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?
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.
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.
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 Francis, Monique Gray Smith, Erika T. Wurth, Jenny Kay Dupuis, Richard Van Camp, Arigon Starr, Kate Hart, Eric Gansworth, Louise Erdrich, Cherie 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?
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.
(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.
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!”
From Cynthia Leitich Smith
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.