Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today
Art Coulson is anything but a reluctant storyteller.
A Cherokee Nation descendant from a family of storytellers, he published his first two picture books in a preschool program then went on to work more than 25 years in writing, editing and communications before finding his voice as a children’s author.
His 2020 book, “The Reluctant Storyteller,” has now been named one of the year’s top children’s books by the prestigious Bank Street and has been designated the American Indians in Children’s Literature Best Book of 2020.
Coulson also served as the first executive director of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation in Oklahoma, and plays lacrosse on the side.
“I was actually writing books, or trying to write books, for adults at first,” Coulson told Indian Country Today by phone from his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “And the first children's book kind of dropped in my lap. Another writer had been approached by a publisher to write a nonfiction book about the connection of lacrosse to American Indian people. And she said, ‘Well, I don't know anything about lacrosse, but I know a guy.’ And I was the guy.”
He’s now written 10 works for children and youths, including four books in a series on hunting and fishing, plus two graphic novels and a play. He wrote seven in just the last year while also working full-time for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
His latest book, "Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi!," was published this year as part of Charlesbridge’s Storytelling Math series of picture books. It is illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight.
“It may sound like a lot, but they’re short,” he said. “They’re short, chapter books.”
Crafting the story
Coulson has helped to shape the stories he tells. He made suggestions for the lacrosse book that converted it from a nonfiction book to a fictional tale about a young lacrosse player.
“I said, ‘You know, I play lacrosse and am from American Indians, but it really sounds kind of boring. Can I tell a fictional story that includes all the points that they want?’” he said. “And they were generous enough to make an offer on that book instead.”
He also convinced them to hire artist Robert DeJarlait, who provided the colorful illustrations for the book, The Creator’s Game, which was published in 2013.
The 48-page book was a success and led to a number of other books and short stories for children. His second book, “Unstoppable,” a story for middle-school-age students, tells the story of acclaimed Indigenous athlete Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team’s big win over Army in 1912.
The Carlisle team was legendary, and the game came just a few months after Thorpe had won the gold medal in the pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. The book is illustrated by Nick Hardcastle.
“That was another case where a publisher approached me,” Coulson said. “And I thought, ‘This is a chance for me to learn a little bit more about Jim Thorpe…’ The other thing I really liked about it is they didn't want just a straight bio. They really wanted to focus on one specific football game and then the players who were in that game.”
A trip for Chooch
His third book, “The Reluctant Storyteller,” published last October by Reycraft Books, tells the story of teenager Chooch Tenkiller, who is reluctant to be a storyteller like the rest of his family and wants to be a chef.
“Everyone knew him as Chooch, which is what his mom and dad had called him from the day he was born,” Coulson writes in the book. “They said it meant “boy” in the language his grandparents had spoken back in Oklahoma.”
Then Chooch takes a trip with his Uncle Dynamite to the small town of Greasy, Oklahoma, where he learns that stories can be told in many ways.
The book includes vibrant illustrations by artist Carlin Bear Don’t Walk, Northern Cheyenne and Crow.
It’s an expanded version of an earlier book by Coulson that had been published for the educational market, and includes sections previously trimmed from the book.
The book includes a story Coulson had written earlier, “The Energy of the Thunder Beings,” with illustrations by Cherokee artist Roy Boney Jr., and a section about the modern Cherokee Nation by author Traci Sorell.
“I think it’s a really nice combination for your readers,” Coulson said in question-and-answer session posted online by the Raven Quill Literary Agency.
“A fictional story about a modern Cherokee boy, a story in the form of an old Cherokee tale that happened sometime in the distant past, and a nonfiction story about our people and community in Oklahoma.”
Finding his community
Coulson is now working on several books that will be published over the next two years, including a preschool picture book, a nonfiction graphic novel for middle-school-age youths and a full-length novel, “Chasing Bigfoot,” which will bring back Chooch and his uncles.
He is also working on books for the educational market while keeping his day job for the state. It forces him to be disciplined and pace himself, he said.
“What I generally try to do is usually after supper I get into my office and lock myself up and try to get 1,000 good words out,” he said. “I usually write from about eight o'clock at night, till about one or two in the morning. I've always been a night owl. I've worked at newspapers for 25 years. At night is when I'm my most productive...’
“I don't get 1,000 words in every day because sometimes there's administrative stuff to do, like answer emails,” he said. “Now that I have an agent I don't have to do as much of the paperwork kind of stuff.”
He also finds time to go fishing most evenings, which has helped him write his outdoors books. The graphic novels and play are also in the works.
“Last year, I got a chance to write a couple of graphic novels, which I've been wanting to do for a while,” he said. “One is largely done. The other one, I've got the edits back. And then the play that I did as a read-aloud play for schools — kids can take a different part and read the book, which is kind of fun to do because they're based on a true story of my childhood.”
During the pandemic, he missed doing readings in-person for children, but had managed to do that virtually through the shutdown until recently, when he made a trip back to Oklahoma.
“I was down in Cherokee Nation and then in Pryor, Oklahoma, that's my grandmother's hometown,” he said. “I did all the schools in the district over the course of a week. Then when I got up to the upper end of the middle school and the high school, we talked more about writing and the writing life and that sort of thing. That was really fun to talk with the kids. They were really engaged and asked great questions.”
He enjoys the trips to Oklahoma after living a nomadic childhood as a Navy brat.
“I have a connection to the town because I grew up all over the world,” he said. “I never really had what I consider a home. We moved every year, at least once. So that was always the one place where we would see family.”
It has been key to finding his voice as an author.
“What’s really helped me as a children’s writer was finding my community,” Coulson said. There are great, generous, smart Native children’s writers out there, creating great books. They are eager to help new writers connect and get established in the business.”
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