Heartdrum, "Hearts Unbroken," and being the change

Don’t let anyone else tell you what your writing life should look like, and don’t give them the power to take away your joy.”


LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Ms. Smith, a couple of hours after I sent a request to you for this interview, an email appeared in my inbox from World Literature Today, announcing you as the winner of the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. First, congratulations! Second, how did you receive the news? How does it feel to be recognized for “outstanding achievement in the world of children’s and young adult literature”?


CYNTHIA LEITICH SMITH: Thank you. I received a lovely phone call a few hours before the announcement, which took place at a Zoom ceremony that evening. I’m genuinely gobsmacked by the whole thing. My fellow finalists were among the international luminaries of the field—the people I aspired to be when I grew up. I am deeply grateful to my nominator, Monica Brown, her fellow judges, and everyone involved in the NSK Neustadt Prize and Neustadt Lit Festival.


Monica Brown chose your book Hearts Unbroken as the example of your work for the Neustadt jury. Please tell us about this novel.


Hearts Unbroken is a contemporary, realistic young-adult novel, published by Candlewick Press. It’s the story of two teen journalists covering the controversy around the equitable and inclusive casting of their high-school musical, The Wizard of Oz. In sum, the new theater teacher has decided to take a Hamiliton-esque, color-conscious casting approach, and not everyone is happy about it. It’s also a love story about those same two teen reporters. She’s a Native girl. He’s an Arab American boy. They’re trying to figure out themselves, each other, and their relationship in a world that doesn’t make sense to many of us much of the time.


It’s received some lovely recognition, receiving the ALA’s American Indian Youth Literature Award in the YA division and a Foreword Reviews Silver Medal, among other honors.


Lone Star carried a news brief in December 2019 about your deal with HarperCollins to create Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint for young readers. How did this project come about? Can you update us on the status?


Ellen Oh, who’s a brilliant author as well as the CEO and president of the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit organization, approached me with the idea of a Native imprint over breakfast at a conference in Houston. She reminded me that books by and about Native people make up fewer than one percent of those published for young readers and suggested that I would be a good fit for raising up more Indigenous creatives and narratives.


I spent several months thinking about the possibility of an imprint, and the tipping point for me came when I was teaching a Native writers’ workshop called “LoonSong: Turtle Island” in Minnesota. I remember the moment, seated in the screened-in patio, with manuscripts for critique spread out on the table in front of me. The participants were inside, and I could hear their voices, their laughter. I thought, We could do this. We could help change everything.


From there, I reached out to Rosemary Brosnan, who is the vice president/editorial director of Quill Tree Books and Heartdrum at HarperCollins Children’s Books. Rosemary is my original children’s book editor, and she’s had a longstanding commitment to publishing underrepresented voices, beginning long before #WeNeedDiverseBooks propelled the movement to a new level.


As of today, I’m pleased to report that we will launch our first list this winter, featuring Christine Day’s tender middle-grade novel, The Sea in Winter. This summer we look forward to the release of Brian Young’s debut middle-grade Healer of the Water Monster and the first title in Dawn Quigley’s darling chapter-book series: Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-To-Be Best Friend, illustrated by Tara Audibert. I believe our current count is twenty-three signed manuscripts.


For those who haven’t read Native-focused literature yet, where do you recommend we begin? Which authors do you particularly enjoy and why?


With regard to books for grownups, my favorite writers include Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Marcie Rendon, and Linda Hogan.


When it comes to books for teens, try Eric Gansworth’s Apple: Skin to the Core, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe, Lisa Charleyboy’s Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices (with Mary Beth Leatherdale), Dawn Quigley’s Apple in the Middle, Joseph Bruchac’s Killer of Enemies, Tasha Spillet’s graphic novels, and Angeline Boulley’s upcoming debut, Firekeeper’s Daughter.


For middle grade, try Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House series, Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell’s Indian No More, David A. Robertson’s The Barren Grounds, Christine Day’s I Can Make This Promise. Plus, for kids in middle school, Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get Out of Here and Give Me Some Truth, and for the younger readers in, say, third and fourth grade, Andrea L. Rogers’ Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Survival Story.


For picture books, try Julie Flett’s Birdsong, John Herrington’s Mission to Space, Monique Gray Smith and Julie Flett’s My Hearts Fills With Happiness, Carole Lindstrom and Michaela Goade’s We Are Water Protectors, Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal’s Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, and Daniel Vandever’s Fall in Line, Holden!


Please note that my suggestions are by no means comprehensive but merely a place to begin.


I’d also like to offer a shout out to Choctaw author Tim Tingle, who’s likewise based in central Texas, and has published numerous award-winning books for readers of all ages.


As a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, how has this heritage shaped your life and career? How does it inform your leadership of the annual We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive?


I’m from a family that was impacted by the U.S. federal boarding-schools experience, and in some ways, I feel like writing and helping to publish Native children’s books is the ultimate refutation of that. As a child, I tended to shy away from books that reflected Native people and topics, either because of their stereotypical, inaccurate nature or because I couldn’t relate to historical narratives that underscored the myth of extinction—possibly a combination of the two.


As a young writer, I had the honor of publishing three books—Jingle Dancer, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, and Indian Shoes—between 2000 and 2002, which reflected contemporary daily life for Oklahoma-based, suburban, and middle-class Native people. These were considered groundbreaking at the time, and they are currently being updated (technology has changed a lot!) and repackaged for paperback and e-book releases with new art by Native illustrators. The e-book of Indian Shoes is already available and being widely used in schools.


So, when it comes to the intensive, it’s fair to say to the Native writer participants: I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to try to connect Indigenous narratives to the mainstream publishing market and ambassador them beyond that. Here is what to think about. Here are strategies to consider.


I also bring a solid knowledge base about the conversation where their work fits, which is helpful in identifying mentor texts for craft development.


You have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School, where you were a co-founder and senior editor of the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law—even studying law in Paris. Please tell us about the journey from law school to author.


Law school was an ideal match for my skills. I can read, I can write, and I can talk. That’s basically it. I’m not one for dissection or equations. I’m an iffy driver, and I only learned how to cook since “social isolation” became a common catchphrase. Being a children’s-teen author requires much of the same skill set. Plus, it clicks well with being an optimist who prefers conflict on the page over conflict in real life.


My original thought was to become either a media-law professor at a journalism school or First-Amendment professor at a law school. That changed after the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place while I was clerking for the Department of Health and Human Services for Chicago. I was struck with an imperative to do something positive for the world, for the future, and for children in particular. I could think of nothing better than creating books for young readers.


You mentioned earlier that you teach writing in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. What is your most important advice for young writers?


Don’t let anyone else tell you what your writing life should look like, and don’t give them the power to take away your joy. Define what “success” means to you, and celebrate every victory, no matter how small.


Since this is Lone Star Lit, I always ask what Texas means to a writer and their work. How did you come to Texas and how has Texas impacted your work?


I originally moved from Chicago to Austin so I could afford my transition from law to writing, although I’d be interested to see how the respective cost of living in those two cities has shifted over time.


Texas has had an enormous impact on my work. It’s one of the most significant states when it comes to children’s-YA books. We’re home to the Texas Book Festival and Texas Teen Book Festival, several fantastic independent bookstores (like BookPeople in Austin and Blue Willow in Houston), the incredibly influential Texas Library Association (which offers first-rate events), the Writing Barn in Austin, and a bountiful, highly successful and nurturing community of children’s-YA writers and illustrators.


In YA literature, my Tantalize series put me on the map (and bestseller list). The kick-off concept is that the many times great-niece of Bram Stoker’s Texan character, Quincey P. Morris, is running an Italian restaurant on South Congress in Austin. The books are horror-comedies with romantic elements and, beyond that, a springboard for engaging with Dracula’s themes.


As the author of a multi-creature-universe, I am proud to be the literary inventor of the werearmadillo and turkey werevulture.


Of course, all this also led to the spin-off Feral trilogy, which is likewise set in Texas.


I believe you have a few books to release in the not-too-distant future. Can you tell us what’s next for you and your work?


Next up is Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, which comes out in February. It’s a middle-grade anthology of short stories and poems centered on a two-day intertribal powwow. The contributing writers and illustrator collaborated on the worldbuilding and intersectional content via an online message board, phone calls, emails, texts, and in-person meetings. This resulted in book wherein each entry can stand alone but reading them in concert adds a layer of resonance as, say, a protagonist from one story may “guest star” in another one. For kids, it’ll be a more fully immersive vicarious experience.


After that, I look forward to the release of Sisters of the Neversea, which comes out in June. It’s a modern, Indigenous update to the world of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Although the classic’s namesake character plays a significant hero in the story, my heroes are stepsisters Wendy Darling and Lily Roberts, whose lives are upended when Peter and Belle appear at the window of their suburban home. After intrigue, hijinks, and adventure, they must rescue their shared little brother Michael and find a way home from Neverland. I’m hopeful that Sisters of the Neversea is a compelling, heartfelt, and page-turning adventure in its own right, but I’m also hearing from a lot of people who’re saying they’re curious to find out how a Native writer navigated and reinvented that world.


Beyond that, those early books I mentioned—Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain Is Not My Indian Name—are in the process of coming out in paperback and e-book editions, too.


It’s so strange with the suddenly accelerated shift to online bookselling and pre-orders. I strongly encourage everyone to keep supporting their brick-and-mortar independent booksellers during this difficult time via their websites, curbside pickup, or whatever your local options may be.


What books are on your nightstand?


Twins, a middle grade graphic novel by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright, and When We Are Kind, a picture book by Monique Gray Smith and Nicole Niedhardt.


Cynthia Leitich Smith is the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and a New York Times bestselling author of books for young readers, including Hearts Unbroken, which won the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award. She is also the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and serves as the Katherine Paterson Inaugural Endowed Chair on the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cynthia is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and lives in Austin, Texas.