A Book of My Heart: Joy Interviews Author Cynthia Leitich Smith

If you are not familiar with the work of children’s and young adult author Cynthia Leitich Smith, I hope you will be soon. Cyn is a prolific and thoughtful writer of everything from picture books to supernatural to contemporary and more. She’s a New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestseller, an MFA instructor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a mentor to many kidlit authors, including me. She’s been a featured speaker at numerous conferences and festivals including the Native American Authors Conference and the Texas Book Festival, and her newest YA novel, HEARTS UNBROKEN is a tour de force. So how thrilled was I when she agreed to this interview? Very!

Joy: I came to HEARTS UNBROKEN as a huge fan of your work, so I can honestly say that this novel is one of your strongest yet –– layered and nuanced and such an important depiction of one girl's journey with love, her Native American identity, and the minefields of casual (and not so casual) bigotry and prejudices. You've been quoted as saying that you might not have been able to write this book say, ten years ago, although you certainly have been representing the Native experience in your work with such titles as JINGLE DANCER and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, among others.

What changed for you with HEARTS UNBROKEN? How does Lou's story differ from your other work and differ for you as its author?

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Thank you, I’m honored. HEARTS UNBROKEN is a book of my heart.

While it includes painful moments, Louise’s story celebrates first love, Native strength and the power of communities.

Unlike my previous Native books, HEARTS UNBROKEN is for upper-level YA readers, and the aggressions (micro and macro) are integral to both the page-turning plot and Lou’s inner journey.

It would be disingenuous to write contemporary Native teens without referencing the challenges they face, and I touched on some of that with RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME. But the focus there was on Rain’s grief-healing journey after the unexpected death of her best friend, and her emotional state muted her reactions. In contrast, Lou from HEARTS UNBROKEN is steadier in her world. In many ways, she’s a typical, overachieving, suburban teen. She’s a caring big sister, an occasionally self-absorbed friend, a budding young student journalist.

Awkward. She can be really, interpersonally awkward.

Meanwhile, she’s struggling to navigate mainstream societal biases, misconceptions and abuses of power—large and small—directed at her both as a Native person and as a teenage girl.

Her perspective reflects that of many contemporary Native teens and, hopefully, will shine a light for non-Native young readers.

To be candid, I can’t image having published this book a decade ago. I tried to write it back then, and today the novel is still pushing the envelope….

No, it’s more than that. It’s battering a brick wall. To extend the Oz analogy, it’s battering a yellow brick wall. A long conversation of YA novels that’s almost entirely absent of Indigenous female voices, real and fictional.

Ultimately, I trusted in teen readers. In their open hearts and minds. I didn’t tone-police Louise or package her Native narrative in Western European storytelling structure. I empowered her to share her thoughts and experiences.

JP: And speaking of Lou, what came first with HEARTS UNBROKEN –– the characters or the story? I'm always fascinated by the process in which a novel forms and develops.

CLS: HEARTS UNBROKEN began as two separate novel ideas. The earliest drafts, written in the early ’00s, were from the perspective of the character who turned into Lou’s little brother Hughie. That manuscript was about a Native middle-school boy who was cast as The Tin Man in a school musical production of “The Wizard of Oz” and then found out about L. Frank Baum’s newspaper editorials advocating for the genocide of Native people.

Then a few years ago, while I was working on the FERAL trilogy, I decided to write a novel-length apology to a high-school boyfriend for something I’d said while we were dating. It was a bungled, babbling mess of my trying to talk to him about my heritage and accidentally insulting his.

The answer was to combine the two ideas. As school journalists, Louise and her boyfriend are assigned to cover the musical production and the surrounding public controversy over the theater teacher’s diverse and inclusive casting choices.

JP: As referenced in question one, Lou has to put herself on the line speaking up about microaggressions and beyond. What is your relationship to speaking up about microaggressions you experience? 

CLS: We all experience microaggressions, and we’re all guilty of them. Our job is to actively self-educate to do better and, when necessary, make amends.

On the receiving end? I didn’t always speak up. I still don’t always speak up.

The truth is, I’m human. I’m sensitive. I don’t always have the energy to educate, and I’ve found that, no matter how gentle I may be, the offending party’s reaction is often to center their own feelings and/or cling to their misconceptions.

Sometimes it’s better (and more hopeful) to prioritize young readers instead. Native teens whose lives deserve to be validated on the page. Non-Native teens who may be more aware after having read and reflected upon a novel that introduces them to an Indigenous perspective.

JP: In a related question, I'd love you to discuss the emotional cost to Lou (and to real life Native teens) for her initial choice to stay calm when her then boyfriend Cam disrespects her heritage.

CLS: In my mind, I refer to it as “swallowing the poison.” Teens may endure it in small doses, but over time there’s a cumulative effect. Among other things, it’s the reason many Native kids don’t feel welcome in various educational settings and, from there, professions. But affirming support can make a difference.

We can all make an effort to offer solidarity whenever the occasion calls for it, to be a proactive ally (without appropriating attention), to educate when we have the energy and inclination and to be especially sensitive to all marginalized and intersecting identities, defined broadly.

A gesture like this one – inviting a Native author to share her thoughts with your bookstore community – that’s affirming, not only to me but to anyone reading this whose voice may be (historically and presently) undervalued in our society.

JP: A major part of the novel has to do with the community's conflict with the inclusive casting of the production of Wizard of Oz and the extra aspect that Frank L. Baum was racist, which was not something I had known.

We've had so many instances lately of discovering unpalatable facts about certain artists, authors and performers and there is much discussion about whether or not we can or should separate the art from the artist. What is your personal take on this?

CLS: My personal take is that we don’t separate the art from the artist.

Think about it: Movie stars hit the late-night TV circuit to charm ticket buyers, gallery owners craft irresistible personal narratives of their hot, new painters, publishers send authors on tour to chat up teachers, librarians and booksellers.

They all make the effort, spend the money, showcase the charismatic, because audiences support artists they like personally. They do not separate the two.

THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum was published by George M. Hill Company in 1900. Apparently, that acquisition committee was fine with his editorials (or didn’t know about them). A proud, publicly genocidal children’s author would probably struggle to find a U.S. trade publisher today. So, it’s not about “can” or “should.” Those are moot.

Again, we do not separate art and artists. So, we each must decide. What bad behavior crosses the line for each us? Who do we want to support with our money? Who do we want to hold up to children and teens as a voice that matters?

JP: Anything else you'd like us to know about the fabulous Cynthia Leitich Smith?

CLS: Yes! The paperback edition FERAL PRIDE (Book 3 in the Feral trilogy) is also new this fall from Candlewick Press. The FERAL books are a spin-off of the TANTALIZE series. They’re YA adventure-fantasies mostly set in Texas, which have made bestseller lists and garnered various state and national honors.

In FERAL PRIDE, someone has kidnapped the Ann Richards-esque governor of Texas and blamed shapeshifters for the crime.

In a world with werecats, turkey werevultures, werearmadillos, and more, heroes from both the FERAL and TANTALIZE series come together to rescue the governor and set the record straight. It was a ridiculous amount of fun to write.

Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts!

JP: Thank YOU, Cyn! These are the conversations we all need to be having. It was a pleasure to have them here with you!

HEARTS UNBROKEN is on our shelves now. 

Want to know more about Cynthia Leitich Smith? Check out her website here: https://cynthialeitichsmith.com/


Hearts Unbroken By Cynthia Leitich Smith Cover Image
ISBN: 9780763681142
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Candlewick - October 9th, 2018

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