Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cynthia, or Cyn, as most of us know her, has been a dear friend and mentor of mine for several years. She is an amazing New York Times best-selling author of fiction for young readers.

Her published books, short stories, essays and poetry for young readers are too numerous to list here, but JINGLE DANCER, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, and her TANTALIZE series and FERAL series are just a few of my favorites.

She also manages to find time to serve on the core faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program and is a member of the Honorary Advisory Board of We Need Diverse Books.

Her latest contemporary young adult novel, HEARTS UNBROKEN, is due out October 2018.

Carole Lindstrom: What first drew you to writing books for children? Give us an idea of your journey and some of the challenges you’ve encountered in doing so.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Ducks are wonderful listeners.

One afternoon in spring 1995, I walked from my law office in the Chicago Loop to a dock on Lake Michigan. I took a seat in the sunshine and proceeded to tell the attentive, swimming ducks about my sorrow over the Oklahoma City Bombing, especially over those young lives lost in the daycare center.

I talked. The ducks listened. Eventually, the conversation turned.

Reflecting on my own childhood, I mentioned that I had been a library kid, an avid reader. A lover of stories. Comics. Fantasy and adventure. Someone who saw “Star Wars” in the theater more than 380 times.

Maybe it was the influence of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings (Viking, 1941). Maybe it was all those family stories I heard as a child, lingering around kitchen tables. Maybe it was something my feathered friends whispered in my ear. Maybe after so much pain, I wanted to offer something positive to the world.

In any case, I had an epiphany! An immediate and absolute conviction that I should dedicate my life to creating literature for young readers.

Books are so intimate. Stories unfold in theaters of the mind. They connect deeply and can do so much good for the soul, for the society.

The ducks agreed, and I quit my law job the next day. Soon afterward, I relocated to Austin, which back then had a lower cost of living.

I joined Austin SCBWI, signed up for local children’s writing classes, and read, read, read, read. I had the tremendous fortune of being taken under wing by such distinguished authors as Jane Kurtz and Kathi Appelt. After two and a half years, I signed with my agent and sold my first book to HarperCollins.

My career has had its ebbs and flows, its moments of crisis and reinvention. I celebrate every success, no matter how small, and treasure being a member of the community.

hearts_unbroken_2018_final_fileMy fifteenth book, Hearts Unbroken, will be published by Candlewick Press in October. As will the paperback edition of Feral Pride, which caps my nine-book, Tantalize-Feral stories—YA genre benders set in a multi-creature universe.

I’ve also published picture books, a chapter book, short stories, and nonfiction essays. I have two poems under contract. My current focus is middle grade fiction.

My children’s-YA writing is both fantastical and realistic. It often features diverse casts, including Native protagonists and secondary characters.

Opening upmainstream trade publishing to contemporary Indigenous fiction has been tough. Incredibly challenging. For some years, I couldn’t connect a Native-centered book manuscript to an editor, even though my other stories were selling well.

But big picture…? Persistence, shifting demographics, expanded alliances and heightened activism is slowly paying off for all of us.

CL: I know, personally having experienced it, that a big part of your work is mentoring and trying to grow the Native and First Nations kidlit community. Can you talk more about this work?

CLS: You’re a wonder. I’m thrilled to have your voice in the mix.

Really, it’s a community-wide effort to bolster Native-First Nations voices. As an established author, I can help most by offering encouragement, industry/career insights, connections, marketing and creative support.

I love doing it. We’re talking hard-working, talented, accomplished writers and illustrators, many of whom have become dear friends. It’s a joy to celebrate them.

CL: How do you think the industry has changed, throughout your reading and writing career, in terms of literature for, and about, Native and First Nations people?

CLS: My first book, Jingle Dancer, sold to HarperCollins in 1998, right as the so-called “multicultural boom” was about to bust.

jingle_dancerPublishing shifted from an emphasis on the school/library market to bookstores (though both are always key), and a heavy social-studies overlay was preferred for IPOC-centered stories. They were considered niche titles that might be viable given the right curriculum tie-in or handselling by indie booksellers, who seemed likewise endangered.

Of late, we’ve benefitted from a heartening resurgence of interest and newfound respect. But it must be said, even in the lean years, we had our luminaries, our heroes.

The importance of Debbie Reese’s ongoing analysis, activism and advocacy cannot be overstated. Likewise, through its award program, the American Indian Library Association has consistently prioritized books for young readers. On the creative front? Joseph Bruchac, Tim Tingle, Richard Van Camp…I could go on.

For example, Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House series (Hyperion, 1999, and ongoing at HarperChildren’s) for middle graders is exquisite, brilliant writing and corrective in its authenticity and respectful depictions.

New allies include We Need Diverse Books and the #diversityjedi on Twitter and beyond. Persistent challenges include the scarcity of Native-authored books (it’s notably worse in the U.S. market than the Canadian market) and the industry’s default to able-bodied, cis male authors over all other genders and intersections.

That said, there are exciting, soon-to-debut women’s voices on the horizon. Small presses, including Native presses have always done much of the best work. The big trade publishers are starting to take notice and move forward, too.

CL: What are some of your favorite children’s books with Native American and First Nations characters?

CLS: By no means a complete list, but as a start:

fall_in_line_holdenFall In Line, Holden! by Daniel Vandever (Navajo)(Salina Bookshelf, 2017).

Girls Dance, Boys Fiddle by Carole Lindstrom (Metis/Ojibwe), illustrated by Kimberly McKay (Pemmican Publications, 2015).

How I Became A Ghost by Tim Tingle (Choctaw)(RoadRunner, 2013).

Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savaeau (Abenaki), illustrated by Robert Hynes, featuring a retelling by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki) (Tilbury House, 2006).

girls_dance_boys_fiddleMy Heart Fills With Happiness by Monique Gray Smith (Cree-Lakota) (Orca, 2016).

The People Shall Continue by Simon Ortiz (Acoma) and illustrated by Sharol Graves (Lee & Low, 2017)(40th Anniversary Edition).

Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki)(HarperCollins, 2001). Also, look for Joe’s YA speculative fiction published by Tu Books/Lee & Low.

give_me_some_truthSpeaking of YAs (because I can’t resist):

Dreaming In Indian Contemporary Native American Voices, edited by Lisa Charleyboy (Tsilhqot’in) and Mary Beth Leatherdale (Annick Press, 2014). See also #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women (Annick Press, 2017) by the same team.

we_are_gratefulIf I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga) (Arthur A. Levine, 2013). See also Eric’s latest novel, Give Me Some Truth (Arthur A. Levine, 2018).

In fall 2018, look for We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, a debut picture book by Traci Sorell (Cherokee)(Charlesbridge) and Apple In the Middle, a debut YA novel by Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band Ojibwe)(North Dakota State University Press). Please consider pre-ordering; it’s an important show of support.

CL: What books would you like to see more of in terms of children’s literature?

CLS: In terms of Native books, more genre fiction—science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery! More comedies and contemporaries and stories of young heroes with intersecting identity elements. Urban, suburban, small-town, military, and reservation kids. Characters across a socio-economic range. Characters with mental or physical disabilities. Characters of the LGBTQIA community. I could go on and on.

cynthia_leitich_smith_editingCL: Are there sites or resources you would highlight for writers and parents interested in social justice and multicultural children’s literature, specifically Native American and First Nations people?

CLS: I’ve mentioned Debbie Reese. Her site, American Indians In Children’s Literature, is an excellent place to find more recommended reads. (Click the “Best Books” tap at the top). See:

Beyond that, I offer an extensive list of Native book resources on my own website:

For craft, writers should check out:

More broadly:

With regard to diversity and inclusion in general: and specific communities/themes:

CL: What else do you think is important to share with the reader?

CLS: Authentic, compelling stories of three-dimensional Native characters are necessary to every young reader, especially those whose heritage is highlighted in a given book.

Enough with the stereotypes and manifest-destiny nonsense. Enough erasure.

We are not—and have never been—savage marauders or mystical creatures, caricatures meant to sell butter or sports teams.

We are living peoples of living Nations, living cultures.

We’re strong, we’re flawed, we’re joyful, we’re discouraged, we’re determined, we’re every quality that fuels irresistible fictional casts.

All Native kids have the capacity for heroism, healing, humor and heart.

If we value truth, if we care about the future, let’s see more of that on the page.

CL: What’s next for you?

CLS: I’ve mentioned my upcoming 2018 releases, Hearts Unbroken and the paperback edition of Feral Pride (both Candlewick).


Beyond that, I have various projects under contract. My active works-in-progress are all middle grade fiction—novels and an anthology of Native/First Nations writers.

Wearing my author hat, I frequently travel and speak. I look forward to the American Library Association conference in June in New Orleans.

I’m also a writing teacher on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. That keeps me busy, too.

What else? A new pie-in-the-sky personal goal is to visit the Star Wars Resort at Disney World. I’m saving my pennies already!

CL: Chi Miigwech, for your time and lovely words, Cyn.

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