I first met Traci two years ago at the Kweli conference in NYC. And boy, am I glad I did. She has become a dear friend and a real inspiration.
Her picture book, WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge), comes out this September 2018. She also has two new picture books that will be coming out we should all be on the watch for: At The Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Fall 2019) and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Myles (Charlesbridge, Spring 2020)
Miigwech, Traci, for sharing your time and thoughts with us today. We are grateful for you!
Carole Lindstrom: What first drew you to writing book for children? Give us an idea of your journey and some of the challenges you’ve encountered in doing so.
Traci Sorell: 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 the local library, I could not find 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 to share with my son? It made me think that other Cherokee parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents must be facing a similar problem.
That prompted me to reach out to a friend from graduate school who had trade published books for children to find out what I needed to do. I attended my first conference about writing for children in October 2013 and decided to begin building toward a full-time career as an author in 2015. I think 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 writing for children is more difficult than writing a legal brief.
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, turn their head elsewhere, etc. 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. So it makes me 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.
I wrote WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA in November 2015, submitted it to ten publishers a month later, and sold it to Charlesbridge through the slush pile (unsolicited/unagented) in March 2016. Others have shared with me that this is an incredibly fast timeline from first draft to sale in this glacial industry, especially for a debut book. Having sold a couple more books since then, I agree. But WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA presents the universal value of gratitude as experienced by Cherokee people across the four seasons. The book shows modern day Cherokee people living out our traditional teaching of expressing gratitude for both blessings and challenges in daily life. No one is doing anything extraordinary in the book—it’s not fiction, fantasy or magic. Yet the book’s content is extraordinary because contemporary Cherokee culture, history and sovereignty is visible in a way that it hasn’t previously been in children’s literature. That’s what I want to see more of in this field.
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?
TS: Wado, Carole. We have extremely creative and talented storytellers and artists like yourself and others that bring authenticity and knowledge of our Native traditions, cultures and people to their work. All children need to see Native creators as professionals in this business.For our Native children, they need to know that this is a career choice for them to pursue if they so choose.
To the extent I can be of assistance or offer words of encouragement to other well-established Native creators like Cynthia Leitich Smith and Joseph Bruchac have done for me, then I will. Our Cherokee elders teach us the talents and gifts we are given should be used to assist others. No one benefits if I don’t continue what others have done for me. Children don’t get the wonderful array of books they could potentially enjoy if I don’t help recruit, encourage and grow those who can write, illustrate and create those stories and poems into being. The cycle of bringing others into the industry needs to continue and expand. We’ve been misrepresented and invisible for too long.
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?
TS: I’m new in this industry. I haven’t been around long enough to know how the industry has changed.
What I do see is that more Native creators – writers and artists – are bringing forward their stories and art. Now we need to make sure those are being considered for publication. We cannot continue to have the majority of books available for children and teens created by people who are not from our Native Nations. Too many times, the homework has not been done to get it right – from a historical, cultural and political perspective or in consultation with the actual culture bearers from those tribes. The language and descriptions used often otherize Native people in a work that is supposed to be about them! This is completely avoidable, and yet it continually happens.
CL: What are some of your favorite children’s books with Native American and First Nations characters?
TS: I have so many, but here are the ones I’ve read that pop into my head right away. They’re listed in order of most recently published first.
Undocumented by Duncan Tonatiuh (Abrams, 2018)
Unstoppable: How Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team Defeated Army, written by Art Coulson and illustrated by Nick Hardcastle (Capstone, 2018)
Give Me Some Truth by Eric Gansworth (Arthur A. Levine, 2018)
Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker’s Story, written by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by LizAmini-Holmes (Albert A. Whitman, 2018)
All Around Us, written by Xelena González and illustrated by Adriana M. Garcia (Cinco Puntos Press, 2017)
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith and illustrated by Danielle Daniel (Orca, 2017)
When We Were Alone written by David Robertson and illustrated by Julie Flett (Highwater Press, 2017)
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (Roadrunner Press, 2013)
Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau and illustrated by Robert Hynes (Tilbury House, 2006)
Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001)
CL: What books would you like to see more of in terms of children’s literature?
TS: I like the trend I see now for more contemporary (post-1900) portrayals of Native life in fiction and nonfiction for children. I want that to continue. It helps combat the invisibility of Native Nations, their sovereignty and cultures persist today.
I’d also like to have more books about those leaders (not just elected politicians) but also grassroots leaders, artists, and activists from Native Nations be featured in fiction and nonfiction to show children and teens. This will help young readers see that the sacrifices of our ancestors have not been forgotten and the work to protect our sovereignty, care for our lands and people, and continue to practice our beliefs has continued in the modern era.
CL: 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?
Wonderful articles, books and information for the social justice minded writer or parent
American Indians in Children’s Literature
Dr. Debbie Reese maintains lists of books and offers reviews of those centering Native American/First Nations as well as those published which are not recommended.
Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations Blog
Specifically for creators due to its focus on craft, Cynthia’s blog frequently features books with social justice themes as well as those written or illustrated by Native American/First Nations’ authors and illustrators
CL: What else do you think is important to share with the reader?
TS: If you believe you have a story to tell, whether through word or art, do what you can to tell it. Our children collectively need to see examples of the marginalized in our world taking action against injustice in the materials they read (books, magazines, comics, poems, etc.). Work on your craft and do your homework to get the words and art right, knowing the representation shared in those pages will impact children in ways you can’t even imagine.
CL: What’s next for you?
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 with We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. I’m also working on two picture book biographies, a short story, a novel-in-verse and some poems.
TS: Thank you so much for your time! Miigwech
Learn more about Traci Sorell at www.tracisorell.com