Reading Native family stories 'like mine'
Cynthia Leitich Smith checked a stack of books out of her local public library almost every Saturday morning as a little girl growing up in the ’70s near Kansas City. She read practically everything she could get her hands on, with one exception.
“If I saw books that had Native people on the cover, I wouldn't pick them up,” Smith said. “I was opening up those books, and I was maybe seeing this really stilted speech, or girls and women being completely erased from the narrative.”
Stereotypical misconceptions about Native people in the land of the Kansas City Chiefs prompted Smith to keep her identity as a citizen of Muscogee (Creek) Nation away from other kids. That changed by 2000, when Smith published her first of many bestselling children’s and young adult books featuring Native American characters.
HarperCollins Children’s Books recently tapped Smith to lead Heartdrum, a new imprint set to launch in early 2021 emphasizing contemporary Native characters and genre fiction. She’ll work with editor Rosemary Brosnan to publish a variety of picture books, chapter books and young adult titles from Native authors.
Tribal presses and small publishers have focused on Native children’s books in the past, but Smith called it a game-changer for one of the “Big Five” American publishing houses to create an imprint like Heartdrum. Only one percent of children’s books published in 2018 include Native American characters, according to data from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“It’s good for kids to be able to read books about themselves or someone similar to them, just as farm kids should be able to read about other farm kids,” said Bob Nuss, who has owned Drumbeat Indian Arts in Phoenix since 1984. “Indians as a group are not seen anymore, but they’re here.”
Beads, feathers and moccasins line the walls at Nuss’ shop, but he also stocks dozens of children’s books. Many of them offer historical looks at well-known nations like the Sioux and Navajo or famous leaders like Geronimo. Nuss said he hopes Heartdrum will be able to work with independent bookstores that sell small quantities and also include stories from less famous groups among the 573 federally recognized tribes within the United States.
“We're not going to be publishing fungible books about Native people where we're trying to wrap a whole bunch of qualities into one person,” Smith said, adding that Heartdrum will keep books tribally specific to show off all the diversity that falls under the Indigenous umbrella. “Authentic Native experiences happen in reservations and urban areas, suburban areas, small towns, [and] military families that were like mine.”
Developing a diverse catalog of books is not as simple as walking into a community and demanding somebody there write a children’s book, Smith said. Authors need mentoring, resources and contacts to break into the competitive book-publishing industry.
That’s why Heartdrum and HarperCollins will make an annual donation to support writing workshops organized by We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit that advocates for children’s books that reflect kids of all strokes. Smith said her conversations with the organization’s CEO, Ellen Oh, directly led to the genesis of Heartdrum, and she hopes scholarships to attend these workshops will help Native authors find the community they need to support their craft.
“There was a feeling for a long time that the kinds of stories that maybe [Native authors] wanted to write couldn't necessarily find a home at a big publisher,” Smith said. “That's something that not only is changing, but it has changed in meaningful ways.”
Heartdrum’s launch will include “Ancestor Approved,” an anthology of short stories from an intertribal powwow, and “The Sea in Winter,” a novel by Christine Day, Upper Skagit. Future books will include debut novels from Navajo writer Brian Young and a three-part series of chapter books by Dawn Quigley, Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. Smith hopes Heartdrum will help break “hyper-reverent” and supernatural tropes about Native people woven through American pop culture.
“We go to Target. We shovel our driveway,” Quigley said from her Minnesota home. “It’s really the teachers and librarians at the front lines, especially the non-Native ones. My hope is also that they start recognizing a lot of the bias and problematic books that they’re using.”
Quigley said small presses have done a fabulous job with Native stories, but they don’t possess the marketing muscle HarperCollins can apply to Heartdrum’s books. She’s most excited about the chance to meet teachers and librarians at conferences and to visit with children, both Native and non-Native.
“Children need to see mirrors of themselves, or windows and sliding glass doors for other children from outside that community to join that world to see that world,” Quigley said.
While waiting for Heartdrum to launch next year, Smith encourages parents to speak up at local bookstores and libraries if they notice a lack of authentic Native children’s fiction on the shelves. “That could move that person to action in a way that makes a longer-term change for their individual community but also for the industry.”
Austin Fast is a freelance journalist based in Phoenix with a passion for podcasts, international travel and rural America. Follow him on Twitter at @a_fast.