren’t we talking about that we should be? 

From a writing craft perspective, we should focus more on secondary characters and intersecting subject matter. Every single writer must write across identity elements in those contexts. It’s not all about protagonists and the nonfiction focal topics.

More broadly, those of us in children’s-YA writing need to wrap our minds around the fact that we’ve been defaulting to the same white and male storytelling constructs for generations. More than that, those of us who’re writing teachers have been largely insisting upon them. Meanwhile, content-wise, let’s not settle for bite-sized nuggets of representation, tailored to mainstream comfort and expectations. Let’s embrace diversity for real.

This fall marks the paperback release of Feral Pride (Candlewick, 2015, 2018). Could you tell us a little about that story?

Sure! It’s the cap to the Feral trilogy and crosses over its heroes with those from the Tantalize series, which is set in the same universe.

The governor of Texas has been kidnapped by demon snakes and furry hominids (kind of like Bigfoot) and the scoundrels have blamed our heroes, who’re shapeshifters, for the crime.

This is a fantastical construct in which shapeshifters battle bigotry and oppression parallel to what marginalized groups experience in our real world. So, yes, it’s funny and romantic and action-packed and super geeky, but it also speaks through metaphor to ongoing real-world dynamics.

Why did you first launch Cynsations, and how has it evolved over the years?


As I mentioned above, I’m a recovering journalist, and I always wanted to cover good news.

Pre-order Feral Pride in paperback.

(When writers are thinking about where their voice fits into the conversation of books, it’s worthwhile to consider what they enjoy doing and where their strengths lie.)

I entered the field at a time of low morale in the creative community. Publishers weren’t taking many chances on new voices. Celebrity books were all the rage. Madonna said on late-night television that she wrote a children’s book because there weren’t any good ones.

Meanwhile, I was trying to raise awareness of contemporary Native children’s books in a society that had decided Native people were all extinct. (I’m told that’s the answer Texas school children are supposed to provide on standardized tests to any questions asked about Native people: Extinct.)

So, I figured I’d get really 21rst century with it. Show by example that Native people have a present and future.

So, I fired up Cynsations to illuminate new voices, mid-career authors, living legends. Writing by authors and illustrators from underrepresented communities. The business of publishing. The writing life. Craft. The idea was to reach out to writers in a more-than-a-guidebook kind of way, in an encouraging and ongoing conversation.

What do you have coming up next?

My immediate focus is on middle grade projects. I’m especially excited about an anthology of stories by new and established Native voices, set around a contemporary powwow. As for my current novel writing, we’re talking middle grade speculative fiction. I also have another middle-grade realistic short story coming out in another anthology and a couple of poems that will be featured in picture books. Meanwhile, I’m putting thought into what my next project for teens might be.

Beyond that, I’m committed to supporting and signal boosting other voices – underrepresented and/or new and/or reinventing and/or long-established voices, too.

So, write on, Cynsational readers! I believe in you.

Cynsational Notes


Look for Cynthia’s upcoming YA release, Hearts Unbroken (Candlewick, Oct. 9). If you’d like a signed copy, you can pre-order it from her local independent bookstore, BookPeople, of Austin, Texas. Or, if you’ve already pre-ordered, request a signed bookplate and goodies. The paperback of Feral Pride (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy)(Candlewick, Oct. 2) is available for pre-order, too.

Giveaways! Are you a high school teacher, YA librarian or Native teen group leader? Check out this classroom-set ARC giveaway of Hearts Unbroken on Twitter! Are you a YA reader? Enter to win one of 10 hardcover copies of Hearts Unbroken from YA and Kids! Book Central.

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.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, 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.

See also an interview with Traci from Picture Book Builders. Peek: “First, it needed to be colorful because it’s a four seasons book—so bright and not muted was what I pictured in mind. Second, the illustrations must be culturally accurate. I got my two criteria met and so much more!”

Cynsational Return

From Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sunset at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Welcome back to Cynsations! We hope you had a wonderful summer. My highlights included teaching at the residency of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier and speaking at the annual convention of the American Library Association in New Orleans. Right now, I’m at LoonSong: A Writer’s Retreat in Cook, Minnesota.

Here on the blog, we’ll once again be hosting insights from writers at every stage of their creative journey. We’ll look at books that cross borders, publishing as an industry and new releases. We’ll consider various aspects of a writing life.

This semester, we’re moving to more flexibility between four- and five-day posting weeks. But we’re sure you’ll still find plenty to read and reflect on.

Thank you to Cynterns Gayleen Rabakukk and Robin Galbraith for their ongoing efforts.

Thanks to all for returning to Cynsations. We hope you’ll find fruitful inspiration and information in the posts to come.

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.

Interview: Author Brad Wagnon & Illustrator Alex Stephenson on The Land of the Great Turtles

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m delighted to feature Brad Wagnon, a fellow Cherokee Nation citizen and author of The Land of Great Turtles (Rowe Publishing, March 2018). He is joined by Alex Stephenson, the book’s illustrator.

I met Brad a few years ago in Tahlequah through his work for the tribe. I enjoyed their first book, How the World Was Made (CreateSpace), published in 2015, which shares a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

This second book, The Land of the Great Turtles, was a story that I hadn’t heard before. It centers on the consequences for Cherokee people of not listening to the Creator and the elders. 

Brad shares his version of the story given to him by Benny Smith, a revered Cherokee elder and retired counselor and teacher at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

From the promotional copy:

When the Creator gave the Cherokee people a beautiful island with everything they could ever need, it came with only one rule – to take care of the land and the animals living there. But what happens when the children decide to play instead of taking care of their responsibilities?

Brad, what first drew you to creating books with Cherokee traditional stories?

Brad and his wife, Tanya

For about seven years, my wife has been telling me I need to write a book. I believe it was Alex that first approached me about doing a book together.

 The main thing that drives me is: I don’t want these stories to be lost to future generations. 

As I say in my dedication of the book, paraphrasing a wise friend of mine, the time when we used to sit around family fires and tell stories is almost gone for us. We need to preserve these stories while they are still in our memories.

What was the timeline between spark and publication of The Land of the Great Turtles? 

I think we’ve been working on it almost a year. We had hoped to have it out by Cherokee National Holiday last year, which is the first weekend of September. But we both agreed we wanted to see a publisher acquire it, so it has been worth the wait.

What were the challenges (personal, literary, research, logistical) in bringing the book to life? 

My personal challenge was getting past the fact that this story has always been oral tradition and has never been put into writing before (at least that I know of).

Of course Alex and I are both busy and we wanted to get it right both artistically and historically, so we took our time and made sure it was right.

Brad talks with a group about Cherokee history.

What special considerations/permissions come into play when framing a book around a traditional Cherokee story? 

Well, with this story the very first time Benny told it to me he said, “I’m giving this story to you.” So really that was his permission for me to perpetuate this story. 
Cherokee traditions belong to all Cherokee and there are most definitely things that the entire world can learn from them.

This is my version of a very old story that belongs to all Cherokee people.

What cultural elements were key to your vision for the illustrations? 

The main one was the dress of the people. I wanted it to be as historically accurate as possible and so did Alex. 
He would draw something and send it to me. I would make suggestions and he would change it to fit what I said. The dress (with minor adjustments) represents the earliest known dress for Cherokee people without the influence of European trade goods. 
Also the turtles, they needed to be beautiful and larger than life because, after all, they are the stars of this story. I think Alex did an amazing job portraying both the turtles and Cherokee life.

What do you think Alex’s art brings to the story? 

Without him, there wouldn’t be a book. No one would publish this story without his art. He was very careful and took the utmost pains to make sure that what he was drawing both looked amazing and was representative of Cherokee culture and history.

Interior art from The Land of the Great Turtles by Alex Stephenson, used with permission.

Alex, I know both you and Brad work for the Cherokee Nation in different fields. How did you two connect?

I’ve known Brad since I met my wife around 2008-2009. Brad and his twin brother Brian grew up with my wife and her sister, and were so close that my wife refers to them as her brothers.

It was actually a funny experience when my kids were trying to work out the family tree one day, and they found out that “Uncle” Brad and “Uncle” Brian weren’t actually related to us. Our families are just that close. If you were to see us all together, it would just look like one huge family.

Alex working on illustrations as his daughter watches

From an artistic standpoint, how did you approach the illustrations?


This was my seventh children’s book, but probably the most daunting one for me, because it was so important that we get it right.

I know Brad felt a lot of weight on his shoulders because (to our knowledge) this story hasn’t been made into a children’s book before.

Brad and I would meet to discuss each page, and he would tell me what certain things would look like in the traditional story (or historically for Cherokees) – things like their traditional clothes or tools they used in their daily life.

I wanted to draw this in a way that was vibrant enough to keep young children’s attention, but also in a style that was respectful of the story being told.

Brad, I know you are busy traveling nationwide educating Cherokee Nation citizens about our culture in at-large satellite communities through your work at Community and Cultural Outreach. What plans do you have for sharing it with Cherokee people as well as those outside our communities?

Alex and I had a kickoff event at Northeastern State University on March 15, the book’s release date.

Alex and Brad celebrate the launch of The Land of the Great Turtles
at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The Cappi Wadley Reading and Technology Center hosted us as part of their Family Literacy night. About 90 children attended along with their families.

Brad signing books at the event.

We had lots of fun and got to read both of our books several times to various groups of children and parents. They also gave copies of the books to all the kids. They are talking about hosting a Festival of Books this summer for local authors and illustrators.

I have a book reading and storytelling scheduled for May 1 at Tahlequah High School for their annual cultural day, an event that I started while I was teaching there.

I am also working on details for a book reading and signing tour scheduled for May 24-28 in the vicinity of Cherokee, North Carolina. I will be at The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Bearmeat’s Indian Den, Red Clay State Park and The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

Also June 9, Alex and I will be at the Museum of Native American History in Bentonville, Arkansas for a reading and signing event.

All of these events have been scheduled by me. I’ve done a lot of the marketing myself. Our publisher is getting more active since the book released but I handle scheduling all my appearances.



Do you all have other works in progress together? 

Brad: Yes, we are hoping to do at least one more book using a Cherokee story.

Alex and his family

Alex: Personally, I am working on another book for children that struggle with sleep.

I have two of the most amazing children in the world, but my daughter has always struggled with falling asleep and over the years we have tried different approaches to helping her.


One that always worked well was making up adventure stories to read to her while she was lying in bed.

I started thinking one day, “Other parents might struggle with this, too.”

So I decided to make a book along the same lines that they can read to their little ones as they drift off.

Cynsational Notes

Traci says: When reading a retelling of a traditional Native story, I compare how closely the story aligns to the original, see if the storyteller changed or perhaps updated the story for today’s audience and learn their reasons for doing so, and also consider how accurate are the illustrations for the tribe and cultural information centered in the story.

Reading the author’s note or interviews with the author will assist a reader, educator or librarian in determining the author’s relationship to culture keepers and storytellers in that tribal nation, if not a citizen of the tribe themselves.

Previously, there have been other traditional Cherokee story retellings in picture books that young readers would enjoy.

They include: Gayle RossHow Turtle’s Back Was Cracked (Dial, 1995) and How Rabbit Tricked Otter (HarperCollins, 1994), both illustrated by Murv Jacob; Joseph Bruchac’s The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story, illustrated by Anna Vojtech (Dial 1998); and, Gayle Ross and Joseph Bruchac’s The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale (Dial 1995), illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud.

Brad Wagnon  is a Cherokee storyteller and works as a technical assistance specialist for the Cherokee Nation Community and Cultural Outreach in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

He is devoted to promoting Cherokee culture and history by sharing Cherokee stories with future generations. His first picture book, How the World Was Made, shared a traditional Cherokee story of the earth’s origin.

He lives with his family in Gideon, Oklahoma on the land where he grew up.

Alex Stephenson is a licensed professional counselor, husband, and step father to two amazing kids.

He works for the Cherokee Nation at W.W. Hastings Hospital in Tahlequah, helping patients who check into the hospital for multiple mental health related issues.

He loves drawing in his spare time. As a part of this, he enjoys making comics and children’s books based on experiences he has in his life – and topics he believes other adults may use to help the children close to them.

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 Sept. 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.

New Voice: Kate Hart on After the Fall

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kate Hart’s YA novel, After the Fall, debuted in January 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From the promotional copy:

Kate Hart’s debut YA novel After the Fall is a wrenching, emotional read and an intense conversation starter about issues of sexual consent.



Seventeen-year-old Raychel is sleeping with two boys: her overachieving best friend Matt…and his slacker brother, Andrew. Raychel sneaks into Matt’s bed after nightmares, but nothing ever happens. He doesn’t even seem to realize she’s a girl, except when he decides she needs rescuing.



But Raychel doesn’t want to be his girl anyway. She just needs his support as she deals with the classmate who assaulted her, the constant threat of her family’s eviction, and the dream of college slipping quickly out of reach. Matt tries to help, but he doesn’t really get it… and he’d never understand why she’s fallen into a secret relationship with his brother.



The friendships are a precarious balance, and when tragedy strikes, everything falls apart. Raychel has to decide which pieces she can pick up – and which ones are worth putting back together. 

Publishers Weekly said After the Fall “has a lot going for it—well-defined and believable major and minor characters, in particular—as well as a lot going on. The book takes up consent, slut shaming, issues of class and (to a lesser extent) race, unrequited love, and competition between siblings—and then adds a tragic accident and the resulting guilt and fractures.”

I’m pleased to welcome Kate to Cynsations to talk more about After the Fall, what she is writing now, and her thoughts about working on a future project with her tribe, the Chickasaw Nation.



What was your initial inspiration for writing After the Fall?

I started writing After the Fall in 2010, when I had just trunked a paranormal manuscript and wasn’t sure where to go next. Someone online suggested the “I want” technique, so I sat down and made a simple list with “I want to write about…” at the top, followed by random topics that appealed to me.

After “hiking,” “the Ozarks,” and “keeping up with the boys” showed up, I wrote a random line about rock climbing that led to an entire scene, and six weeks later it was an entire book.

A lot has changed in the manuscript since then, and it took a lot more than six weeks to reach the book’s final form, but that scene stayed and the first line remained the same.



What has your author journey been like since publication in January of this year?

It’s been complicated, because my health took a downturn right around the book’s release (which also coincided with the week of the Inauguration), and an even worse downturn this fall.

I was lucky enough to attend several book festivals in the spring, and meeting readers has definitely been my favorite part of the experience, so being unable to travel for promo later in the year was really disappointing. But that’s life with a chronic illness, and hopefully I’ll be better prepared to manage those issues next time around.

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

The assault that Raychel’s character experiences is loosely based on my own, so when the first version of the book went on submission in 2010, it was very difficult for me to separate criticism of her actions from criticism of my own teenage behavior.

Seven years later, it’s not fun to read reviews that victim blame or claim that I, as an author, have somehow made light of the issue, but the time it took to get the books on the shelves gave me a while to develop a thicker skin and draw a better distinction between myself and my work.

What delighted you the most about writing this book?

With author Maureen Goo

Setting is an important element to me, so it was fun to pull parts of my hometown into the story. People have some pretty strong preconceived notions about Arkansas, and it’s been lovely to get thanks from locals who are relieved to see our area portrayed realistically.

You’ve mentioned in an interview earlier this fall that you’re working on a book informed by your Chickasaw ancestors’ experience. Will it also be a young adult story?

This is a great question because I’ve been asking myself the same thing! It’s certainly written about teenagers, but while one of the point of views is first person from a seventeen-year-old girl, the other is a “bird’s eye view” third person that may be skewing more adult.

I keep worrying about it, but ultimately you have to let the book be written in the way that works best for the story. My hope is that the finished draft will at least be a crossover – and if not, that my agent and/or future editor can help me straighten it out!

Any plans to work with the Chickasaw Nation’s White Dog Press to publish books for children and teens?

For now, I plan to stick with the major YA publishers, but I’d love to take part in some kind of anthology or project through the Chickasaw Nation.

I recently read their larger Chickasaw Press’ release Wenonah’s Story as a reference for my work-in-progress and I’m so grateful that they’re preserving the stories of our ancestors for future generations.

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

Find your group (but not your tribe, because Dear Internet, tribes are a totally different thing).

When I first started writing, I didn’t have any local writer friends, but thanks to sites like Absolute Write and the early days of Twitter, I ended up with an amazing support group of colleagues.

Watching their publishing journeys taught me so much, and I went into my own career well-informed because of their generosity and advice.

Any last thoughts on Native/First Nations writers for young people?

I am beyond excited for the books coming soon from Rebecca Roanhorse. Her debut novel Trail of Lightning is for adults, but she also has a middle grade called Race to the Sun coming from Rick Riordan’s new imprint, plus several short pieces in various anthologies.

I’m also a fan of Tim Tingle’s House of Purple Cedar, which takes place in Skullyville, a Choctaw town in Oklahoma where many of my relatives lived.

Cynsational Notes

After studying Spanish and history at a small liberal arts school, Kate Hart taught young people their ABCs, wrote grants for grownups with disabilities, and now builds treehouses for people of all ages.

Her debut YA novel, After the Fall, was published January 2017 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux; she’s also a contributor to the 2018 anthologies Toil and Trouble and Hope Nation.

A former contributor to YA Highway, she currently hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know series, and sells woodworking and inappropriate embroidery at The Badasserie. Kate is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation with Choctaw heritage and lives with her family in Northwest Arkansas.

Traci Sorell joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators.

Traci writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies for the trade and educational markets. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile. It will be published on September 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 an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area and is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.

New Cynsations Reporter Traci Sorell

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Traci Sorell joins the Cynsations team as a reporter covering children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators.

Traci writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies for the trade and educational markets. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile. It will be published on September 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 an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area and is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram @tracisorell.

Cynsational Notes

Traci’s Reading Chair

Why I Speak Out? by Traci Sorell from Edith Campbel at CrazyQuiltEdi. Peek:

 “…there is an education process that must happen with many editors, art directors, agents and other publishing industry staff, who, like most people in this country, know little about Native/First Nations sovereignty, culture and people. 

“Thankfully in my experience thus far, everyone I’ve worked with has been hungry to learn and has been open to my feedback and that of others in the Native community featured in my stories.”

Guest Post: Traci Sorell on Signing with a Literary Agent

Kansas State U. Powwow with son Carlos & cousin Matthew Lester (senior)

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I had no idea how beneficial an agent could be when I attended my first SCBWI conference in October 2013.

I quickly realized how much about the industry I did not know.

I began to network with other children’s writers, especially fellow Native Americans, and when it came time to look for an agent, I utilized that network extensively.

I questioned fellow writers with representation, especially those from Native/people of color backgrounds, about their experience. I asked how agents had presented themselves at conferences or other events. I read agent online interviews and social media posts.

I wanted my agent to be a steadfast partner with a strong work ethic. It is a long-term relationship, so both people have to be dedicated to maintaining it. I required someone who was excited about my work and associated with a well-respected agency.

Traci’s Reading Chair

Ideally, I wanted someone who had editorial experience that reflects what I write—fiction, nonfiction, and Native/POC subjects. To be honest, this makes for a small submission list, so I did expand beyond that.

When I communicated with agents via email and telephone, I tracked whether what they shared reflected my list.

My gut got an extreme workout when I received two offers of representation on the same day. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing and checking in with trusted mentors.

Ultimately, I accepted Emily Mitchell‘s offer of representation with Wernick & Pratt Agency. She met every single item on my list. Her clients contacted me quickly and gave their honest feedback about her representation.

Emily had vetted me with my editor at Charlesbridge, her former employer. We had both done our homework.

To me, it is kismet that Emily presented at that first conference I attended—and in my home state of Oklahoma too! That day, she shared her desired client attributes—voice, authority, pragmatism and flexibility. I’d like to think I resemble her list, too.

Cynsational Notes

Follow @TraciSorell 

Traci Sorell writes fiction and nonfiction for children featuring contemporary characters and compelling biographies. She has been an active member of SCBWI since August 2013.

In April 2016, Charlesbridge acquired her first nonfiction picture book, We are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, from the slush pile.

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 an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She grew up in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located.

She is a first-generation college graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She also has a Master’s degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Previously, she taught at the University of North Dakota School of Law and the University of New Mexico.

She also worked as an attorney assisting tribal courts nationwide, advocated for national Native American health care, and directed a national nonprofit serving American Indian and Alaska Native elders. She now lives in the Kansas City area.

See also Story to Contract: Traci Sorell’s Incredible Journey by Suzanne Slade from Picture Book Builders. Peek: “Be grateful. Every day. If you approach your creativity and the process of writing from a place of gratitude, it opens you up. You will be more aware of story ideas, available to hear critiques that improve your craft, and connected to others around you in the kidlit world. Gratitude opens up receptivity.”

Emily Mitchell began her career at Sheldon Fogelman Agency, handling submissions, subsidiary rights, and coffee. She spent eleven years at Charlesbridge Publishing as senior editor, contracts manager, and director of corporate strategy. After a brief post-MBA stint in the non-publishing world, Emily returned to children’s books at Wernick & Pratt.

Her clients include Geisel Honor winner April Pulley Sayre, author/photographer of Best In Snow (Beach Lane, 2016); Caron Levis, author of Ida, Always (Atheneum, 2016); and Frank W. Dormer, author/illustrator of The Sword in the Stove (Atheneum, 2016) and Click! (Viking, 2016).

Emily holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Harvard University, a master’s in secondary English education from Syracuse University, and an MBA from Babson College. She lives outside Boston.