Interview: Children’s-YA Author Cynthia Leitich Smith

This interview was conducted by Jane Kurtz in April 2002.

JK: It’s pretty unusual for a person’s first three published books to be three different genres: picture book, upper middle grade novel, chapter book. Do you have any thoughts on what it takes for a writer to be that versatile?

CLS: Writing for diverse genres isn’t so much up to the author as the characters who speak to her. If I could control those voices, I would ask them to wait patiently in neat lines. Fortunately, I don’t have that kind of control.

But it is a challenge to write for different age groups. I spend a lot of time studying work by other children’s authors and by Native authors (for both children and adults), as well as children’s and Native poets for these same audiences. This gives me a feel for how I can reach out to young readers at a certain point in their lives while, to the extent possible, honoring Native literary traditions. I also seek the advice of other authors. One of the greatest things about being an author of the Internet generation is how accessible we are to each other. This brings with it many opportunities for personal and professional support.

The magic, though, comes from a more emotional, internal exercise. When I begin writing a protagonist at a given age group, I gently talk myself back to that time. Remember nine, I’ll say to myself. Remember how scary it was to be in a new school, how you felt when someone made fun of your clothes, how comforting it was to spend time with your grandparents, how much fun you had singing with your mom to tunes on the the car radio, how you would spend hours reading beneath the canopy of your new bed…

When I reach that place, that place that’s nine (or four or fourteen), I’ll turn to my protagonist and ask, “How are you?” Then, if everything clicks just right–and it doesn’t always, they’ll begin to answer, and it’s as though someone else is living in my head.

JK: How about challenges of switching from one genre to the other?

CLS: Patience the hardest. At some point, one voice or another will demand my full attention, and I have to honor their insistence. Sometimes a character from a previous project will begin to intrude on my work in progress. I’ll often ask them to write me a letter. Real or fictional, everybody needs to be heard sometimes.

JK: And…do you feel a favorite genre to work with emerging out of your experiences?

CLS: My own inner child, if there is such a thing, is about fourteen. Deep down, I’m passionate about my beliefs, intensely optimistic, overly self-critical, and realistically hopeful–all fairly standard qualities of a fourteen-year-old.

My greatest writing interests are in the standard middle grade (ages 8-12) and upper level YA (12-up, even 14-up) genres, just a little younger and a little older than where my “inner child” lies. Maybe that’s because those categories would balance me, one on each side. Yet, these are also two age groups not represented in my books to date.

I had an opportunity this past year, however, to write two short stories, one for each of these age groups, which will be published in two different, as yet untitled, HarperCollins anthologies. These are my favorite writing pieces so far.

Right now, I’m working on two book-length manuscripts for these same audiences. The middle grade story scares me more than anything I’ve worked on before, and the young adult novel excites me more than anything I’ve worked on before. Both are probably good signs.

JK: You’ve had terrific illustrators. The pictures for JINGLE DANCER are so strong, and your covers are unusually vivid and appealing. Just luck…or did you have any input?

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich SmithCLS: I’m extremely fortunate to be working with Rosemary Brosnan, an editor who considers my feedback on illustrations as related to cultural expertise. I’ve had the opportunity to preview the illustrations before publication, and in the case of RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, I made suggestions about the cover that were included in the final art.

In addition, each of the illustrators who’ve worked on my books have produced carefully crafted work. With JINGLE DANCER, Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu did a magnificent job of creating watercolor paintings that convey the love and respect between Jenna and the women in her life. Their art reinforces the story.

I was likewise most pleased with the cover art for RAIN by Lori Early as well as the cover art and interior illustrations for INDIAN SHOES by Jim Madsen.

I have to admit, though, the RAIN cover did trigger a question in my mind: Rain is always referring to her older brother Fynn, a.k.a. “Native American Fabio,” as the family heart throb. So when I first looked at Rain’s gorgeous, cover-girl face, my initial thought was, “Wow. I wonder what Fynn looks like.”

JK: I wrote an article for School Library Journal on the challenges of accuracy when it comes to illustrations in multicultural picture books. Did this issue come up for you at all with JINGLE DANCER?

CLS: It did in a positive way. When Neil and Ying first began researching the illustrations, I sent them a large box of tribal newspapers, video from a southern Oklahoma powwow, family photos, anything that might help. They used those materials in beginning to sketch. They also attended a powwow in New York, hence the importance of my offering the video (not all powwows are alike), and agreed to let me review the illustrations.

I spotted a couple problematic areas. One was the inclusion of a very generically southwestern looking “Indian-style” pot in Grandma Wolfe’s house. Now, I will grant that it’s plausible that Grandma could’ve jumped into car, sped off to the Dillard’s at the Muskogee mall, and decided it was the pot for her. However, in children’s literature, proper attention to the specificity of Native cultures is key.

When young readers from an under-represented community, like Native Americans, read books supposedly about their people that don’t ring true, it sends the message that those books aren’t for them. It was important that young Native readers see themselves in Jenna’s story without being distracted or distraught by inaccuracies. It was also important that other young readers not get the idea that “Indian identity” is somehow fungible.

So, we gladly replaced that pot with a Creek-style basket, and JINGLE DANCER is a stronger book for it. Neil and Ying, who had previously created only books reflecting their own diverse backgrounds, brought with them not only incredible talent as artists but also an important sensitivity that is absolutely essential in cross-cultural work.

JK: I’m sure there must be huge challenges, as with any pioneering effort, in feeling that one speaks for a huge and diverse ethnic group. I know, for example, that many of my books offer a rare glimpse into daily life in parts of East Africa — but even Ethiopia itself is made up of people who speak 80 different languages and belong to different ethnic groups, some of whom have traditionally been at war with each other. It can be terribly hard to describe—or show—differences that seem minute to an outsider but are vitally important to someone within the culture. Would you speak to some of the discomfort and questions that have come up for you in this area of your artistic life?

CLS: People often characterize my stories as “Native American” or “American Indian,” and that’s understandable for bibliographic purposes. My own site has a section with that sort of title, which is useful to teachers and those readers with a subject-matter interest. Oh, who am I kidding? I use it all the time.

But as in Ethiopia, when one talks about “Native America,” one is speaking of many peoples. In this case, literally thousands of nations, millions of individuals. The stories I write are by no means so sweeping in scope. Simply put, I stay close to home. My characters come from those Native Nations, or tribes, with which I’m most familiar.

Yet the ever-increasing importance of intertribal ties is a writing challenge. It’s not unusual for children to have neighbors, teachers, friends, or, for that matter, grandparents with different tribal affiliations. In reflecting this important reality, I write cross-culturally. (I’m not, for example, a Choctaw, though a Choctaw character is in one of my books).

This requires some judgments. I have to weigh my own expertise, which is of course limited. I worry about doing what’s right. The point of view character is the most crucial, and to accurately portray her perspective, I’m not likely to reach far. But I sometimes include minor characters from more distant Nations.

In any case, I tread respectfully, consider cultural property concerns, ask permissions, seek counsel, have patience, and am willing to take “no” for an answer. Much of my cultural content is fairly subtle, on the theory that it’s okay if not every reader notices it all. I would rather interweave references than present them in an encyclopedic or clunky way.

In addition to the distinctions between Nations, diversity also often lies within each. Factors can include interracial or intertribal identities, sexual orientation, second (or third) languages, reservation versus urban lifestyles, economic disparities, differing educational levels, various religious influences, competing political alliances, etc.

Yet when I begin writing, those are the factors I don’t fret. They’re part of real-life, and they find their way into the stories naturally or not at all. I don’t attempt to suppress them or neatly highlight just one or two. Instead, I trust that attentive readers will come to understand that many of the real-life complexities and range of peoples existing beneath the umbrella of “Native America” may also be found within my books.

My goal is to offer an authentic cultural and literary world view via characters who live, laugh, ache, and breathe. Yet I’m doing so in a way that’s integrated within stories. The idea of “story” comes first.

JK: JINGLE DANCER shows strong women in professional roles. Did you draw from any real women from your life in writing the book?

CLS: The character Cousin Elizabeth from JINGLE DANCER is an attorney who can’t attend the next weekend’s powwow because she has to work. She has been much remarked upon because professional women, especially professional Native women are so rarely seen in children’s picture books.

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich SmithHowever, that choice came easily to me. In law school, I was active in the Native Law Students Association and had ties to other Native women lawyers. Having just recently quit my day job to write full-time (don’t try this at home), the casting was more of a natural choice than any effort to send a particular message or honor a particular individual. Yet I have received letters from women attorneys and Native women professionals who especially identify with the character, and I’ve enjoyed their feedback and good humor.

Grandma Wolfe, Great Aunt Sis, and Mrs. Scott are no doubt blendings of the many strong women in my life. I am close to both of my grandmothers, blessed with wondrous aunties, and an “adopted” niece to many. JINGLE DANCER is dedicated to my Great Aunt Anne, who has been a constant source of strength and inspiration.

JK: I love the humor and gentle support between Grandpa Halfmoon and Ray in INDIAN SHOES. That relationship, of all the relationships between your characters, seems especially vivid and real. Any idea why/how you would find such compelling voices for a young boy and an old man?

CLS: Thank you. None of the particular stories are based on true life experiences, but the emotion between Grandpa Halfmoon and Ray stems directly from my relationship with my own Grandpa Clifford. His general attitude, sensitive yet solid, eager to laugh, able to empathize …these qualities are clearly borrowed. In addition, the character Ray is named after my own Grandpa Ray who died shortly before I was born.Perhaps because the only way I have been able to know him is through family stories, it seemed especially fitting to offer a character with his name in a collection of stories for young readers.

Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich SmithINDIAN SHOES is dedicated to both of them, my grandmothers, and my stepgrandfather, who passed away while the book was in production.

The voices of the characters and narrator, their patterns and rhythms, come directly from my relations in Oklahoma. Grandpa Halfmoon and Ray live in Chicago, but Grandpa is originally from Oklahoma and the duo visits family there in the last tale. Ray’s voice has a bit more of a Windy City clip to it, but he’s still influenced by the elder raising him, even in that way.

JK: Is your connection to Cassidy’s Kansas town rooted in real life?

CLS: I created Hannesburg, a fictional town, for the novel because the city council played a role in the story, and it seemed best to distance the fictional events from a real political landscape. In the process, I drew on my own experiences as a reporter in small towns, my familiarity with Douglas County, Kansas, and my affection for German-American towns.

Probably the most influential town, however, was Belton, Missouri, which is not far from the Kansas border, and home to several members of my family. Rain’s house is largely based on my Aunt Gail’s, which is near downtown Belton, and in fact, the corner of the house shown in the black-and-white photograph on the cover is my Aunt Gail’s. I’d sent a photograph of it to the illustrator, along with other materials, and it was fun for my family to see it there.

While working on the story, I read a portion of the manuscript at an SCBWI conference in Illinois. Afterward, another writer, asking about my fictional town, mentioned that her husband hailed from a small Missouri town called Belton. She went on to add that Hannesburg seemed to reflect its tone and tenor.

I still can’t decide if I didn’t do a good enough job creating a truly fictional place or if I should congratulate myself on having so well captured my source of inspiration—maybe both apply.

JK: One of the reviews mentioned the “sharp wordplay” in RAIN, and you also have such humorous touches in INDIAN SHOES. Do you think of yourself as a funny person, or where does this side of your characters come from?

CLS: I enjoy humor, and I think young readers do, too. It’s not appropriate for every book or every moment within a given story, but it’s great when it works.

I have received mail from Native readers saying how wonderful it is to find humor in my books, especially “Indian-style” humor. It’s interesting. My work includes (hopefully) humorous material that speaks to both the insider and mainstream audiences. Different readers seem to “get” different jokes, depending on their own backgrounds.

I don’t know if I’m a funny person, but much of life strikes me as hilarious. And when it doesn’t, when it really doesn’t, a wry observation can go a long way to making me feel better. It’s not so much about “looking on the bright side,” but acknowledging the absurd and the joyous. It’s good for balance, for the soul.

JK: Many people have suggested that adults who write for children have unusually strong memories and feelings about (or connections to) their own childhoods. Is this true for you?

CLS: In my personal life, I often tell stories, and many of them are about my family and childhood. I hail from a large extended family residing mostly in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. Growing up, my folks sometimes struggled financially (like many people then and now), but I never wanted for anything. At the same time, I was an only child and often found company in books and cousins. It’s not an accident that one of the main relationships in JINGLE DANCER is between Jenna and Cousin Elizabeth. School was harder. I was so studious that I didn’t completely fit in until about the fifteenth grade.

Being a member of my generation, GenX/Baby Busters, affected me more than I realized until adulthood. I was never a slacker, but I became entrepreneurial and am very aware of bombarding information, pop culture, and the instability of corporate America. It affects my writing, I’m sure.

So, yes, the memories are strong, and I routinely draw on the feelings of my childhood. When I write they are closer to the surface, perhaps because what I’m writing is so often inspired by my own real-life past.

Thanks so much, Jane, for interviewing me. Congratulations on the publication of your newest book, WATERHOLE WAITING (Greenwillow, 2002)!