Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee)

YA and Children’s Author and Curator
Cynthia Leitich Smith

Photo by Christopher T. Assaf

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the CD  Soul Sand; used courtesy of the Free Music Archive

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.

Cynthia Leitich Smith:  It's very important to me that my Native characters be three-dimensional, resonant people with a full range of humanity. Very often for Native kids, my books, because there still aren't enough of us, maybe the first time they see someone like themselves in that way on the page, I want them to ring true most of all in their humanity.

Jo Reed: That was the award-winning YA and children’s author and curator Cynthia Leitich Smith.  A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Cynthia has written for young readers across genres and categories, but she is best known for her books centering on the lives of modern-day Native children and teenagers. She published her first book in 2000-- a picture book called Jingle Dancer, about a Muscogee girl in contemporary Oklahoma. She followed that with the middle grade novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name, and then a book of linked short stories Indian Shoes.  Cynthia then moved into speculative fiction, writing fantasy and gothic novels for young readers.  But in 2018, she returned to writing about the realistic modern-day dilemmas of a Native teenager with the prize-winning YA novel Hearts Unbroken. And she never looked back.  She went on to write and edit a number of award-winning and best-selling books with Native characters at their center becoming a significant advocate for diversity in literature.  In fact, she is curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books    

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s latest book is Harvest House and that is where I began our conversation—

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Harvest House is what I'm calling an indigenous ghost mystery, or perhaps you might think of it as a Native American Scooby-Doo but with some serious themes interwoven. We have a mixed group of young storytellers, journalists, theater kids, who are essentially trying to solve a mystery behind some local folklore centered on a mysterious Native woman at a crossroads between an old small town and a new modern suburb.

Jo Reed: It touches on many important themes. I t's a contemporary story, and it touches on stereotypes that are often a part of popular culture, on missing Native American women, on the failures of law enforcement and as we said, the mysterious death of this Native teenage girl haunts the novel. But Celeste isn't a victim, she is a spirit with agency.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Yes, absolutely. I was very cognizant as an author of books for young readers, that while we've had some representation of the issue of murdered and missing Indian women, girls, and two-spirit people, there is something of a gap in the conversation at what we used to call classic YA the kind of books that you could use in middle school and high school. Most of the representation to this point has been more in the crossover audience, books for upper high school and grownups. So I wanted to create a way of looking at that for kids who, both emotionally and in terms of their literary development, weren't quite as far along. And in doing that, I chose to empower these young Native storytellers, these young Native journalists, so that as they encountered deficiencies in mainstream news media, deficiencies in law enforcement, that they were able to raise their voices in a way that could offset the problems that we're facing and also offer some real hope that they as leaders can take us to a better place. They as rising young leaders can give us some healing and find a way to process all the myriad of emotions that surround this very fraught topic.

Jo Reed: And at the same time, Harvest House also centers on a first love, on an incredibly strong family and a vibrant extended community. Explain why all of those themes were important to include in a YA novel.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Certainly. There is real trauma in the present and the history of the Indigenous, in this case Muscogee, experience over time, but there is also joy. There's daily life. There are universal touchstones and for me, featuring Huey's very sweet, tender relationship with Marie, who is Ojibwe. She's from a different tribal nation. Her background is different from his. He's very much a suburban kid. She was a res kid who has relocated to this area. It allowed me to touch on some of the diversity within Indigenous country and also to show where the humor comes through, where that good medicine comes through, where you have a healthy community and parents who can support you in moments of need. So often the stereotypes center on those of us who are struggling and certainly those people absolutely exist, and that's true of every community. But we also have people like Aunt Georgia, who is an elder and really mentor to all of the Native teenagers who are in that area and works with them and is a sounding board for whatever they're experiencing and encourages them in whatever best directions they need to go.

Jo Reed: This is not the first time we're meeting Huey. Indeed, we've met the entire Wolf family before and I have to say, I am really crazy about them. Huey was a secondary, though very important character in your award-winning 2018 book, Hearts Unbroken, which centered on his sister Louise, and then we also met them in 2001 with your novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name. Why the return to the Wolf family?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Really, all the characters in my Native-centered stories are interconnected. Jenna Wolf was my first protagonist in a picture book called Jingle Dancer, and my thought is that if I'm constructing fictional families, fictional ties over generations, there needs to be a full circle aspect to that for young readers to feel truly represented, Indigenous young readers feel represented. They need to have that sense of community on the page, that it's not a one-off kind of experience. It goes not only throughout your own life, but through your parents and your grandparents and will be there for your children. And for non-Native readers, I think that it can be illuminating to underscore these extended family ties and how vital and treasured they are, as well as the very special relationship between Indigenous elders and children and teens.

Jo Reed: It's such a vivid picture. I just could stay with them forever.   Can you tell me what inspired Hearts Unbroken?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Certainly. It came from a couple of places. The first was that I grew up in Kansas, and like a lot of kids from that state, imagery, product, my junior high school play was The Wizard of Oz, it's everywhere, and it came as a tremendous shock to me to, in my adulthood, encounter the editorials written by author L. Frank Baum, which called for the genocide of Native peoples. They are not ambiguous. They are vicious and harsh and were published both right before and after Wounded Knee, so it's not as though this was rhetoric that got out of control and then consequences brought regret. No, if anything, he doubled down and said that these are people who should be wiped off the planet, and that's stunning for a kid who's grown up seeing his literary children manifest all over their memories. And at the same time, being an author myself, I'm always interested in that tension, the conversation of how do we regard the artist versus the art? This comes up again and again, in all aspects of life, be it through art, it could also be, say, with political speech or religious speech, how do we separate the speech from the speaker? And so I decided to look at that particular question with the understanding that we're all works in progress. And especially kids and teens, the most awkward of years, do often say the worst possible thing, possibly with the best of intentions and possibly not. So I wanted to look at speech in all of its forms, interpersonal, religious, journalistic, artistic, and so forth, and really try to parse through it, see where we belong. And so I did that essentially through the lens of Huey, who is a Muscogee teen boy, aspiring theatrical talent being cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, and then afterward finding out about Baum's editorials and wrestling with the decision of whether or not he can move forward on the stage and honor the expectations of his castmates and perform at his best level, or whether he wants to simply walk away from everything that has to do with Baum.  And then I framed that as a larger societal question, and at the same time made his sister's journey a little bit more personal. Louise says something to her love interest, and she stumbles over the words, she says the wrong thing, and she must then face her mistakes, consider what it really means to apologize, to make amends, to heal in those situations, because it's so easy to break everything down into this or that. Our world loves a binary and opposition, but really so many issues that we face and that teenagers must deal with exist on a spectrum, and very often different people of good conscience may choose a different approach within.

Jo Reed: Right after Rain Is Not My Indian Name, you published Indian Shoes, which are linked stories about a Cherokee Seminole boy named Ray and his grandpa who live in Chicago, and it's just a lovely book. But then there were many, many years until Hearts Unbroken. You wrote many books, but they were fantasy and gothic, and they certainly featured diverse characters, but it was really years before you returned to fiction that told stories of contemporary Native American kids. Why that pivot?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: It wasn't a choice. With regard to Indian Shoes, it should be said that that is an unusual book in that it does reflect urban Native people, it's largely set in the city of Chicago, and these are humorous daily life comedic stories, which is far afield from the tragic historicals of the time. But the break after that was a lot about what was happening in publishing. The so-called multicultural boom of the mid-90s to early aughts had gone bust, and the industry pulled back to a single voice from each of the default, underrepresented, marginalized communities, almost consistently male. We still saw some excellent work by Native authors with small presses, tribal presses, university presses, but they weren't, for the most part reaching a wide readership. There just isn't the marketing muscle or resources from those outlets. And so I decided deliberately to keep publishing some Native fiction where I could, mostly as short stories in anthologies, to keep a hand in the conversation, to begin mentoring as many up-and-coming young Native writers and to grow my own byline recognition. My hope was, and I was a very young writer, still at this time, I was one of the first Gen X writers to break into national trade publishing. My hope was that if I could become a big enough name, if I could earn the clout, if I could build an audience, then publishing might give me another chance to tell those stories. And what I didn't expect and was the most thrilling development was that the next wave of BIPOC authors and illustrators who came up were also tremendous self-advocates, and they had enough critical mass and access to social media to fuel a larger movement. So, both because of my raised profile, and the work of the co-founders of We Need Diverse Books and their allies, I was able to place a book like Hearts Unbroken with a major trade publisher, and even then, at that time, it was still a little bit of a risky decision from a publishing standpoint.

Jo Reed: And it went on to win how many prizes? I mean, it really is a very, very long list. Your books include a diverse cast of characters, including what I'm calling the Wolf books, certainly your Gothic and your fantasy books did, and I wonder how you go about ensuring authentic representation across cultures and backgrounds.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: There was a time when one of the red-hot, most sensitive debates in publishing and fiction was who had the right to write about whom? And my feeling is this: It's going to be very idiosyncratic, very specific to each individual, I'm not a believer in putting people on the spot to give their resume of identity elements. We've seen how damaging this can be, especially in cases of folks who are two-spirit LGBT+, and not in safe environments in their wider life; others who are survivors of great trauma, assault, et cetera, so it's not about that. It, for me, is about whether or not I have sufficient lived experience to authentically and accurately and respectfully reflect any given character from any given community in that particular role. So put another way, what does that mean in real life? It sounds very philosophical. Do I feel qualified to write a character who is, in the case of my latest project, Black and an Indigenous as a protagonist when I am Muscogee but I'm not Black? And the answer is yes, if I am co-authoring that story with Kekla Magoon, who is a noted Black author and can bring that perspective to the fold. If it's a secondary character, then what else do I know about that character? I don't want to write a world that only shows people like me because there isn't a world like that that exists, and I would get pretty tired of myself, frankly. So every single writer has to write across gender, ethnicity, faith, generation, region, you name it. It's in the very hard question of can I do this specific representation in this specific role? Can I write a secondary character versus a walk-on character? That's very different than writing a protagonist, and I do that in conversation, I don't work with authenticity readers in the way that people sometimes do where you pay a fee and send it, but I am in in-depth conversation with other children's book creators many of whom share a different heritage perspective than mine who I can bounce off questions or ideas with and just ensure that I'm doing the best job I can. Now does that mean that everything I do will be perfect? No. Unfortunately, I may make mistakes. I probably have, and it's incumbent on us to be open to that, to be open to being educated, to doing better, to be honest with ourselves about our limits, but also the fact that we'll grow over time. You look at someone like Cherokee author Traci Sorrell, who was in federal Indian law for many years, lived with and worked with tribes that I haven't had any exposure to whatsoever. Is she qualified to write them because she lived there and knows something about them? Perhaps, yes, and does she feel comfortable doing that as a protagonist or secondary character? That's really up to her because she knows more about her experience than I do.

Jo Reed: I wonder, just in general, what responsibilities you feel you have to take on as a writer for young readers, whether it's picture books or YA?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: It's important for me to do no harm. So I'm very thoughtful about how I frame sensitive information. We were talking about Harvest House and the subject of missing and murdered women, girls, and two-spirit people. And I know what it's like to be in conversation in those families, and I'll think to myself, would I give this to niece, nephew, nibbling,  a child of my family and feel that it would be harmful for them or healing for them. And the difference isn't always in protecting them from hard things. They will encounter hard things. It's framing those in a way that they are empowered, that they have a chance to process, and that their feelings are respected. It's not just about entertainment, it's taking to heart the idea that story should be good medicine.

Jo Reed: And let's hear a little bit more about you. You mentioned that you grew up in Kansas, that you're Muscogee. Was there a Muscogee presence in Kansas?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: It's better to say that I grew up in the greater Kansas City area. On both sides of the state line, I moved from the Missouri side to the Kansas side between third and fourth grade. The reason that I was in Kansas City as a Muscogee is that I am from a military family. So my grandfather was a boarding school survivor, which means I'm a second generation survivor. He went into the service and was in for a career. He had served in Oklahoma, he had served at Tinker Air Force Base, but he was transferred to Richardson-Cabour Air Force Base, which was outside of Belton, Missouri, which was outside of Kansas City. And my mother fell in love with my father at General Electric, and the rest is me. (laughs) But fortunately, we were only four or five hours back home, so I would go with my mom and my grandma and the Oldsmobile on these road trips down, I remember going down for a very long time in the summer from the time I was little. I remember fishing on pontoon boats barefoot with a lot of loud cousins and loud dogs and never catching any fish at all, but we had a great time. You could essentially be there in a weekend, and that was a blessing to me that not a lot of kids who grew up away from their tribal lands have. I had regular access in a way that they didn't.

Jo Reed: What about story? Was story important to you as a kid, both listening to and reading them?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Both listening to and reading them. I was a kid who lingered at the kitchen table to listen to stories, particularly family stories, when the rest of the kids would go out and play, and I'd make my way out there eventually, but that's where all the good stuff was, that's how you found out what had been going on. And I was particularly fascinated with stories of one of my grandfathers who had died the year I was born before I was born, and I think when something like that happens in a family, he was just in his 40s, he was laying fence on property. There is a certain transfer of the love and expectations onto that new baby, and I wanted to know as much about him as I could. But because of the nature of his childhood and that generation not really talking about a lot of the hard things they experienced, it wasn't really until I lived with his big sister when I was young, and she really wanted me to know him through story, and even though we weren't alive in the same place at the same time, he wasn't with all the other grandparents and great-aunties and uncles when I was growing up, his presence was significant, and that's enormous. That's literally conjuring a relationship and a whole feeling of connectivity that helped me throughout the rest of my life just by her sharing what she could remember, so there was that. I was also a big reader. I was an only child with a lot of cousins, and day-to-day my mother would take me to the local public library, we went every Saturday morning, I brought home a huge stack of books. When I was a middle schooler, I read almost all of the Newberries, and I thought as a child of the '70s and early 80s that the Newberry Medal for Distinguished Contribution to Children's Literature, I thought it was a corporate logo like IZOD or Gloria Vanderbilt, because that made sense to my child brain, and I thought they did very good work, but it's interesting, one of my very favorite books was Witch from Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spear, but I never read Sign of the Beaver. I never read any book as a kid that indicated Native content that I can recall, and I think something must have turned me off to it, I must have at some point realized that to protect myself, that those stories that purported to be about that part of me were not really for me.

Jo Reed: Were you set on writing from the jump? Because you love stories and you loved book so much?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: I was a kid whose family had had some economic struggles. I remember riding in the car with my mom to drop off the check for the mortgage on the last day, and shopping for clothes at garage sales and discounts, so it hit me that if I was going to take my love of story into the world, there needed to be some kind of a paycheck attached. So I initially went to journalism school, and then I continued on to law school, and my thought was that I would eventually become either a media law teacher for a journalism school or First Amendment teacher for a law school, and I loved it. I loved getting a higher education. I was the first person in my family to graduate from four years of college, and everyone was very worried about me going, but because I went, it was accepted that some of the younger kids would go, too. It was shortly after I graduated from law school, I was working in the office of the General Counsel at the Department of Health and Human Services, and I'd already been scribbling stories. I was writing on my lunch hour, I was writing before and after work, and a message came through about the Oklahoma City bombing, which for me was a wake-up call. It wasn't like after 9-11, where there was this idea of a continuing threat, it was more that there had been two guys, and they had been quickly apprehended. It was a sign to me that I wanted to do something more positive with my life, something more proactive, and not worry about the uncertainties around it, because so much of the world was uncertain anyway, why bow to that? Thinking back, I took a long walk, I ended up on a dock talking to some ducks, because ducks are excellent listeners. It dawned on me, maybe it was Make Way for Ducklings that opened the door, but that children's books outside of my family had been the most positive force. I believe that, coupled with the images I was seeing after the bombing of the daycare being struck. I had cousins who were first responders, EMT, my family has a long history in Oklahoma. It all felt very personal. I decided to leave my clerkship, and I took some freelance writing jobs, I tutored English until I was up and running as a children's book author, and I really haven't looked back since. It sounds romantic and dramatic, and it's definitely the decision of a 27, 28-year-old with big eyes and maybe a too-sensitive heart, but it's one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Jo Reed: Well, your first book, Jingle Dancer, was a picture book about a contemporary Muscogee girl in Oklahoma. Praised highly. Wonderful book. This was followed by Rain Is Not My Indian Name, which is a YA title, which was followed by Indian Shoes, which is a first chapter book. You're writing across different formats for different audiences. What is your process for this? Do you know what you're going to, when you sit down, like, okay, this is going to be a YA title. Okay, this is going to be a picture book. What's the process here?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: I don't start with an age market. I start with the character and the story that is a fit for that person. Jenna is seven, and her desire line, which she wants, is to dance at an upcoming powwow, her great auntie is feeling some pains in her legs, she wants to dance for her especially, but also to honor the women in her family and community. So that is a seven-year-old story. Louise is a budding journalist, she has a big personality, she's willing to charge into difficult places and take on big, sometimes controversial topics. She's a 17-year-old, that's going to be a young adult novel. I really go with character. It's very important to me that my Native characters be three-dimensional, resonant people with a full range of humanity. Very often for Native kids, my books, because there still aren't enough of us, maybe the first time they see someone like themselves in that way on the page, I want them to ring true most of all in their humanity. And for non-Native kids, it may also be the first time that they encounter an Indigenous person or are aware that they're encountering an Indigenous person, period. And so that person, in fact, should not be a perfect person, should be someone who can make mistakes like anyone else because that is part of humanity, but should certainly ring true as a human being. For so long, there was this idea of the savage Indian or the mystic Indian and not just a kid who's living their lives like any other kid, growing up, loving people, facing problems, needing to work on themselves sometimes, taking risks, having their heart broken, finding out what it means to heal. All of that needs to come first. I could talk to kids about the Trail of Tears, and it is a topic I touch on in my upcoming middle grade novel, but if they don't first understand that the Muscogee, the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Seminole, if they don't first understand that we're people, then why would they care whatever happened to us?

Jo Reed: Your work extends beyond writing books. You have an extraordinarily robust website, and you curate a Native imprint at a major publishing house. Tell us about Heart Drum imprint and begin with that origin story.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Heart Drum was the gift of a fairy godmother. I had just published Hearts Unbroken, and I was excited to be able to connect Native fiction with young readers again when at a teacher conference in Houston, a fellow author and a friend, Ellen Oh, reached out to me and said, let's have breakfast at the hotel, let's catch up,.” And I thought, this is terrific, I'm so excited to see her, and so we met. We ordered all the food, as we do, authors are hungry people, and we were chatting, and we were talking about some of the challenges in the industry. I was so excited about everything that she had been part of as one of the co-founders of We Need Diverse Books, and I was telling her how wowed I was by her entire generation of voices. She said, “you know, what we really need is a Native imprint at a major trade publisher, something with money and muscle,” and I said, “yes, you're right. We absolutely need that,” and she said, “you should head it up.” And I said, “what?” And it struck me as ridiculous, and she said, “well, we have these things now. We have these imprints that are led by authors like Kwame Alexander and Rick.” And I said, “okay, but they're super fancy and super famous.” And she said, “the other word you're looking for is men.” And I thought, “oh, there's a point there.” Since then, more women have headed up imprints who are authors, but I had to kind of sit with the idea, and she understood that, she said “just think about it. Just think about it. Remember, you've been a writing teacher for many years. You know how to put together picture books, chapter books, middle grade, YA. You've done short stories, realistic fiction, fantasy, some nonfiction. You have some range here, plus you're basically a rogue auntie, right? You're always going around adopting these new writers and helping them out. This would just give you more resources to do that with.”  Ellen is very convincing and determined. You could say bossy. I say this with love. Bossy. But she backed off right then, and I said, okay. Some months later, I was at a workshop called Loonsong Turtle Island. It's in Ojibwe country, we were on Cook Lake in a lodge, and it was me, Dawn Quigley, and Tim Tingle who were teaching. We had some publishing folks there and a number of Native writers. And I was sitting on the screened-in porch in front of the sparkling blue lake, the most beautiful lake you've ever seen, and I had all these manuscripts laid out in front of me, and I felt really torn. On one hand, should I encourage these authors because I knew how hard it was to build a career as a Native author, particularly as a woman? On the other hand, weren't they spectacular? Weren't they tremendous? Didn't these voices deserve to be heard? Shouldn't kids be exposed to them? And, you know, I look back on it now, and, you know, We Are Water Protectors came out of that workshop, and that went on to win the Caldecott Medal, and so did Firekeeper's Daughter, which won the Prince, and some really just fantastic work. And so I decided to circle back to Ellen afterward, and I decided to reach out to Rosemary Brosnan at HarperCollins. She had been my original children's book editor. She had published Jingle Dancer and Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Indian Shoes, and so I knew that, boom or bust, her heart was in the right place, and I could trust her with my cousins, with Native voices, new vulnerable voices, and she was very excited by the idea. I had a yes within 24 hours. It took a couple of years to get us up and running. I think our initial plan was to publish four to six books a year, and we have nine books this year, nine books next year. I also think it's been such a blessing in terms of raising up Native illustrators, not only in terms of picture book art, but also other interior art and cover art. Native voice actors are doing amazing work with the audio editions. And I do feel that with HarperCollins being the level of publisher that it is, that other houses looked at that and reconsidered the lack of Indigenous representation on their own lists. It was never my intention for Heartdrum to become the Native children's publisher in terms of, by which I mean the only, but rather a leader in the conversation, and so we framed our mission in a really focused way, both so that we could do a good job at something in particular, books centered on Native young heroes, and also to leave room for more entries from other places in the industry.

Jo Reed: I mentioned your website. It is really, as I said, robust, and it's so much more than an author's, “here's my latest project.” You really have built a community, and I assume that was your intention. Tell me why this was important to you.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: First, I should give credit. Much of the work on the website is done by my, I call them my CINterns. It's a team of up-and-coming writers, mostly from underrepresented and marginalized communities who are mentored. I read their manuscripts, they work on interviews and formatting, and they're just such a delight to me, and I learn so much from them in return.  But initially, my thought was that there was a real need for good news. I had gone to journalism school, and that part of myself is heavily reflected, especially in my young adult fiction, so there was so much out there about what then was the current, I think I'm on potentially a third recession in children's publishing, I find a sense of humor helps. There was a lot of bad news. It was sort of like now, where we're feeling inundated by book bans and the challenges of AI and the cost of paper and shipping, and just all of these larger-than-any-of-us concerns, and so I decided to do something positive, something accessible, something that would lift up fellow voices, that would shine a light on debut authors, authors from underrepresented communities, people who are taking a big risk, taking a chance with their art, elders, folks who had been doing the work for a very long time and have some conversations through interviews and articles that were a little more sophisticated, that were a little bit more craft-oriented. It's not a place of Pollyannas, but it is certainly a place of hope and optimism.

Jo Reed: And let me ask you finally, Cynthia, how do you see Native authors reimagining books for young readers?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: We need everything. We need historicals from our point of view, we need contemporary books, we need speculative fiction and we need these books in a way that is both grounded in subject matter of interest to teachers and librarians, but we also need it in books that are just pure page-turners, entertainment. I would love to see a Native American rom-com that has heart and is literary, but is really just about joy and celebration of daring hearts. I'd love to see more humor. That's such a big part of our lives.  And I would love to see more tribal groups represented. The fact that we have this rising number of voices is thrilling, but there are many indigenous nations that have not even been mentioned yet in the entire conversation of literature over time, there are tremendous stories. I went to my tribe's ancestral lands this summer. In research, I went to the Okmulgee Mounds, and here we're talking about settlements that are going back 10,000 plus years. Our stories didn't start in the late 1400s. I would like to see some sense, some echoes of those ancestors and the children who are 300, 400 years to come. It's often said we're still here, we have a past, a present, and a future, but it's also important to remember that there are stories that live in all of them.

Jo Reed: And I think that is a great place to leave it. Cynthia, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time, and thank you for your wonderful books and all your work.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Thank you, Mvto.

Jo Reed: That was YA and children’s author and curator Cynthia Leitich Smith. Her most recent book is Harvest House; she heads Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books. We’ll have a link to the book, to Heartdrum and to Cynthia’s website in our show notes.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple—it will help people to find us.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Today, we are celebrating National Native American Heritage Month with an interview with author Cynthia Leitich Smith.  A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Smith is a bestselling, award-winning children’s/YA writer and the author-curator of the Native-centered Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She also is the 2024 Southern Mississippi Medallion Winner and the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate and is widely recognized for her fiction for young readers that centers on contemporary  Native American characters. In this podcast, we discuss her recent YA novel Harvest House, an "Indigenous ghost mystery" that grapples with serious themes of missing Native women and girls while emphasizing the empowerment of young Native voices. She also discusses the importance of including themes such as first love, strong family bonds, and vibrant community ties in her writing to underscore the joy that can be found in the daily lives of Indigenous kids. The conversation takes us through the interconnectedness of characters in Smith's Native-centered stories, returning to the beloved Wolf family, first introduced in her 2000 picture book Jingle Dancer. Smith reflects on the inspiration behind her award-winning book Hearts Unbroken, exploring the tensions between artists and their art, speech in its many forms, and the importance of navigating apologies and amends. We discuss her sense of responsibility as a writer for young readers, aiming to provide stories that do no harm and offer empowerment, while still tackling difficult issues. Smith shares her journey through the publishing industry's challenges, her role as curator of Heartdrum, its goals and continued growth, and finally  her vision for the expansion of Native literature across genres and representations.   

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